The deep roots of American racism

Ryan Cooper | The Week

If there’s one thing that unites liberal Americans at this fraught moment, it’s disgust at the racism rooted in the South. A new breed of white leaders, many of them from wealthy Southern suburbs, have brought back explicit white supremacy — if not actual neo-Nazism — to American politics.

But the rest of the country should not be so sanguine. America’s overall record of accounting for its history of vile racism is poor at best.

For starters, there are a surprisingly large number of KKK members in non-Southern states — including Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. For another, of the nine most segregated cities in the country, five are outside the South — including Boston, in supposedly deep-blue Massachusetts. White rioting driven by violent bigotry — to keep blacks out of white neighborhoods in Chicagofor example — features heavily in the history of many non-Southern states.

And all of this is a reflection of the fundamental structure by which all American states, and the federal government, have chosen to organize themselves.

In the airbrushed and sanitized history of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. had his marches, people were beaten by racist Southern cops, the government jerked awake (“Whuh? By Jove, look at all this racism!“) and passed various civil rights legislation — the Civil Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, and the Voting Rights Act — and then Jim Crow was dead. Granting some lingering disadvantage, that was the end of really horrible racism in this country.

This narrative leaves much out. The legacy of Jim Crow and overt racism built into federal policy was still being rooted out by the 1980s, and then incompletely. Mass incarceration was and remains a deeply racist enterprise.

But even if we suppose the most generous version of this narrative were true, it still leaves the task of atoning for American racism badly incomplete. If one group of people is subject to overwhelming economic exploitation by another for hundreds of years, after which the direct exploitation is wholly removed, the former group will still of necessity be much, much poorer than the latter. Without concerted and consistent efforts to bolster the resources of the poorer group, they will remain so, because of the way advantage is transmitted across generations. Most obviously, richer parents have money and assets they can pass down to their offspring. But they also have access to cleaner environments, better schools, better connections to elite schools and high-paying jobs, and scads of other advantages. That is why a child born into the top income quintile who does not go to college is two and a half times more likely to stay there than a child born into the bottom quintile who does.

Conversely, removing barriers to economic exploitation — by “free market” policy like tight money, austerity, welfare cuts, bashing unions, exposing lower-class workers (but not upper-class ones) to overseas competition, and so forth — is effectively racist in result, if not in intent. That is the policy program of neoliberalism, and it amounts to top-down class war. It concentrates incomes and wealth at the largely white top of the income ladder, and spreads poverty, unemployment, and desperation around the disproportionately black and brown bottom half.

All that holds even if the policy is absolutely perfectly free of personal prejudice. Perfectly race-blind top-down class war conducted on a demographically class-biased population will necessarily have a racist outcome.

But as economist Marshall Steinbaum argues, ostensibly race-neutral free-market policy has in fact been used to mask a baldly racist backlash to ages of egalitarian advances. This happened in the 1870s under the Liberal Republicans (“liberal” at this time referring to the classical liberalism of Adam Smith and David Ricardo), who advocated right-wing economics and that black Republicans in the South be stripped of their protection by federal troops. Result: 90 years of a Jim Crow police state in the South.

Similarly, the neoliberal turn in the 1970s was to a great degree fueled by backlash to the New Deal and the Civil Rights Movement. Now, the New Deal had many racist elements built into it. But compared to the previous status quo, it was a large relative advance for African-Americans, as shown by both the sharp narrowing in gaps of life expectancy and other indicators, and the fact that blacks (who could see easily enough which party was the better electoral bet) were a key pillar of the New Deal coalition. Rolling back the populist New Deal structures was racist both in intent and effect.

All that can be seen in the fact that since the neoliberal turn, the economic gap between blacks and whites has gotten worse in many ways. Black Americans today have an unemployment rate steadily about twice that of whites, as well as 27 percent smaller average wages and a mere 8 percent of whites’ median wealth.

So let us remember that simply keeping neo-Nazis out of polite society will not remotely suffice to fix America’s bigotry problem. It will take consistent federal action to protect minority rights and due process. And it will also take decades of aggressive social-democratic policy to roll back American inequality, and finally cut black Americans in on a fair share of income and wealth.

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