Tag Archives: racism

Structural Racism

Over the past several years, America has debated and (to some extent) confronted the extent of our country’s racism.The willingness of White Supremicists to make their animus explicit was triggered by the election of Barack Obama and evidence of shifting demographics, but we are still far from having a candid discussion of the ways in which that racism has infected the systems and structures of our society.

Far too many people think of racism as individual behaviors–the sorts of interpersonal  nastiness that goes viral after being captured by our ubiquitous iPhone cameras. Those of us who are white and middle-class rarely recognize the ways in which people of color have been systematically disadvantaged by official acts; I was shocked to learn about the federal government’s role in redlining from The Color of Law and similar books.

The Brookings Institution recently compared the treatment of South American immigrants with earlier treatment of immigrants from European countries. It was illuminating, to say the least.

Examining immigration policy through a systemic racism lens reveals that today’s largely Latino undocumented immigrants face far harsher consequences than white Europeans of years past for the same exact offense of unauthorized entry. A system that treats immigrants differently solely to their race is essentially the textbook definition of structural racism.

“Illegal” immigration was remarkably common in past decades. Around the turn of the century many Europeans came to the US “with a tag on,” a label sewn into their clothing to allow an employer or labor contractor who’d paid for the immigrant’s passage to find the newcomer at the dock on Ellis Island. While illegal—indentured servitude having long been outlawed[ii]–the practice was so widespread that one labor union official testified in 1912 that “more than 8 in 10” of the million immigrants who’d entered that year had a job waiting from an employer that paid for the newcomer’s passage.[iii] Others came as illegal stowaways aboard ships or unlawfully crossed the border from Canada, as CBS Evening News Anchor Nora O’Donnell recently discovered her Irish grandfather had done in 1924.[iv

According to the Brookings report, these “illegal” European immigrants faced few if any repercussions. In part, that was because there was little or no immigration enforcement, but even among those who were caught, few faced deportation. Migrants who entered unlawfully before the 1940s were protected by statutes of limitations and– in the 1930s and 1940s– by grants of amnesty. And before 1976, the government was extremely unlikely to deport parents of US citizens–the “anchor baby” accusation is a recent invention.

There weren’t restrictions on the ability of immigrants to access public benefits until the 1970s, and Brookings reports that it wasn’t until 1986 that it became unlawful to hire an undocumented immigrant.

In sum, from the early 1900s through the 1960s, millions of predominantly white immigrants entered the country unlawfully, but faced virtually no threat of apprehension or deportation. Businesses lawfully employed these immigrants, who were eligible for public benefits when they fell on hard times.

Times have certainly changed. Undocumented people today, most of whom are Latino and/or other people of color—are treated very differently. They enjoy none of the privileges  that were accorded to previous generations of white immigrants as a matter of course.

The toughening of immigration laws coincided with a shift of immigration from Europe to newcomers from Latin America, Asia, and Africa,[x] often in the context of racialized debates targeted mainly at Latinos. Researchers have documented how through the 1960s, racialized views of Mexicans shaped law and bureaucratic practice.

The report goes on to describe the increasingly draconian policies that followed the change in immigrants’ skin color. I encourage you to click through and read the entire, depressing  exposition.

Watching Derek Chauvin murder George Floyd was a horrific example of official disregard for the life of someone perceived to be different and thus lesser.  As a society, we need to send a message that such behaviors by individuals cannot be tolerated. But the larger challenge we face is the pressing need to ferret out the multiple ways in which similar attitudes have infected the structures of our laws and policies, and the multiple, less-visible ways those structures continue to harm not just the people being marginalized but also the country as a whole.

 

Those Trump Loyalists

One problem with political discourse these days is the participation of many truly nice people in those discussions. They are horrified by those of us who characterize today’s GOP as a racist mob. They (quite properly) note that such characterizations are far too broad-brush, and they insist that a continued effort to engage Republicans in civil conversation will often yield results.

Unfortunately, they are far too kind.

