Racism in America
(Note: Incomplete work in progress. –ENB, 2015 Jul)
Even to the casual observer, the overall tone of the debate about racism (in America) is becoming increasingly polarized in recent years, especially on social media outlets. Obviously, any attempt to publicly explore such a volatile topic will invariably attract such extremist, racist elements who wholeheartedly believe in their own group’s superiority at the cost of another group’s equality. Traditionally, the policy of moderate liberal and conservative intellectuals has been to dismiss these poor and unenlightened souls out of principle while, perhaps condescendingly, chiding them for their crude ignorance. However, I would argue that by dismissing the many people who have been indoctrinated by racist propaganda, we have been derelict in our duty as responsible, ethical members of society. Additionally, our collective ignorance and inactivity concerning the problem of ingrained racism in America has put the country at great risk.
If you refuse to address a cancer and allow it to grow unchecked, the cancer will undoubtedly consume the host body. Similarly, by refusing to address the cancerous tumor of racism that has been festering malignantly from within the bowels of our society, declining engagement with the enemy out of principle in the hopes that by ignoring the problem it will go away, we have endangered the continued viability of the United States. That many people have been remiss to confront this problem while resting comfortably within the bubble of a privileged frame of reference has only exasperated the danger.
For instance, on June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) struck down an integral component of The Voting Rights Act of 1965, in a 5-4 ruling. As a consequence, federal protections that had been put in place to prevent nine states from making it more difficult for minorities to vote were removed. Most of the nine states in question are located in the South, a region once heavily segregated and a frequent battleground (literally and figuratively) for civil rights issues throughout the entire course of American history.*
But as Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., wrote for the majority: “Our country has changed. While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”
Unfortunately, the harsh truth that many like Chief Justice Roberts seem unwilling to address is that a rigid class system still exists in America. Moreover, to an overwhelming degree the beneficiaries of this system – i.e., those who are more privileged – are (what we have colloquially come to identify as) white people. In contrast, people of color (another reductive colloquialism), who are physiologically identical to the aforementioned in every discernible way save for their allotment of melanin, occupy the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder to a disproportionate degree.
This is not to say that there aren’t people of color who enjoy privileged status (e.g., amassed wealth and lands, respect from peers) in America, nor that every white man, woman and child lives a life of relative opulence—far from it. However, if we take a look at the statistics alone, we see that people of color are less likely to realize the often-referenced “American Dream” than Caucasians are, and this holds true for Native-, African-, Asian- and (non-white) Hispanic Americans.
To clarify, for the purposes of this article I am restricting the definition of the American Dream to financial well-being and economic security. To be sure, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” also entails a more comprehensive, literal sense of security regarding a person’s physical well-being that has also been denied many within minority communities, due in large part to frequent clashes with law enforcement and an unfair penal system. However, I would argue that economic disadvantage is a strong, underlying contributor to the disproportionate level of minority and police interactions that we have witnessed in this country for decades— e.g., because poverty breeds crime (a statement to be expounded upon in due course).
In a 2013 study released by the Census Bureau, five years worth of household data (gathered from 2007-2011) for U.S. citizens were analyzed to determine the total percentage of Americans living in poverty. The report concluded that 14.3% of the total population received a yearly household income that was insufficient to raise them above the poverty line. To put that number in perspective, out of a population exceeding 309,000,000 in 2010, over 44 million people were living poor.
But as disturbing as that number is — especially when taken in consideration with the fact that the United States is the wealthiest nation on the planet — the truly illuminating revelation about the disconnected, contrary nature of experiences regarding life in America, among different ethnic groups, is not fully understood until that figure of 14.3% is broken down into the total percentage of various (racial) populations who are living in poverty:
For Native Americans and African Americans, the percentages of total population living poor nearly doubled the national average, at 27% and 25.8%, respectively. The percentage of total Hispanic Americans also surpassed the national average, with the number of total poor varying widely between cultural sub-groups, from Cubans on the low-end (at 16.3% total poor) to Dominicans on the high-end (also nearly doubling the national average, at 26.3%). Vietnamese and Korean American poverty rates were also revealed to be greater than the national average (14.7% and 15.0%, respectively). Caucasian Americans sit at the bottom of the list, with the percentage of total poor numbering 11.6%.
