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A Whole Lott Missing


The most disturbing aspect of the recent national melodrama over Senate Majority Leaders Trent Lott’s offensive declaration of retrospective support for the race-segregationist 1948 Presidential campaign of Strom Thurmond is not the content of Lott’s remarks. The really depressing thing is what the entire episode says about the superficial level at which racism is discussed in the United States. A related downer is how it is working to stick America’s head yet further in the sand on the question of race.


The Deeper Racism
The main problem here is a failure to distinguish between two different levels of racism – overt and covert. The first variety has a long and sordid history in the US. It includes the burning of black homes and churches, the open public use of racial slurs and epithets, occupational bans, lynching, disenfranchisement, denial of prominent public roles to black individuals, restrictive real estate covenants, rock-throwing and “nigger”- screaming mobs, and open legal segregation of public facilities. Concentrated especially though but not exclusively in the South, level-one’s racism’s archived images and sound bites serve as background for ritual mainstream expressions of support for the ideals of the civil rights movement like the national holiday honoring Martin Luther King. Consistent with his long record of racist comments and affiliations, Lott’s popularity among southern whites and his latest segregationist slip are certainly proof that there is still some life in this old racist dog, especially down in Dixie.

Still, this type or level of racism is largely defeated in the US. In post-Civil Rights America, the Republican Party makes sure to pack their convention stage with an abundance of black speakers and nearly every corporate and college brochure is loaded with images of racial “diversity.” No aspirant to public office dares question the nation’s official commitment to racial equality and equal opportunity. Prominent public media business and political figures play with fire when they are perceived as embracing the explicit racial bigotry and legal segregation of the past. Witness the case of Lott, held up for massive public ridicule because he indirectly embraced segregation in terms that are mild compared to the public rhetoric common among southern white politicians twenty years after Thurmond’s Dixiecrat campaign. Nowadays even David Duke has to claim that he is not anti-black and George W. Bush’s White House contains two blacks in prominent foreign policymaking positions – something that would never have occurred in pre-Civil Rights America.

The second level of racism is deeper and more intractable – as King and the Civil Rights Movement learned when they came north in 1966. It involves societal, structural and institutional forces and processes in ways that “just happen” to produce and perpetuate deep black disadvantage in multiple related areas of American life. It includes widespread persistent de facto residential and school segregation by race, rampant racial discrimination in hiring and promotion, the systematic under-funding and under-equipping of black schools, disproportionate surveillance, arrest and incarceration of blacks and much more. It is enabled, encouraged and even conducted by institutional and political actors, including some African-Americans, who would never publicly utter racially prejudiced comments and who not uncommonly declare allegiance to the ideals of the civil rights movement.

This second variety of racism has more than simply survived or outlasted the explicit, public racism of the past. It is ironically and perversely deepened by civil rights victories and the discrediting of open bigotry insofar as these elementary triumphs encourage the illusion of racism’s disappearance and the related notion that the only barriers left to African-American success and equality are internal to the black community.


New Age Racism: “We Made the Corrections, Now Get On With It”
Why are African-Americans twice as likely to be unemployed as whites? Why is the poverty rate for blacks more than twice the rate for whites? Why do nearly one out of every two blacks earn less than $25,000 while only one in three whites makes that little? Why is median black household income ($27,000) less than two thirds of median white household income ($42,000)? Why is Black families’ median household net worth is less than 10 percent that of white? Why are blacks much less likely to own their own homes than whites? Why do African-Americans make up roughly half of the United States’ massive population of prisoners (2 million) and why are one in three young black male adults in prison or on parole or otherwise under the supervision of the American criminal justice system? Why do African-Americans continue in severe geographic separation from mainstream society, still largely cordoned off into the nation’s most disadvantaged communities thirty years after the passage of civil rights fair housing legislation? Why do blacks suffer disproportionately from irregularities in the American electoral process, from problems with voter registration to the functioning of voting machinery? Why does black America effectively constitute a Third World enclave of sub-citizens within the world’s richest and most powerful state?

