That structural and systemic racism exists is indisputable on the evidence, yet far too much time is wasted on the debate over that existence. How many books detailing its history have to be published? How much ink must be spilled highlighting the economic source of racism in the first place? Our entire racial divide was born of a fiction invented to support the dispossession of indigenous people and the enslavement of African people. It was a trick played on poor whites to make them side with the élites who built the early modern economy, and it has been perpetuated in our laws and culture ever since. And while on the one hand we will never fully expunge this legacy without confronting the history, it is on the other hand a waste of time to argue these points. Generations of conditioning will make fact-based arguments sound wrong, and if we spend our time debating whether or not the earth is flat we will not have time to solve the very real problems.
Instead, let us take the history of white supremacy for what it is — a fact — and move to addressing the consequences of that for the structure of the modern world. There are several distinct areas of policy on which we can work, and in the long run the benefits of those policy areas will filter out into the popular culture. Consider the question of overt racism — prior to the struggle to end segregation, literal hatreds were far more public and far more socially accepted. Once children grew up alongside one another through integrated schools and neighborhoods, a lot of the power of racism was diminished. It is easy to forget just how much worse off the US was 80 years ago! The lesson here is that pushing through legal changes can have positive effects on the culture without having to fight over individual beliefs. Let’s face it — most people never much change their minds on core issues. True cultural change is a generational phenomenon (and I say that as a historian who studies just those changes in ideas).
In policy terms, we should start with policing and criminal justice (which is treated more fully in a separate article). Studies of national statistics show that persons of color are three times more likely to be searched by police, and far more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for the same offenses. African Americans are 13% of the general population but 40% of the prison population. Latinx are 16% of the general population and 19% of the incarcerated. Much of this comes down to unequal enforcement of drug laws (whites are just as likely to use but far less likely to get caught) and to laws deliberately targeting people of color. The Nixon and Reagan administrations, for example, sought explicitly to association minorities with crime and drugs use, and set far stiffer penalties based on substance. This has had an entirely predictable result.
Along with the high rates of incarceration come severe strains on family and community life, and systematic disenfranchisement and exclusion from society. One in 13 African Americans cannot vote due to a past felony conviction, such that even after paying their debt to society they are told that their views no longer count, and they are not fit to be treated as full citizens. Felony convictions also sharply constrain economic opportunities, and without adequate reintegration efforts after prison time, many former convicts fall back into crime after failing to find decent housing or employment. If the goal is to reduce crime, the present system is failing. If the goal is to reinforce white supremacy, it is working perfectly.
One way to see this system in action is to look at the environment. Hazardous waste sites are far more likely to exist in poor communities and communities of color. Would someone build an oil pipeline through Beverly Hills? Of course not. But who thinks twice about routing chemicals through Native American reservations or impoverished black communities? Partly as a consequence, health complaints are far higher and life expectancy far lower for communities of color, and this environmental injustice must be addressed head on. In addition, we should treat those disparities in health care outcomes. Hispanic and African American people are far more likely to struggle with health care bills, and black women are three and a half times more likely to die in childbirth as white women.
At the heart of all of this is the question of economic justice, and some recompense for centuries of systematic disadvantage for minority populations. The question of reparations is a fraught one, but something needs to be done to right the wrongs. One possible solution, which comes far closer to addressing the key consequences of the present system, is targeted investment in communities of color. Think back to the way the New Deal drew “red lines” around white neighborhoods and kept the money there — we need to make up for those earlier decisions by returning to invest in poor black and brown communities.
By rebuilding infrastructure, schools, parks, businesses, health care, and the like, we can ensure far greater outcomes and opportunities for the next generation, and finally begin to move past the legacy of white supremacy. But so long as we ignore the very real effects of this painful history, it will continue to haunt our politics, to divide us, and we will keep playing into the hands of “culture warriors”. We need to break the ability of the far right to exploit a politics of fear, and we can only do that by righting the wrongs of the past and ensuring a more equal opportunity for all.
Photo by Tom Hilton, Courtesy Flickr, – CC BY-SA 2.0