Racism in a “color-blind” society

April 26, 2013

How does racism operate in a "post-racial" society? Brian Jones, a teacher, actor and activist in New York City, provides answers in a speech at a New York conference.

THERE'S NO doubt that many people saw President Obama's re-election as a huge blow to racism. The Republican Party's not-so-thinly-veiled appeal to racist fears didn't work.

As several GOP talking heads noted, there's a problem with their strategy: the changing nature of the American population, where "minorities" are becoming the majority. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham told the Washington Post that the Republican Party is losing the "demographics race...We're not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term." Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly whined that "the white establishment is now the minority."

The "white establishment" might be a minority at the polls, but they hold an overwhelming majority of the seats of power, where the diversity of the U.S. population is hardly reflected at all. Roughly 82 percent of Congress and 96 percent of the Senate is white. Some 78 percent of board seats for Fortune 500 companies are occupied by whites, as are 82 percent for non-profit organizations. Newsroom managers at big television networks are 88 percent white men.

The History of Black America

Not only do the corridors of power remain dominated by white men, but the ideas of racism remain highly influential. As Socialist Worker reported, "A recent poll that found 51 percent of people in the U.S. harbor 'explicit' anti-Black prejudices. In a previous Associated Press (AP) survey conducted last year, 52 percent of people exhibited what AP defined as explicit anti-Latino prejudices."

A young man once told me he thought we just had to wait for all of the old racists to die, and then racism would be over. The problem is that conversation took place 10 years ago. It's not working.

So it's not enough to just rely on birth rates or death rates to end racism. The reason is that racism is not just about individual racists with bad ideas. Racism is structural.

We recognize this in American history more than we do about our own time. We know that the old structures--slavery and later Jim Crow segregation--have been overthrown. We should also note that in each case, racism was a necessary component of the underlying economic order.

White supremacy developed as a tool for justifying African slavery and preventing poor whites from joining slave rebellions and insurrections. Jim Crow segregation was necessary to shut newly freed Blacks out of politics altogether and return them to near-slave status in agriculture--by putting an end to the threat of Radical Reconstruction that followed the Civil War, and after that, the Populist movement.

But what about our time? What are the structures of racism today?

ONE WAY that structural racism works is that the legacy of racism opens up possibilities to profit directly off inequality, thereby reinforcing both the unequal conditions and racist ideas about them.

The subprime mortgage meltdown is a perfect example. First, you have dramatic inequality in home ownership because of the legacy of racism. After the Second World War, the federal government underwrote suburban home buying for millions of working class people--almost exclusively whites. In many cases, the government refused to back the mortgages unless there were racial exclusivity clauses attached to the development to keep Blacks and other non-white groups out.

So when the opportunity arose to sell people crappy loans, and then bundle the loans together and sell them off to investors, the historic inequality of home ownership meant that there was a market for selling these subprime loans to African Americans. When the payments ballooned later on, the borrowers went into default and foreclosure. A study of the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas found that living in a predominantly African-American area was a "powerful predictor of foreclosures."

And for African Americans, net worth is disproportionately bound up with home ownership. Home ownership accounts for 59 percent of their net worth compared to 44 percent among white families. When the housing crisis hit in 2008, driving down the value of homes and pushing up foreclosure rates, Black households therefore lost a greater share of their wealth than did white households. In the International Socialist Review, Petrino DiLeo estimated that this was the single greatest destruction of Black wealth in the country's history.

Not only was the legacy of material inequality reinforced, but the ideas of racism were reinforced as well.

When the banks were caught targeting people of color for these subprime loans, the corporate media leapt to their defense. What defense did they reach for? Racism! They argued that Blacks had caused this crisis by pushing for civil rights legislation that forced lenders to give them homes they couldn't afford. It wasn't racism that was the problem, but the borrowers themselves who were the problem--they were "living beyond their means."

And the housing market is really just the tip of the iceberg. We haven't even discussed any of the ABCs of "ghetto" economics. Poor people are a huge source of profits. Whether it's payday loans or check-cashing stores that charge enormous fees for access to cash or corner stores that sell inferior food in small quantities at huge markups, there's a ton of money to be made off of people who are trapped in economically and racially segregated neighborhoods.

That's why self-reflection oriented workshops, valuable as they might be to some individuals, aren't enough to end racism. No amount of introspection can take away the fact that there are people who are getting rich off of racism.

I STARTED with the housing market because lately, we've begun discussions of institutional racism with what Michelle Alexander calls "The New Jim Crow"--the system of mass incarceration. But the structures of racism go far beyond mass incarceration. While I was reading Alexander's book, I found myself thinking again and again about the schools--we could have a whole discussion about how racism is structured there in terms of funding, access, resources, curriculum, policing and so on.

Alexander argues that people who have been convicted of a felony are, for all intents and purposes, consigned to second-class citizenship. Under the old Jim Crow, African Americans were denied equal access to life opportunities and resources. That kind of discrimination has been made legal once again--if you are a felon.

Felons can legally be denied employment--if you check the "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?" box, it's legal for employers to discriminate against you on that basis. They can be denied access to public housing, to college loans and scholarships, to military employment, to food stamps. They can be denied the right to serve on a jury, and, crucially, they can be denied the right to vote to try to change any of that.