Convinced that racism is no longer a significant barrier for blacks because there are African-Americans in high policy positions and serving as anchors on the Six O-Clock News, most whites find answers to these questions inside the African-American community itself. If serious racial disparities persist, if black continue to live both separately and unequally, white America and even some privileged blacks (e.g. John McWhorter of the Manhattan Institute) think, its because of their own choices and because too many blacks engage in “self-sabotaging” and related “separatist” behaviors. “As white America sees it, “ note Leonard Steinhorn and Barbara Diggs-Brown in their excellent study By The Color of Their Skin: the Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race, (2000), “every effort has been to welcome blacks into the American mainstream and now they’re on their own.”

Predominant white attitudes at the turn of the millennium are well summarized by the comments of a white respondent to a survey conducted by Essence magazine. “No place that I’m aware of,” wrote the respondent, “makes [black] people ride on the back of the bus or use a different restroom in this day and age. We got the message; we made the corrections – get on with it.”

Tell it to Lakisha Washington America has made the necessary racial “corrections” and now its time for blacks “to get on with it?” Tell it to the black job applicants of Boston and Chicago.

In a field experiment whose results were released last week, researchers Marianne Bertrand of the University of Chicago and Sendhill Mullainathan of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sent out 5,000 resumes in response to help-wanted ads in Boston and Chicago newspapers. Each resume was randomly assigned either a very black-sounding name (such as “Lakisha Washington” or “Jamal Jones”) or a very white-sounding name (such as “Emily Walsh” or “Brendan Baker”). This racial “manipulation,” the researchers found, “produced a significant gap in the rate of callbacks for interviews.” White names received roughly 50 percent more callbacks than black names. For white applicants, moreover, sending higher quality resumes increased the number of callbacks by 30 percent. For black names, higher-quality resumes elicited no significant callback premium.

Just “get on with it?” Tell it to black families trying to buy a home or rent an apartment in the Denver area. According to a report released last month by the U.S. Department of Housing, nearly 1 in 5 blacks trying to buy a home or rent an apartment there faces some kind of technically illegal discrimination, being diverted from white majority areas to communities predominantly populated by minorities. This was actually below with the national average (21.6 percent for blacks), determined through hundreds of matched-pair testing exercises conducted across the country.

Tell it to the roughly astounding one in three black men in the US now carry the lifelong mark of a felony criminal record thanks to the nation’s 30 -year binge of incredibly racially disparate surveillance, arrest and mass imprisonment (“corrections” indeed!) conducted under the auspices of the drug war. They generally experience no real wage increases in their twenties and thirties, when American men without felony records typically experience rapid earnings growth. In a recent academic study conducted by Northwestern University sociologist Devah Pager in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the possession of a prison record reduced the likelihood of white testers being called back by a prospective employer by a ratio of 2 to 1. Among black testers, the mark of a prison record reduced that likelihood by nearly 3 to 1.

“We’ve made the corrections?” Tell it to the very disproportionately black students of the nation’s highly and increasingly segregated urban public schools. They receive educational resources vastly inferior to those enjoyed by children in affluent white suburbs, thanks to the nation’s racist and regressive reliance on local property taxes to fund “public schools” whose operation and outcomes resonate with the long reach of private privilege and related racial inequality.

The products of these inferior schools become all-too easy fodder – human raw material for the nation’s prison industrial complex and racist mass incarceration lobby, which works to divert public dollars from education to pay for the construction and maintenance of yet more not-so “correctional” facilities. Those prisons create jobs and economic development for predominantly white rural prison towns even while the experience of incarceration pushes most black-ex-offenders yet further into the margins of the disastrous inner-city market for poorly educated workers.

The list of these sorts of disparate and not-so “color blind” policies is long and depressing. The problems experienced by the people and communities on their receiving end have little to do with explicit racial bigotry (public or private). It has much to do with what sociologist Joe Feagin calls “a system of racialized structural and institutional subordination that excludes blacks from full participation in the rights, privileges, and benefits of society.” What he refers to as “state–of–mind racism” and open racial bigotry has declined appreciably in the last four decades. But “state-of-being,” that is institutional, structural and systemic racism have not declined and may actually have become more deeply entrenched, despite and perhaps even, ironically enough, in part because of civil rights victories.


