Number 23 - January 2, 2003
|A Lott Missing:
Rituals of Purification and Deep Racism Denial
By Paul L. Street
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article first appeared in Znet
most disturbing aspect of the recent national melodrama over Senate
Majority Leaders Trent Lott's offensive declaration of retrospective
support for the race-segregationist 1948 Presidential campaign of Strom
Thurmond is not the content of Lott's remarks. The really depressing
thing is what the entire episode says about the superficial level at
which racism is discussed in the United States. A related downer is
how it is working to stick America's head yet further in the sand on
the question of race.
main problem here is a failure to distinguish between two different
levels of racism - overt and covert. The first variety has a long and
sordid history in the US. It includes the burning of black homes and
churches, the open public use of racial slurs and epithets, occupational
bans, lynching, disenfranchisement, denial of prominent public roles
to black individuals, restrictive real estate covenants, rock-throwing
and "nigger"- screaming mobs, and open legal segregation of
public facilities. Concentrated especially though but not exclusively
in the South, level-one's racism's archived images and sound bites serve
as background for ritual mainstream expressions of support for the ideals
of the civil rights movement like the national holiday honoring Martin
Luther King. Consistent with his long record of racist comments and
affiliations, Lott's popularity among southern whites and his latest
segregationist slip are certainly proof that there is still some life
in this old racist dog, especially down in Dixie.
this type or level of racism is largely defeated in the US. In post-Civil
Rights America, the Republican Party makes sure to pack their convention
stage with an abundance of black speakers and nearly every corporate
and college brochure is loaded with images of racial "diversity."
No aspirant to public office dares question the nation's official commitment
to racial equality and equal opportunity. Prominent public media business
and political figures play with fire when they are perceived as embracing
the explicit racial bigotry and legal segregation of the past. Witness
the case of Lott, held up for massive public ridicule because he indirectly
embraced segregation in terms that are mild compared to the public rhetoric
common among southern white politicians twenty years after Thurmond's
Dixiecrat campaign. Nowadays even David Duke has to claim that he is
not anti-black and George W. Bush's White House contains two blacks
in prominent foreign policymaking positions - something that would never
have occurred in pre-Civil Rights America.
second level of racism is deeper and more intractable - as King and
the Civil Rights Movement learned when they came north in 1966. It involves
societal, structural and institutional forces and processes in ways
that "just happen" to produce and perpetuate deep black disadvantage
in multiple related areas of American life. It includes widespread persistent
de facto residential and school segregation by race, rampant racial
discrimination in hiring and promotion, the systematic under-funding
and under-equipping of black schools, disproportionate surveillance,
arrest and incarceration of blacks and much more. It is enabled, encouraged
and even conducted by institutional and political actors, including
some African-Americans, who would never publicly utter racially prejudiced
comments and who not uncommonly declare allegiance to the ideals of
the civil rights movement.
second variety of racism has more than simply survived or outlasted
the explicit, public racism of the past. It is ironically and perversely
deepened by civil rights victories and the discrediting of open bigotry
insofar as these elementary triumphs encourage the illusion of racism's
disappearance and the related notion that the only barriers left to
African-American success and equality are internal to the black community.
Age Racism: "We Made the Corrections, Now Get On With It"
are African-Americans twice as likely to be unemployed as whites? Why
is the poverty rate for blacks more than twice the rate for whites?
Why do nearly one out of every two blacks earn less than $25,000 while
only one in three whites makes that little? Why is median black household
income ($27,000) less than two thirds of median white household income
($42,000)? Why is Black families' median household net worth less than
10 percent that of white? Why are blacks much less likely to own their
own homes than whites? Why do African-Americans make up roughly half
of the United States' massive population of prisoners (2 million) and
why are one in three young black male adults in prison or on parole
or otherwise under the supervision of the American criminal justice
system? Why do African-Americans continue in severe geographic separation
from mainstream society, still largely cordoned off into the nation's
most disadvantaged communities thirty years after the passage of civil
rights fair housing legislation? Why do blacks suffer disproportionately
from irregularities in the American electoral process, from problems
with voter registration to the functioning of voting machinery? Why
does black America effectively constitute a Third World enclave of sub-citizens
within the world's richest and most powerful state?
