How racism lives on in a color-blind society

December 6th, 2012

Published on Socialist, by Brian Jones, Dec. 4, 2012.

… 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.

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 … //

… 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 … //

… 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.
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