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Why discrimination remains at the heart of U.S. society
A system that's racist to the core

February 7, 2003 | Page 8

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR explains where racism comes from and how to end it.

RACISM RETURNED to center stage of American politics over the last couple of months. From Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) longing for the days of segregation, to former Gov. George Ryan citing racism as one reason for emptying Illinois' death row, to the Bush administration gearing up to dismantle affirmative action, racial discrimination and bigotry are in the spotlight.

The convergence of these issues isn't helping George W. Bush as he attempts to portray all Americans as united around his agenda since September 11. Moreover, the hypocrisy is there for everyone to see, as Washington tries to make the case for a war to "liberate" Iraq when racism thrives at home. With his all-out assault on affirmative action, Bush is helping expose and generalize the connections between the war on the people of Iraq and the war on civil rights at home.

The Republicans were quick to condemn Lott, claiming that his comments didn't reflect the ideas of the party. Yet less than a month after Bush publicly admonished Lott, he put affirmative action on the chopping block. Bush has called on the Supreme Court to declare the University of Michigan's affirmative action policies unconstitutional, paving the way for a potential total reversal of affirmative action.

Bush didn't have to take a position on the Michigan case--let alone make a personal appeal in the days leading up to Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday--but did so to shore up his administration's right-wing credentials. This was necessary after the political flogging of Lott--especially since the senator was put so on the defensive that he came out in favor of affirmative action on national television.

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UNFORTUNATELY THOUGH, the debate over racism that followed has done precious little to explain what racism actually is and why it's important to have legal remedies for some of its impact.

Racism has been explained purely in terms of ideas, or feelings, or what one may have in one's heart. So, basically, we're left with the rather depressing explanation that racism is just human nature. This is pretty much accepted across the spectrum, from right-wingers to liberals who genuinely oppose racism.

The right wing uses this explanation to argue why laws cannot and should not be used to curtail racism--after all, you can't legislate how people feel or think. Though it may not seem so, liberals accept some of the same arguments when they put the focus on changing individual ideas--by expanding multicultural education programs, for instance, or focusing on their own behavior or lifestyle.

And while socialists support education that looks beyond the history of rich, white men and believe that individuals should be antiracist, the question is whether these solutions to racism, in and of themselves, are enough to undo the racism in U.S. society.

After all, if racism were only about the ideas that people have, then this should be a profoundly less racist society than, say, 40 years ago. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s went a long way in changing the pervasive idea that African Americans were inferior and racism was acceptable.

Before the struggle for civil rights, it wasn't uncommon for politicians, particularly in the South where Blacks couldn't vote, to make openly racist comments. But the movement not only changed what was deemed acceptable behavior of politicians and other public figures. It had a positive effect generally on the ideas and attitudes of the vast majority of people.

This is why, when the civil rights movement and the Black Power movement ended in the early 1970s, the majority of whites in this country supported affirmative action. It is also why the Supreme Court concluded that the death penalty was racist and should be ended. Yet, decades after the great social justice movements of the 1960s, racism is alive and well in the U.S.

Every set of statistics shows the depth to which racism thrives in this country. While unemployment hovers around 6 percent for the country as a whole, unemployment in Black America is at 11 percent. For every one Black man that graduates college, there are a hundred more in prison. Black men make up 6 percent of the population, yet account for almost 40 percent of those on death row. More than 35 percent of Black children live in poverty. Today Black women--6 to 7 percent of the population--make up 68 percent of all new AIDS cases for women, and 63 percent of all new pediatric AIDS cases are of Black children.

These statistics illustrate why racism is so much more than what exists in this or that individual's head. This level of inequity and deprivation is not a result of ignorance, but of a system that needs oppression--racism--as a means to divide the majority of people--Black, white and brown--from their common interests in fighting together to improve all of their lives.

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RACISM IS a pillar of capitalist society. Or, as Malcolm X said, "You cannot have capitalism without racism, and you cannot have racism without capitalism."

Racism hasn't always existed. In fact, prior to the development of capitalism, and the slave trade in particular, it didn't exist. Racist theories about Black inferiority became the tool that the rulers of developing capitalist societies used to explain why they were enslaving Africans, while at the same time, they were arguing for freedom and equality for all.

But when slavery ended, racism didn't end with it. The bosses' class in both the South and North realized that they could, in the words of former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, "divide both [poor Blacks and whites] to conquer each."

This is essentially how racism is used in society today. The ruling class uses racism to keep ordinary Blacks and whites suspicious of one other, while they pick all our pockets.

For example, in the mid-1990s, Bill Clinton signed a bill to end welfare entitlements. For years, politicians of both parties had relied on racist stereotypes of "typical" welfare recipients--Black women with multiple children who had been on welfare for "generations"--to undermine support for welfare. The reality was that the majority of people on welfare at the time were young, white women with two kids on average. The result is that today, with the economy in shambles and the need for a social safety net greater than ever, Black and white workers alike will suffer from the gutting of welfare.

This isn't to say that both Black and white working people face the same reality. Racism has a disproportionately harsh impact on the lives of African Americans--from inequality in housing to schools to job opportunities to police brutality and imprisonment. For these very reasons, affirmative action is still necessary--more now than ever.

But not all Blacks suffer in the same way, and not all whites benefit from this oppression. From Colin Powell to Oprah Winfrey, there is a small but significant layer of African Americans who benefit from capitalism economically and socially. While they may be impacted by some aspects of racism, their class position mitigates the harshest realities of it.

And while white politicians can benefit politically from using "wedge issues" like welfare, and white corporate bosses benefit from using racism in the workplace to foster an atmosphere of intimidation and fear, ordinary white workers don't benefit from racism. In fact, as with the attack on welfare, racism drags them down right alongside ordinary Blacks.

Working-class Blacks and whites have every reason to struggle together to fight against racism--from defending affirmative action to ending the racist death penalty. Because when racism is allowed to thrive unchallenged, it makes all of our lives more difficult.

And ultimately, we must also fight for a different kind of society all together that doesn't need racist oppression to keep the majority of us divided so that the few on top can live like kings.

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