I will grant that stereotyping entire groups of people is both dangerous and inaccurate, but I also recall Maya Angelou’s advice to believe people when they show you who they are. So I was intrigued by a report from Talking Points Memo on a series of focus groups with Trump loyalists.(Note, this is a “members only” article that may not be readable if you aren’t a “member.” A link to the study itself is here.)

Democracy Corps conducted a series of focus groups with Trump supporters and various other GOP conservatives. They evidently had considerable difficulty recruiting volunteers– it took a long time to recruit people to constitute representative groups because, as a Democracy Corp representative noted, Trump voters seemed particularly distrustful of outsiders.

Once they were in a Zoom room with all Trump voters, however, they apparently let it all hang out. Here are the “takeaways.”

The Trump loyalists and Trump-aligned were angry, but also despondent, feeling powerless and uncertain they will become more involved in politics;

Trump’s base saw Biden, as a white man, as not threatening, controlled by others, unlike Obama who represented everything Tea Party-Republicans were determined to fight;

Even Trump’s base is curious about the extent to which they benefit from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) and Biden’s signature program, compared to Obamacare that they viewed as a new entitlement for Blacks and immigrants that must be stopped;

The Trump loyalists and the Trump aligned are animated about government taking away their freedom and a cancel culture that leaves no place for white Americans and the fear they’re losing “their” country to non-whites;

They were angered most of all by Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Antifa that were responsible for a full year of violence in Democratic cities that put white people on the defensive – and was ignored by the media;

The Trump loyalists and those who are aligned rooted for the anti-lockdown protestors in Michigan and saw the violence and disruption of the legislature as justified. Some pulled back when the guns threatened innocent civilians, and more when their methods seemed to be losing support for the Trump movement;

A handful of the Trump loyalists supported the January 6th insurrectionists, but most quickly concluded it was really Antifa or an inside job to make Trump supporters look bad. They normalized the insurrection, suggesting it was no different than the violence carried out by BLM and Antifa;

They worry now that it is the government that has taken the initiative on the use of force, increasing their sense of powerlessness;

It is difficult, if not impossible, to look at these findings and not see how deeply racism motivates support for Trump and his GOP. Nice people don’t want to recognize the extent to which White Nationalism affects and distorts American political life–and the extent to which bigotry and racial grievance has assumed control of one of the country’s major political parties.

I don’t want to admit it either–but some 74 million people voted for that President and that party. I don’t know how we combat hatred, but I do know that we can’t address a problem we refuse to see.

Tearing The Scab Off

MONDAY’S POST–INADVERTENTLY PUBLISHED EARLY…(Every once in a while, I hit the wrong button…)

It has taken nearly 150 years–since the end of the Civil War in 1865–for America to face up to our most consequential deviation from the sentiments expressed in the Declaration of Independence. During most of that time period, we have engaged in various kinds of denial–the most widespread and egregious being the oft-repeated assertion that the war was fought over “states’ rights.”

That description was true, as far as it went. The war was fought to defend the “right” of some states to authorize and enforce the enslavement of black human beings.

Although very few school history classes have taught the realities of slavery, reconstruction and the various horrifying efforts to thwart the civil rights movement, we find ourselves at a point where the reality and extent of racial animus can no longer  be ignored. Over the last four or five years, members of what the late Molly Ivins used to call “the chattering classes” have focused more honestly on the extent to which racial grievance permeates our politics and distorts American public policy.

I posted a few days ago about the eruption in the Indiana General Assembly, but the verbal expressions of incivility certainly weren’t the only metric of racial bias: the assault on Indianapolis by more suburban and rural lawmakers–displayed this session in a number of truly offensive bills–is driven in large measure by disdain for the racial diversity of urban life. Legislative support for Indiana’s costly voucher program, which aims to “privatize” (and not so incidentally, resegregate) education, has its roots in that same disdain.

The under-appreciated problem with policy grounded in racial and ethnic bias is that such policies don’t hurt just the people who are targeted; they also hurt those who support them, as a new book makes very clear.

Michelle Goldberg described that book–“The Sum of Us” by Heather McGhee– in a recent column for the New York Times.

