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The Obamanable Age of Color-Blind Racism


Thank you for inviting me up here to discuss racial blindness and race formation in Milwaukee, still the single most racially segregated metropolitan area in the United States according to the latest census data. I want to open with a short passage from Michelle Alexander’s important and widely read 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness. As I’m sure many of you know, Professor Alexander’s book shows how the supposedly color-blind problems of criminal marking and mass imprisonment are in fact deeply racialized and impose devastating stigma and exclusion on many millions of black Americans.

 

“Harsh Realities:” Election Night 2008

Remembering the night that Barack Obama defeated John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, Alexander wrote the following in her introduction to The New Jim Crow:

“As an African-American woman, with three young children who will never know a world in which a black man could not be president of the United States, I was beyond thrilled [that evening] Yet when I walked out of the election night party, …I was immediately reminded of …harsh realities…A black man was on his knees in the gutter, hands cuffed behind his back, as several police officers stood around him talking, joking, and ignoring his human existence. People poured out of the building; many stared for a moment at the black man cowering in the street, and then averted their gaze. What did the election of Barack Obama mean for him?”

That’s a pretty good question in a time when a black family sits in the White House but median black wealth is equivalent to 12 cents on the median white net-worth dollar[1], when fully 38 percent of black children compared to 12 percent of white children live in poverty[2], when 1 in 3 black male adults are branded for life with the crippling mark of a felony record and when black American make up more than 40 percent of the nation’s globally unmatched prison population[3]. I could go on and on with other depressing statistics of savage racial inequality that have worsened, ironically enough, during the years of Obama’s presidency.

 

Last Nail

Reading that passage by Michelle Alexander again the other day, thinking about Obama, felony marking, “color-blind racism,” and about coming to Milwaukee, I started remembering things. I recalled that the best testing study ever done on employer bias against black job applicants with felony records was conducted not that long ago here in Milwaukee by a sociologist named Devah Pager. If you’re interested check out her book: Marked: Race, Crime and Finding Work in an Age of Mass Incarceration.

I remembered the many discussions I had in Iowa City with white campus-town liberals who were very proud of themselves for voting for a black presidential candidate both in the Iowa Caucus and in the general election but who did not seem to care very much when you told them that Iowa had the single worst race disparity in the nation when it came to rates of incarceration[4] and who could not be moved to action when a young black named John Deng was quite unnecessarily shot to death by a white county sheriff at the urging of a local white drunk in downtown Iowa City in June of 2009.[5]

I remembered writing a 2002 Chicago Urban League study titled The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, Jobs, and Community in Chicago, Illinois, and the Nation [6] – a study that was very much about the invisible racism of felony marking and a study that inspired Michelle Alexander to write The New Jim Crow. She told me that and I believe her. It was a pretty good study.

And I remembered that the Keynote Address at the conference in which The Vicious Circle was rolled out on the South Side of Chicago in October of 2002 was given by then state Senator Barack Obama, fated to become a president who has said less about the difficulties faced by the criminally marked (“ex-offenders”) than George W. Bush and who has said less about racism than any Democratic president since Truman. Obama certainly seemed to understand the problem of racially disparate mass incarceration and felony branding pretty well in the fall of 2002.

Remembering that conference and address, I reflected on how the election of a technically black president has been the last nail in the coffin of many whites’ already weak reluctance to acknowledge that racism still sets important barriers to black advancement and racial equality in the U.S. As far as most of white America has been concerned for quite some time, the only real and special problems still faced by black Americans anymore are internal to their own communities and culture – products of their own supposed “dysfunction.”

 

“The Price of the Ticket”

That is an impression that the president himself has shown himself more than willing to reinforce on different occasions, not just with the example of his own success but with comments not-so subtly directed at poor blacks and their alleged failure to take advantage of the great opportunities purportedly afforded them in what Obama has called “this magical place called America,” where Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s racial anger is no longer really appropriate.

The black political class (for which I used to work) has not shown itself terribly willing to challenge Obama’s channeling of the prevalent white color-blind wisdom. As the black Columbia University political scientist Frederick Harris noted in the New York Times prior to the last election, the black elite has on the whole accepted the president’s silence on race as “the necessary price for the pride and satisfaction of having a black family in the White House.” It’s what Harris calls The Price of the Ticket, title of his important book on the how Obama’s victory has contributed to the decline of a black politics focused on the problem of racial inequality.[7]

 

Neoliberal Racism

The ubiquitous racially blind sense holding that we now live in a post-racial post-racist society is the product of numerous developments. Three key and related developments particularly deserve mention here in my opinion. The first development was repression, seen first of all in the police state surveillance and infiltration of, and crackdown on, left and black groups who were fighting against all of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called “the triple evils that are interrelated” – racism, capitalism, and militarism [8]– during the late 1960s and 1970s. These groups would not have jettisoned the notion that racism lay at the heart of American empire and inequality and that racial oppression needed to be attacked directly and as such at home and abroad.

