Speaking Truth to Power on the Subject of Race

America Must Face Some Unpleasant Truths if Dialogue Is to Accomplish Anything

It took political courage for President Clinton to initiate a national dialogue on race and to appoint an advisory panel to keep us all focused on the subject. If there is short-term gain in this for any politician, it is hard to discern. Whatever Clinton's motives, having started down this road, it is now imperative to get it done right.

For this initiative to succeed, it must usher in a new understanding of the remaining racial divide that fits the realities of our times. Without such a new understanding, the tough work of reconciliation and reform that lies ahead will be that much harder to achieve. Although our racial landscape is now much more diverse including substantial and heterogeneous Latino and Asian communities, I want to point out four aspects of relations specifically between African-Americans and Euro-Americans that such a new understanding should emphasize:

First, although there is much to celebrate in the decline of Jim Crow Racism, our institutions and culture still bear a deeply disfiguring scar best described as Laissez-Faire Racism. Prior to World War II most white Americans accepted Jim Crow Racism. They supported segregated schools and housing, endorsed clear preferences for whites over blacks in access to employment, and flatly rejected the idea of racially mixed marriages. All of this rested upon the belief that African-Americans were inherently inferior. Today these views stand in disrepute. Most white Americans now say that we should be an integrated and non-discriminatory nation.

Unfortunately, these momentous changes simply herald a transformation in anti-black prejudice, not an end to it. Negative stereotypes about African-Americans remain widespread. One major national survey showed some 78 percent of whites perceived blacks as more likely to "prefer" living off of welfare, 65 percent perceived blacks as lazier than whites, 58 percent said blacks were more violence-prone and 56 percent said that blacks were less intelligent than whites. What is more, most whites blame blacks themselves, or African-American culture, for any remaining social disadvantages that blacks face. No doubt this helps explain the almost rabidly eager reception given any political pundit or social science scholarship that lectures to black America on its shortcomings. The end result is a political climate that is profoundly hostile to affirmative action and other efforts to fully incorporate African-Americans.

I refer to this new American racial ethos as Laissez-Faire Racism. This combination of persistent negative stereotyping, blaming blacks for racial inequality, and hostility toward an active policy involvement in fighting racial inequality leads to the re-creation of racial segregation and economic inequality. It does so through a variety of informal social mechanisms. For example, there is burgeoning evidence that the negative stereotypes of African-American discourage many whites from willingness to live in integrated neighborhoods. There is also growing evidence that negative stereotypes lead many employers to place African-Americans at the very bottom of the potential labor queue.


Second, there are virtually no African-Americans in the white middle class. Today's black middle class is larger and more secure than ever before, constituting perhaps a third of the African-American population. This milestone achievement, however, is easily misperceived and exaggerated. The black middle class still earns less, faces greater difficulty in securing occupational mobility, and faces greater risk of unemployment than otherwise comparable whites. Far more important, however, are four considerations. As sociologists Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro established in their award winning book, Black Wealth/White Wealth, the black middle class possess a fraction of the assets held by comparable whites. For example, the median level of wealth in white households they reported as $43,800, compared to only $3,700 in black households. In terms of net financial assets (subtracting debts) the respective figures are $6,999 to zero! Taking a college degree as an indicator of middle class status, Oliver and Shapiro show net financial assets of $19,823 for whites as compared to a mere $175 among blacks.

These are the fundamental structural disparities that 300 years of racism created. They constitute an enormous gulf in the quality of life experience that blacks and whites are likely to enjoy. In addition, the black middle class remains heavily residentially segregated by race, typically living in or on the periphery of declining ghetto communities. Discrimination by realtors, landlords, lenders and insurance companies play a major role in perpetuating such segregation. Further-more, the black middle class must still struggle against a popular culture sickeningly distorted by rumors of black inferiority. Clear proof of this comes in the remarkable sales and on-going national public discussion of Richard Herrnstein's and Charles Murray's racist tract The Bell Curve. Is there any other segment of the "middle class" that must endure serious public debate of whether they are genetically less intelligent?

There is, in addition, growing evidence that the level of labor market discrimination faced by African-Americans rose during the 1980s. Contrary to much popular perception, the Reagan-Bush years of assault on affirmative action and other aspects of civil rights enforcement were also an era when young college-educated blacks lost ground relative to whites. This is true both for earnings and for prospects of employment. Yet this was a time of narrowing black-white gaps in skill and achievement. I am persuaded by political economist Martin Carnoy's claim in his important book Faded Dreams, that Reagan-Bush policies hostile to civil rights and affirmative action opened the door to greater racial discrimination especially against the youngest black entrants (even very well-educated ones) into the labor force.

Despite great strides forward, the black middle class enjoys neither the financial security and community resources nor the elemental social respect enjoyed by their white counterparts. The American racial dilemma has transformed, not disappeared. Most of the black middle class knows this all too well; this is precisely the reason for the much commented-upon sense of black middle class rage.

Third, poor and working class African-Americans face barriers to opportunity based in both class and race. All workers irrespective of race, especially low-skill workers, have seen an increasingly globalized, high technology economy, much facilitated by laissez-faire social policy, drive down their wages and standard of living. Nonetheless, research involving carefully designed audits (i.e., matched pairs of job applicants), as well as systematic surveys and in-depth interviews of low-skill employers speak loudly on the subject of race: direct racial bias against African-Americans exists today. Continued race bias in the labor market and residential segregation help account for why a far larger fraction of the black poor as compared to the white poor, have incomes at 50 percent or less of the official poverty line.

Fourth, the challenge of the 21st century will be to constructively engage the race divide without being completely defined by it. We will not accomplish this end by pretending that socially meaningful "racial" distinctions are gone. We will not accomplish this end if the massive collective denial of the force of anti-black racism in its historic and contemporary forms continues, or worse yet, drives these facts from view altogether. It is possible to confront race and racism openly without succumbing to chauvinism and division. The truth and reconciliation hearings in South Africa constitute a shining example of the power of truth, even if dealing with the most awful of wounds, when spoken plainly, to open the door to healing. There are many folks who share the type of yearning expressed so eloquently by Skip Gates: "I want to be black, to know black, to luxuriate in whatever I might be calling blackness at any particular time--but to do so in order to come out the other side, to experience a humanity that is neither colorless nor reducible to color."

Clinton's initiative on race can reframe the national discussion in a manner that places us on the road to healing. The nation needs to look at some cold, unpleasant truths about its past, but also about its present circumstances if we are to have a twenty-first century free of racism. In order for that to happen, however, President Clinton and his advisers will have to speak candidly on a subject where the most politically palatable or ideologically safe ideas usually trump even the most obvious social facts. Noble intentions and great initiatives notwithstanding, I fear that the depth of the mendacity of the dominant discourse on race may yet preclude this from happening.

Lawrence D. Bobo is professor of sociology and Afro-American studies.

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