avatar
“Please Stop Talking About Race” I


A “left” commenter on my blog (see last post) has asked me to “please stop talking about race” and basically to speak only about class. Funny, but this is my last day at the black civil rights agency where I’ve worked for the last five years and I’m going through the old computer files. I have just discovered the lost first 2-3 chapters of an introductory “issue book” I was briefly under contract to write (for a high-school and undergraduate audience) about the problem of race in America. Nine-eleven intervened to turn most of my writing attention to immediate foreign policy issues (which were not unrelated to race, to be sure)….

You can see the results of that diversion in my book Empire and Inequality: American and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers at www.paradigmpublishers.com).

The earlier publisher was very nice. He understood that my mss. was a casualty of current events.

Here (below) is the first chapter, which might prove educational for the occasional reader who just can’t seem to understand (even after Katrina) why race is such an entrenched problem in America and hence for the American left.

As I hope readers will be able to tell, I hardly left class out of my elementary (the audience was high school and undergraduates) race discussion and I gave recognition (along the lines of such great black intellectuals W.E.B. DuBois, Oliver Cox, Martin Luther King, Jr.) to the strong interrelatendness of the class and race problems.

One of these chapters (more will follow) was written in the back seat of a car on the way from Chicago to New Orleans. It was early 2001.

Please note (in this chapter) the part (the “Against” section) of point 5 (see below) where I specifiy that it is upper-class whites, not working-class whites, who are most responsible for the pain that racism inflicts on black America. The commenter in question (“cryofan”) ought to think twice before claiming again that radicals who dare to “talk about race” (well, racism) are basically doing so in order to “shame the white working-class” (give me a break!). Point 5 is all about this very question.

Some of the data will look old as the 2000 Census wasn’t completely out when I was drafting these ill-fated chapters, which I will now attempt to briefly “rescue from the enormous condescension of posterity” (to quote E.P.Thompson)

CHAPTER ONE: DEBATING BLACK PROGRESS AND THE CAUSES OF PERSISTENT BLACK-WHITE INEQUALITY

In researching his widely read book Race: How Blacks and Whites Feel About and American Obsession (1992), oral historian and radio personality Studs Terkel interviewed nearly one hundred white and black individuals on how they have been affected by race. He talked to:

• An older old black woman whose son was murdered by white racists in the South during the 1950s and who felt “there has been progress [for blacks] without a doubt” and thought that the loss of jobs was the main factor behind the “social ills” of the African-American community.

• A 24-year old black male medical student who grew up in the inner city and reported “constantly being tested as to how good you really are” by professors who “don’t respect black students” and treated him “like an affirmative action case. ” He was deeply concerned about the absence of primary health care in the inner city and the declining number of inner-city people making gaining admission to higher education. At the same time, he noted, “I have a great many options open. I get to do things and go places that most black people never get to experience.”

• A 50-year old Italian-American who noted a change in her racial attitudes away from the sympathy she felt for African-Americans and their struggle during the 1960s. Her feeling towards blacks had become “mixed,” she reported, because “quite a few of the crooks” she dealt with in her position as an investigator of federal tax crime were black. African-Americans, she told Terkel, “seem like they’re all involved with the negative part of living: cheating, lying, stealing, dope, that type of thing.” She told Terkel that her African-American boss “is where he is because he’s black” and that blacks are “content with doing the least amount [of work] possible.”

• A black domestic outraged that fellow African-Americans would attend the centennial of the Statue of Liberty centennial. “What are you celebrating?,” she claimed to ask others. “You came here in chains in the bottom of ships and half-dead and beaten.”

• A 26-year-old white construction worker who told Terkel that “this city would be a much better place if there wasn’t a majority of black people living here.”

• A white former member of the virulently racist Ku Klux Klan who renounced racism and embraced his former black foes. He determined that most of his fellow onetime Klan members had grasped on to racism because they were low-income people who had been “shut out [of society] as well the blacks.” Through interactions with African-Americans, he learned to overcome his fear and suspicions of blacks. “I found out they’re people just like me. They cried, they cussed, they prayed, they had desires. Just like myself.”

• A retired African-American public-school teacher who felt what he called “not so much anger as disappointment, a sadness” about the black experience and the state of American race relations. “We thought America would be moved by this event,” he recalled of Martin Luther King’s famous speech during the 1963 March on Washington. “But reality hit us very quickly, didn’t it? Twenty-five years later, a permanent underclass has come into being. A disproportionate number of black youth are part of it” – “victims” of a “shocking environment.”

• A leading white sociologist who found that the divide between blacks and whites had “worsened” since the 1968 Kerner Report (see introduction). “There is more toleration” of racial division now then previously, he observed. “In 1968,” he noted, “as bad as the riots were, there was hope, among whites as well as blacks, that things would get better…but since the mid-seventies…the commitment to civil rights has completely gone.” Further, “I don’t think most whites understand what it is to be black in the United States today. They don’t even have a clue. They blame the blacks to a large degree for their own problems…As a white I can tell you that whites have a lot to do to make it a fair game.”