Once you have a system that overwhelmingly focuses on African Americans and other people of color for felony convictions, you have the New Jim Crow.

Alexander's book is full of all kinds of shocking statistics and comparisons that show the scope of the new system of legal discrimination. "More African Americans are under correctional control today--in prison or jail, on probation or parole" she writes, "than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began."

She points out that this system of mass incarceration (mainly of Black men) means that "a Black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a Black child born during slavery." Because of mass incarceration, "More [Blacks] are disenfranchised today than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race."

I spoke on a panel about the New Jim Crow last year and one woman in the audience asked, "I see this pattern where one system is destroyed and a new one appears. What I want to know is why does this keep happening?" I think there are two parts to the answer of this question.

One part is profit. Prisons are big business. Altogether, the incarceration industry is this country's third-largest employer. For-profit prisons directly benefit from the New Jim Crow. Business is booming. Between 1990 and 2009, the number of prisoners in private prisons increased by more than 1,600 percent. In 2010, the two largest private prison companies had $3 billion in revenue.

This industry has a structural incentive to put human beings in cages. And because of the legacy of racism, African Americans, especially in low-income communities, are a vulnerable and politically expendable population. So it's easier to make money off of rounding them up, and if any questions are raised, there are plenty of racist ideas on hand to explain why they're getting what they deserve.

But that's not the complete answer, because it still doesn't answer why the state would carry out such a policy, even in cases where private prisons are not involved. The answer, I think, is that the development of the New Jim Crow was not just about profit, but was a way to solve many problems for the ruling class at once.

When you think back to the end of the old Jim Crow, it was, naturally enough, African Americans who led the struggle against it. But the success of the civil rights movement inspired many other social struggles.

Think about what that means for who was leading the way. Who was consistently the most militant section of the labor unions in the era after the Second World War? Who led the wildcat strikes in the auto factories or in the post office? In Vietnam, U.S. soldiers increasingly refused to fight and rebelled against the war. Who led the antiwar movement among soldiers? Or think about the tremendous actions on college campuses during that era--occupying buildings on campus, etc. Who led the struggles on college campuses?

The fact is that African Americans, a historically denigrated and despised group, suddenly enjoyed tremendous moral and political prestige and authority. In his autobiography, Malcolm X describes getting dozens of letters a day--mostly from white people! Blacks were fighting back and winning, and white people wanted to follow their lead.

The New Jim Crow was a way to repress that genie back into the bottle. It terrorized the Black population and hurt Black credibility in the eyes of whites. Through absolutely hysterical media campaigns, whites were taught to equate African Americans with crime and violence. The political dynamic of the 1960s and '70s had to be turned around for the social gains of that era to be taken back.

WORLDWIDE, FOR the last 40 years, the ruling class has carried out a project that is often called "neoliberalism." The goal was to take back from us social protections, welfare, unemployment, Social Security benefits, education, government regulations--anything in the way of tax-supported public services that could be money in the pockets of the rich if those services could be cut and/or privatized.

How are you going to take all of those things away from people and get them to accept it? Once again, racism was promoted because it was--and is--so useful to the elite.

During Bill Clinton's time as president, the national budget for public housing was cut by $17 billion and the budget for prisons increased by $19 billion. So a public service--housing, something that helps us--was taken away and replaced with another form of "housing"--prisons, a repressive apparatus that helps them.

Racism has been essential to the attack on the public sector. Even though most welfare recipients, numerically, are white, the hysteria about "welfare queens" gave welfare a Black face and associated it with shame and freeloading. That racist campaign facilitated severe cuts to welfare payments in the U.S.

One of the biggest obstacles standing in the way of the demolition of public-sector services are the public-sector unions. Now, it just so happens that public-sector employment--especially union jobs in the public sector--is one of the principal conquests of the civil rights and Black Power movements.

We should remember that Martin Luther King died fighting for a group of Black public-sector workers--sanitation workers in Memphis--who were trying to form a union. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has pointed out, "Today, almost 45 percent of all Black women who are employed work in a public-sector job, and more than half of all African Americans professionals are employed by some sector of the state."

So the section of the working class that has been historically the most rebellious is lodged in a heavily unionized sector that is slated for destruction. Naturally, from a ruling class perspective, that section must be dislodged. As a consequence, we've seen nearly anyplace that was a stronghold of Black wealth and collective power obliterated. Detroit--the center of auto production, Motown!--has been reduced to rubble. In public schools, there's a dramatic whitening of the teaching force. The U.S. Postal Service has been left to rot, and many jobs are threatened by post office closures and layoffs.

The New Jim Crow solved many problems for the ruling class in one stroke. It eroded the prestige and moral authority of African Americans. It has placed millions of Black people in a subordinate legal category where they are shut out of meaningful participation in the mainstream economy. It weakened the labor movement by dislodging many of its most militant members. And it terrorizes the young people coming up today, so that they learn early on to walk a straight line.

How else can we interpret the stop-and-frisk of the New York Police Department, for example? Millions of people are stopped, and 87 percent of them are Black and Latino in a city where they account for just over half the population. And police found just one gun for every 3,000 stops in 2011.

Is the program wildly unsuccessful or wildly successful? If the point is to stop crime and find weapons, it's wildly unsuccessful. But if the point is to terrorize poor and working class young people in Black and Latino neighborhoods; if the point is to teach them that their lives are cheap and that they can and will be dropped into a legal black hole at any moment; if the point is to lower their horizons and aspirations, then stop-and-frisk is a wildly successful program.

THE RESULT of the broader neoliberal offensive has been a massive transfer of wealth from workers and the poor directly to the rich, and it has accelerated during the years following the Great Recession.

In 2010, 93 percent of the gains in overall income went to the top 1 percent of taxpayers, people with at least $352,000 in income. More than one-third of the income gains went to the top 0.01 percent, just 15,000 households with an average income of $23.8 million--their income rose by 21.5 percent.

Meanwhile, we're losing out. Median net worth for American households overall dropped nearly 40 percent between 2007 and 2010. Apart from the wealthy few, net worth for Blacks and whites has been in decline. But because of racism, it's worse for Blacks. In 2010, the median net worth of white families was $110,729. For Blacks, it was just $4,995. That's a huge difference. But for both groups, those figures represent a dramatic drop since just 2005, when the median net worth of white families was $134,992 and for Blacks, $12,124.

So far from benefiting them, these attacks have also hurt most whites, which is the point. But focusing the attacks--in rhetoric and reality--on people of color provides a justification that allows the rich and powerful to get away with it.

So racist double standards are a deeply material fact of life. We can't sum up the political economy of racism as merely "divide and conquer," although that's a persistently important function of racism. Racist inequality is profitable for some in a very direct way and serves to reinforce racist ideology. In other instances, we see racist ideology mobilized to justify some kind of policy or practice that strengthens the rich at our expense. So racism is not just about profit, but it very much is necessary to the profit system as a whole.

It's interesting to note that racist ideology is remarkably flexible. First, it was that Africans were not human, then it was about genetic inferiority, then it was about cultural inferiority. Today, there's a new ideological twist: "personal responsibility" and "color-blindness."

Nearly every institution in our society today has clear patterns of racism, yet amazingly, they all proudly swear to "non-discrimination" policies. Since the civil rights movement, the official stance of our society is "color-blindness"--we're going to treat everyone the same. Meanwhile, the patterns of discrimination persist, but as long as no one yells out any racial slurs, we're told it has nothing to do with racism.

I can't tell you how many times I've raised questions of racism in class as a teacher, and if I refer to the race of a person, my students inevitably raise their hands and say, "That's racist!" They've come to understand that anyone who brings up the topic will be attacked as racist.

Behind arguments of "color-blindness," our schools have become re-segregated, our prisons have been filled with Black and Brown bodies, and the state's repressive apparatus has been dramatically expanded and strengthened. "Color-blindness" is a brilliant policy of official denial and is arguably a more effective way to carry out racist attacks. You can target Black people for pretty much any policy that you want, as long as you never admit to doing so!

SINCE THE powers that be deny that institutional racism exists, there's no one to blame for poverty and desperation--except the poor and desperate themselves. Michelle Alexander argues that the rise of a very visible Black elite is a necessary component of the New Jim Crow:

Black success stories lend credence to the notion that anyone, no matter how poor or how Black you may be, can make it to the top, if only you try hard enough. These stories "prove" that race is no longer relevant. Whereas Black success stories undermined the logic of Jim Crow, they actually reinforce the system of mass incarceration. Mass incarceration depends for its legitimacy on the widespread belief that all those who appear trapped at the bottom actually chose their fate.

So we have to add another feature to our understanding of institutional racism today: the rise of a loyal Black elite.

It is important to understand that they are not mere tokens, but genuine participants in the American ruling class. They operate at the highest levels of our society, and believe deeply in the profit system because they profit from it. They include not only top bankers, executives and CEOs--they named an oil tanker after Condoleezza Rice for a reason--but also politicians.

In 1970, there were fewer than 1,500 Black elected officials in the whole country. Today, there are more than 9,000. But the rise of this group has not been a victory for African Americans as a whole. If anything, the fact that their ascent coincides with the rise of the New Jim Crow means they have been, at best, passive in the face of mass incarceration and at worst, complicit in it.

Their message to poor and working-class Blacks is not to "organize and fight back," but to "put your head down and stop whining." That was the message that Michelle Obama delivered so effectively at the Democratic National Convention in the summer: work hard and don't complain. I assume that this wasn't a cynical move on her part, but an expression of what she actually thinks. Unfortunately, that line helps to reinforce the racist idea that poor Blacks are just whiners and complainers, and the problem is that they don't accept "personal responsibility" for their circumstances.

The new structures of racism include all of these brilliant means of official denial. So the first step is to call out these structures and insist that they are, in fact, racist. The second step is to launch a struggle against these structures. For the long term, the political economy of racism teaches us that we have to get rid of the profit system. Because otherwise, when we tear down the New Jim Crow, the system will create a new one. We can't let that happen.

This article first appeared at SocialistWorker.org on December 4, 2012.

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