Pardoning Presidential Racism The deeper level racism’s army of practitioners and apologists is large and bipartisan, far bigger than the likes of Trent Lott. Leading soldiers include people not normally associated with racism under the terms of the dominant public discourse in the US, which focuses on the level one variety. Take, for example, former President Bill Clinton, sometimes referred to as “America’s First Black President.” Clinton, who spoke with reverence about King, counted former National Urban League President Vernon Jordan as a close friend and placed five African-Americans in his cabinet, was no bigot. Not surprisingly, he Clinton called for Lott to step down because of his insensitive remarks.

As President, however, America’s most racially sensitive President never worked seriously to address the dismantling of affirmative action in the United States. He betrayed his election promise to address the health care needs of impoverished African-Americans, failing to seriously push for a national health care program that would have provided crucial support the nation’s most truly disadvantaged. He led the charge for “free trade” legislation that furthered the replacement of black workers by cheaper overseas labor. He gave lip service to black education but did nothing to improve funding for disproportionately poor black schools or to advance school desegregation so that black kids could attend more privileged schools. He signed a vicious, victim-blaming welfare “reform” bill that played on the racist myth of inner-city Black women as morally bankrupt Welfare Queens to force hundreds of thousands of African-American single mothers into the super-exploited margins of the American labor market. This bill removed millions of black children from medical coverage, making them pay for their mothers’ alleged insufficient appreciation of the capitalist work ethic. Clinton passed repressive crime legislation that significantly expanded the remarkable over-surveillance, arrest and incarceration of African-Americans for nonviolent crimes in the name of a War on Drugs that is really a war on young black males.

During all this, in a classic expression of what the brilliant author and activist Elaine Brown calls “New Age Racism,” Clinton lectured blacks on the need to heal themselves and take personal and collective responsibility for overcoming the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. It was and is a sentiment shared among many whites across the partisan board.

Or take George W. Bush, who boasts a number of black cabinet members, leads all Presidents except Clinton in naming women and minorities to political appointments, counts African-Americans among his intimate associates and has denounced Lott’s comments as “contrary to the spirit of this country.” Like Clinton, Bush rejects the notion that the US government owes black Americans even an apology for the crimes and legacy of slavery. He appointed as US Attorney General John Ashcroft, who opposes affirmative action and shares Bush’s enthusiasm for the racially disparate death penalty and racist mass incarceration fueled by the War on Drugs. He pushed through an education “reform” that punished minority schools that fail to raise student test scores but does nothing to reform the nation’s regressive, racist school funding system or address the savage re-segregation of American schools documented by the Harvard Civil Rights Project. At the same time, Bush embraces private school voucher plans that will only worsen the under-funding and segregation of the nation’s schools – problems that particularly affect black kids.

He is strictly opposed to national health care, of course. His version is of welfare “reform” is harsher than Clinton’s, expanding work requirements but denying significant job assistance in a time of recession and insidiously suggesting that moral laxity in the form of single-parenthood are the real cause of black poverty. Bush has spearheaded monumentally regressive tax cuts and launched an historic expansion of imperial “defense” expenditures that combined to limit desperately needed (especially by poor blacks) social programs while making the disproportionately white rich richer and the disproportionately black poor poorer. He as refused to extend unemployment benefits for the nations’ disproportionately black jobless; 800,000 Americans without work are scheduled to lose their benefits on December 28th (Happy Holidays). He spearheaded a “faith-based” initiative that gives federal funding to religious groups that provide social services without requiring compliance with anti-discrimination laws. He shares Clinton’s tendency to lecture blacks on the need to take responsibility for their own plight while embracing “free trade” and prison-filling “get-tough on crime” policies that make it yet more difficult for disadvantaged blacks to make it in America. Owing his Presidency in part to racist felony disenfranchisement laws and other race-based voting rights problems in Florida, Bush used 9-11 as a pretext to assault civil liberties (always a special concern for the black community) at home and to divide Americans yet further along lines of class and race.