A second development was the ascendancy in the dominant public discourse of a corporate neoliberal ideology in which the nation’s “pervasive racial hierarchies collapse,” in the words of the prolific social critic Henry Giroux, “into power-evasive strategies such as blaming minorities of class and color for not working hard enough” and “refusing to exercise individual initiative.” Even as an insidious, increasingly invisible racism “functions” as “one of the deep and abiding currents in everyday [American] life,” this discourse works “to erase the social from the language of public life as to reduce all racial problems to private issues [of]…individual character and cultural depravity.” This “neoliberal racism,” as Giroux calls it, “can imagine public issues only as private concerns. It sees “human agency as simply a matter of individualized choices, the only obstacle to effective citizenship being the lack of principled self-help and moral responsibility” on the part of those most victimized by structural oppression and the amoral agency of super-empowered actors atop the nation’s steep and interrelated hierarchies of class and race.

Under the rule of this neoliberal color-blind racism, “human misery is largely defined as a function of personal choices” and “all problems are private rather than social in nature.” [9] Government efforts to meaningfully address societal disparities of race and class are deemed futile, counterproductive, and inappropriate. Government’s functions are progressively concentrated, in left black political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr.’s words, on “making war,” “enhancing opportunities for the investor class,” “suppressing wages for everyone else”[10] repressing dissent, and incarcerating people, particularly poor folks of color. And of course the more you weaken the left, social hand of the state the more you call into being and strengthen the right, authoritarian hand of the state, which comes in to offer its own false solutions to problems like poverty that only deepen with the evisceration of social protections and regulation [11]. All this is militantly bipartisan and continues whichever political party is in nominal power and regardless of the president’s technical racial or gender identity.

 

Race-Neutral Realpolitik

A third development is the embrace by many black and liberal Democratic intellectuals and activists of a “de-racialized” political and policy rhetoric in the wake of the exhaustion of the Civil Rights Movement. This rhetoric is based on what professor Harris calls “the idea that policies that help everyone – what is described by policymakers as universalism – will trickle down to meet the systematic needs of black communities and that targeted policies toward minorities – which lack the political will of the majority – should be taken off the table.”[12] Its ascendancy on what passes for the left side of the U.S. political spectrum has been seen in Obama’s “race-neutral campaign strategy and approach to governing,” reflected in his statements that he has to be the president “for all the people,” not just or especially blacks or any other racial or ethnic group. Such statements are seen as politically wise given Obama’s success in two national elections in a majority white nation (and one statewide race in majority white Illinois) and the success of other white-friendly race-neutral black politicians who have achieved similar victories on the state level (e.g., former Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder, former U.S. Senator Carol Mosley Braun, and current Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick).

From the perspective of Democratic Party electoral realpolitik, it is of little concern that, as Harris notes, “Obama’s ascendancy to the White House actually signals a decline of a politics aimed at challenging racial equality head-on” or that, as Harris argues, “a singular focus on universalism surrenders to the false notion of a color-blind society where race no longer matters.” Major party strategists seeking to prevail in a winner-take-all electoral system can hardly be expected to care that “policies that help everyone – what can be described as a trickle-down approach to eradicating poverty and social inequality – are not enough to correct the deep-rooted persistence of racial inequality.”[13] When Democratic strategists say they are “in it to win it,” they are referring to elections, not to attaining social justice of any kind. It matters little also that Democrats’ current corporate and imperial, neoliberal agenda actually has little to do with advancing “policies that help everyone” (like, for example, single-payer health insurance) and really about serving the corporate and financial few (as with Obama’s so-called Affordable Care Act, a “health reform” that only the big insurance and drug companies and their Wall Street backers could love) above all.

