don’t have to tell you that it’s tough out there. I’m talking about
the recession, of course. In the end, the bursting of America’s
economic bubble is the worst financial news since the Great Depression.
And ultimately, it is clear that the deleterious effects of U.S.
capitalism know no race, ethnicity or class. Titans of industry
are reduced to pauper status, working families are out of work,
food, healthcare and a home, and people of all backgrounds are watching
their life’s work eviscerate before their very eyes. We are all
bit players in the casino, and with a few exceptions such as the
lucky bailout winners, most of us have crapped out, the way the
casino operators intended it to work.
But at the same time, it’s a little more complicated
than that. While “official” unemployment nationwide is high at around
10 percent (far more when you factor in all of those people who
are underemployed or have given up all hope of finding a job), unemployment
is and always has been much higher in Black and Latino communities.
But the gap has widened during this recession. In fact, Black
unemployment is nearly double that of Whites, while Latinos are unemployed at
a rate one-third higher than their White counterparts. The situation
is particularly chronic in
New York City, where there are 80,000 more unemployed Blacks than
Whites, even though there are about 1.5 million more Whites than
Blacks in that city.
One explanation is that people of color are the folks
last hired and first fired, or that their communities have a lower
level of entrepreneurship. Some people will be quick to attribute
the difference in employment levels to differences in education
levels. Their argument is that people of color are lazy and not
so smart, and don’t apply themselves. But among those with a college
education, as the Economic Policy Institute reported, Black unemployment
in recent months has doubled that of Whites.
Perhaps institutional racism can explain some of
the difference in unemployment levels. As James
Koch, an economics professor at Old Dominion University
noted, “When the economy is at or near full employment, employers
don't have any choice. They have to hire the people that are available.
Right now, employers can be fairly choosy. They may well choose
not to hire African Americans.”
This notion is worth exploring, at a time when civil
rights foes have pushed back against the age of Obama. In the name
of “reverse discrimination”, they have declared that affirmative
action and other diversity programs are a thing of the past. The
unqualified minorities are taking all of the good jobs from the
ever-qualified and ever-capable White men, they say. Blacks have
the White House, after all, so what more do they want?
These malcontents yearn for the day when people of
color were relegated to captive labor, or migrant labor, out of
sight and out of mind, and nothing more. They point to the Supreme
Court ruling in Ricci v. Stefano. In Ricci, the court
found in favor of 17 aggrieved White New Haven firefighters (and
one Latino) who claimed they were discriminated against in promotions
after they passed a promotional exam. When no Black firefighters
passed that exam, in a city where people of color are 60% of the
population, the city discarded the results.
Little is said, however, of the recent ruling by
a federal judge that New York City discriminates against people
of color in the hiring
of its firefighters. Specifically, New York City, which is over 60%
of color, has a fire department which is over 90% White (and nearly
all male), a statistic that stands in marked contrast to other major
cities. Blacks and Latinos disproportionately failed the recruitment
exams, and those who did pass were placed further down the list
than White candidates. The judge determined that “the city did not
take sufficient measures to ensure that better performers on its
examinations would actually be better firefighters.” He added that
“when an employment test is not adequately related to the job for
which it tests – and when the test adversely affects minority groups
– we may not fall back on the notion that better test takers make
In a majority-minority city such as New York, African
Americans and Latinos are seldom found as firefighters, and some
professions apparently are the functional equivalent of a family
business. It seems more than mere coincidence that unemployment
among people of color has skyrocketed.
Some people will always point to the scores, but
the truth is that intelligence, achievement and merit cannot be
reduced to a single score. But gatekeepers in education and the
professions have long used standardized testing as a tool to keep
racial, ethnic, class and gender diversity from entering the gate.
The tests and the racism always went hand
in hand. As anthropologist Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban points out in Race
and Racism: An Introduction
, standardized intelligence testing was born of the
eugenics movement and the IQ tests. These pseudo-scientific tests
were first used to prove that immigrant groups, “certain undesirable
non-Anglo-Saxons - especially Jews, Hungarians, Poles, Russians,
and Italians - ‘were mentally defective.’” What worked as a tool
of class and ethnic discrimination against European immigrants was
then utilized to prove the racial inferiority of “Negro, Mexican
and Spanish-Indian children.” And according to the National Center for Fair and Open
testing, “IQ tests are nothing more than a type of achievement test which primarily
measures knowledge of standard English and exposure to the cultural
experiences of middle class whites.” Yet, society still relies on
these exams, commonly known today as the SAT, ACT, GRE, MCAT, GMAT,
LSAT, and bar exam, among others.
Society’s gatekeepers have a lot of power. They decide
who gets the job and why. They determine who is a team player, who
is a good fit, who is fit to lead and who is not. They decide who
is too much of this or not enough of that, who is qualified, underqualified,
or overqualified. They decide if an applicant’s name sounds too
“Black” or “Latino”, whatever that means. They determine whose hair
looks too Black. Gatekeepers create the reality, however subjective,
flawed or biased the methodology. They choose the images in Hollywood
and on TV, and which people will portray criminals or upstanding
citizens, or nothing at all. Gatekeepers make the policies that
create a mostly Black and Brown prison population, and a mostly
White legal profession. They decide to fill the special education
classes and foster care systems with children of color, who will,
in turn, fill the prisons. Gatekeepers decide to have a panel discussion
on a cable news program, and the topic is the nation’s first Latina
Supreme Court justice, yet none of the panelists are Latinas.
And gatekeepers lack diversity, in a nation that
is becoming more and more diverse by the day. Often, their goal
is to maintain a system where everyone looks the same, like the
good ol’ days. That is why steps are needed to ensure that the game
is not rigged, as it has been for so long, so that we do not revert
to the nation’s default settings of power and privilege.
Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates - who had a less
than positive experience with the Cambridge police department of
late - said it best in his commencement address to Berea College
For me, no matter how intelligent I may or may not
be, for me to have been one of those six black boys who graduated
from Yale in 1966, affirmative action was a class escalator. As
far as I’m concerned, ladies and gentlemen, no one in the American
academy has benefited more from affirmative action than I have.
And that’s why I will go to my grave as an ardent and passionate
defender of affirmative action. For me to become so successful
in America, and for me to become a gatekeeper of American society
and stand at the gate and protest affirmative action to keep out
women or people of color would make me a hypocrite as big as Justice
Clarence Thomas, and I’m not that kind of person. We need more
affirmative action in this country, not less affirmative action.
I don’t care what the White House says, and I don’t care what
the minority on the Supreme Court says, and that’s the subject
of my address this afternoon.
Editorial Board member David A. Love, JD is a journalist and human
rights advocate based in Philadelphia, and a contributor to the
Media Project, McClatchy-Tribune News Service,
These Times and Philadelphia
Independent Media Center. He blogs at davidalove.com,
Daily Kos, and Open
here to contact Mr. Love.