McGhee’s book is about the many ways racism has defeated efforts to create a more economically just America. Once the civil rights movement expanded America’s conception of “the public,” white America’s support for public goods collapsed. People of color have suffered the most from the resulting austerity, but it’s made life a lot worse for most white people, too. McGhee’s central metaphor is that of towns and cities that closed their public pools rather than share them with Black people, leaving everyone who couldn’t afford a private pool materially worse off.

One of the most fascinating things about “The Sum of Us” is how it challenges the assumptions of both white antiracism activists and progressives who just want to talk about class. McGhee argues that it’s futile to try to address decades of disinvestment in schools, infrastructure, health care and more without talking about racial resentment.

She describes research done by the Race-Class Narrative Project, a Demos initiative that grew out of her work for the book. McGhee and her colleagues, she writes, discovered that if you “try to convince anyone but the most committed progressives (disproportionately people of color) about big public solutions without addressing race, most will agree … right up until they hear the countermessage that does talk, even implicitly, about race.”

There is a widespread zero-sum approach to social justice–a deep-seated fear that equality for “them” will diminish dominance/status for “us.”

McGhee’s book shifts the focus from the ways in which racism benefits white people to the substantial costs it imposes on them.

 Why is student debt so crushing in a country that once had excellent universities that were cheap or even free? Why is American health care such a disaster? Why is our democracy being strangled by minority rule? As the first line of McGhee’s book asks, “Why can’t we have nice things?” Racism is a huge part of the answer.

An unhealed wound will form a scab; a healed wound will leave a scar.  Racism is America’s wound. There will always be a scar, but it won’t heal until we recognize and acknowledge the ongoing, significant damage it causes to all of us.

As Goldberg says, counting on altruism will only get you so far.

The Appalling Indiana Statehouse…

After a truly revolting episode in the Indiana Statehouse, a recent quote from Sacha Baron Cohen seems particularly apt. Cohen was quoted as saying “If you’re protesting against racism, you’re going to upset some racists.”

Which brings me to what transpired in Indiana’s Statehouse on Thursday.

During the House session on Thursday, a bill concerning school district boundaries that some are calling racist sparked an emotional and angry debate. Several legislators walked out of the chamber, GOP legislators in their seats booed and shouted “no” and “stop,” and some members even clashed in the halls after Black legislators spoke out against the bill. 

The confrontations broke out on a day when Black members were celebrating Black History Month by wearing traditional African garb. 

“We kind of felt like it kind of fed into how the members were acting,” said Rep. Robin Shackleford, D-Indianapolis. “I think having on the African garb and our members going up there stating how they felt about a bill, I think that just antagonized them even more.”

The bill would allow de-annexation of neighborhoods that are currently part of the South Bend Community School Corporation, which is mostly non-white, and move them to John Glenn School Corporation, which is mostly white. 

According to several media reports, the boos and jeers in the chamber were followed by confrontations in the hallways and the mens’ restroom. 

Among the lawmakers who got up and walked out was Jim Lucas, who has previously been sanctioned by the GOP Speaker of the House for sharing a racist meme. (Our daughter has told me that she sees Lucas’ Facebook page on occasion, and that it is an appalling collection of racist and conspiratorial commentary.) The chairwoman of the Black caucus has called for Lucas’s removal from several committees, pointing to his intransigence and hostility. She also called for the entire House to have bias training, noting that “his thinking and his behavior is enabled by the complacency of some of our colleagues.”

“Complacency” is a kind word for it. Thursday’s behavior certainly underscored her point.

Efforts of largely white school districts to break away from districts with significant numbers of  minority students, and to– not-so-incidentally– take their funding with them isn’t unique to Indiana. Both The Atlantic and The New York Times have reported on instances in Louisiana and Alabama in which white communities have tried to separate from minority communities.

“Laws in 30 states explicitly allow communities to form their own public-school systems, and since 2000, at least 71 communities across the country, most of them white and wealthy, have sought to break away from their public-school districts to form smaller, more exclusive ones,” The New York Times reported, citing a study by EdBuild.

