“So let us say that on this day of all days, each of us carries with us the task of changing our hearts and minds,” proclaimed Barack Obama in January from the pulpit at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, in a speech marking the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Obama’s high-minded words echo those of Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, whose 1944 book An American Dilemma still defines the basic dynamics of racial politics in America. In a lengthy italicized passage in his introduction, Myrdal provided the essence of his argument for readers who did not want to slog through its 1,483 data-laden pages: “The American Negro problem is a problem in the heart of the American. It is there that the interracial tension has its focus. It is there that the decisive struggle goes on.” For its unflinching accounts of patterns of segregation, the rhetoric and practice of Jim Crow, and pervasive racial violence, Myrdal’s book is indispensable. But the book’s longest-lived contribution was its argument–one that resonated with American religious and therapeutic culture–that racial inequality was fundamentally a moral and psychological problem that would be resolved only when Americans’ hearts and minds were untainted by prejudice.
Myrdal had many detractors, most of them on the left. Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker criticized him for downplaying the long history of black resistance to inequality. Oliver Cromwell Cox, the West Indian-born sociologist whose brilliant but mostly neglected book Caste, Class, and Race was published just a few years after An American Dilemma, took Myrdal to task for downplaying the connection between race and economic exploitation. Cox singled out Myrdal’s “mystical” belief that changing individual attitudes would end the “exploitation” at the heart of racial inequality. “In the end,” wrote Cox, “the social system is exculpated.” Myrdal’s critics grew more numerous in the 1960s. In their 1968 manifesto Black Power, Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton offered their own challenge to individualistic understandings of race relations and coined the term “institutional racism” to account for the ways that racial inequality was not solely or even primarily a matter of beliefs or attitudes. They pinpointed “conditions of poverty and discrimination” rooted in unequal relationships of power and privilege, like the healthcare system that failed urban blacks and that “destroyed and maimed” lives every bit as effectively as the actions of the most brutal individual racists.
Aptheker, Cox, Carmichael and Hamilton were swimming against strong political and cultural currents. Most Americans now, as then–black and white, leftist, liberal or conservative–take for granted that racial inequality is predominantly a problem of hearts and minds, of bad attitudes, deeply felt prejudices, irrational thinking, intolerance and immorality. They aren’t wholly wrong. Forty years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., overt racism (Klan marches, Denny’s restaurants rebuffing black customers and noose-laden trees in Jena, Louisiana) still plagues America. But hooded Klansmen, bigoted waitresses and perverted youth who romanticize lynching (of which there are still all too many) are not the prime causes of racial inequality in America today. Nor are the many whites who still trade in vile stereotypes of blacks.
The obsession with individual culpability has created an impasse in our thinking about race, right down to the widely used misnomers “postracial” and “post-civil rights era.” Explaining racial inequality in America–especially the most enduring form of it, that between blacks and whites–flummoxes even those most devoted to analyzing and eradicating it. How do we make sense out of a country where racial inequality is deeply entrenched but where racism is seldom overt? How can we square evidence of racial progress with the grim reality of persistent racialized poverty, unemployment, health and wealth gaps and educational disparities?
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There are two prevailing answers to these questions. Racial optimists emphasize the extraordinary progress blacks have made in the United States over the last half-century. In their view, the civil rights legislation of the 1960s–and the related shift in white attitudes–removed the formal legal obstacles to black advancement. As a result of the society-wide delegitimation of racism, most whites are now truly colorblind. The market rewards blacks and whites alike on their merit. Racial separation is the result of the inexorable expression of freedom of choice. Any remaining inequality is the result of blacks’ cultural pathologies and moral deficiencies, not racism. Only African-Americans themselves can solve their problems, by dealing with the dysfunctional behaviors and self-defeating attitudes that keep them down.
Racial pessimists, by contrast, argue that racism is pervasive but well hidden. Peel away whites’ colorblind rhetoric and beneath it you will find deep-rooted, perhaps subconscious, evidence of racial hatred. When white public officials criticize blacks (think Bill Clinton and Sister Souljah or the recent fracas between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama about Martin Luther King Jr., Lyndon Johnson and civil rights legislation), they face charges of racism. And the horrible and still all-too-frequent acts of racist violence are regularly interpreted as the tip of an iceberg of white hatred. Racially tinged insults or crimes become the moral equivalent of lynchings. Racial justice, in this view, requires constant vigilance against veiled and hooded racism. And it requires an ongoing struggle for hearts and minds–exhortation and education to reveal and overcome hidden biases. Two Harvard psychologists, Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald, have even gone so far as to devise a cognitive test that correlates rapid flashes of black and white faces and words with positive or negative connotations to uncover “implicit bias” (what a skeptical critic calls measuring “prejudice in milliseconds”). They have recast racism as a problem in the amygdala of the American.
