Class, Color, and The Hidden Injuries of Race


Paul Street 

Sometimes
it’s the silences that speak the loudest. Consider, for example,
a study released last year by a team of public health researchers
at the Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. As noted in
a front-page Chicago
Sun Times
story titled “Danger Zones for Kids,” this
study reported that injury was the leading cause of death for youth
in the United States. The problem is especially great, its authors
learned, in Chicago, where injuries killed 106 adolescents per year
during the mid-1990s. Especially disturbing was the study’s
discovery that the city’s youth mortality rate for “intentional
injury,” that is violence, was much higher than for accidental
injury. The leading cause of “intentional injury” for
Chicago kids over 10 years old was gun violence. Beyond citywide
numbers, the researchers reported on the distribution of youth injuries
and deaths across the city’s 77 officially designated Community
Areas. Neighborhood disparities, they found, were severe, ranging
from one West Side community where 146 per 100,000 were hospitalized
for injuries per year—more than 4 times the city-wide average—to
more than 30 neighborhoods where fewer than 6 youth were hospitalized
for injuries. 

Take
a front-page New York Times piece that appeared late last
summer under the provocative title “Rural Towns Turn to Prisons
to Re-ignite Their Economies.” According to this article, rural
America relies like never before on prison construction to produce
jobs and economic development formerly provided by farms, factories,
coal mines, and oil. Reporting that 25 new prisons went up in the
United States countryside each year during the 1990s, up from 16
per year in the 1980s and just 4 per year in the 1970s, the article
quoted an Oklahoma city manager to chilling effect. “There’s
no more recession-proof form of economic development,” this
official, whose town just got a shiny new maximum-security prison,
told the Times, than incarceration because “nothing’s
going to stop crime.” 

A
final example is provided by another front-page story in the Chicago
Tribune.
Last July, the Tribune reported that
Ford Heights, a desperately poor “inner-ring” suburb south
of Chicago, led the nation in percentage of households headed by
single mothers. This article included a map showing the United States’
top 20 communities as ranked by percentage of single-mother households.
While it related “Ford Heights’ dubious title” to
residents’ poor education, weak job skills, and south-suburban
de-industrialization, it especially emphasized residents’ “self-defeating
social patterns” including, naturally enough, teen sex. Echoing
the findings of the latest academic poverty research, it noted a
strong connection between teen pregnancy and young people’s
“hopeless” sense that the future holds little and there
is little reason to “defer gratification.” 

Good,
well written reports and articles all. There was something curious
missing, however, from each. Strange though it may seem in one of
the world’s most racially segregated cities, the Children’s
Memorial team and the Sun Times did not link their findings
to readily available, recently released census data on the racial
composition of Chicago’s neighborhoods. They had to go out
of their way not to make the connection. Of the city’s top
20 Community Areas ranked by injury-related youth mortality, no
less than 15 are currently 90 percent or more African-American.
All but one very disproportionately Black for the city. By contrast,
more than three-fourths of the 31 neighborhoods where just 6 or
less injury-related youth hospitalizations occurred per year were
very disproportionately white. 

In
a similar vein, the Tribune piece, while curiously including
three photographs of African-American Ford Heights teen moms, refrained
from mentioning that all of the top 20 single-mom communities were
very disproportionately African-American. Seventy percent of those
communities where youth feel especially hopeless are more than 90
percent black. All but one are at least two-thirds black. Nowhere,
finally, could the liberal Times bring itself to mention
the very predominantly white composition of the keepers and the
very predominantly black composition of those kept in America’s
burgeoning new prison towns.  

One
has to go elsewhere than the nation’s leading newspaper to
learn that blacks are 12.3 percent of the U.S. population but comprise
fully half of the roughly 2 million Americans currently behind bars.
The exact same omissions were glaringly obvious, however, in a March
Tribune article titled “Towns Put Dreams in Prisons”
(about downstate Illinois towns scrambling to build employment-generating
prisons) and a July piece in the Detroit News titled “Ionia
[Michigan] Finds Stability in Prison: Lockups Provide Fast Growing
Community With Jobs.” In all of these reports, there was but
one reference to race. It was buried deep in a methodological appendix
to the Children’s Memorial study, where the researchers claimed
that they “chose not to examine the relationship between race
and injury,” because 30 percent of the injury cases reported
by the State were “missing racial classification.” 


