Why Is Race Such A Big Issue In The U.S?

Why Is Race Such A Big Issue In The U.S?

The Search For A Penetrating Analysis Of Race In America

By Professor John Pittman (City University of New York)

March 17, 2015        Picture: Light Brigading/Flickr.

This article is part of the Critique’s exclusive Black Lives Matter: The Problem of Race and Police Ethics

Few observers of the American scene (and by ‘American’ I mean the United States scene, using for the purposes of this article a widely adopted if politically troublesome moniker, arrogating as it does for one national state a term designating an entire hemispheric landmass) could have failed to reflect, given the news on the morning of Wednesday, November 5th, 2008, that a momentous shift  had come about.  The election of Barack Obama as President of the United States prompted elation and dancing in the streets in many parts of New York City, and even those who had not supported his candidacy recognized the election as a significant milestone in the political history of the country.

Renegade98/FlickrObama’s Victory Celebration in Chicago. First Family of 44th President-elect Barack Obama, his wife Michelle, and two daughters, Malia (7), and Sasha, (10) wave to the crowd in Chicago.

Picture: The New York Times described the election of Obama as a “strikingly symbolic moment in the evolution of the nation’s fraught racial history”. A sentiment shared across the political spectrum: “This is an historic election, and i recognize the significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight” said Senator John McCain during his concession speech in Arizona. For a review of the press coverage following the victory of President Obama, visit the Pew Research Center: “Global Media Celebrate Obama Victory-But Cautious Too.

And then his troubles really began.  Among these must be counted the often near-hysterical hostility to his very person, superadded to the opposition some of his policy proposals sparked, that has been a feature of domestic political discourse in the six years since. In the minds of many observers, that hostility – manifested not only by the ‘birthers’ and the violent rhetoric spewed in the streets, but in the halls of Congress as well – cannot be fully explained without an acknowledgment that Obama’s blackness not to say his biracial ancestry, plays some role in eliciting the barely-suppressed fury on display. In the United States, it seems, race, and the ‘moral deficit’ [1] it represents – to use Obama’s own phrase – remains a constant, implicit in the national psyche.

But race features not only in the psyche, but also in the bodily life of this country. There are measurable indices of race as social phenomenon in American society today. On indices such as life expectancy, educational attainment, household income, home ownership, assets and wealth, unemployment, incidence of poverty, rates of major illnesses, of death in childbirth, of suicide, of incarceration, of being on death row – among other metrics of social wellbeing – there are substantial disparities between scores for whites and those for people of African descent. To this must be added the very visible absence – or at best scarcity – of people of color from the most prestigious careers, institutional leadership positions, elective political office, social circles, associations – that is, from the ‘halls of power’ in general. And further, the cities and towns of the nation are, to this day, scarred by widespread residential segregation bringing in its wake the associated segregation, with rare exceptions, of local schools and educational institutions as well.

Vanishing Freedmen’s Town in Houston, Texas by Patrick Feller/Flickr
Vanishing Freedmen’s Town in Houston, Texas by Patrick Feller/Flickr

Picture: Read the history of discrimination and collusion associated with these wards: A Brief History of Freedmen’s Town. For an in-depth description of the persisting problems with residential segregation, read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ June 2014 George Polk Award winning Atlantic magazine cover feature: The Case For Reparations

Berry O'Kelly School, Early 1900s. Universal Pops/Flickr.
Berry O'Kelly School, Early 1900s. Universal Pops/Flickr.

Picture: Berry O’Kelly School 1990’s, part of an exhibit at the Raleigh City Museum in Raleigh California. Read more about Berry O’Kelly and his passion for educating blacks despite the limitations of segregation: “The Method Community“. For a feature on racial segregation in American schools, read ProPublica’s “Segregation Now”.

Perhaps it needs little belaboring: these facts – these data-points, numbers, and statistics – afford but glimpses of a status quo that engenders interests and expectations tending to reproduce it. They point to a system which confronts people of African descent, as such, with greater challenges, obstacles to successful lives, chances of suffering violence, indignities, slights and affronts, and in which the experience of social life is one of diminished life prospects in a variety of dimensions as a consequence of racial designation and visible racial identity. To put it simply – in this sense, this is a social world in which white superiority is a social fact of life. And this is the case despite the dismantling of the regime of white supremacy associated with Jim Crow and de jure segregation as it existed in the U.S. South before the great civil rights struggles of the mid-20th century.

While this is the reality of racial subordination in America today, it almost never achieves the significance of being a ‘big issue’ in the mainstream political discourse of the nation. What does periodically create a stir in the media are the intermittent police killings and beatings of black men – and even boys – which seem to occur at regular intervals in one or another part of the country. These are brought into the nation’s focus for a few news cycles, especially when community indignation unleashes street protests [Read Brownlee and Parr on civil disobedience], as happened after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August of last year. What remains largely hidden (outside the purview of ‘policy wonks,’ academics, and some journalists) is the regime of mass incarceration that disproportionately ensnares men of color in a system referred to by one observer as ‘the new Jim Crow.’[2]

This system, propelled by criminal justice policies that became widespread at the end of the 20th century, including the ‘war on drugs,’ overzealous policing policies that flooded ‘high crime’ communities of color with police officers, ‘broken windows’ policing focusing on low-level, often victimless crimes (marijuana possession) as a strategy for fighting more serious crime, ‘three-strikes-you’re-out’ punitiveness in relation to those within the system – added to the disempowerment and dispossession of communities of people of color. But while the police killings of black men gain cursory attention in the media, the larger system of black disenfranchisement by the ‘prison-industrial complex’ and racially discrepant criminal justice policies has remained largely uncommented on in the mainstream commercial media and the political discourse of the nation. It may be that this is beginning to change, in large part due to political pressure and street protests mounted by communities of color.

“This is a social world in which white superiority is a social fact of life despite the dismantling of the regime of white supremacy associated with Jim Crow and de jure segregation as it existed in the U.S. South before the great civil rights struggles of the mid-20th century”

This hiddenness of the systemic grounds of the continuing second-class status of people of color, and particularly people of African descent, must be seen in connection with the growing inequality in American society and the fiscal crisis of the public sector that is the direct consequence of it. After the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, it emerged that the police force of which Darren Wilson was a member, a force of some 55 officers, had only three black officers, despite the municipality’s 67% black population. What also emerged, but was lost in the public discussion of the case, was the excessive reliance of that municipality on funds collected through the imposition of fines and penalties for minor violations and legal infringements, such as traffic violations like driving with a broken headlight, and the additional imposition of interest fees, court costs, administrative charges, etc. These practices by municipal and local governments, widely employed throughout the country, in many cases amount to a new form of government-imposed debt peonage. These practices are not, in themselves, aimed specifically at people of color. All poor people are deeply and severely affected by such institutionalized practices. But black people and other people of color are disproportionately poor and communities of color usually isolated by residential segregation.

When these draconian state practices are combined with overpolicing of communities of color, residential segregation, and wealth and income disparities, the racially disparate impact cannot but be both significant and dramatically oppressive. That impact, it should be noted, would be completely independent of any overt racist intent or action on the part of the persons tasked with carrying out these policies. But such policies often have been imposed and worsened in impact by the increasing redistribution of wealth upward in American society, a trend that began in the third quarter of the 20th century and was significantly accelerated by the fiscal and tax policies of federal and local governments imposed under Republican and Democratic administrations starting in the last quarter of that century, both precipitated and accompanied by the deindustrialization of the country, the financialization of the global processes of capital accumulation, and the consequent fiscal crisis of the state.

“What also emerged was the excessive reliance of that municipality on funds collected through the imposition of fines and penalties for minor violations and legal infringements. These practices by municipal and local governments in many cases amount to a new form of government-imposed debt peonage”

Jaegar Moore/Flickr
Jaegar Moore/Flickr

‘Huh?! What’s all that got to do with race?’ some readers may be asking at this point. The question might best be addressed by noting some of the shifts in understanding of race that have resulted from advances in academic theorizing about race as a social phenomenon. It is now widely accepted in social theory that race, whatever it might be, cannot be adequately understood as a purely biological feature of humanity. Race is a socio-political and cultural effect as much as it is a ‘brute’ fact of human heritability. We are, fortunately, well past the days when the ‘one-drop rule’ served as a measure of racial identity, as a pretext for racial privilege. It has also been some time since the recognition that overt racist speech and behavior, as they gradually become less prevalent and less socially acceptable – due mainly to the consistent and courageous, often bloody struggle of those most directly affected by that behavior – still leave in their wake the deeper and more insidious effects of institutionalized racism, a racism of effects of institutionalized policies, rules, and practices, effects that continue to resound independently of any racist intent on the part of individuals occupying roles at those institutions. What the distinction indicated, and has become much clearer since, is that racial differences are as much the creation of institutions and social structures as they are the result of innate biological differences between persons from genetically distinct human populations.

But more recent inquiries into the social problems associated with race have gone further. While ‘institutionalized racism’ was generally used to refer to the operation of more discrete rules and practices on the level of the firm or the individual organization, many theorists concluded that race needs to be understood as an effect of systemic dynamism, as the outcome of the concerted, articulated impact of many institutional, socio-economic, and cultural processes operating relatively independently over sustained periods. One formulation of such an understanding is captured in the concept of racial formation.[3]

“Racial differences are as much the creation of institutions and social structures as they are the result of innate biological differences between persons from genetically distinct human populations”

Other theoretical developments point to the possibility that fine analysis of personal choices and knowledge can also yield a more nuanced understanding of how the social context can affect behavior in ways that individuals are unaware of themselves. Psychologists have recently come to identify and investigate the phenomenon of implicit bias: racial bias, revealed in split-second decisions, on the part of subjects who do not show any signs of conscious racial prejudice nor deliberate racial discrimination in contexts of deliberation.[4] In experimental conditions, subjects respond to visual prompts in situations calling for split-second decision in a manner that are consistent with racial prejudice, when those very subjects tested as free of any such bias or prejudice in other, more deliberative situations. Correlatively, experimental studies of ‘racial minority’ students seem to have demonstrated an effect which has come to be known as stereotype threat: faced with situations in which they expect to confront racial bias, students’ test results are depressed relative to identical situations in which no threat of bias is perceived to be present.[5]

What all this adds up to is: race is a ‘much bigger issue’ than it is generally presented as in the sound-bite-sized attention-span media-conglomerate-sphere. And note that, so far, overt racism has not been a key part of the sketch presented here. What I’ve tried to suggest is that the racial dynamic of American society is complex in a way that transcends racism in its traditional connotation but nonetheless reproduces racial disparities of a kind that maintain white superiority. ‘White superiority’ is here intended not in the sense of an ideology of racial superiority, rather in the sense of superiority of actual living conditions – what’s sometimes referred to as ‘white privilege’. But from that it should not be inferred that racism of the Amerian-as-apple-pie variety no longer exists. It has changed its spots somewhat, but it still has teeth. The recent assassination-style murders of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina should make that clear to all.

That event bears the hallmarks of one prominent variety of the racist violence of yore – the sudden, savage explosion of blind fury, absolutely disproportionate and ‘senseless.’ This, the fury ‘that won the west,’ was forged and heated to white in the furnace of chattel slavery. Commodified humanity was the core explosive contradiction at the heart of America, and to capture and maintain it short of detonation involved recourse to violence of a kind and degree that no ordeal of transoceanic passage nor European horror stories could prepare anyone for. The 250 years of chattel slavery in America demanded of its enterprising citizenry a willingness to practice violence, or at least to acquiesce in its use by others in the name of civilization. And once the recourse to violence acquires the force of habit, and is passed down from father to son, violence becomes a way of life, as it did, increasingly, into and throughout nineteenth-century America, and well into the twentieth.

 Tim Brauhn/Flickr.
Tim Brauhn/Flickr.

Picture: This space represents a slave chamber in Zanzibar, Tanzania where slaves where kept in inhumane conditions before being taken for auction at the slave market. Many slaves were sold to merchants heading to the Middle East. Like those shipped over to Europe and America, they faced an uncertain future, filled with peril and little avenue for freedom and self actualization. Learn more about the slave town in Zanzibar, Tanzania here: Zanzibar’s slave market is a site made sacred by history.

That violence, which took the form of ‘racial terror’[6] during the period of ‘lynch law’ in the South – from the 1870s through the 1940s – gradually abated as segregation and de jure white supremacy was broken up by a nationally mobilized civil rights movement. Mass support for the ideology of white supremacy has been eroded since then by the shifting political consensus and legal landscape stemming from the upsurge of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Despite such movement, the hiddenness of the deep structures of white superiority has been complemented by a culture of denial regarding the commodification of African humanity — the nightmarish underside of the ‘American dream’ and of the founding national mythology of pioneering individualism. While this doesn’t quite amount to overt racism – and that, perhaps, is the chief convenience of such suppression of historical memory – it has the effect of preserving a foothold for racist views and violence.

Perhaps it goes without saying: what has been sketched above, in the most cursory fashion, is but a suggestion of how a complex, changing ‘big issue’ might be understood. And while my account has been based primarily on the historical experience of people of African ancestry, the ‘big issue’ of race in America must, when given a full and proper accounting, include the experiences of Americans of native Amerindian, Mexican and other Latin American, Asian and Pacific Islands, as well as of Muslim and Arab-Americans.[7] Indeed, such an accounting would embrace the entire experience of U.S. American civilization.

Footnotes & References

[1] mailto:http://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/quotes/barack-obama-on-the-nation-s-moral-deficit-at-ebenezer-baptist-church

[2] This is, of course, the title and theme of Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010).

[3] Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s (New York: Routledge, 1986).

[4] mailto:http://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/voices/implicit-bias-and-social-justice

[5] mailto:http://www.apa.org/research/action/stereotype.aspx

[6] See the recent report of the Equal Justice Initiative, “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror.”

[7] Indeed, the story can also encompass the experience of people cast by the American mythology of ‘whiteness’ as non-traditional ‘people of color.’ See, for example, Noel Ignatiev’sHow the Irish Became White (New York: Routledge, 2008).

John Pittman
John Pittman
My scholarly interests are quite broad; my philosophical orientation could be termed historical and humanist. I enjoy teaching in the Justice Studies program and the Interdisciplinary Studies Program (formerly Thematic Studies), as well as in the Department of Philosophy. My publications have been on African American philosophy and Marxism. An anthology, African-American Perspectives and Philosophical Traditions appeared in 1997. The Blackwell Companion to African-American Philosophy, coedited with Professor Tommy Lott, appeared in 2003. I’m a CUNY PhD, awarded in 1989 for a dissertation on Marx’s Capital and Ethical Theory. Before that I did a BA at City College in math (I started in physics, but balked at the lab work). I attended the Fiorello LaGuardia High School when it was just ‘Music & Art,’ perched atop Harlem at 135th street. My mother is proud of my public education; so am I.
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