 

The Deeper Racism

Now, however we want to understand the current reigning color-blindness in relation to state capitalist ideology and changing black and Democratic Party political strategies in the post-Civil Rights era, there are some very basic and irreducible cognitive and empirical flaws behind the notion of a post-racial/post-racist America. The main such flaw is a failure to distinguish adequately between what I call level-one racism, by which I mean overt open public bigotry and prejudice, on one hand, and what I call level-two racism or the deeper racism, by which I mean underlying covert societal or institutional racism, on the other hand. Level-one racism has a long and sordid history, but it has largely been defeated, outlawed and discredited in the US, most dramatically in the South but across the nation as well. The deeper, covert level of racism, however, has not been defeated – not by a long shot. It involves the more impersonal and (to be fair) the more invisible operation of social and institutional forces and processes in ways that “just happen” but nonetheless serve to reproduce black disadvantage in the labor market and numerous other sectors of American life. These processes are so ingrained in the social, political, and institutional sinews of capitalist America that they are taken for granted – barely noticed by the mainstream media and other social commentators. This deeper racism includes: 

* Widely documented racial bias in real estate and home lending that complement, reflect and empower the general reluctance of whites to live next door to blacks, all of which combine with disproportionate black poverty to keep blacks out of the metropolitan area’s highest-opportunity communities.

* The proliferation of expensive, taxpayer-financed suburban roads and related residential and office and retail developments constructed on behalf of mainly white suburbanites far from the predominantly black inner city, which subsidizes white flight and takes critical needed economic resources and opportunities yet further from those who are most in need of it.

* The funding of schools largely on the basis of local property wealth, which tends to favor whiter school districts over blacker districts, an especially big issue in Illinois, where per-student funding rangers from more than 20K per kid in the affluent northern Chicago suburb Lake Forest to less than 7K per kid in many predominantly black and poor south Chicago suburbs.

* Excessive use of high-stakes standardized test-based neo-Dickensian “drill” and grill curriculum and related zero-tolerance disciplinary practices in predominantly black public schools.

* The hyper-concentration segregation of black children into segregated ghetto schools where frazzled teachers have to deal with oversized classes where as many as 90 percent of their kids are dealing with the special barriers to learning that come with extreme poverty and its effects.  

* Rampant and widely documented racial discrimination in hiring and union-managed apprentice-training admissions.

* The racially disparate “War on Drugs” and the related campaign of mass black imprisonment and felony-marking

This split decision – liberal victory on level-one racism and continuing progressive defeat on level-two racism – is tricky. It’s not about glass half-empty versus glass half-full. It’s more complicated than that. For ironically and perversely enough level two institutional racism may actually be deepened by civil rights victories and related black upward mobility into the middle and upper classes insofar as those victories and achievements have served to encourage the great toxic illusion that, as Derrick Bell once put it, “the indolence of blacks rather than the injustice of whites explains the socioeconomic gaps separating the races.”

It’s hard, of course, to blame millions of white people for believing that racism is dead in America when our public life is filled with repeated affirmations of the integration ideal and our ostensible progress towards achieving it and when we regularly celebrate great American victories over level-one racism, particularly over the open racial segregation and terror of the South. As the black law professor Sheryl Cashin noted in 2004, five years before the existence of a first black U.S. president, there are [now] enough examples of successful middle- and upper-class class African-Americans “to make many whites believe that blacks have reached parity…The fact that some blacks now lead powerful mainstream institutions offers evidence to whites that racial barriers have been eliminated; [that] the issue now is individual effort . . . The odd black family on the block or the Oprah effect — examples of stratospheric black success,” Cashin wrote, “feed these misperceptions, even as relatively few whites live among and interact daily with blacks of their own standing.”[14]

For what it’s worth, this is something that Martin Luther King, Jr. anticipated to some degree. “Many whites hasten to congratulate themselves,” King noted in 1967, “on what little progress [black Americans] have made. I’m sure,” King opined, “that most whites felt that with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, all race problems were automatically solved. Most white people are so removed from the life of the average Negro,” King added, “here has been little to challenge that assumption.”

Note the importance of segregated experience in the observations of both professor Cashin and Dr. King. The media image of black triumph and equality trumps the reality of persistent racial inequality in white minds so easily thanks in part to the simple fact that whites have little regular contact with actual, ordinary black Americans. This is one of many ways in spatial and residential segregation matters a great deal.[15]

The Haunted Ghost of Gunnar Myrdal

This ironic denouement is, or ought to be, a loud and disturbing wake-up call for the ghost of the Swedish social democrat Gunnar Myrdal. According to the dominant school of thought among corporate and academic liberal elites after World War II and through the 1970s, the nation’s steep racial inequalities would be healed by changing the dominant images and representations of race to foster tolerance and diversity, thereby purging whites of their aberrant prejudices and encourage them to act in accord with the noble American Creed of liberty, justice, and opportunity for all. This was the diagnosis developed in Myrdal’s giant, two Carnegie-funded study An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and American Democracy (1944) – a highly influential call, among other things, for calm, sensible, and modest, elite-managed progress focused largely on the changing of individual attitudes. As the historian Thomas Sugrue notes:

“In Myrdal’s view, the struggle for black freedom would be waged by moderate, reasonable activists – ones informed by social science – who would remake America into the truly just society that it was meant to be…Myrdal downplayed the strength and vitality of black political activism in the North and eschewed the left’s critiques of labor and public policy. An American Dilemma advocated social change, not structural change; Myrdal and his popularizers did not want to remake American politics or economic institutions. They were not revolutionaries or even radicals. Their goal was individual change. One by one, racist but essentially well-meaning white Americans would …be…educated to accept a color-blind society.”[16]

The diagnosis was an exercise in bourgeois “mysticism,” as the great black Marxist sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox noted in a trenchant, widely ignored 1945 review of An American Dilemma. For Cox, as for many black and left U.S. intellectuals since at least the 1920s, whites’ racial prejudiced beliefs were a surface reflection of something deeper: a system of combined class and racial domination and exploitation. For Cox, it was “mythical” for Myrdal and his many followers to believe that changing individual attitudes would end the economic oppression that lay at the taproot of racial inequality and racism. Cox agreed with the brilliant black Trinidad-born America Marxist C.L.R. James that racism was more than simply an aberrant strain of Americanism and that it was a natural outgrowth of an economic system that depended on the special exploitation of black workers and the exploitation and division of workers of all colors. Unless that system of domination and exploitation, unless capitalism was changed, Cox argued, efforts to heal the prejudiced beliefs would not make all that much difference. “The reformer,” Cox insisted, “seeks to eliminate only the racial aspects of the exploitation system; he compromises with the system which produces the racial antagonism…..In the end, the social system is exculpated.”[17]

Views like those of C.L.R. James and Oliver Cox – and the related reflections of black labor leader and socialist A. Phillip Randolph and the black Marxist W.E.B. Du Bois – were drowned out in the civil rights movement of Cold War America. As the historian Thomas Sugrue observers, “the Cold War and the growing suspicion of mass politics would give increased credence to the Myrdalian framework. The welling anticommunism of mainstream black organizations, grassroots activists, and public opinion leaders would squeeze black radicalism to the margins…Myrdal’s emphasis on morality touched a nerve in America on the cusp between WWII and the Cold War.”[18]

Still, the highly visible Dr. King, the leading symbol of the struggle for black equality during the late 1950s and 1960s and himself a democratic socialist, agreed with Oliver Cox to no small extent. Speaking on the Canadian Broadcasting System in 1967, King coupled his call for an emergency national program providing either decent-paying jobs all or a guaranteed national income for all poor Americans of all colors with the observation that “only by structural change can current evils be eliminated, because the roots are in the system rather in men or faulty operations.”

“The black revolution,” King wrote in a posthumously published 1969 essay titled A Testament of Hope “is about much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws – racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.”

Here we are today in the still highly segregated upper Midwest 46 years after King wrote those revolutionary words, 70 years after Myrdal published An American Dilemma. Real world socioeconomic race disparity and related race separatism remains as savagely and deeply rooted in American life as ever, reinforced by a “new Jim Crow” system of objectively racist mass incarceration and criminal marking that scars the land, unabated even as a black family now sits in the White House. This “neoliberal,” not-so color-blind racism “functions” as “one of the deep and abiding currents in everyday [American] life” in a time when black and brown faces in high and publicly visible places are fairly commonplace (enough to drive old-fashioned level-one white bigots to regular distraction) and when most whites would vociferously claim not to be racist. Could the mockery of Myrdal be any more complete? More than merely inadequate or insufficient, the Myrdalian approach is part of what cloaks the deeper racism, inseparably linked to the deeper capitalism. The system shifts and changes, to be sure, but today, as from the beginning, the roots of American racial inequality and racism (and much more, including the crisis of livable ecology that threatens to eclipse all other progressive concerns) are in the system. Only by structural change can current evils be eliminated.

Paul Street is an author and activist in Iowa City, Iowa.

