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The Racial Windfall Lives On: The Living Legacy of Past Racism and the Case for Reparations


Fifty years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision declared that “separate is unequal” and therefore unconstitutional, as the dominant two business parties in the United States stock their convention stages with a disproportionate number of black faces, and as the presidential candidates of both parties proclaim their determination to maintain imperial hegemony over a majority non-white world and to sustain an especially provocative and racist occupation in the Arab world, African-Americans remains strongly segregated and unequal in the American “homeland.”

The facts of their still separate and unequal status should not be in dispute.

The relevant numbers are readily available in government and academic reports showing, for example, that: black unemployment and poverty rates are double those of whites; black income is less than 2/3 of white income; median black household worth is one-tenth that of whites; blacks make up 13 percent of the nation’s population yet nearly half of the nation’s more than two million prisoners; one in three black male adults carry a felony record; more than a million black children live in “deep poverty” (at less than half the nation’s notoriously inadequate poverty level), and so on.

No wonder African-Americans tend to be especially unimpressed with leading U.S. statesmen’s claim to possess the ability and willingness to export democracy around the world.

The more relevant debate is or at least ought to be why this savage racial inequality persists. And here the main controversy seems to be between (1) those who think that blacks are disproportionately poor and miserable in America because of their personal irresponsibility and “bad behavior” – ie, having children out of wedlock, doing drugs, committing crimes, and so on – and (2) those who think that blacks face a number of especially tough societal and institutional barriers to equality – barriers that mean African-Americans (and poor blacks especially) have to undertake and exhibit immeasurably more “personal responsibility” and positive moral agency than whites just to pull or keep their heads above water.

The first position, embraced with thuggish venom by Bill Cosby to the delight of the conservative white U.S. majority, is “mainstream” conventional wisdom in the U.S.

This is unfortunate since the second, more structural approach is much closer to the truth – as is exhibited, for example, by the contrasting life and career trajectories experienced by onetime serial substance abuser, general rogue, and contemporary war criminal George W. Bush (a silver-spoon son of stunning race-classprivilege) and the mass of America’s disproportionately black and lower-class felons, whose lifetime electoral disenfranchisement in Florida contributed mightily to Dubya’s 2000 “election.”

There’s an interesting and significant difference, however, between and among those who rightly take the “structuralist” position.

A critical obstacle to understanding the barriers to black equality is posed by those who argue that contemporary black disadvantage is simply the result of an unfortunate but unavoidable relationship between contemporary “color-blind” economic or “class” forces and the disproportionate black poverty that is the tragic legacy of past racism.

By this analysis, the only color that really matters, so to speak, anymore is green – the color of money, signifying wealth and (now) purely economic inequality. From this perspective, the most relevant social factor is “socioeconomic status” or class, not race, and racial segregation is no longer caused by racial discrimination or prejudice, but by class differences between racial groups.

By this approach, the critical “spatial mismatch” between where blacks tend to live and where jobs, job networks, the best schools, homes, and shopping facilities (and so on) are found reflects the unfortunate facts that blacks are historically rooted in the communities from which investment has especially fled and that blacks still sadly lack the accumulated financial resources (economic class position) to access housing markets in the more affluent suburban communities to which jobs have relocated.

The “real” problem is current income inequity, not current racism and here the “race issue” – insofar as it still exists – is the racially disparate but not in itself racist interaction between the economic legacy of historical anti-black racism and the remorseless, inherently unequal operation of the contemporary “color-blind” class system/capitalism.

There is no point in denying the reality of that toxic interaction, which would certainly produce racially disparate outcomes even in the (totally) hypothetical absence of institutionalized racism and racial discrimination. But there are two key problems with this line of analysis.

The first and most obvious difficulty arises from the fact that color-blind capitalism has yet to emerge on the historical stage in the US.

African-Americans of various socioeconomic levels continue to face a large and insidious number of special racist obstacles in every area of U.S. experience and policy: hiring, home mortgage lending, the conduct of real estate agents (who still widely steer black home-seekers to majority black communities), school funding inequity, admission to building trades apprenticeship programs, biased and over-emphasized standardized tests, news reportage, the criminal justice system (the most transparently racist institutional sphere of all) .and on and on.