Banaji and Greenwald’s work fits within a centurylong tradition of social science research that, as Stephen Steinberg shows in Race Relations: A Critique, has obscured more about racial inequality than it has revealed. Steinberg is a genealogist of mainstream racial sociology–tracing its troubled heritage from Booker T. Washington through the celebrated Chicago School sociologists of the early and mid-twentieth century through Nathan Glazer, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and, most recently, William Julius Wilson. Specialists won’t be wholly satisfied with Steinberg’s rather selective intellectual history. Steinberg is, for example, much better at interrogating the work of white sociologists like the University of Chicago’s Robert Park than he is in fleshing out the complexities of the many black social scientists–including Cox, E. Franklin Frazier and Charles Johnson–who came out of the Chicago School. But Race Relations is a critical essay–not a comprehensive history. Steinberg is relentlessly polemical, often witty and sometimes brilliant in his debunking of the conventional wisdom. Like all iconoclasts, he overstates his case. But for all of his rhetorical excess, his argument that the mainstream of twentieth-century social science downplayed racial oppression and exploitation for individualistic understandings of race relations is powerful and convincing, and it needs to be heard as he shouts it from the rooftops.
A key villain in Steinberg’s story is Robert Park, a white journalist who worked closely with the Tuskegee Institute’s Booker T. Washington (ghostwriting at least some of Washington’s famed The Story of the Negro, published in 1909) before joining the nation’s most illustrious sociology department at the University of Chicago in 1914. Park’s fault, according to Steinberg, was his faith in the inevitability of racial progress, his condescension toward black research subjects and his inability to see the connections between black oppression, American imperialism and white economic power. Chicago School sociology, argues Steinberg, bequeathed Myrdal and his successors a paradigm of “race relations” that emphasized attitudes and beliefs and downplayed white power and privilege along with the economic and political institutions that created and reinforced them.
Steinberg’s discussion of the period from the 1940s through the ’60s is far sketchier and ultimately less compelling than his analysis of Park and Myrdal. He misses two crucial developments in the postwar years that ensured the hegemony of the “race relations” model. The first was the cold war. Anti-Communism shunted critics like Cox to the margins and heightened the clout of Myrdal’s popularizers, who celebrated the “American creed” of opportunity and liberty. Those who demonstrated that America had been built on the backs of unfree labor and who argued for the fundamental interconnection between racial and economic inequality were ridiculed as reds. The second was the triumph of social psychology, a field that located the roots of racial inequality in the “authoritarian personality” or in deformed familial relations–and promoted therapeutic solutions that targeted both pathological white racists and their psychically “damaged” black victims.
Steinberg’s bête noire–the only black sociologist whose work comes in for detailed analysis–is William Julius Wilson, who succeeded Park at the University of Chicago before taking his current post at Harvard. Wilson became an academic celebrity with the publication of his controversial 1978 book The Declining Significance of Race. He emerged as a leading skeptic of affirmative action, arguing instead for universal programs that would address economic insecurity. (Steinberg quotes a cheeky critic who suggests that the book would have slipped into obscurity had it been titled The Increasing Significance of Class.) Wilson’s next influential book, The Truly Disadvantaged (1987), resuscitated the controversial 1965 Moynihan Report, which explained marital breakdown as a root cause of African-American poverty. Wilson’s critics accused him of legitimating conservative arguments that welfare rewarded unwed motherhood and undermined “family values.”
Steinberg comes close to depicting Wilson as a turncoat whose writing gave succor to conservative critics of civil rights. But the lack of nuance in his reading of Wilson weakens Steinberg’s overall argument. Wilson’s books are something like the Bible, open to multiple, contradictory readings. Right-wing pundits picked up on his bleak depiction of the black family and crusaded against the “perverse incentives of welfare.” Neoliberals, most notably Bill Clinton, used Wilson’s work to distance themselves from affirmative action. But Steinberg ignores two of Wilson’s most important contributions–his emphasis on deindustrialization and its devastating consequences for inner-city residents and, in his 1996 book, When Work Disappears, his discussion of the ways that employers use race as a “signal” of undesirable characteristics, making sweeping generalizations about the unreliability of black workers. That book might have been subtitled The Continuing Significance of Race. Neither argument can be dismissed as cavalierly as Steinberg does.