that racism is no longer a significant barrier for blacks because there
are African-Americans in high policy positions and serving as anchors
on the Six O-Clock News, most whites find answers to these questions
inside the African-American community itself. If serious racial disparities
persist, if blacks continue to live both separately and unequally, white
America and even some privileged blacks (e.g. John McWhorter of the
Manhattan Institute) think, its because of their own choices and because
too many blacks engage in "self-sabotaging" and related "separatist"
behaviors. As white America sees it, " note Leonard Steinhorn and
Barbara Diggs-Brown in their excellent study By The Color of Their Skin:
the Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race, (2000), "every
effort has been to welcome blacks into the American mainstream and now
they're on their own."
white attitudes at the turn of the millennium are well summarized by
the comments of a white respondent to a survey conducted by Essence
magazine. "No place that I'm aware of," wrote the respondent,
"makes [black] people ride on the back of the bus or use a different
restroom in this day and age. We got the message; we made the corrections
- get on with it."
it to Lakisha Washington
has made the necessary racial "corrections" and now it's time
for blacks "to get on with it?" Tell it to the black job applicants
of Boston and Chicago.
In a field experiment whose results were released last week, researchers
Marianne Bertrand of the University of Chicago and Sendhill Mullainathan
of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sent out 5,000 resumes
in response to help-wanted ads in Boston and Chicago newspapers. Each
resume was randomly assigned either a very black-sounding name (such
as "Lakisha Washington" or "Jamal Jones") or a very
white-sounding name (such as "Emily Walsh" or "Brendan
Baker"). This racial "manipulation," the researchers
found, "produced a significant gap in the rate of callbacks for
White names received roughly 50 percent more callbacks than black names.
For white applicants, moreover, sending higher quality resumes increased
the number of callbacks by 30 percent. For black names, higher-quality
resumes elicited no significant callback premium.
"get on with it?" Tell it to black families trying to buy
a home or rent an apartment in the Denver area. According to a report
released last month by the U.S. Department of Housing, nearly 1 in 5
blacks trying to buy a home or rent an apartment there faces some kind
of technically illegal discrimination, being diverted from white majority
areas to communities predominantly populated by minorities. This was
actually below the national average (21.6 percent for blacks), determined
through hundreds of matched-pair testing exercises conducted across
it to the astounding one in three black men in the US who now carry
the lifelong mark of a felony criminal record thanks to the nation's
30 -year binge of incredibly racially disparate surveillance, arrest
and mass imprisonment ("corrections" indeed!) conducted under
the auspices of the drug war. They generally experience no real wage
increases in their twenties and thirties, when American men without
felony records typically experience rapid earnings growth. In a recent
academic study conducted by Northwestern University sociologist Devah
Pager in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the possession of a prison record reduced
the likelihood of white testers being called back by a prospective employer
by a ratio of 2 to 1. Among black testers, the mark of a prison record
reduced that likelihood by nearly 3 to 1.
made the corrections?" Tell it to the very disproportionately black
students of the nation's highly and increasingly segregated urban public
schools. They receive educational resources vastly inferior to those
enjoyed by children in affluent white suburbs, thanks to the nation's
racist and regressive reliance on local property taxes to fund "public
schools" whose operation and outcomes resonate with the long reach
of private privilege and related racial inequality.
products of these inferior schools become all-too easy fodder - human
raw material for the nation's prison industrial complex and racist mass
incarceration lobby, which works to divert public dollars from education
to pay for the construction and maintenance of yet more not-so "correctional"
facilities. Those prisons create jobs and economic development for predominantly
white rural prison towns even while the experience of incarceration
pushes most black-ex-offenders yet further into the margins of the disastrous
inner-city market for poorly educated workers.
list of these sorts of disparate and not-so "color blind"
policies is long and depressing. The problems experienced by the people
and communities on their receiving end have little to do with explicit
racial bigotry (public or private). It has much to do with what sociologist
Joe Feagin calls "a system of racialized structural and institutional
subordination that excludes blacks from full participation in the rights,
privileges, and benefits of society." What he refers to as "state-of-mind
racism" and open racial bigotry has declined appreciably in the
last four decades. But "state-of-being," that is institutional,
structural and systemic racism have not declined and may actually have
become more deeply entrenched, despite and perhaps even, ironically
enough, in part because of civil rights victories.
deeper level racism's army of practitioners and apologists is large
and bipartisan, far bigger than the likes of Trent Lott. Leading soldiers
include people not normally associated with racism under the terms of
the dominant public discourse in the US, which focuses on the level
one variety. Take, for example, former President Bill Clinton, sometimes
referred to as "America's First Black President." Clinton,
who spoke with reverence about King, counted former National Urban League
President Vernon Jordan as a close friend and placed five African-Americans
in his cabinet, was no bigot. Not surprisingly, Clinton called for Lott
to step down because of his insensitive remarks.
