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So Much For The End Of Racism

bigotboy.thumbnail.JPGOne of the right’s favorite ways of characterizing the state of racial relations in recent years has been to proclaim that for the most part, racism is a dead letter, an anachronism, a quaint artifact of dusty history mostly relegated to a few dark fringish corners. Dinesh D’Souza even wrote a wingnut-welfare book about it titled The End of Racism. And then there was the time Tony Snow proclaimed: "Here’s the unmentionable secret: Racism isn’t that big a deal any more. No sensible person supports it. Nobody of importance preaches it. It’s rapidly becoming an ugly memory."

Liberals, of course, have snorted at such nonsense, with good cause: You only need to have tuned in to any of the past couple years’ worth of Republican fulminations about immigration to know what a load of crap that is. Of course, they deny with vigorous red faces that racism has any part of it, but then we listen to their spokesmen — from Pat Buchanan to Douglas Bruce — and it’s not hard to figure out that this is just so much hot air. For that matter, we only need to turn to some of their dog-whistle fulminations about Obama and their post-Katrina speculations about black people and in general, the way they talk about race, to figure out that the GOP is the main refuge of the lingering racist element in American society. But then, we’ve known that since the advent of the Southern Strategy.

But before Democrats start feeling smug about that — and the fact that one of their two major candidates is African American — they better take a hard look within their ranks as well. Because, as Greg Mitchell reports, the election results from Pennsylvania indicate that there’s a problem with race for many Democrats, too:

Long before that, I had suggested that many understate the number of older Democrats who are (still) racist and who would tip many contests to Clinton. But I closed yesterday’s post by saying that if Obama won or came close in Pennsylvania that might put the issue to rest.

Didn’t happen. And the exit polls show, again, that one in four Clinton voters claim they would not vote for Obama in November — for whatever reason. And she got 70% of the white, blue-collar vote in most regions, including the area of central Pennsylvania where I spent a lot of time growing up and heard many a racist remark.

Here’s the money quote from a New York Times analysis of the exit polls: "Sixteen percent of white voters said race mattered in deciding who they voted for, and just 54 percent of those voters said they would support Mr. Obama in a general election; 27 percent of them said they would vote for Mr. McCain if Mr. Obama was the Democratic nominee, and 16 percent said they would not vote at all."

This is largely the same trend Paul Lukasiak uncovered when looking at national data and voting trends so far in these races. Democrats may want to believe, like Republicans, that the racism thing doesn’t matter anymore, that the post-Civil Rights era has finally enabled us to move beyond race. But it’s clear that that ain’t so.

A lot of why this trend is manifesting itself has to do with a kind of willful blindness about race that’s pervaded American society since the Civil Rights era. The truth is, we’ve let the legislative advances of that era, and the body of anti-discrimination laws that came out of it, stand as a kind of proxy for the cultural, economic, and broader social changes that need to occur alongside — but if we look at them honestly, they haven’t.

A recent Atlantic piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates about Bill Cosby’s conservative approach to race observed that his concerns were remarkably like those of earlier black reformers:

Cosby’s, and much of black America’s, conservative analysis flattens history and smooths over the wrinkles that have characterized black America since its inception … Indeed, a century ago, the black brain trust was pushing the same rhetoric that Cosby is pushing today. It was concerned that slavery had essentially destroyed the black family and was obsessed with seemingly the same issues—crime, wanton sexuality, and general moral turpitude—that Cosby claims are recent developments …

In particular, Cosby’s argument—that much of what haunts young black men originates in post-segregation black culture—doesn’t square with history. As early as the 1930s, sociologists were concerned that black men were falling behind black women. In his classic study, The Negro Family in the United States, published in 1939, E. Franklin Frazier argued that urbanization was undermining the ability of men to provide for their families. In 1965—at the height of the civil-rights movement—Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s milestone report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” picked up the same theme.

At times, Cosby seems willfully blind to the parallels between his arguments and those made in the presumably glorious past. Consider his problems with rap. How could an avowed jazz fanatic be oblivious to the similar plaints once sparked by the music of his youth?

To which Russ Douthat responded:

The fact that prior generations of intellectuals fretted, Cosby-style, about African-American crime rates, family structure, and so on doesn’t change the fact that those problems have grown much, much worse in the interim. And the fact that some moralistic crusades are foolish and misguided doesn’t mean that all of them are. The anti-jazz crusaders confused the music with the venues where it played, but that doesn’t mean that they were wrong to inveigh against alcoholism and gambling, and the fact that fifty years later jazz has become easy-listening music for the haute-bourgeoisie doesn’t mean the same thing will happen – or should happen, more importantly – to this kind of thing.

But the anti-jazz crusaders weren’t simply opposed to alcoholism and gambling, though as with the KKK, waving those particular bloody shirts gave them plenty to rail about regarding their larger objective: suppression of racial minorities. There was a reason the racists called it "jungle music," and a reason that the Nazis tried to outlaw jazz. Because there was a profoundly racial component of the anti-jazz crusades, which despite all their diversionary rhetoric were in fact focused on "defending white culture" — that is, keeping black culture in check:

[A]t the time, people believed that jazz was the forerunner of the decline of Western civilization. The anti-jazz crusade was motivated by an apocalyptic fear. The anxiety that jazz was "endangering our civilization," as the populist William Jennings Bryant put it in the New York Times in May 1926, was the subtext to many of the voices. People felt, in other words, that the dawn of the Jazz Age heralded the decline of Western Civilization. An assessment in the New York Times pronounced: "The consensus of opinion of leading medical and other scientific authorities, [is that jazz] is harmful and degrading to the civilized races as it always has been among the savages from whom we borrowed it."