“Changing One Horse for Another”

Or look at the records of those who were considered most likely to replace Lott as Majority Leader – Bill Frist (T-Tenn), a close Bush ally, Don Nickles (R-Oklahoma), Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) and Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania). Each of these Senators receive an ‘F’ from the NAACP for their recent voting history. In the last Congress, they voted for school vouchers, against raising school spending, for Bush’s $1.3 trillion tax cut, against strengthening the federal response to hate crimes, against managed care health reform, for the nomination of Ashcroft and against funding for bilingual education and (surprise) restoring ex-felons’ voting rights. No wonder that civil rights movement veteran and US Representative John Lewis (D-Georgia) remarked that the Senate Republican Party would respond to the Lott fiasco by “just … changing one [racist] horse for another [racist] horse.”

Lott’s successor, Frist, has voted against community technology centers for minority neighborhoods, sanctions for predatory lending, the expansion of minority higher education credits, increasing global funding to address the AIDS crisis in Africa, alternative voting verification methods and strong community investment requirements for banks. He has voted for decreasing voter registration through the purging of voting rolls and harsher juvenile criminal justice measures. A former surgeon with $25 million of stock in his family’s for-profit hospital chain and a recipient of massive campaign largesse from the pharmaceutical industry, Frist has led the effort to deny serious health care reform to the nation’s poorest citizens. He sponsored pharmaceutical giant Eli-Lily’s campaign to win federal protection (strangely included in the recent Homeland Security bill) from lawsuits by parents of children who developed autism as a result of faulty child vaccines.

How offensive, then, it was to see the Chicago Tribune’s editorial writers recently laud Frist as a “southerner who has no unsavory history on racial issues” and has “distinguished himself for his work on health care issues” (CT, 21 December, 2002). The Tribune applauded Frist’s “longstanding practice of traveling to Africa every year to work as a medical missionary” – ministering perhaps to some of the millions of Africans who are effectively denied access to life-prolonging AIDS drugs by American drug companies protecting their patent monopolies in the name of “free trade.” Such are the perverse racial sensibilities of New Age Racism, whereby the defeat of level-one racism obscures and provides cover for the disease’s deeper variant, which is most efficiently spread by policymakers who know enough to sell their policies and values as “color-blind” and consistent with the principles of King.


Another Dangerous Opportunity for White Racial Self Congratulation


For those who like to think that racism has been swept into the dustbin of American history, it is comforting to see the heavily white-led and white-supported Republican Party drum their own Senate Majority Leader out of office because of his “intemperate remarks.” The harsh reality missing from “mainstream” (really corporate) media accounts is that the party’s post-Lott downfall agenda is the same and as fundamentally racist as the one before his “gaffe.” Lott was removed from Republican leadership because his breach of good taste threatened to take the color-blind veneer off the deep racism at the heart of the party’s assault on affirmative action, civil rights legislation, and social democratic public policy in general. As an article recently posted on The Black Commentator (www.blackcommentator.com) noted, “Lott had to go in order to maintain the momentum of the GOP’s assault on affirmative action and civil rights leadership.”

In this regard, it is interesting to note how much more forceful top Republicans were than leading national Democrats in calling for Lott’s demotion. The latter undoubtedly hoped to run against a party stuck with a publicly exposed racist in a leadership position. Such a target promised to help them continue to garner the lion’s share of the black vote. It also promised to divert attention from their own heavy involvement in the deeper covert and systemic racism that envelopes this nation from top to bottom. Such is the persistent and tragic reality of race in an age when white America loves to congratulate itself for dropping racial slurs from acceptable public discourse, outlawing lynch-mobs, letting blacks sit in the front of the bus, and claiming to honor the legacy of King.

The most depressing and distressing thing about the Lott fiasco is the way it is providing white America yet another dangerous opportunity to pat itself on the back for advancing beyond the primitive state of level-one racism while digging the hole of the deeper racism yet deeper.





Paul Street is Vice President for Research and Planning at the Chicago Urban League. His articles and essays have appeared in Z Magazine, Monthly Review, the Journal of American Ethnic History and Dissent. He is the author of The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, Jobs, and Community in Chicago, Illinois, and the Nation (Chicago, IL: Chicago Urban League, 2002), which can be viewed at www.cul-chicago.org

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