Ultra-conservatives who would propose that racism is dead in modern America may be tempted to point out that the study clearly indicates the total number of Caucasian poor in this country exceeds the total number of poor for this or that racial/ethnic group. However, this argument is the product of faulty reasoning because Caucasians made up more than 75% of the population of the United States at the time of this study. On the other hand, even the most populous minority ethnic group in America — i.e., Hispanics (inclusive) — made up only 17.1% of the total population.**
(Note: These racial demographic figures represent projections for 2013 based on the 2010 Census Report).
It is to be expected that the total number of Caucasian poor should exceed the total number of minority poor, even though the actual percentages are lower for Caucasians than for the other racial demographics, due to the fact that there are so many more Caucasian Americans than there are Native-, African-, Asian- and (non-white) Hispanic Americans combined. The percent of total ethnic population living in poverty is the relevant number here, not the total number of poor for each racial/ethnic group compared out of context.
To illustrate, if the percentage of the total Caucasian American population living in poverty were the same as, say, the total percentage of the Native American population living in poverty at the time of this study (i.e., 27%), the total number of Caucasian poor would be 2.3 times higher than the actual estimate— i.e., approximately 65 million rather than 28 million (or, 11% of total population). It is imperative that the difference be understood, because the numbers imply that an additional impediment is weighing down minority citizens who attempt to climb the economic ladder, intent on realizing the American Dream, that is comparatively absent for Caucasians.
In the years following the Civil Rights victories of the mid-twentieth century, it became all too easy for many Caucasian Americans to believe that institutionalized racism had ended. Many of the obstacles preventing people of color from integrating into mainstream society were torn down during this era, including Jim Crow legislation, racial segregation, and organized voter intimidation. News coverage of events like the Selma riots and the U.S. Marshalls escorting Ruby Bridges into a non-segregated elementary school were broadcast on home televisions across the country, dragging the ugly face of racism in our country out from the shadows and into the light for everyone to scrutinize. Shocked by the images, many white moderates were motivated into taking a more active role in the fight for equality.
As public support waxed in favor of the Civil Rights movement, legislators who had vocally supported discriminatory practices toned down their rhetoric and quietly shimmied away from the national spotlight. Lawmakers and law enforcement personnel at the state and local levels followed suit, and on the surface—for many Caucasian supporters of the movement, and even for some citizens of color—it seemed the worst was over. Satisfied, they returned to their lives, passing on a philosophy of tolerance to their children.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, I Have a Dream speech became required reading in schools, ethnically diverse politicians were elected on a larger scale, scatterings of minority families moved into more affluent white neighborhoods, and The Cosby Show became a treasured addition to American pop-culture. By and large, the nation adopted a defensive posture in the war on racism, choosing to hold ground rather than push the attack. Whenever the beast reared its head, the official response was to denounce it as a throwback to a less enlightened time, and an unfortunate by-product of ignorance.
Many moderate liberals and conservatives refused to even engage racists, denouncing them as isolated holdouts of an archaic worldview that was nearly extinct. And while we may pat ourselves on the back for taking the moral high road all these years, we have made a critical tactical error by allowing the enemy to retreat to relative safety, lick its wounds, and devise new stratagems for success. That is, we were perfectly content to drive proponents of racism underground rather than render them completely harmless by revoking their authority, once and for all, in the years following the downfall of segregation.
For instance, Sen. Strom Thurmond (1902-2003) led one of the longest filibusters in American history in opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Afterwards, he was continuously re-elected to the U.S. Senate by the people of South Carolina, where he served for 48 years until his death in 2003. What’s more, in the years following his impassioned filibuster, Thurmond never once conceded that the act betrayed an internalized world view that had been tainted by racism.