The evidence of persistent societal bias and discrimination and bias is voluminous.

It is interesting in that regard to note a curious finding by researchers at the Lewis Mumford Center at SUNY-Albany. To test the color-blind “class over race” thesis, these investigators have broken out comparative residential segregation rates at various income levels for all of the nation’s leading metropolitan areas.

If race segregation is really a function of class or income differences, these researchers note, then race segregation levels should be much lower for affluent blacks and much higher for poor blacks. When the exercise is performed, however, they find that blacks and whites of the same socioeconomic status are often every bit as segregated from each other as all blacks are from all whites, something that points to the predominance of race over class in the causation of residential segregation by race.

The second and less obvious difficulty with the “price of past racism under contemporary post-racist capitalism” thesis is that it ignores the elementary fact that past racism isn’t really dead under the rules of living capitalism. It forgets the basic reality that white Americans continue to enjoy and employ a highly relevant historically accumulated excess of wealth over African-Americans – a surplus that is strongly related to past (“dead”) anti-black discrimination and contributes to the persistent absence of a truly level, “color-blind” playing field in the United States.

Consider the following useful analogy advanced by the African-American political scientist Roy L. Brooks in the preface to his book Integration or Separation: A Strategy for Racial Equality:

“Two persons – one white and the other black – are playing a game of poker. The game has been in progress for some 300 years. One player – the white one – has been cheating during much of this time, but now announces: ‘from this day forward, there will be a new game with new players and no more cheating.’ Hopeful but suspicious, the black player responds, ‘that’s great.

I’ve been waiting to hear you say that for 300 years. Let me ask you, what are you going to do with all those poker chips that you have stacked up on your side of the table all these years?’ ‘Well,’ said the white player, somewhat bewildered by the question, “they are going to stay right here, of course.’ ‘That’s unfair,’ snaps the black player. ‘The new white player will benefit from your past cheating.

Where’s the equality in that?’ ‘But you can’t realistically expect me to redistribute the poker chips along racial lines when we are trying to move away from considerations of race and when the future offers no guarantees to anyone,’ insists the white player. ‘And surely,’ he continues, ‘redistributing the poker chips would punish individuals for something they did not do. Punish me, not the innocents!’

Emotionally exhausted, the black player answers, ‘but the innocents will reap a racial windfall.’”

Seen against the backdrop of Brooks’ living “racial windfall,” there is something significantly racist about the widespread “mainstream” assumption that the broader white majority society owes African-Americans nothing in the way of special, ongoing compensation in the present for singular black disadvantages resulting from more explicit and open past racism.

Should whites pay through programs like affirmative action, mandatory school integration (or equalization), or even reparations for slavery and discrimination that took place before they were born? A majority of white Americans would certainly answer “no.” “The common [white' reaction," notes the prolific antiracist sociologist Joel R. Feagin, "would be 'Let bygones be bygones.'

The unjust enrichment gained by whites over centuries should be forgotten," even though, Feagin notes, "some black Americans are [still] only a couple of generations removed from their enslaved ancestors” and “the near slavery of legal segregation only came to an end in the 1960s, well within the lifetimes of many Americans alive today.”

In Feagin’s view, even if the contemporary socioeconomic system had become free of racial discrimination and bias in its current operation, compensatory programs, including reparations, would be required to undo the racially disparate historical “windfall” and thereby generate an actually level playing field.

He’s absolutely right, and I dare to conclude this commentary by saying that acceptance of the need for reparations is an elementary prerequisite if the “world’s greatest multiracial democracy” (as American “leaders” like to describe their nation) is ever going to seriously overcome savage racial inequality.

Paul Street is an urban social policy researcher in Chicago, IL. He can be reached at [email protected] His book Empire and Inequality:Writings on America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2004) can be ordered at www.paradigmpublishers.com.

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