Selected Endnotes

 1. Matt Breunig, “The Racial Wealth Gap,” American Prospect, November 6, 2013.

 2. National Poverty Center, “Poverty in the United States,” http://www.npc.umich.edu/poverty/

 3. Paul Street, The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, Jobs, and Community in Chicago, Illinois, and the Nation (Chicago, IL: Chicago Urban League, 2002), http://www.prisonpolicy.org/scans/theviciouscircle.pdf

 4. Associated Press, “Study: Iowa Has Nation’s Highest Prison Racial Disparity,” QCOnline, July 18, 2007, http://qconline.com/archives/qco/display.php?id=346704

 5. Paul Street, “ ‘In Cold Blood’: White Deputy’s Killing of Homeless Black Man Sparks Mild Protest in Obama-Mad Iowa City,” Black Agenda Report (August 11, 2009), http://blackagendareport.com/content/“-cold-blood”-white-deputy’s-killing-homeless-black-man-sparks-dah-mild-protest-obama-mad-iowa-c- ; ;Paul Street, “True Crime: White Privilege and a Police Killing in an Obama-Mad College Town,” Black Agenda Report, October 19, 2009, http://blackagendareport.com/content/true-crime-white-privilege-and-police-killing-obama-mad-college-town

 6. See note 3, above.

 7. Frederick C. Harris, “The Price of a Black President,” New York Times, October 27, 2012; Frederick C. Harris, The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

 8. Vincent Harding, Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero (Orbis Books, 1996).

 9. Giroux is quoted and cited at length in my book Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (New York: Rowman&Littlefield, 2007), 37

10. Adolph Reed, Jr., “New Orleans – Undone by Neoliberealism,” The Nation, August 31, 2006, http://www.thenation.com/article/undone-neoliberalism

11. Paul Street, Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004).

12. Harris, Price of the Ticket, x.

13. Harris, Price of the Ticket, x, xviii, xx.

14. For sources and more, see Street, Racial Oppression, 229-230.

15. For sources and more, see Street, Racial Oppression, 183-187.

16. Thomas Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (New York: Random House, 2008), 62-63.

17. Oliver Cromwell Cox, Race: A Study in Social Dynamics (New York: Monthly review, 2000), 206-238; Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty, 72-73, 82; Stephen Steinberg, Turning Back: The Retreat From Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 33-49.

18. Surgue, Sweet Land, 83.

3 Comments

  1. Kelvin Yearwood February 28, 2014 12:37 am 

    I’m interested in the cultural mechanisms that allow gross race based inequality to reside alongside an open discourse of equality and asserted universal rights. And I don’t think it is all about the filters of the propaganda model, though they are most certainly significant.

    The English Marxist literary and cultural critic, Terry Eagleton, in analysing 18th century English critical discourse practiced by a burgeoning, confident middle class states:

    “…if what is embarrassing for bourgeois liberal theory is the process by which an abstract equality at the level of natural rights becomes transmuted into actual differential rights, the bourgeois public sphere will take those differential rights as its starting-point and convert them back, in the region of discourse, to an abstract equality… The truly free market is that of cultural discourse itself… What is said derives its legitimacy neither from itself as message nor from the social title of the utterer, but from its conformity as a statement with a certain paradigm of reason inscribed in the very event of saying”

    To break it down, the public discourse on equality was everything in Enlightenment England, and could exist comfortably alongside gross actual inequalities; and the child of Enlightenment England, the US, despite an intervening period of working class literacy, confidence, power and assertion, has managed to re-establish and reassert, in no small measure through the construction of the African-American margins as “dysfunctional”, a circular, eternal, purely rhetorical resolution to actual, existing, brute, material inequalities.

    In a sense this should give us hope. The only conclusion is actual revolution. How can such a bourgeois culture transcend itself? It cannot. The minute the part-black Obama genuinely spoke up for the black working class of the US he would be breaking the rules of a reasoned event of saying; “dysfunction” would adhere to him, and he would not become president.

    How many times has the US produced these hyper-articulate, non-establishment presidential candidates? – JFK, Bobby Kennedy, Clinton, Obama – of whom the very fact of them lacking bourgeois, aristocratic entitlement had to be buttressed by a circular super-rhetoric that marked them out for great things, but marked them out of the game of great change in the actual lives of their most structurally abused citizens.

  2. avatar
    Paul Street February 23, 2014 5:43 pm 

    Perhaps some minor sense of empowerment in super majority minority districts but just.look at real material socioecomic life in, say, Danny Davis’s district on the west side of Chicago or Bobby Rush’s district on the south side….same story in other ghetto communities where black aldermen, state reps and congresspersons tend to do the bidding of Dem party elites who are themselves captive to the Deep State of corporate, financial and military power.

  3. mike sheck February 23, 2014 2:24 pm 

    Do you think that in constituencies where minorities have achieved majority status, they have more control over their own futures?

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