The range opinion on race and the black experience in the United States often seems quite wide. Beneath the large number and variety of issues and perspectives on black experience and race relations in the US today, however, four basic and related issues stand out. Americans tend, reflecting what many scholars call the racial perception gap, to perceive the answers to each of these questions in ways are colored by their racial identity:

1. How far have blacks have progressed on the path on the path to social, economic, and political equality since the victories of the civil rights movement?

2. How far has American society traveled on the path to integration, that is towards the goal of a race-neutral society in which citizens take a color-blind approach to the selection of people with whom they socialize, live, work, worship, and otherwise associate?

3. Why do African-Americans continue to “lag” significantly behind whites in terms of education, employment, income, wealth, health, and general well being?

4. Do African-Americans require and are they well served by special social programs designed to compensate them for past and current racial discrimination?

For most whites, the answer to the first two questions is “very far.” Some whites maintain that blacks have achieved full equality and most think that America is living up to its declared commitment to integration. Convinced that racism is no longer a significant problem for most African-Americans, most whites locate the primary barriers to black equality and advancement within the African-American community itself. Their prevalent answer to question three: African-American “self-sabotage.”

The most common white answer to both parts of question four is “no.” White Americans tend to see social programs designed to compensate blacks for racial discrimination and give African-Americans a “fair shake” as no longer necessary and even as part of what’s holding blacks back. In mainstream white thinking, programs like affirmative action and welfare (whose recipients are disproportionately African-American) actually perpetuate and deepen black inequality.

African-Americans tend to have a very different picture of the extent to which blacks have attained either equality or integration in the years since the passage of civil rights legislation. For most blacks in the US, the answer to the third question is clear: racism, past and present, is still the chief barrier to black success. Because of racism’s living legacy, most blacks feel, African Americans still require and deserve special protections and compensatory programs to ensure that they can compete with whites and other racial and ethnic groups on a level playing field.

American perceptions on these and other key issues related to black experience and race relations are not simply black and white, racially speaking or otherwise. A minority of African-Americans share the majority white perspective on racism’s supposed decline as the major barrier to black equality and the belief that blacks are now primarily victims of “self-sabotage.” A significant number of whites, particularly those on the more liberal and leftward side of the political spectrum, share much of the very different perspective held by most African-Americans.

At the same time, individual Americans’ opinions across the four issues do not always line up in exactly the way suggested here. Some who believe that the US continues to be deeply racist towards blacks nonetheless also think that African-Americans need first and above all to change their own behaviors and beliefs and/or that affirmative action and other programs meant to level the playing the field for blacks actually tend to perpetuate black-white inequality.

One key perspective on black experience and race relations stands somewhat outside the main lines of public debate. It holds that many African-Americans remain truly and deeply disadvantaged in American society but that class rather than racial oppression now provides the single most significant explanation of their plight.

Below we look more closely at key differences of interpretation by focusing on five pivotal issue statements relating to how far blacks have pulled even with the white mainstream and why blacks continue (as most careful observers would agree) to remain unequal. The following chapter will focus on the different but (most analysts would say) related question of integration – the extent to which blacks and whites have overcome separateness in their social arrangements and personal lives. Chapters three and four will deal with debates over proposed programs designed to compensate African-Americans for racial discrimination past and present.

1. Blacks have made extraordinary progress in terms of achieving social, political, and economic equality since the 1960s.

For:

In 1960, 55 percent of African-Americans lived at or beneath the poverty level. A substantial share were in the working-class, employed in relatively low paying manual labor positions in manufacturing, transportation, and mining. The black professional middle class was a small minority and the black upper class was close to non-existent. Less than 4 percent of employed black men and 2 percent of employed black women were managers or proprietors. Less than 3 percent of employed blacks were doctors and less than 2 percent were lawyers. Just 5 percent of African-Americans ages 25 to 29 had college degrees.

There were just four black U.S. Congressman and not a single black mayor in a medium- or large-sized U.S. city. While a considerable number of African-Americans (Jim Brown, Cassius Clay, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Sammy Davis Jr., Fats Domino, Little Richard, and others) had emerged as national professional sports and entertainment stars, blacks were nearly invisible in more “serious” cultural spheres, including print and electronic journalism and serious dramatic acting. Broadway had only just (in 1959) seen its first play produced by a black female. Many major collegiate athletic programs still refused to recruit black athletes and the notion of a professional African-American coach or manager was beyond the pale. The idea of an African-American holding a key position in the White House was nothing less than fantastic.