Based on the United States Census, as of 2019, South Bend was 61.7% white while 48.5% identified as part of a minority group. 

Predictably, the author of the bill denied any racial intent, claiming the measure was based on concerns about transportation. If you believe that, I have some underwater real estate you may be interested in purchasing…but even giving him the benefit of the doubt, the unseemly reaction by many lawmakers to legitimate concerns voiced by their Black colleagues was the give-away. Booing, jeering and accosting lawmakers and witnesses who dare to raise an obvious issue is hardly the principled debate on the merits of a bill that taxpayers and voters have the right to expect.  

The bill passed the House with a vote of 53-42. Fourteen Republicans joined Democrats in opposition. It will now move to the Senate, where more optimistic Hoosiers can hope for more civil–and less revelatory–consideration. 

Episodes like this go a long way toward explaining the “brain drain” that keeps educated people from settling in the state. If I were thirty years younger, I wouldn’t stay in Indiana either. There’s a reason Indiana is called the buckle of the Bible Belt–or more colorfully, the middle finger of the South. 

 

The New Confederacy

Little by little, as media sources obtain access to previously unavailable information, Americans are learning the true extent of the criminal and racist activities of the Trump administration–and far more concerning, we are now seeing how far gone, how amenable to those characteristics, today’s QOP remains.

One example among many: in the final, lame-duck days of the administration–after the election but before Biden’s inauguration–the Justice Department moved to undo what the Washington Post called “decades-long protections against discrimination,” by
moving to change the interpretation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Title VI bars discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin by recipients of federal funding.  The rules apply to the recipients of some six billion dollars of annual federal aid, and provide that actions will be considered discriminatory if they have a demonstrably discriminatory effect on protected groups. That’s what’s known as a “disparate impact.”  Under the new version, only intentional discrimination would be prohibited.

Intentional discrimination is incredibly difficult to prove, as lawyers who bring cases under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment can attest. (In order to succeed, challenges brought under that clause must show evidence that at least a part of the challenged law or action was intended to be discriminatory.)
 
According to the Post’s report, the Trump administration had been considering the change for over two years, but had waited until its final weeks to try to put it into effect. It was one of William Barr’s last efforts before his welcome departure as Attorney General.

And as usual, the Trump administration ignored the required procedures for making  significant policy changes.

Typically regulations of this magnitude are published first as proposals and the government collects public comment before publishing its final version. It would be unusual to publish a final regulation — particularly one of this magnitude — without going through that process, but the document says that its proposal falls under an exception and therefore the administration is not required to seek public comment.

Conservatives have long argued that allegations of discrimination should require proof that any disparate effects were intentional. If this argument is accepted, it allows the defense to deny the existence of structural racism: if person X doesn’t have a conscious animus, then what he does isn’t racist. So the bank officer who declines a mortgage under his bank’s redlining criteria, the police officer who participates in “stop and frisk” activities only in “certain” neighborhoods, the HR department that hires applicants based upon “cultural compatibility,” the City Council that paves streets far more frequently in the “nicer” areas of town–all are off the hook.

If no one is burning a cross on a Black person’s lawn, or screaming the “n” word, there’s no racism.

The Trump administration’s effort to bolster structural barriers to equality is just one of many examples of what has become distressingly clear during the past four years: today’s QOP is our contemporary version of the Confederacy. It is dominated by White Christian male supremacists intent upon doing whatever it takes to protect their historic hegemony–intent upon ignoring/excusing the operation of systems developed and maintained over the years that lock in White advantage without demonstrating cruder, more obvious bias.

It is not a coincidence that those willing to engage in that cruder racism–the “out and proud” racists of the KKK and Proud Boys and neo-Nazis– flocked to Trump and today’s Republican Party.  The efforts of more “respectable” members of the party to maintain plausible deniability–to distance themselves from their Confederate motives– is increasingly unconvincing.

The problem, as I have repeatedly noted, is that a two-party system needs two adult parties. It will be interesting to see if the embryonic efforts to form a new center-right party to replace the cult that is the current QOP go anywhere….