President, however, America's most racially sensitive President never
worked seriously to address the dismantling of affirmative action in
the United States. He betrayed his election promise to address the health
care needs of impoverished African-Americans, failing to seriously push
for a national health care program that would have provided crucial
support for the nation's most truly disadvantaged. He led the charge
for "free trade" legislation that furthered the replacement
of black workers by cheaper overseas labor. He gave lip service to black
education but did nothing to improve funding for disproportionately
poor black schools or to advance school desegregation so that black
kids could attend more privileged schools. He signed a vicious, victim-blaming
welfare "reform" bill that played on the racist myth of inner-city
Black women as morally bankrupt Welfare Queens to force hundreds of
thousands of African-American single mothers into the super-exploited
margins of the American labor market. This bill removed millions of
black children from medical coverage, making them pay for their mothers'
alleged insufficient appreciation of the capitalist work ethic. Clinton
passed repressive crime legislation that significantly expanded the
remarkable over-surveillance, arrest and incarceration of African-Americans
for nonviolent crimes in the name of a War on Drugs that is really a
war on young black males.
all this, in a classic expression of what the brilliant author and activist
Elaine Brown calls "New Age Racism," Clinton lectured blacks
on the need to heal themselves and take personal and collective responsibility
for overcoming the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. It was and is a sentiment
shared among many whites across the partisan board.
take George W. Bush, who boasts a number of black cabinet members, leads
all Presidents except Clinton in naming women and minorities to political
appointments, counts African-Americans among his intimate associates
and has denounced Lott's comments as "contrary to the spirit of
this country." Like Clinton, Bush rejects the notion that the US
government owes black Americans even an apology for the crimes and legacy
of slavery. He appointed as US Attorney General John Ashcroft, who opposes
affirmative action and shares Bush's enthusiasm for the racially disparate
death penalty and racist mass incarceration fueled by the War on Drugs.
He pushed through an education "reform" that punished minority
schools that fail to raise student test scores but does nothing to reform
the nation's regressive, racist school funding system or address the
savage re-segregation of American schools documented by the Harvard
Civil Rights Project. At the same time, Bush embraces private school
voucher plans that will only worsen the under-funding and segregation
of the nation's schools - problems that particularly affect black kids.
is strictly opposed to national health care, of course. His version
of welfare "reform" is
harsher than Clinton's, expanding work requirements but denying significant
job assistance in a time of recession and insidiously suggesting that
moral laxity in the form of single-parenthood are the real cause of
black poverty. Bush has spearheaded monumentally regressive tax cuts
and launched an historic expansion of imperial "defense" expenditures
that combined to limit desperately needed (especially by poor blacks)
social programs while making the disproportionately white rich richer
and the disproportionately black poor poorer. He has refused to extend
unemployment benefits for the nations' disproportionately black jobless;
800,000 Americans without work are scheduled to lose their benefits
on December 28th (Happy Holidays). He spearheaded a "faith-based"
initiative that gives federal funding to religious groups that provide
social services without requiring compliance with anti-discrimination
laws. He shares Clinton's tendency to lecture blacks on the need to
take responsibility for their own plight while embracing "free
trade" and prison-filling "get-tough on crime" policies
that make it yet more difficult for disadvantaged blacks to make it
in America. Owing his Presidency in part to racist felony disenfranchisement
laws and other race-based voting rights problems in Florida, Bush used
9-11 as a pretext to assault civil liberties (always a special concern
for the black community) at home and to divide Americans yet further
along lines of class and race.
