As I have come to understand it, racism as it is experienced in America, is not primarily about hatred toward a particular group or about deliberately wanting to harm certain people. It is about those in control seeking to protect their own privileged status by denying those privileges to others.
This would also be what lies at the root of sexism and the denial of equal opportunities to women. And, I believe, it underlies much of the negative attitude toward Hispanic migrants and refugee claimants. The charge is that these people are undermining the rights enjoyed by the majority, and those rights must be kept exclusively within the existing group or they will cease to exist – or at the minimum they will become diluted if spread too broadly – and we will all be the worse off for it.
What we are really talking about here, however, are not “rights” but the “privileges” enjoyed by the dominant group. As I stated in a recent blog, with others now clamouring for fair treatment and access to the same privileges enjoyed by the majority, these
privileged individuals now see themselves and their traditional values as being under attack. They complain of a supposed “war against Christian values.” They claim that immigrants are taking away their jobs, that whites are being discriminated against in the workplace, that women should keep in line, and that homosexuals and transsexuals somehow threaten heterosexuals’ own identity.
There is a fear on the part of the dominant group that the privileges they are accustomed to may disappear. But, they argue, they have a right to their accustomed way of life, and no one is going to take that away from them. And so to secure those rights – those privileges – for themselves, they attempt to deny them to others.
Mapping The Problem
This, in a nutshell, is the story of what happened to Black Americans after emancipation. The Reconstruction project was systematically dismantled throughout the South to deny Blacks economic opportunities. No longer slaves, they were soon reduced to indentured sharecroppers. After federally being given the right to vote, new eligibility laws made it virtually impossible for them to do so. Segregation (“separate but equal”) removed fair access to education, employment, wages, and living conditions. The Ku Klux Klan, with the backing of local police and government officials, systematically terrorized the black population to keep them in their place. This continued without opposition from those in power for a hundred years. Finally the demands for justice and fair and equal treatment led to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.
Although new civil rights legislation was passed under President Lyndon Johnson, it polarized the country. Johnson admitted that he had probably lost the Democrats the southern vote for a full generation. (It has actually been much longer than that.)
Once again the gains were contained, and then rolled back. I was amazed to learn the story of how George Romney (Mitt Romney’s father), while serving as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Nixon administration in the early 70s tried to use federal regulations to dismantle segregationist housing policies at the state and local level. He was rebuffed by Nixon and his advisors, blackballed, and ultimately removed from Nixon’s Cabinet.
In reflecting on the racially-charged events in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, Joshua Holland, writing for BillMoyers.com, stated that
White America has come up with a number of rationales for these enduring pockets of despair. An elaborate mythology has developed that blames it on a “culture of poverty” — holding the poor culpable for their poverty and letting our political and economic systems off the hook.
However, his interview with Richard Rothstein of The Economic Policy Institute details how
throughout the last century a series of intentionally discriminatory policies at the local, state and federal levels created the ghettos we see today.
It is well worth the long read.
In recent decades new tactics were developed to keep American Blacks marginalized. As Michelle Alexander notes in her recent book, The New Jim Crow,
In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African-Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination— employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits and exclusion from jury service — are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.
Donna March similarly reported in the New Republic in February this year,
In the 1980s and 1990s, incarceration became de facto urban policy for impoverished communities of color in America’s cities. Legislation was passed to impose mandatory minimum [sentences], deny public housing to entire families if any member was even suspected of a drug crime, expand federal death penalty-eligible crimes, and impose draconian restrictions of parole. Ultimately, multiple generations of America’s most vulnerable populations, including drug users, African Americans, Latinos, and the very poor found themselves confined to long-term prison sentences and lifelong social and economic marginality.
As shown on the following chart, America’s prison population jumped 800% between 1970 and 2010.
Writing for The New Yorker in 2012, Alan Gopnik revealed the astonishing fact that
More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives. Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height.
The “broken windows” policy followed by many police departments in the U.S. beginning in the 1990s (vigorously prosecuting misdemeanors to discourage more serious crimes) didn’t just result in lengthy incarceration of many young black men for minor offenses and their and their families’ loss of the social benefits described above. It also resulted in the systematic harassment of black and other minority groups by police. In a survey conducted in 2009,
more than half of African-American millennials indicated they, or someone they knew, had been victimized by violence or harassment from law enforcement.
In fact, many local police forces use the courts to open prey on these minorities.
According to Radley Balko of The Washington Post, some towns in St. Louis County [Missouri] collect 40 percent or more of their revenue from fines levied by their municipal courts for petty violations. The town of Bel-Ridge (population 2,700, and more than 80 percent black), for example, was projected to collect an average of $450 per household in municipal court fines in 2014, making those fees its largest source of revenue.
And so is it any wonder that we hear African-Americans today calling for justice while at the same time viewing the police as primary agents of injustice? And it is not just that Blacks fear the police. The police and many ordinary citizens have been taught to fear Black Americans. One has to be careful. Look at where and how these people live. They are all potentially criminals.
Mapping a Solution
So, how does one break the cycle? How does one create hope and generate self-esteem within this group without also providing access, training and actual opportunities? Education is just the first step, and from what I can see, Americans have abandoned the public education system, leaving it to those with money and means to send their children to private schools while the rest are left with a crumbling educational system, inadequate resources, and under-salaried teachers. America had a long way to go in accomplishing even Step One.
Step Two addresses the Black communities themselves. How can one begin to change their circumstances without repairing the conditions that they live in, without having a strong local economy, secure jobs, reasonable wages, decent housing and reliable community services? This would require an enormous public investment, something akin to what was spent on the Space Race back in the 1960s, or the trillion dollars that is scheduled to be spent in modernizing America’s nuclear arsenal over the next decade. It’s not that America can’t afford such a massive social renewal project. It repeatedly commits this kind of money to other projects that are deemed in the national interest. It’s a matter of priorities. And the consensus seems to be that these people aren’t worth spending money on. After all, since the Reagan and Clinton eras, funding for the social support structures they rely on have been reduced in every administration.
In the end, however, nothing will be accomplished without a fundamental change of a very different kind. I am referring here to the understanding of privilege by those who currently maintain privilege, who hold the reins of power, set the policies, make and enforce the rules, and distribute the resources. As long as they pursue policies that make privilege an exclusive “right” available only to some and not others, nothing will fundamentally change.
Because with privilege comes power, especially the power to withhold privilege from others. Those with privilege see this as their fair and reasonable “right,” while those without it see it as injustice.
And now, just as in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, we are once again hearing their impassioned pleas for Justice. We are hearing their vehement assertion (often, it seems, falling on deaf ears) that their lives do matter. They know that their lives matter. But do we?
We whites (and particularly we white males) are the ones holding the power, the ones who through our majority elect the officials, set the policies, make the laws and distribute the resources. The ball is in our court. Nothing will change unless we act.
Photo credits: PA; AP; Shannon Stapleton/Reuters; Kevin Lamarque/Reuters