Racism (on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act)
I'm recording this show on July 2, an important day in history. Today, July 2, is the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
We have, admittedly, come some distance since then. Some things are better, at least somewhat. For example, The income gap between whites and blacks has shrunk. Its still there, but it has shrunk. The difference in life expectancy has shrunk. Again, there still is a gap, but it's smaller. As compared to 1964, the percentage of blacks who have completed high school has more than tripled; the number of black undergrads is now more than 10 times what it was then; and the percentage who have completed four years of college is nearly six times what it was.
In fact, we have come so very far that even though blacks still are twice as likely to be poor or unemployed than whites and still get paid less when they do have jobs, we have come so very far that with the election of Barack Obama in 2008, pundits began talking about how we are living in a "post-racial society"
The right wing was especially intense on this, going on and on about how race just doesn't matter anymore, so that if you ever pointed out racism, that just proved that you were "the REAL racist." That attitude has been reflected in the actions of the right-wing majority of the Supreme Court to repeatedly constrain, restrict, and sometimes even deny colleges and universities the authority to consider race as even one factor in trying to achieve what even the reactionaries are forced to admit is a good thing: a diverse student population.
In one of those decisions, John Roberts - who continues to define the word "smug" - in the course of throwing out yet another school's attempt at some kind of affirmative action in enrollment, said, "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race." In other words, the only thing standing between us a colorblind society is all those icky programs like affirmative action and the best way to deal with racism is to pretend it doesn't exist.
Would, oh would, that were true.
The hard fact is, racism not dead in our society and the election of Barack Obama did not get us past racism; if anything, it inflamed it.
The evidence is all around us and I don't mean just in the big things like poverty statistics or the murder of Trayvon Martin - I mean the everyday slaps and slams, the everyday reminders that if you are African-American, you are still "other" in the eyes of too many.
You want the evidence? Pretty much all you have to do is look at the online comments to any news article that in any way relates to a black person. Here's one, from May:
The article described how media and locals had converged on a street corner in southeast Houston, Texas, after a shooting there earlier in the day. A man for whatever reason drove his car into a crowd of about 20 people there. No one was hurt; the driver was arrested at the scene. That was the story.
The following were all from first 20 comments on this article, and they are quoted:
- Frickin blacks. Look how many they were just standing around in the middle of the day! I know in my neighborhood. You don't see that because everyone is at the magical place called WORK! Where you actually have to WORK for money. Instead of sit on your ass and wait for the mail man to bring it to you!
- Work is a 4 letter word that will soon be banned in those communities.
- Did you hear about the little black boy that had diahhrea? He thought he was melting.
- Luckily for the driver he wasn't a white guy, we all the know the hell that would have broken loose if he was don't we!
- [To which someone responded] No white man would have been in that neighborhood.
- [To which someone else responded] Actually there were 2 or 3 white men in the video. They were the reporters and camera men. You know....the men that were out working to support themselves and their families.
- I don't expect any less of Blacks they have no respect of the law Period
- I am surprised there are that many of them awake during the day! They usually stay up carousing all night and sleep all day on the taxpayers nickel!
When Obama commented on the racist remarks of Donald Sterling, these were some of the initial comments:
- Is this clown for real. "O" is, along with his ag [i.e., Attorney General] the biggest RACIST of all. This guy is a joke,and unfortunately, a JOKE ON OUR COUNTRY...just ask REV. WRIGHT.
- Obama has racist feeling toward White America. [This same person complained that the VA "has replaced 41% of its hired help with Blacks during Obama's terms."]
- No worse than he or Eric Holder playing the race card against anyone who stands up to them, and not to forget about Al Sharpton
- He is the one who is the true racist-he has set relations back to the 60's.
And don't think it's just the loud-mouthed extremists. It's just out there all around us.
For one example, a new study, drawing on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the US census, has shown that African-Americans college students are about as likely to be able to get a job as white high school-dropouts.
Here's another: For 10 years, Massachusetts has had a program under which judges have been quietly and anonymously rated by the lawyers who appear before them. An evaluation of that 10 years of data by two Harvard sociologists brought in to evaluate the program revealed a consistent pattern of racial bias against black judges.
The researchers also convened several focus groups of lawyers and judges and concluded that what emerged was "the idea that persons of color do not match the expectations of what a judge should look like."
Here's a third: a few years ago a study of Boston hospitals showed that physicians, presented with hypothetical cases of patients coming to the Emergency Room with signs of a heart attack, consistently proposed treating whites more aggressively - that is, ordering more tests, engaging in more direct intervention - than they did African-Americans. Even after allowing for other factors including age, physical condition, previous medical history, and other relevant factors, the racial difference remained.
What's important is that in both of the latter two studies, the people who were treating blacks differently than whites denied doing so. And they were probably being honest: They probably honestly didn't realize doing it. But that is an essence of racism: the difference in attitudes and actions based on unspoken, even unrecognized, assumptions.
Racism survives on built-in assumptions. Several weeks ago I talked about "white privilege," how by being white you are privileged in multiple ways, often in terms of what people, simply because you are white, do not assume about you. These studies are just the other side of that; they reveal what is assumed about non-whites.
We are a society suffused with racism, infused with racism, infected with racism, a society in which a young black man is "suspicious" simply by virtue of being a young black man. More, not just "young" and not just "man." Black bodies - simply by virtue of being black - are associated with behavior and actions that are deemed anything from lazy to threatening to just "not the way it should be," regardless of what they actually do.
When are we going to admit to ourselves that racism and bigotry, that rancid, putrid, vomit-inducing ignorance and paranoia, are alive and thriving in our society and have been since the beginning? And yes, not only against blacks: Hispanics, for example, are just the latest target of our isolationist xenophobia. We can trace that particular affliction back generation by generation, group by group, target by target: Asians, Poles, Italians, Irish, Jews, Catholics - any wave of immigrants that was in any way "different," to be blunt, that wasn't a WASP, any time there was a wave of "different" people, we heard the same things: It's going to destroy the country, undermine it, these foreigners, they're dirty, they're filthy, they're criminals, they're all the rest of this nonsense. We can trace this right back to Native Americans, who weren't even immigrants.
Our record on this is a shameful one. It may not be the worst, it may not even be all that bad compared to some other nations. That doesn't change the fact that it is shameful.
So I don't want to hear a single breath, a single hint, a single whisper, they we are are a "post-racial society." Anyone who says that to you is lying, either to you or to themselves, I don't know which. But the fact is that we are suffused with racism along with sexism and homophobia - we are steeped in our bigotry until it penetrates our souls.
Yes, it's getting better. Yes, it has been worse in the past. Yes, we can see an impact, we can see how bigotry now is usually expressed more with a wink and a nod, with dog whistles, not with overt filth of the old sort.
Yes, we have made at least some progress, painfully slow, painfully limited, but considering we're talking about a span of 50 freaking years, that's really not saying much.
Sources cited in links: