article first appeared in Znet
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Age Racism: "We Made the Corrections, Now Get On With It"
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 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?
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 blacks 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."
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."
it to Lakisha Washington
has made the necessary racial "corrections" and now it's
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.
"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 the national average (21.6
percent for blacks), determined through hundreds of matched-pair
testing exercises conducted across the country.
it to the astounding one in three black men in the US who 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.
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
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.
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.
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, Clinton called for
Lott to step down because of his insensitive remarks.
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 for 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.
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.
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
is strictly opposed to national health care, of course. His version
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 has 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.
One Horse for Another"
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."
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
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
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.
Dangerous Opportunity for White Racial Self Congratulation
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
Thurmond and Duke: Three Kings Bearing Gifts," December
26) noted, "Lott had to go in order to maintain the momentum
of the GOP's assault on affirmative action and civil rights leadership."
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.
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
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.