Blacks in the South were still disenfranchised and formally segregated. Blacks often experienced difficulty being served in restaurants in the North. Interracial couples were highly unusual even in the North, thanks to negative social sanctions essentially undercover in almost invisible in the South, where the sight of a black man with a white female was still likely to produce violence. Even and perhaps even especially in the North, housing segregation was highly institutionalized, with the real estate industry openly practicing ‘red-lining’ – a procedure whereby blacks were denied access to homes and apartments in “whites only” neighborhoods and municipalities. Employment discrimination against blacks was regularly practiced across the nation.

America’s racial landscape has been transformed by the turn of the 21st century. Today, less than 1 in 4 blacks live in poverty and more than 1 in 5 black employees work as a manager or professional (up from just 14 percent as recently as 1982). There are three times as many black lawyers and twice as many black lawyers as in 1960. The percentage of blacks with high school diplomas is twice what it was in 1970. More than fifteen percent of black people have college degrees (compared to less than 35 percent of whites) and nearly half of African-Americans are now living at or above twice the poverty rate, the traditional definition of the middle class.

Thanks in large part to the Voting Rights Act and to subsequent amendments and federal court decisions permitting the use of race as a factor in the construction of voting districts, there are 37 African-Americans in the US Congress and thousands of elected and appointed black officials and policymakers in state, local, and country government across the country. According to a roster released by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, in early 2002, the number of black elected officials in the US rose from 1,500 to 9,040 between 1970 and 2002.

One African-American (Clarence Thomas) currently sits on the Supreme Court, another (Colin Powell) currently serves as the nation’s Secretary of State, and another (Condaleeza Rice) as the nation’s chief foreign policy advisor. In 1988, the charismatic African-American candidate Jesse Jackson Jr. won the Democratic primaries in the presidential campaign in [ ] southern states and there have been repeated efforts to convince African-American Colin Powell to run for the presidency.

African-Americans are more evident than ever before in top corporate positions and as managers and coaches in major professional and collegiate sports. Numerous blacks (most notably Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey) have emerged as among the wealthiest and most popular sports and entertainment celebrities of all time, serving as icons for millions of white as well as black fans and consumers. Blacks are now routinely present on evening news broadcast teams. Two African-Americans, Bill Cosby and Colin Powell, became practical father figures for millions, including a number of whites. Oprah has become the veritable daytime big-sister and self-help guru for millions of mostly female middle-class white. At the 2002 academy awards, African-American individuals won the prized Oscar awards for both best leading actor (Denzell Washington) and best leading actress (Halle Berry) for the first time in history.

In 2001, three African-Americans were promoted into the ultimate privileged white preserve, the position of chief executive officer in a Fortune 100 corporation: Stanley O’Neal of Merrill Lynch, Richard Parsons of AOL-Time Warner, and Kenneth Chenault of American Express. Newsweek magazine notes these appointment with a cover story titled “the New Black Power” and suggested that the recent appointments of O’Neal, Parsons, and Chenault marked a watershed moment in the arrival of African-American to the most lucrative and powerful positions in the American economic system.

Against:

Despite undeniable progress since the 1960s, equality remains a highly elusive goal for African-Americans. Indeed, the nation’s black communities effectively constitute a third world enclave of sub-citizens within the world’s richest and most powerful state. In 1993, the United Nations ranked 173 countries in terms of quality of life based on health, education, and purchasing power of national populations. As expected, the United States ranked at the top. Viewed separately, however, African-Americans ranked 31st, tied with the Latin American nation Uruguay.

In a nation that possesses the highest poverty rate and the largest gaps between rich and poor in the industrialized world, blacks are considerably poorer than others and economic inequality correlates closely with race. Reflecting the passage of racial advantage and disadvantage from generation to generation, from the nation’s slavery-based colonial origins to the present, blacks remain very distinctively under-represented at the top of America’s economic class structure and very disproportionately found at the bottom of that system.

Blacks are still significantly under-represented in government. Despite recent high-profile CEO appointments, they are very dramatically under-represented at the top of the private business system, where there are no legal or political mechanisms to encourage a reasonable measure of racial diversity at the leadership level. African-Americans’ relative absence at the top of the business system is especially significant in a capitalist that gives special weight and power to the private (corporate) sector relative to government and other parts of the public sector. Black under-representation in decision-making positions in the US seems likely to worsen in future years, moreover, thanks to recent political and legal decisions that have rolled back affirmative action in higher education and weakened the ability of governments to craft voting districts likely to elect black officials in a majority white nation.

Median black family income is 61 percent of median white family income, pretty much the same as the end of the 19th century. The black unemployment rate remains more than twice that of whites, a pattern that has held for more than thirty years. Among young black males in central cities the unemployment rate is as high as 40 percent (Brown, 79). In 1999 blacks made up only 5 percent of those earning more than $75,000, as compared to 85 percent white.