Color Blind 

Under
the rule of color-blind rhetoric, significant and widespread racism
is largely a thing of the nation’s past. There is a widespread
belief among U.S. Whites that African-Americans now enjoy equal
opportunity. “As white America sees it,” write Leonard
Steinhorn and Barbara Diggs-Brown in their sobering By
the Color of Their Skin: the Illusion of Integration and the Reality
of Race (2000),
“every effort has been made to welcome
blacks into the American mainstream, and now they’re on their
own… ‘We got the message, we made the corrections—get
on with it.” 

In
our current officially color-blind era of American history, older
and more blatant forms and incidents of classic explicit and intentional
racial bigotry are still fit subjects for open discussion. It helps
if those forms and incidents are understood as anomalous and identified
primarily with lower- and working-class whites who do not understand
the new rules of the game. The more significant and persistent structural
inequalities that continue to shape, limit, and imprison African-American
experience are largely outside the parameters of polite public discussion.
The new reluctance to speak freely about race comes in conservative,
liberal, and left forms. For conservatives, predictably, the conventional
argument that racism is essentially over and that the main barrier
to black advancement comes from within the black community, in the
form of self-destructive behaviors and beliefs. There’s nothing
surprising in this reactionary racist sentiment, which parallels
triumphant capitalist “end of history” wisdom on the related
and supposed irrelevance of class and other barriers to freedom
and democracy in the U.S. 

There
are now liberals who share the sense that racism has ceased to be
a significant barrier to black well being and success. Among liberals,
and some further to the left, however, color-blind rhetoric appears
more commonly in the argument that society will best serve blacks
by downplaying the danger zone of race and emphasizing the shared
dilemmas faced by all economically disadvantaged people regardless
of color. No one made that argument more famously than black, left-liberal
Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson. Wilson claimed that only
race-neutral political-economic analyses and policy solutions can
meaningfully address the problems of “truly disadvantaged”
blacks, who are victimized, by Wilson’s analysis, more by color-blind,
political-economic, and class forces than they are by race. This
perspective reaches well into the white liberal and even left intelligentsia.
It shapes the reflections of such diverse writers as Michael Tomasky,
Todd Gitlin, Jim Sleeper, E.J. Dionne, and others on “what
went wrong” with the American post-1960s left and how progressives
might build a new social democratic movement to overcome injustice. 


Blame the Victim 

Whatever
form it takes, however, color-blind rhetoric and the “illusion
of integration” it conveys render much of America’s harshly
divided social landscape shockingly unintelligible. The phenomena
that are hopelessly muddled include an inequitably funded educational
system that apparently just happens to provide poorer instruction
for blacks than whites; an electoral system whose voting irregularities
and domination by big money
happens to disproportionately disenfranchise blacks; a criminal
justice system that happens to especially stop, arrest, prosecute,
and incarcerate African-Americans; a political economy whose tendency
toward sharp inequality happens to especially impoverish
and divide black communities; and residential markets and housing
practices that happen to disproportionately restrict African-American
children to the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods and communities,
where kids’ chances of learning are significantly diminished
by the threats of injury and violence. The list goes on. 

Worse,
Americans trained to believe that all the relevant racial barriers
have been torn down are conditioned to think that the nation’s
millions of truly disadvantaged African-Americans have no one but
themselves to blame for their persistent pain and disproportionate
presence at the bottom of the American hierarchy. That thought
lies at the heart of America’s new color-blind racism, which
draws ironic strength from the relative decline of acceptable explicit
racial bigotry in American life. It is at the core of the hesitancy
some liberals and progressives feel about speaking openly on race.
It makes well-intentioned anti-racist liberals and leftists reluctant
to fully examine the color of modern social problems, for to do
so in the current ideological context is, they reason, with some
justice, to fuel the fires of new racist (color-blind) victim-blaming
and even to damage black self-esteem. 