Besides papering over historical reality, all of these observers — Cosby, Coates, and Douthat alike (not to mention Steve Sailer, who waded into Douthat’s thread to explain that this is all because of genetically wired-in cultural traits regarding fatherhood in Africa) — similarly refuse to confront the persistent reality: While segregation and Jim Crow have been outlawed, and residential and employment discrimination officially banned, the underlying causes of the century-ago black activists’ angst have not substantially diminished, especially residential segregation, continuing job discrimination, and general equality of opportunity.

Sure, we passed anti-segregation laws, but that doesn’t mean we’ve achieved actual desegregation. We talk high-mindedly about color-blindness, but stereotypes and broad prejudices about racial characteristics persist at all levels of society. If we want to talk about the festering persistence of crime and poverty among blacks, this is where we need to begin looking. But we never do.

In his book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, James Loewen explored the broad economic and cultural ramifications of the history of towns across America, most of them outside the South, that outlawed the presence of black people after sundown. There were literally thousands of them, most in the Midwest and West but in fact in every corner of the country. And the legacy of residential segregation they created — and which Americans have never come close to confronting — persists well into this century:

[T]he talk in sundown towns brims with amazing stereotypes about African Americans, put forth confidently with nary an African American in their lives. The ideology intrinsic to sundown towns — that African Americans … are the problem — prompts their residents to believe and pass on all kinds of negative generalizations as fact. They are the problem because they choose segregation — even though "they" don’t, as we have seen. Or they are the problem owing to their criminality — confirmed by the stereotype — misbehavior that "we" avoid by excluding or moving away from them.

Of course, such stereotypes are hardly limited to sundown towns. Summarizing a nationwide 1991 poll, Lynne Duke found that a majority of whites believed that "blacks and Hispanics are likely to prefer welfare to hard work and tend to be lazier than whites, more prone to violence, less intelligent, and less patriotic." Even worse, in sundown towns and suburbs, statements such as these usually evoke no open disagreement at all. Because most listeners in sundown towns have never lived near African Americans, they have no experiential foundation from which to question the negative generalities that they hear voiced. So the stereotypes usually go unchallenged: blacks are less intelligent, lazier, and lack drive, and that’s why they haven’t built successful careers. [pp. 320-321]

Sundown towns and their continuing legacy have also had a profound psychological impact on blacks, including the internalization of low expectations, and the exclusion of blacks from cultural capital [pp. 353-355]:

Confining most African Americans to the opposite of sundown suburbs — majority black, inner-city neighborhoods — also restricts their access to what Patterson calls cultural capital: "those learned patterns of mutual trust, insider knowledge about how things really work, encounter rituals, and social sensibilities that constitute the language of power and success." …

Making the suburbs unreachable for nonwhites similarly restricts them from making the social connections that are critical to forming networks that help us find work and move ahead in the workforce. Loewen notes that "the trouble is, these networks are segregated, so important information never reaches black America. … Sundown suburbanites know only whites, by definition, except perhaps a few work contacts. Thus sundown suburbs contribute to economic inequality by race."

As I observed earlier:

Most often, we like to overemphasize the progress that has been made racially since the Civil Rights era — while the reality is that the majority of our accomplishment has been more in the legal arena than in the larger societal one, and the bulk of it has been a result of a small handful of laws passed over a brief period in the 1960s: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Subsequent efforts to create a color-blind society, such as affirmative action and busing, have been muted in the years following by efforts to do away with them.

At the same time, very little has been done to tackle the larger problem of structuralized, institutional racism, created by decades of prejudice that created a segregated society divided into largely white suburbs and rural areas, while nonwhites remain clustered in inner cities, and the resulting segregation by class and power, economic and political.

Indeed, we seem to remain obdurately ignorant of the nature of these issues. What happens more often than not is that we reflexively fall back to old attitudes: The "problem," as we see it, must be with those nonwhites themselves. After all, the thinking goes, slavery ended in 1865, and we did away with Jim Crow and officially sanctioned prejudice in the 1960s. If blacks still fail to advance, it must be something wrong with them. If they fail to move up and into the suburbs, it must be their fault.

Too many white voters, especially in rural and suburban precincts, on both sides of the partisan aisle have absorbed these attitudes. Too many of them continue to believe that a black man, no matter how well educated, will ever have "the stuff" it takes to be president. And that’s why we’ve seen the racial voting trends in Democratic primaries that we have.

It’s not an insurmountable problem for Democrats, should Obama indeed be their nominee. But neither is it one they can hope to paper over and still win in November.

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David Neiwert

David Neiwert

David Neiwert is the managing editor of Firedoglake. He's a freelance journalist based in Seattle and the author/editor of the blog Orcinus. He also is the author of Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community (Palgrave/St. Martin's Press, June 2005), as well as Death on the Fourth of July: The Story of a Killing, a Trial, and Hate Crime in America (Palgrave/St. Martin's, 2004), and In God's Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest (1999, WSU Press). His reportage for on domestic terrorism won the National Press Club Award for Distinguished Online Journalism in 2000.