Recent instances of racist police violence — such as the killings of George Floyd and Brianna Taylor — have served as a powerful political catalyst, causing Americans to not only rise up against these profound injustices but also to initiate a complex dialogue with friends and family members. As a society, we must fully grasp the scope of white supremacy if we truly want to end it. White allies must understand that they personally benefit from systemic forms of racism, and that they must be willing to sacrifice their racial privilege in order to right these wrongs. They must embrace the discomfort that comes with this process, and push Black voices and Black perspectives to the forefront. At the same time, however, White allies cannot expect people of color, who are often traumatized by the realities of constant racism, to do all the work.
Education is a prerequisite to any positive change. A robust discussion of systemic racism in the United States is past due.
First of all, let’s find some common ground. Most Americans — including conservatives — should agree that systemic racism has existed at certain points in our history; slavery and Jim Crow being prime examples. But many Americans today surmise that we are in a “post-racial” society. A common justification for this outlook is that Barack Obama was our first Black president (as if the accomplishments of a single person imply anything about the lives of millions of others). Others believe that the civil rights era successfully dismantled government-sponsored racism in the U.S.
Famous civil rights-era legislation consisted of the landmark Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, followed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Acts of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act, which was enacted April 11, 1968. These were certainly historic accomplishments, but what about the implementation of these laws? Was the first day of a racial equality in America on April 12, 1968? Many White Americans seem to think so. Since these naive folks cannot experience anti-Black racism firsthand, observing some relevant data can be insightful. For instance:
- Black Americans are more than twice as likely as Whites to be poor.
- Black people die of Covid-19 at twice the rate of other races.
- The median Black family, with just over $3,500, owns just 2 percent of the wealth of the nearly $147,000 the median White family owns.
- Prison sentences of Black men have recently been nearly 20% longer than those of White men for similar crimes.
- Black men are about seven times more likely to be incarcerated than White men.
- Black men make up only 6.5% of the U.S. population, yet 40% of the U.S. prison population.
- A White man with a criminal record is more likely to get a job than an equally qualified person of color with a clean record.
- A Black college student has the same chances of getting a job as a White high school dropout.
- Black teenagers in recent years have been 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by the police than White teenagers.
- The National Fair Housing Alliance estimates that more than 4 million cases of housing discrimination occur each year.
Professor Carol Anderson’s recent book White Rage is a tragic, yet invaluable contribution to our understanding of race relations throughout American history. Anderson focuses on an often overlooked phenomenon: White backlash in the face of Black progress. This consistent historical tendency may actually provide crucial insight into this question of the implementation of civil rights legislation (or lack thereof). As Anderson explains:
“Because the Voting Rights Act was clearly working, the first civil rights legislation Nixon sent to Congress proposed eliminating Section 5 and stretching the VRA’s scope to the entire country. […] ‘With the entire nation covered,’ the attorney general admitted, ‘it would be impossible…to screen every voting change in every county in the nation.’ And thus, his staff would be unable to enforce the Voting Rights Act at all.” (Anderson, p. 108)
“The Nixon administration turned its sights as well on Brown [v. Board of Education][…] Almost fifteen years after the landmark Supreme Court decision, Mississippi…had yet to desegregate its public school system. When, on July 3, 1969, the federal court ordered the state to implement Brown by that fall, Nixon’s attorney general…convinced the judges to reverse the decision…” (Anderson, p. 110)
“Two important 5–4 Supreme Court decisions in which Nixon’s appointees were in the slim but decisive majority undercut the possibility that Brown would ever fully be implemented. […] In a March 1973 ruling that pulled the rug out from under Brown, they found that ‘there is no fundamental right to education in the Constitution.’ […] For the court, then, the funding scheme, in which, for example, Chicago allocated $5,265 for African American pupils while the adjacent suburban school district…appropriated $9,371 per student, was perfectly constitutional.” (Anderson, pp. 111–112)
To understand the regressive effects the subsequent presidential administrations had on black progress (Reagan — present), I’d recommend reading The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. Doing so will further elucidate the aforementioned statistics and historical accounts. In short, the most concise explanation of government policy toward people of color in the post-civil rights era is “racism with plausible deniability.” Lee Atwater, a former GOP consultant, said the following in 1981:
“You start out in 1954 by saying ‘n*gger, n*gger, n*gger.’ By 1968, you can’t say ‘n*gger’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states rights… You’re getting so abstract now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites.” (Anderson, p. 119)
Former Nixon aide John Ehrlichman later elaborated upon this notion in a 1994 interview with Harper’s Magazine:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. …We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
After reviewing what actually occurred in post-civil rights America, we cannot in good faith dismiss the verifiable continuation of systemic racism. White ignorance of this disturbing history often culminates in the ideology of racial “colorblindness” — the claim commonly articulated as simply, “I don’t see race.” As well-intentioned as this practice might seem in theory, in practice it serves to invalidate identities, invalidate experiences of racism, equate color with something negative, hinder the tracking of racial disparities, and narrow our understanding of others. We must call out colorblindness as an insidious tendency that proliferates white supremacy and contributes to unfathomable pain, suffering, and trauma. Acknowledging the reality of ongoing systemic racism in America is the first step.