Among
liberals and leftists, racially reluctant rhetoric stems partly
from progressive ideas about the primacy of class and economic inequality
over racial and other important differences, such as gender. It
also reflects some liberals’ and leftists’ depressing
calculations regarding the narrowing boundaries of acceptable debate
regarding class and capitalism in the United States. Americans in
the last 30 years have seen the practical corporate-administered
collapse of legitimate space for public discussion of relevant historical
relationships between socioeconomic hierarchy, political power,
social behavior, and human misery. This breakdown restricts meaningful
public discussion of the ways that structural inequality and the
related social order of capital produce such related negative “behavioral
outcomes” and attitudes as teen pregnancy, hopelessness, violence,
family disintegration, and substance abuse among significant portions
of the population. It makes meaningful discussion of class and capitalism
into a danger zone that also makes race more dangerous and difficult
to discuss. For with their vulnerable and in fact persistently relevant
structural explanations increasingly banished from acceptable discourse,
progressives increasingly have reason to fear that they cannot make
the relevant racial connections. To do so, they fear, is to feed
Americans’ penchant for seeing its most disadvantaged citizens,
who happen to be disproportionately black, as personally responsible
for their own plight or worse, as genetically inferior. 

Thus
it is that a black elementary school principal on Chicago’s
West Side recently told me that she and parents in her school’s
99 percent black neighborhood were angered by what they saw as the
Sun Times’ “racist” designation of their community
as one of the city’s leading “danger zones for kids.”
The real problem, the principal and parents felt, was that by omitting
the dire social and economic circumstances of their kids’ neighborhood,
the story left no meaningful context other than race and the alleged
“self-defeating social patterns” of urban blacks to explain
the danger experienced by their children. Those circumstances include
rampant unemployment, poverty, affordable housing shortages, and
a chronic lack of livable wage jobs. Even while technically deleting
race, then, media coverage of youth injury and violence in Chicago
actually highlighted it and in a most unfavorable way from an African-American
perspective. Much the same could be said for the Tribune
article on single motherhood, where the racial connections were
curiously encouraged by photographs of single black mothers. In
a similar vein, nightly local television parades dangerous black
criminals and suspects across the screen almost nightly without
ever actually mentioning either race (except in occasional descriptions
of criminal suspects) or the social and economic circumstances that
give rise to high crime rates in poor urban neighborhoods. To receive
necessary and appropriate attention, racism requires that class
not also be a danger zone. 

It
is too much to say liberal-left intellectuals have created this
situation. Still, they have contributed to it in recent decades
by spending a considerable amount of energy on a dubious debate
between traditional class-based, social democratic politics and
a more modern (or postmodern) politics of identity, as in gender,
sexual orientation, ethnicity, culture, and race. This controversy
is based partly on a false and counterproductive dichotomy, however,
for class and race have always been inseparably wedded to one another
in the American experience. From colonial origins to the present,
failure or inability to comprehend one part of America’s simultaneous
race and class equations system has undermined the ability to grasp
and act on the others. It’s about race and class, not one or
the other. Among the many developments for which this is true, we
could include the colonial Virginia ruling-class’s fateful
discovery that Black chattel slavery was the solution to their unexpected
New World class problem with rebellious white ex-indentured servants,
the abandonment of the former slaves after the Civil War (something
that partly reflected business class fears about the signals that
southern “Reconstruction” would have sent to northern
white wage-earners), and the U.S. “elite’s” unmatched
(in the industrialized world) ability to use racial division to
keep unions, the welfare state, and independent labor politics at
bay.      

Certainly,
liberals and leftists will not create the color-blind society of
which Martin Luther King so famously dreamed by acting as if it
has already arrived. Intellectuals and activists will not answer
mainstream denial of racism’s deep and stubborn persistence
nor respond effectively to the attack on structural understandings
of racial inequality by relegating race to the forgotten footnotes.
They will carry the moral and political responsibility to write
and speak about race and racism as long as skin color continues
to significantly shape dominant social, political, and economic
structures of opportunity and outcome. To discuss racial differences
without reference to cross-racial questions of economic inequality
and political economy is to further the racial divide in a way that
thwarts social justice and democracy in general.                                  Z 


Paul
Street is director of Research and vice president for Research and
Planning at the Chicago Urban League. His articles and essays have
appeared in
In These Times, Dissent, Z Magazine, Monthly
Review
, and the Journal of Social
History
.