But the sharpest and most significant economic gap between whites and blacks involves wealth. By the end of the 20th century, the median net worth (assets minus debt) of white households was around $49,000 compared with roughly $7,000 for black households. In the early 1990s, the highest quintile (the top 20 percent or one fifth) of black households by income had only 36.5 percent the median net worth of the top white income quintile. Upper middle-class blacks – those in the second highest income quintile for blacks had a median household net worth less than that of lower middle-class whites – those in the second lowest white income quintile. The median net worth of African-Americans with college degrees was less than a quarter of the median net worth of whites with college degrees.

At the end as at the turn of the 20th century, moreover blacks had no significant ownership interest in the American economy. There were, writes civil rights activist and author Elaine Brown, “no black-owned aerospace companies, or airlines, or beverage manufacturers, or electric and gas utility companies, or pharmaceutical companies, or motor vehicle manufacturers…If the revenues of the top black-owned companies were pooled,” Brown noted, “the collective entity would rank 83rd among the famous Fortune 500.” Black-owned businesses comprised just 4 percent of all business firms in the US and account for less than one half of 1% of the nation’s business sales. Nine out of ten of businesses owned by blacks were small, sole proprietor ships.

Blacks are also much less likely to own their own homes than whites. In 1998, more than two-third of whites but less than 45 percent of blacks lived in residences that they owned.

Thanks to the white-black wealth gap, few blacks can expect to receive the crucial financial support that whites commonly receive at critical moments in their lives as attending college, getting married, and purchasing a home. Black parents cannot offer the considerable bequests and inheritances to their children that are widespread in the white community. In a society that gives special political power to those with vast financial resources, moreover, blacks have much less ability than whites to purchase influence with politicians and policymakers through campaign contributions, lobbying and the like.

Turning to the disproportionately African-American bottom of society, 8 percent of white families had incomes below the poverty level in 1998 while nearly one quarter (23 percent) of black families lived below the federal government’s notoriously low (less than $14,000 a year for a family of three) poverty level. In 1999, more than 8 million African-Americans lived in poverty. In Illinois, to take one typical example, blacks comprised roughly 15 percent of the population but made up 40 percent of the state’s poor. At the end of the decade, century, and millennium, 30 percent of African-Americans ages 20 to 24 in the nation’s 50 largest central cities were both out of school and out of work

Especially disturbing is the high incidence of poverty among black children. More than one in three black children are poor, compared with 14 percent of white children. In 1998, fully 17 percent, 13 percent of Hispanic children, and 5 percent of white children in the US actually lived in what researchers call “extreme poverty” – in families with cash incomes less then 50 percent of the poverty line.

Given these harshly disparate circumstances, it is not surprising that the nation’s welfare population is very disproportionately African-American and that black family life is considerably more fragile than that of whites. At the end of the 20th century, half of the country’s black children lived in households headed by a single mother, reflecting an endemic shortage of “marriageable” blacks males. According to the Department of Labor in 2001, there were 63 black men 20 years and over for every 100 black females in the same age group. The comparable ratio of employed males to females 20 years and older among whites was 84 to 100. Meanwhile, black female heads of household earn roughly 40 percent less than white female heads of households.

In a nation that places unprecedented emphasis on higher education as a basic requirement for admission to the middle-class mainstream, it is disturbing that African-Americans score considerably lower than whites on vocabulary, reading, mathematics, scholastic aptitude, and intelligence tests. The typical African-American elementary or secondary student scores below three out of every four white students on standardized tests. On some of these tests, the average American black student scores lower than more than 85 percent of whites.

The black high school graduation rate is at at least ten percent lower than the white rate and the relatively small number and percentage of blacks who attend college are much less likely to receive a four-year degree than their white counterparts. In major urban public school systems where most of the student population is African-American and Hispanic, high school drop out rates at or around 50 percent are common. The percentage of whites with bachelor’s degrees or higher is twice that of blacks. Only 2 percent of engineers, lawyers, and physicians are black.

Perhaps nothing, however, illustrates the persistence of black-white inequality in the US more than startling number and percentage of African-American are behind bars and otherwise under the supervision of the American criminal justice system. In a nation that is roughly 12 percent black, African-Americans make half of the incarcerated population in a nation that possess the highest rate of incarceration (nearly 700 per 100,000 persons) in the world. The absolute number of black prisoners in the US – one million – is remarkable, equivalent to one fourth of all prisoners in the world. In 2000, the US Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that a young black man age 16 in 1996 faces a 29% chance of serving time in prison during their lives. The corresponding statistic for white males in the same age group is 4 percent.

In 2001, there were nearly 20,000 more black males in the Illinois state prison system than the number of black males enrolled in the state’s public universities.