(Note: The brief video segment below is an excerpt of Thurmond speaking out against de-segregation, in a 1948 speech at a Dixiecrat rally.)
In reality, a concerted effort was never made to identify and eject racists from positions of authority in the years following the Civil Rights era, and this failure has certainly contributed to the myriad abuses of power perpetrated against American citizens of color — e.g., unfair penal laws, corrupt judges inflicting harsher sentences, jury rigging by bigoted district attorneys in capital cases, police brutality—in the decades hence. While it is true that the war on racism saw many victories during the 1950s-60s, the underlying source of the problem (i.e., the institutionalization of inequality) has persisted, largely by virtue of allowing bigots to remain in government.
Furthermore, the number of impoverished minority communities in America today has not been reduced from that of 65 years ago. This does not bode well for a post-Civil Rights-awakened, capitalist democracy, where a major indicator for the successful pursuit of happiness is economic security. As such, we may logically conclude that a major consequence of the United States’ failure to address the continued existence of racism within its borders has been to condemn citizens of color to a vicious cycle of multi-generational poverty. And assuming this premise is correct, it is easy to accept that the blame for such resultant social phenomena as the high rates of crime and incarceration within the poorer communities of color — which is believed to be a by-product of economic hardship and substandard education — ought to be shared nationally, rather than locally.
The Need for Moderates (in the Face of Growing Extremism)
Until recently the longstanding non-engagement policy of many post-Civil rights era intellectuals on the subject of racism served to create a void that constructive dialogue might very well have filled. But as nature abhors a vacuum, that void has been filled by extremist voices, uttered in large part by angry, frustrated people who are more than happy to engage each other in deconstructive debate. Granted, it is no coincidence that the rise of social media parallels the intensification of the sort of racial tension that has long been one of America’s quiet hypocrisies, simply by virtue of allowing extremists of every point of view to occupy the same cyberspace together and—for lack of a better term—“communicate.”
Traditional news media outlets have also been focusing on a swath of racially-charged violence and/or abuse of power in recent years, heightening national awareness that there are cabals of bigots still operating from within cells of government that, quite frankly, many average suburbanite Caucasian Americans were oblivious to only a short time ago. The truth is that many white people who were raised by supporters of the Civil Rights movement had never been exposed to racist propaganda from their parents. Moreover, living in the social bubble of middle class America without directly experiencing the hardships suffered by victims of multi-generational poverty, which is so predominantly evident among “red,” “black” and “brown” (still more arbitrary colloquialisms) communities, further distanced many Gen-X, Gen-Y and millennial Caucasians from the harsh realities of life in the United States being faced by those less fortunate.
For example, one of the first memories I recall from grade school is that of the class teacher reading from a little storybook: “… [A]nd it doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, brown, purple”— here she was interrupted by approbatory mirth from the class — “yellow or green: we’re all the same inside.” To most of us this seemed completely acceptable. After all, we learned it in school so it must be true. More importantly, there weren’t any dissenting arguments being offered up at home that would make us question the simple logic of human equality. Racism had existed at one time, of course, but it had been vanquished much like the British and the Confederacy.
Looking back on the innocence of that simplistic worldview, shared by myself and those of similar upbringing (i.e., those nestled within the comfort of progressive, northeastern suburbia), makes the stark reality that I would come to know later all the more difficult to face. For, unbeknownst to us at the time, many citizens of color living in poor areas were simultaneously receiving a much different practical education about “equality” in America. Judging by the state of race relations today, it seems a forgone conclusion that a significant number of Caucasians were also being tutored in a contrary, less tolerant social philosophy than what had been afforded me — particularly in rural southern locales.
Unfortunately, popular sentiment among the most vocal extremists in the current debate is that no significant portion of white Americans could ever have been so naïve as to belong to the first group. And who can blame them? As discussed in the previous section, the failure to acknowledge racism as a problem on the national level has left entire ethnic populations in a cycle of poverty and despair. It is no wonder that the minority’s ire has been building inversely proportional to the majority’s collective lack of resolve in dealing with institutionalized inequality, definitively, once and for all.
