Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Denying Racism is the New Racism

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts once wrote "[t]he way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."1  On its face, this colorblind policy sounds like a noble approach to solving America's race problem -- and for the sake of brevity, we can all agree that America does, in fact, have a race problem.  However, upon closer inspection of this colorblind policy an insidious nature emerges; it is predicated on the false premise that, today, all races are operating on an even playing field.  In other words, it denies that America's unfair racial policies and practices of yesterday have any bearing on the unequal playing field that we continue to find ourselves on today.

We would like to think that, in America, all of us are free to become wealthy and successful with just a little bit of hard work.  While we can certainly point to a handful of examples that reinforce this perception, a broader perspective reveals that such cases within the minority community are the rare exceptions to what is more frequently the rule for White families in America.  Despite our many commendable strides towards equality in America, Whites today are still more likely than Blacks, Latinos and other minorities to inherit the type of wealth, property, and education from their families that turn the "American Dream" into the "American Reality."  This fact usually tends to go unnoticed by most Americans who are honestly oblivious to the role that race has played in determining their station in life. However, there are a determined select few, like those who subscribe to the notion articulated by Chief Justice Roberts above, who are very much aware of America's racial disparities but who, nevertheless, choose to deny that race should continue to play any further role in ameliorating America's race problem.  In short, denying racism has become the new racism.

As the cartoon above brilliantly illustrates, racial discrimination has historically permeated America's federal, state and local governments as well as its private sector.  For example, the Naturalization Act passed by Congress in 1790 literally limited U.S. citizenship to immigrants who were "free white persons."  This opened the door for millions of European immigrants to become citizens while simultaneously closing the door for Black, Latino, Asian and other non-White immigrants who also came to America during the same time.  And since citizenship is required in order to vote, millions of White immigrants availed themselves of the political process early on in America's history, crafting laws and policies which continue to benefit White families to this day.2 [for a more detailed history on U.S. laws that have specifically benefited Whites, click HERE]

The private sector is no better.  For example, Black and Latino mortgage applicants are still 60% more likely than Whites to be turned down for a loan, even after controlling for employment, financial, and neighborhood factors. Unemployment in the private sector is 8.1% for White workers, however that same rate is 16.8% for Black workers. 

In the past, regardless of whether racism took place in the private or public sector, it used to come in the unmistakeable form of Archie Bunker.  Today, however, not so much.  Decades of affirmative action programs -- and not to mention the election of America's first Black President -- have caused a resentment to build up within a select group of Whites who feel that these "racial preferences" have not only eradicated racism for minorities, but have simultaneously transformed Whites into the new victims of modern racism. According to this group, there is no longer a need to level the playing field.  As far as they are concerned, there is no connection between the centuries of systemic racism perpetrated against minorities and where minorities are today, nor is there any connection between the centuries of preferential treatment  for Whites and where Whites find themselves today.  For them, it is far more convenient to simply deny these inequalities than it is to acknowledge them.

Perhaps nowhere is this new practice of denying racism more pronounced than in higher education, where the term "underrepresented minority" ("URM") is, according to this group, synonymous with "inferior."  A few years ago, I was invited to Cardozo School of Law in New York City to speak at a formal debate on the subject of whether affirmative action in legal education is still needed.  There were many valid arguments put forth by both sides, but one exchange still stands out to me to this day.  One of the other members on the panel, a very personable and well respected White law student from NYU Law School, stated quite succinctly that our society should not give preferential treatment to anyone on the basis of race because nobody can control what race they are born into. I responded "I agree with you 100%!  Our society absolutely should not give preferential treatment to anyone on the basis of race.  You are absolutely correct.  Now if only more people like you had made that exact same point 200 years ago, then you and I wouldn't be sitting here having this debate today."  He had no rebuttal.  He approached me after the debate, thanked me for my comment and admitted that he had never thought of the issue that way before.  For him, framing the argument in that context made him realize that he had been unintentionally denying the connection between yesterday's racism and where we are today.

The racial discrimination committed by both private and public actors throughout America's history has resulted in two basic outcomes: (i) access to a better life in terms of wealth, education, etc. has been -- and continues to be -- limited for minorities; and (ii) that same access has been -- and continues to be -- more readily available to Whites.  For the most part, we seem to be able to acknowledge that the first prong is true, but for some strange reason the second prong is extremely controversial.  We have little trouble connecting the dots between slavery, Jim Crow, and the disadvantaged position that many Blacks find themselves in today, but connecting the dots between those same things and the advantaged position that many Whites find themselves in today makes some people uncomfortable.  It is more convenient to simply deny that racism has played -- and continues to play -- any role in where we find ourselves today than it is to admit the truth:  most Whites are not wealthy based solely on their own merit and most Blacks and other minorities are not poor based solely on laziness.  This is not to say that there aren't any Whites who are, in fact, self-made millionaires who were born into poverty, nor is it to say that there aren't scores of minorities who are, in fact, lazy.  However, to accept as true that all Whites have made it on their own merit and that any minorities who haven't done likewise are simply "not trying hard enough" is to deny racism itself.

Fortunately for all of us, blatant and overt racism has, for the most part, become a thing of the past in America.3  However, this new movement of denying racism is just as toxic as blatant racism.  Denying our past can only doom us to repeat it, therefore it is critical that we not only educate ourselves on the role race has played in America's past, but that we also expose those who purposely try to deny these historical facts.  Although we may never be able to completely solve America's race problem, we can't afford to allow inconvenience to revise its history either.

1.  Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, 551 U.S. 701 (2007)
2. The Homestead Act of 1862 took over 270 million acres (10% of the total land mass of the United States) from Native Americans and transferred it into the hands of White male land owners.
3. Of course we all know that blatant and overt racism still exists in 2011, but the frequency of this type of racism today pales in comparison to the incidence of blatant and overt racism that was going on in 1911 or 1811.
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