Reflecting these and other circumstances including inferior access to quality health care, blacks live on average six years less than whites. White men can expect to live 73. 4 years; black men can expect to live only 65.4 years. The infant mortality rate of black babies was more than 50 percent higher than that of white babies and the maternal mortality rate for black mothers is four times that of whites in 2000. Black women die from cervical and breast cancer at twice the rate of white women and black men perish due to prostate cancer at twice the rate of white men. Sixty five percent of children with AIDS and 63 percent of women with AIDS were black.

Blacks are more likely than whites to perish from murder, fires, and accidents. Especially startling is the gap in homicide rates. Black men are nine times more likely to die from murder than white men and homicide is the leading cause of death for black men ages 15 to 44. An extraordinary 70 percent of blacks surveyed in the early 1990s reported that they knew someone who had been shot during the last five years, more than twice the rate of whites.

The nation’s third largest city Chicago – the first northern metropolis visited by Martin Luther King after the Civil Rights Movement’s victories over southern segregation in the mid-1960s, provides a snapshot of the extent of black-white inequality at the end of the 20th century. In the late 1990s blacks made up 36 percent of the city’s population but just 2.6 percent of corporate directors and board members in the city’s largest 250 corporations. Three-fourths of those corporations did not have a single African American corporate officer. African-Americans made up less than one percent of 2,950 partners in the city’s leading 200 law firms.

On the other side of the city’s divide, blacks were dramatically over-represented amongst Chicago’s poor, unemployed, homeless, mentally ill, and incarcerated populations. Of 22 Chicago neighborhoods that were more than 90 percent black in 1990, all had double-digit unemployment rates and 12 had rates of 20 percent and higher. Between 1991 and 2000, a period heralded as a period of remarkable economic growth, 98 percent of job growth in the Chicago metropolitan area took place in the predominantly white suburbs and not in the city, which houses two-thirds of the area’s African-Americans.

Slight employment expansion did occur in the city as a whole, but Chicago’s 19 disproportionately black zip codes lost jobs during the 1990s and by the end of the decade 6 of every 10 black African-Americans ages 16 to 24 in Chicago were jobless and 1 in 5 black men ages 20 to 29 from Chicago was either in prison or jail or on parole.

In the city’s predominantly black high-unemployment neighborhoods (with unemployment rates of 20 percent and more), sociologists found, black males who survived childhood had less chance of living into middle age than their counterparts in the desperately poor underdeveloped nation of Bangladesh.

In other metropolitan areas throughout the nation as in Chicago, blacks are very disproportionately concentrated in communities and neighborhoods with the highest rates of poverty, crime, injury, and mortality and the least to offer in quality education, health care, shopping, and job opportunities. These communities neighborhoods host the worst public school systems in the country and are home to a tangled web of pathologies – substance abuse, the illegal drug trade, gang activity, family dissolution, mental illness, and poverty – that emerge wherever disadvantaged people are concentrated and cordoned off from “respectable society.” Their predominantly African-American populations live, writes Brown, “in conditions of deterioration and disrepair, lacking needed services, with few community-based businesses.”

There are also still great rural concentrations of black poverty in the US. The leading example is the Mississippi Delta region, comprising the poorest counties of the nation’s most impoverished area. The most extensive black majority area in the country, the Delta is a 200-mile concentration of catfish farms, cotton fields, and poverty. Eighty percent of the region’s poor people are black

The struggle for black equality is far from over.

2. Insofar as African-Americans continue to lag behind whites and other groups in terms of wealth, income, occupational and educational success, etc., this is due not to racism but rather now to black “self-sabotage,” that is to self-defeating behaviors, beliefs, and cultural patterns on the part of African-Americans.

For:

African-Americans are now protected against racial discrimination by civil rights legislation and affirmative action. Most whites now reject racism, professing commitment to color-blind ideals of equal opportunity for blacks and other minority groups. The leading barriers faced by African-Americans in post-racist America come from within the black community itself.

They include a number of related and self-defeating beliefs that are all too common among blacks. These beliefs include the notions that blacks are victims of an unchanging and even deepening racism and that academic achievement and intellectual activity are “white things” and “square” or “un-cool.” Blacks are also held back by the notion that blacks constitute a separate society or nation, one with its own separate moral, cultural, and political rules that exempt blacks from having to play by the rules of and learn from the culture of white-dominated American and Western Civilization. Other dysfunctional beliefs common among blacks hold that American society “owes” them special protections and compensation for past and present discrimination and that this nation’s long history of direct and explicit racial oppression, including above all slavery, is relevant to the contemporary black situation.

These beliefs cut across class lines, coloring the perceptions of middle- and even upper-class African-Americans in a way that worked against the interests of all blacks in a society that is now open to their dreams and ambitions. They provide rationalizations for and otherwise encourage a large number of irresponsible, “self-sabotaging” behaviors that are all too common in the black community. These behaviors include over-reliance on public assistance (welfare), excessive engagement in crime, violence, and substance abuse, insufficient respect for the value of hard work and education, excessive inability to defer gratification, and excessive willingness to engage in premarital sex and to raise children without fathers, outside the stabilizing influence of the 2-parent family.

By more universally refraining from these sorts of behaviors, moreover numerous other ethnic and racial groups in the great racial-ethnic “melting pot” that is America have risen much further than African-Americans. Since these groups include various people of color (that is non-whites), including Japanese-Americans, Chinese-Americans, and even blacks from the West Indies, it is clear that race is no longer an insuperable barrier to achievement in America, the “land of freedom.” If they really wanted to achieve true and lasting equality in the US, African-Americans would stop blaming whites and complaining about racism. They would “get over” their anger at America’s well-known racist history and emulate the striving, diligent, and personally responsible beliefs and behaviors of other groups that have achieved success in the US, starting with the Yankee settlers who founded this great nation.

Against:

The argument stated above is a toxic and itself largely racist exercise in blaming the victim. If blacks are so crippled by “self-sabotaging” beliefs and behaviors, how then did they overcome enormous historical barriers to make the great leaps forward cited by those who claim that racism is no longer a great problem in the US?

To be sure, it is likely that many African-Americans are hampered in the pursuit of happiness and success by pathological behaviors. The same is true of countless numbers of white and other non-African Americans. Blacks have no particular monopoly or patent on self-destructive and counter-productive thoughts, attitudes, and activities, widely evident among Americans of all colors and ethnicities. Anti-intellectualism, to take one of the victim-blamers alleged “black” characteristics, is arguably a hallmark cultural characteristic of the United States at the turn of the 21st century, widely propagated by the nation’s leading media and entertainment institutions.

There is little basis, moreover, for the notion that whites engage in more virtuous and functional behaviors than blacks. According to numerous studies, whites are far more likely to drink, drink more, and more likely than blacks to engage in drunk driving. A 1996 study by the Department of Health and Human Services found that 74% of drug users are white, while only 14% are Black. There are 9.7 million whites using illegal drugs in the U.S., compared with 1.8 million Blacks. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, whites ages 12-21 are a third more likely than Blacks to have used illegal drugs; twice as likely to smoke marijuana regularly; and 160% more likely to try cocaine. Surveys in 1994 found that Black high school seniors are 32% more likely than white seniors to say professional success and accomplishment are “extremely important;” equally likely to say having a good marriage and happy family life are extremely important; 26% more likely to say “making a contribution to society” is extremely important, and 75% more likely than white seniors to say “being a leader in their community” is extremely important. And since the folks critiquing “Black values” typically consider religion a “civilizing” institution, it should be noted that Black high school seniors are more likely than whites to attend religious services weekly, and almost twice as likely to say “religion plays a very important role” in their lives. Overall, Blacks spend about twice as many hours a week in religious activity as members of any other racial group.

Beneath white and conservative black claims that blacks themselves are primarily responsible for African-American’s inferior status in the modern US, the deeper and officially unmentionable truth is that anti-black racism remains a powerful force in American society.

To fully understand America’s persistent anti-black racist reality, it is necessary to realize that racism operates at different levels. At one level, it is simply a state of mind, that is a belief system holding that blacks are inherently inferior and unworthy. At another level, it is the manifestation of those beliefs in individual acts of racial discrimination and bias on the part of whites.

The real essence of racism, however, operates at a much deeper and more intractable level. It involves much more than individual prejudice and scattered episodes of discrimination and more even than a general pattern of bias. More than a state of mind and endemic bias, racism is a state of being rooted in a centuries-old system of racialized structural and institutional subordination designed by whites to exclude blacks from full participation in the rights, privileges, and benefits of society.

State–of–mind mind racism and open racial bigotry have declined appreciably in the last four decades, thanks to the civil rights movement’s success. But state-of-being, that is institutional and structural racism has not declined and may actually have worsened and become more deeply entrenched, despite and perhaps even, ironically enough, in part because of the civil rights victories.

Thanks to this persistent racism, African-Americans pay a much greater price than whites for engaging in negative belief and behavior patterns and receive much less reward whites for engaging in success-oriented behaviors. If “self-sabotaging” are in fact more prevalent in the black community, this is hardly surprising: persistent anti-black racism means than blacks have much slighter incentives than whites to “get with the program,” so to speak.

3. Racial oppression is of declining significance relative to economic class subordination in shaping the life circumstances of African-Americans.

For:

From the colonial era through the first half of the 20th century, African-Americans suffered from the continuous, explicit, and obvious efforts of whites to create racial barriers. Blacks were denied opportunity and stability through a number of clearly racist schemes rationalized by explicit beliefs of black inferiority.
In the second half of the 20th century, however, the civil rights movement discredited older racist practices and beliefs. As racism receded, universities and middle-class careers were opened up to black talent like never before. At the same time, the American business system in an age of corporate “de-industrialization,” “globalization,” and decentralization developed a highly “segmented” job market that offered vastly different levels of opportunity for different groups of blacks.