In a letter written from a Birmingham jail on April 16, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., warned that the failure of “white moderates” to take an active role in the ongoing struggle for (African American) civil rights would only frustrate the philosophy of peaceful activism and fuel extremism. King believed that silence from lukewarm supporters of equal justice for blacks was even more destructive than outright hostility from unapologetically racist whites. “And I am… convinced,” King wrote, “that if our white brothers dismiss as ‘rabble rousers’ and ‘outside agitators’ those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies– a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.”
Burning Bridges Instead of Bridging the Gap
Sadly, many well-intentioned Caucasian moderate liberals and conservatives—who have been shocked into action by coverage of the swath of white on black police slayings in recent years (just as their parents were shocked into action by coverage of the Civil Rights clashes of the 1950s and 60s)—newly-awakened to the cause, wade into the national conversation for the first time only to be confronted with accusatory rhetoric and strange new concepts like “white privilege” and “white condescension.” Confronted as they are with the full force of the resentment and distrust that has been building momentum from within underprivileged ethnic communities for years, as well as the perpetual ire of ultra-left fringe extremists who have latched onto the issue (and who don’t stop at condemning racism, but go further in calling for the abolishment of capitalism and the United States itself), many moderates become overwhelmed and disillusioned by the onslaught, choosing to quietly extricate themselves from the conversation altogether. Others grow resentful, thus giving birth to a peculiar form of reactionary-reactionary-racial animosity!
In essence, a growing percentage of American citizens of color believe that most (if not all) Caucasian Americans are, or have been, at least partly racist at some point in their lives. On the other hand, there are no shortage of Caucasian Americans who believe that most (if not all) citizens of color are, or have been, at least partly racist at some point in their lives! This is a dangerous omen nearly 75 years after the victories of the Civil Rights era.
Setting aside whether you believe this to be true or not for the moment, the simple truth is that pigeonholing an entire group of people in such a generalized way merely serves to perpetuate the cycle of bigotry. From there, it is a slippery slope towards racial violence—i.e., if you allow yourself to be convinced that an entire group of people has been complicit in demonizing you, it becomes much easier to demonize (and dehumanize) them. Unfortunately for us all, this sort of thinking has been especially championed by extremists on every side of the national debate (i.e., shouting match) of late, and one of the most readily apparent consequences of this is the increasingly hostile discourse between citizens of color and Caucasian Americans.
Continuing to allow extremists who perpetuate such sentiments to dominate the national discourse on racism only serves to scare away moderates, polarize those who are on the fence and galvanize militants. If moderate liberal, independent and conservative intellectuals and social activists are unsuccessful in defusing this racial powder keg by contributing constructively, reasonably and peacefully to the solution process, then we will have only ourselves to blame when vigorous disagreement over the best path forward between extremist elements causes that process to break down completely. Worse, it may escalate to a point that we as a country find it difficult to come back from, undoing any progress that has been made in combating racism along the way.
But, therein lies the dilemma:
The Idea of America vs. The Reality of America
Is the idea of America still something worth fighting for? Has it ever been? To be sure, our national history is spotted at best, and the reality is far more complex than the simplified version I learned years ago in Mrs. Russo’s 1st grade class. Nevertheless, we have made remarkable progress since that fateful day when a diminutive and soft-spoken colonial aristocrat with reddish hair wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” on a piece of parchment.
True, he may have been referring exclusively to landed white men at the time. Also, women are conspicuously absent from this lofty declaration. But, I would argue that we have evolved the profound implications of that simple statement over the years—through slavery, through the long struggle for women’s suffrage, through the injustice of segregation and discrimination—so that many of us now believe that all people are created equal, and are “endowed… with certain, unalienable rights,” without making arbitrary distinctions based on color, gender or creed. We are constantly evolving as a society. For instance, in addition to the issue of institutionalized racism that is the focus of this article, other social issues (e.g., gay rights, equal pay for women in the workforce) are simultaneously being hashed out and debated on the national stage.