One Horse for Another"
look at the records of those who were considered most likely to replace
Lott as Majority Leader - Bill Frist (T-Tenn), a close Bush ally, Don
Nickles (R-Oklahoma), Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) and Rick Santorum
(R-Pennsylvania). Each of these Senators receive an 'F' from the NAACP
for their recent voting history. In the last Congress, they voted for
school vouchers, against raising school spending, for Bush's $1.3 trillion
tax cut, against strengthening the federal response to hate crimes,
against managed care health reform, for the nomination of Ashcroft and
against funding for bilingual education and (surprise) restoring ex-felons'
voting rights. No wonder that civil rights movement veteran and US Representative
John Lewis (D-Georgia) remarked that the Senate Republican Party would
respond to the Lott fiasco by "just ... changing one [racist] horse
for another [racist] horse."
successor, Frist, has voted against community technology centers for
minority neighborhoods, sanctions for predatory lending, the expansion
of minority higher education credits, increasing global funding to address
the AIDS crisis in Africa, alternative voting verification methods and
strong community investment requirements for banks. He has voted for
decreasing voter registration through the purging of voting rolls and
harsher juvenile criminal justice measures. A former surgeon with $25
million of stock in his family's for-profit hospital chain and a recipient
of massive campaign largesse from the pharmaceutical industry, Frist
has led the effort to deny serious health care reform to the nation's
poorest citizens. He sponsored pharmaceutical giant Eli-Lily's campaign
to win federal protection (strangely included in the recent Homeland
Security bill) from lawsuits by parents of children who developed autism
as a result of faulty child vaccines.
offensive, then, it was to see the Chicago Tribune's editorial writers
recently laud Frist as a "southerner who has no unsavory history
on racial issues" and has "distinguished himself for his work
on health care issues" (CT, 21 December, 2002). The Tribune applauded
Frist's "longstanding practice of traveling to Africa every year
to work as a medical missionary" - ministering perhaps to some
of the millions of Africans who are effectively denied access to life-prolonging
AIDS drugs by American drug companies protecting their patent monopolies
in the name of "free trade." Such are the perverse racial
sensibilities of New Age Racism, whereby the defeat of level-one racism
obscures and provides cover for the disease's deeper variant, which
is most efficiently spread by policymakers who know enough to sell their
policies and values as "color-blind" and consistent with the
principles of King.
Dangerous Opportunity for White Racial Self Congratulation
those who like to think that racism has been swept into the dustbin
of American history, it is comforting to see the heavily white-led and
white-supported Republican Party drum their own Senate Majority Leader
out of office because of his "intemperate remarks." The harsh
reality missing from "mainstream" (really corporate) media
accounts is that the party's post-Lott downfall agenda is the same and
as fundamentally racist as the one before his "gaffe." Lott
was removed from Republican leadership because his breach of good taste
threatened to take the color-blind veneer off the deep racism at the
heart of the party's assault on affirmative action, civil rights legislation,
and social democratic public policy in general. As an article recently
posted on The Black Commentator ("Lott,
Thurmond and Duke: Three Kings Bearing Gifts," December 26)
noted, "Lott had to go in order to maintain the momentum of the
GOP's assault on affirmative action and civil rights leadership."
this regard, it is interesting to note how much more forceful top Republicans
were than leading national Democrats in calling for Lott's demotion.
The latter undoubtedly hoped to run against a party stuck with a publicly
exposed racist in a leadership position. Such a target promised to help
them continue to garner the lion's share of the black vote. It also
promised to divert attention from their own heavy involvement in the
deeper covert and systemic racism that envelopes this nation from top
to bottom. Such is the persistent and tragic reality of race in an age
when white America loves to congratulate itself for dropping racial
slurs from acceptable public discourse, outlawing lynch-mobs, letting
blacks sit in the front of the bus, and claiming to honor the legacy
most depressing and distressing thing about the Lott fiasco is the way
it is providing white America yet another dangerous opportunity to pat
itself on the back for advancing beyond the primitive state of level-one
racism while digging the hole of the deeper racism yet deeper.
Street is Vice President for Research and Planning at the Chicago Urban
League. His articles and essays have appeared in Z Magazine, Monthly
Review, the Journal of American Ethnic History and Dissent. He is the
author of The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, Jobs, and Community in Chicago,
Illinois, and the Nation (Chicago, IL: Chicago Urban League, 2002),
which can be viewed at www.cul-chicago.org.