The biggest losers in this process have been the poorly trained blacks of the inner city who no longer enjoying access to the relatively good paying jobs that urban factories, mills, and meatpacking plants once provided to inner-city blacks regardless of education. As leading industries that had originally drawn blacks to urban America left the cities and even the nation, urban working- and lower-class blacks were locked into high unemployment neighborhoods and low-wage employment (operative, laborer, and service-worker) that offers little security, few benefits, and slight opportunity for advancement. They are victims primarily of race-neutral forms of impersonal economic oppression against which affirmative action and equal employment legislation offer no real protection. Their situation is tragic but it is mainly the result not of racism but of color-blind capitalist economic forces that hurt the working-class and poor of all racial and ethnic groups.

The winners within the black community have been the more talented and educated African-Americans of the middle-class. These more privileged and fortunate blacks have used the victories of the civil rights movement (chiefly equal employment and affirmative action) to move into well-paid positions created by the expansion of salaried white-collar employment that replaced low-credential blue-collar work as the leading job sector in an increasingly post-industrial era. As their gains have increased, the black community was increasingly torn by a process of internal black socioeconomic differentiation that makes class more salient than race as factor determining the life circumstances of individual blacks.

The winners within black America have used their wealth and status to move further and further away, geographically and socially, from the black lower class. This spatial and socioeconomic distancing has deprived lower-class inner-city blacks of one of the few and ironic benefits of traditional urban ghetto – the proximate presence of successful African-Americans who provided visible role models and financial and organizational assistance to their less fortunate fellow African-Americans.

The fact that blacks are still disproportionately present among the poorest sections of the population has more to do with the unintentional and unfortunate socioeconomic consequences of past racial oppression than with the currents effects of race and racism. Underclass blacks suffer primarily not from racism but from the fact that centuries of past racist oppression have left a disproportionately high number of them without the capacity to take advantage of opportunities created by economic growth and the civil rights movement in a thankfully new color-blind era. Since the main barrier to their advancement is socioeconomic or class rather than race oppression, the policies that will best advance their interests will be ones that challenge economic inequality on a broad multi-ethnic and multi-racial front.

Historically, it is fitting that black disadvantage now revolves more clearly around class than around race. Class inequality between whites provided key historical context and significant explanation for the rise of black chattel slavery in colonial North America, a development that provided the core basis for anti-black racism in America and set black history apart from any other racial or ethnic group in the country. Slavery emerged in 17th century Virginia largely as the white planter ruling-class’s solution to resistance they were facing from their predominantly white workforce of unfree indentured servants and free wage workers. By replacing white servants and wage earners with unfree blacks, the planters “solved” their class problem with white labor. They obtained a workforce that possessed little capacity to resist ruthless labor exploitation. The pattern of white elites using unfree and less free blacks to keep the white working- and lower-classes at bay was repeated over successive generations, with white employers using highly disadvantaged black workers as strikebreakers and a reserve army of labor to prevent unions.

Strong and virulent forms of racism and racial hostility do not tend to emerge in societies that do not already possess strong class differences and socioeconomic inequality. Such inequality seems to be a prerequisite for institutional, social, and ideological racism of the sort that emerged in North America during the 17th and 18th centuries and in South Africa during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Against:

Whatever its class-related origins, once it was instituted racism became autonomous from its origins and acquired a social potency of its own. Racism continues to significantly and negatively limit opportunities and rewards for blacks of all classes: discriminatory lending, policing, hiring, real estate, and other practices are hardly limited in application to lower-class African-Americans.

At the same time, it is impossible to understand the black lower-class’s experience and disadvantage without reference to classic issues of racism. The most obvious example is residential segregation by race (to be treated in more depth in the next), which remains strong in the US, restricting the access of lower-class and even many middle and upper-class African-Americans to communities where opportunities for a good job and other vital resources are highest.

It is absurd to see inner-city blacks’ spatial removal from the more dynamic job markets of the suburbs as proof that class has trumped race in explaining black poverty. That spatial removal, after all, is the result of segregation produced by white racism. Much the same can be said, moreover, for inner-city African-Americans’ lack of job skills appropriate to the modern “post-industrial” workplace. That educational and skills “mismatch” reflects strong racial disparities and related patterns of racial segregation in the nation’s education and job-training systems.

The black middle class has not in fact escaped poverty to the same degree as middle-class whites. While many well-off blacks have tried to move to communities away from lower-class blacks, there is little evidence that they have been able to get far from the poor or that the extent of separation between rich and poor blacks has grown in recent years or decades. Urban black middle-class neighborhoods are commonly located in-between high-poverty and high-crime communities and middle-class blacks often live in neighborhoods with large numbers of manual workers. Middle-class blacks live in communities that are as crime-prone as those in which the poorest whites reside.

At the same time, it is questionable that the older black middle and upper-class of the pre-civil rights era stood in any stronger solidarity with their less privileged fellow African-Americans than is currently the case. Today as in earlier eras, moreover, privileged blacks give considerably more time and money to the economically disadvantaged members of their own racial group than do privileged whites.

The dilemmas of black experience in America past and present have never been about either class or race. Rather, class and race have always been inseparably linked to one another. From colonial origins to the present, failure or inability to comprehend race in the American experience has made it impossible to comprehend the role of class and failure or inability to comprehend class has made it impossible to comprehend the role of race.

Supporters of black equality will never create the color-blind society of which the Martin Luther King (a democratic socialist who openly criticized class inequalities prior to his assassination) by acting as if it has already arrived and relegating race to the forgotten footnotes.

5. African-Americans find their worst racist enemies among lower- and working-class whites – the Archie Bunkers of television notoriety. Middle- and upper-class whites are considerably more friendly and positive in their attitudes and behavior towards African-Americans.

For:

Whites with little social and economic power tend to be overly represented among the most overtly bigoted elements of American society. They occasionally harass black workers on the job and blue-collar bigots have often been seen yelling racist phrases or hurling beer cans at a black person on the street. They tend to be among the most concerned with, vocal, and sometimes even violent in their opposition to racial integration and to black political activities. Working-class whites predominate among those who engage in public acts of violence against blacks. Since at least the late-1960s white “backlash” against the Civil Rights Movement, they have provided the leading voting support for politicians who seek to use white anti-black racial resentments and fears as their path to political office.

This is sad but hardly surprising. Whites of working-class background are much more likely than middle- and upper-class whites to stand in direct competition with blacks in the job and housing markets and in access to schools. Possessing fewer financial resources to permit them to escape from poor communities to the affluent suburbs, they live in greater proximity to dangerous high-crime black neighborhoods than do the middle- and upper class. Lacking the money to invest significantly in the stock market, their main source of equity and savings is generally found in their homes, something that makes them especially sensitive to the significant reduction in real estate values that often occurs when neighborhoods experience an influx of African-American residents. By definition, it is working-class individuals – police officers and prison guards – who stand in the most directly volatile and oppressive relation to the African-American population that it is possible to stand.

At the same time, working-class whites have long tended to cling desperately to their “whiteness” as an important badge of status and power in a society that has denied them both. “At least,” many of them have reasoned, “I’m not one of them [that is, a lowly African-American].” In what some academics refer to as the “public and psychological wage of whiteness,” racism has permitted blue-collar Americans one small but for them important way to feel privileged and powerful in relation to others. Appropriately, perhaps, working-class whites are much more likely than their fellow Caucasians of higher socioeconomic status to admit they are racist. Most elite and middle class whites passionately deny they hold racist views or engage in racist behaviors.

Against:

It is certainly true that working-class whites predominate among those who engage in the more classic and overt forms of racist activity and discrimination and in the jobs whose task it is to discipline and oppress African-Americans. It should be remembered, however, that the most significant barriers to black equality and the leading forms of discrimination today have less to do with open public racism than with more subtle, behind-the-scenes, covert and society-wide forms of discrimination.

It should be recalled also, that upper- and middle-class whites often profit from and escape the worst consequences of economic and political power structure that tends to place lower-class blacks and lower class whites in competition and conflict with each other for scarce employment, housing, educational, and other resources. There is, in fact, a long history of elite whites acting to deliberately cultivate racial divisions between and among black and white workers, including the once frequent use of black strikebreakers to prevent and break up labor unions. Employers, who are predominantly white, profit from a weak labor movement (directly related to racial divisions between black and white workers) and from the low black wages that tend to result both from racial discrimination.

At the peak of America’s institutional power structures, the elite is very predominantly and disproportionately white, more so in fact than in the blue-collar labor unions representing the working class. Appropriately enough, the picture of racial discrimination that emerges from sociological research is quite different from the standard American public image of working-class whites as blacks’ worst enemy. On the basis of interviews with hundreds of black and white Americans as well of numerous studies of racial discrimination in various spheres, researchers find that the whites that conduct the most significant discrimination are those with the most power to harm African-Americans. These especially include employers, managers, real-estate agents, landlords, apartment managers, campaign directors, politicians, and public policymakers.

The sorts of discrimination that these higher-status whites carry out does not receive the same level of media attention that is given to the anti-black actions or views by working- and lower-class whites. In fact, however, the most serious and significantly racist whites are probably found in the middle- and upper-reaches of American society. It is among the elite that racism produces the greatest wealth and where whites inhabitants have the most power to inflict damage on the black population. Elites also possess the greatest power to act, if they chose, to undermine racial inequality in America and therefore the greatest degree of responsibility to solve the country’s racial dilemmas.

Questions/Projects

Leave a comment