Though it is easy to lose hope in the face of the daunting challenges that await us, it is helpful to compare the progress we have made as a nation to our more fundamental struggle as a species—i.e., to evolve beyond the savage frame of reference which dominated humanity’s perspective of the world until quite recently. That is, for 96% of human history, our species lived moment to moment in an unforgiving environment where the constant threat of lethal predators and the competition for food and shelter took precedence over less tangible, social concepts like justice and equality. Only in the last 4% of the timeline of humanity’s entire history have we felt secure enough to begin to look beyond the most immediate necessities for survival, and experiment with advanced civilization constructs like towns, cities, economies and nations. Of that 4%, which is actually a period of about 10,000 years, the United States of America has only existed as a sovereign entity for 239 of them.
Still, no other empire has advanced the idea of universal, human equality, personal liberty and the pursuit of happiness as quickly as the United States has. To be sure, this and every other great empire in the history of mankind has been built upon philosophies of conquest, colonialism and the exploitation of foreigners. The difference is that in our case, many people have begun to exhibit the desire to address and correct the wounds inflicted upon the subjugated people who fueled America’s birth and development (as well as the wounds inflicted upon those who were simply eradicated to make way for America’s development), and these people, whom we may rightly identify as social activists, have achieved historic levels of success in the noble attempt to balance the scales.
Furthermore, just as writing and the arts evolved when the constant fear of predator attacks and starvation were reduced or removed, freedom from the threat of foreign invasion and economic security (nationally speaking) — afforded our society, in large part, as a consequence of being a military superpower as well as the wealthiest nation in history (again, nationally speaking) — has helped to free up mental resources that have undoubtedly been applied towards the advance of liberal social philosophies. Pacifistic and otherwise “people-friendly” ideals are easy to get behind from a perspective of relative safety.
However, lest we become overly distracted by our laurels, it is important to address our failures, as well. For instance, the perspective of relative safety alluded to in the previous paragraph is alien to many people living within minority communities. Worse, the silent majority’s refusal to acknowledge the antithetical perversion of the American Dream that is so commonly experienced by citizens of color is an entrenched obstacle impeding the path of progress and further societal development. Yes, there has been great success in the struggle for social justice, but there is still much more that needs to be done before the “exceptionalism” and “moral authority” that we so often boast becomes a reality.
That said, I would argue that there is nothing wrong with feeling a sense of national pride in our accomplishments (as long as we do not become complacent). After all, even though our nation is still relatively young, we have nevertheless navigated our way through some pretty trying times: through the Great Depression; through a Civil War and not one, but two World Wars; through the assassination of over fifty politicians (including four sitting presidents) and another fifty social activists; through labor reform, McCarthyism, the draft, Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War—the U.S. survived all of these events whole. We must not forget this as we move forward to address the current issues of our day.
Most importantly, despite a tumultuous history the nation has somehow managed to preserve the embers of the core values upon which we choose to define ourselves; to build our worldview from—liberty and equality. These embers were first lit in the crucible of our formative years, as we hacked a handful of colonies out of the wilderness of an untamed land. For some, the embers continued to wax brighter through our struggles with the natives and other European powers for dominance of the continent, finally coming alight and searing away foreign involvement altogether. The ensuing, purging fire that marked the expansionist phase in the years of manifest destiny reduced the right to self-determination for many other peoples to ashes. But—somehow—from those ashes that were wrought from blood and violence arose a remarkable, fledgling idea: that this country might become a land where everyone could be free.
Social Evolution & Hope for the Future
The idea that everyone has a right to liberty and equality has sustained American social activists for generations, and they have tirelessly struggled against those who would cling to the old world with such dogged tenacity—e.g., by publishing reasoned arguments, making impassioned speeches, organizing protests, and (of course) lobbying government officials—that America has slowly, inexorably moved within sight of becoming a country of liberty and equality for all; not only in name, but in reality. We owe much to the great men and women of conscience who have had the vision, the fortitude and the will to champion the multi-faceted issues of social justice in order to make this country a better place for us all, just as we owe all of the members of all of the armed services for standing guard against external threats. Without them, we would not have been free to develop as a society from within.
This is because the world is not a tranquil place — i.e., it is just as cruel and capricious as it has always been. The reality of life on Earth is that for something to live, another thing must die, and unless a person happens to be a lifelong vegetarian (or an adherent to a similar, eco-friendly dietary lifestyle), a part of the energy that he or she consumes to survive is purchased at the expense of another sentient being’s life. True, the sentient beings that many people slaughter for food may not rival human beings intellectually, but they nevertheless experience pain and suffering, as all animals do. However, the natural world does not care; it is a zero sum game of survival of the fittest, and humanity rose to dominance by playing this game better than anything else.
We are — all of us — the products of a profoundly violent legacy. And as a consequence of evolving from within this global, gladiatorial arena of natural dangers, is it any wonder that humanity itself still struggles with relatively new concepts like social equanimity? In a human being, all of the primal, savage instincts of the animal kingdom are hardwired into the same vessel as a self-aware, reasoning mind.
No one can fully understand the violence of our species’ past from a modern frame of reference. As stated earlier, our ancestors lived on the run for much of our history, fighting day after day as both hunter and hunted in a constant struggle for survival. Only in the past ten millennia have human beings been able to gain sufficient mastery over our lives as to be able to aspire to the more complex sociological structures of civilizations, without the constant fear of death hanging over our heads.
Still, the cave in our minds runs deep, and the history of civilizations is just as violent as the nomadic years of our pre-history. We went from constantly fighting the natural environment to constantly fighting each other: first among small villages that skirmished for control of local resources, then larger communities that battled in more organized clashes, and finally city states and nations engaging in all-out wars for dominance over this or that parcel of land. To the victors went the spoils; to the vanquished, death or enslavement.
But what does it say about us that we can look back on the barbarity of our collective past with shame, and strive to do better? The fact that our species even developed the ability to feel such emotions as love and empathy amidst the violence of our surroundings is enough to suggest divine intervention, to say nothing of the progress made by those determined minds who had the audacity to dream of, and advocate for a system of equal justice under law, in a world where might makes right. Is there any stronger proof that there is reason to hope than is evidenced by the lofty and virtuous ideals birthed by imagination?
History has shown us that the odds are stacked against the decent; that it is easier to hate than to love; to eschew peace and settle differences by force rather than diplomacy. But history has also shown us that a determined few can alter the course of nations. It is tempting to dwell in the past; to judge the actions of those who came before with the benefit of hindsight, impose our modern moral and ethical standards on them and say: “they should have done differently”—but that is a separate discussion.
What matters is that the imperfect mix of righteous and self-serving choices made by those who came before have led us (collectively) to this place, at this point in time. It is now up to us to decide where to go from here. Do we allow our complex differences to drive us from the light; back into that dank, dark cave of our base instincts, to seek easy solutions born of familiar savagery? Or rather, do we endeavor to evolve further, beyond the ruthless pragmatism of the natural world?
I, for one, would choose to take the next step towards social evolution. That is, I would choose to move forward— in peace.
* The nine states affected by Section IV of the VRA were: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. Additionally, specific counties and municipalities in other states (e.g., Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx in New York) were also targeted by the provisional restrictions contained within Sec. IV of the VRA.
** As explained by the Census Bureau: Hispanics (inclusive) may be of any race, so this figure of 16.5% of total population overlaps with other, applicable racial categories (e.g., white, black). Moreover, to clarify: “Whites” are defined by the Census Bureau as people who originated from Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa. The Census Bureau also includes people who indicate their race as white, or simply report entries such as Irish, German, Italian, Lebanese, Arab, Moroccan, or Caucasian.
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