But if Wilson is too much Steinberg’s straw man, Steinberg’s larger argument–that racial inequality is ultimately a matter of oppression and exploitation, not personal prejudice and bigotry–stands. The story of inequality is one of the maldistribution of power and resources. Racial inequality has persisted in American life not just because whites harbor bad thoughts about blacks but because the advantages that redound to whites through racial segregation, especially in housing and education, have yet to be dismantled. But structural explanations of racial inequality have never fared well in a culture that attributes success to individual merit and pluck. White Americans who live in privileged suburbs pride themselves on their colorblindness but resist efforts to construct affordable housing lest it interfere with property values. They rebel against the misuse of their tax dollars to support the indolent and efforts to shore up failing urban schools. Structural explanations are taboo because they puncture our treasured myths of upward mobility and self-reinvention. Anyone can make it if they try hard enough, if they break free from the chains of dependency, if they get up in the morning and say, “Yes, I can!”
Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint’s Come on People, combining pop psychology and individualist bromides, carries racial individualism to its logical and absurd conclusion. “How many speakers speak out every day about racism, whether it’s systemic or whatever?” writes Cosby. “Even if there is truth to what they say, they sedate themselves with it.” Come on People is a mishmash of romanticism (“In 1950, we still feared our parents and respected them”), libertarianism (“Governments don’t care. People care, and no people care like parents do”) and hoary parental advice (“Turn off the TV,” “Reinforce Standard English,” “Respect Our Elders”). The book is ostensibly targeted toward poor and working-class blacks, but Cosby and Poussaint’s real audience is middle-class blacks, those cardigan-wearing suburbanites who have “made it” and who can nod along righteously as they distance themselves from their prodigal drug-dealing sons and nephews and grandchildren who live their lives buying iced-out bling, “wallowing in victimhood” and blaming whites and “the system” rather than shaping up and imitating their betters. Come on People is The Power of Positive Thinking for the wayward Negro. We shall overcome–by ourselves, by our own hard work and gumption, thank you very much.
Cosby and Poussaint’s notion that black poverty and violence are the result of self-defeating behavior is simplistic, if widely held among blacks and whites. And their solution–that black people need to fix it themselves by fixing themselves–is disastrously shortsighted. We expect the poor to be heroic and then lambaste them for failing. Cosby and Poussaint give a nod to the difficulties of life for impoverished and working-class blacks who struggle to get by on mediocre wages, in insecure jobs, with less and less support from a punitive welfare state and with notoriously troubled schools. But the duo’s solution is part of the problem. Heroic efforts at self-uplift might redeem a handful of lucky people, but it will take more than turning off rap music, giving up expensive sneakers and listening to Grandpa to take on the unfinished business of racial inequality.
Cosby is one of a beleaguered rank of black public figures–others being Clarence Thomas, Condoleezza Rice, William Julius Wilson, Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson (before he was tried for murder)–who have been branded as race traitors. In his book-length essay Sellout, Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy offers a historical typology of Black Judases, Benedict Arnolds, House Negroes and Oreos, among them blacks who helped thwart slave rebellions, black men who have married white women, black conservatives, black critics of affirmative action and blacks who have passed as white. In their ranks is Kennedy himself, whose defense of the “N word” in his 2002 book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, and his subsequent testimony about the “chameleon-like nature” of the word as an expert witness in a hate-crime case led Black Commentator editor and columnist Margaret Kimberley to charge that he was “an opportunistic self-hater with all the establishment’s top credentials, a very dangerous enemy indeed.” No less than the Council of Black Internal Affairs, publisher of the authoritative American Directory of Certified Uncle Toms, charged that the mild-mannered law professor’s scholarship was “more harmful than the crimes of common felons.”
Kennedy walks a fine line between those who eschew the concept of the sellout as uncivil and those who promiscuously use the term to discredit every slight variation from an imagined racial purity. Kennedy argues that the term “sellout” is a necessary device for the maintenance of a cohesive group identity, and it sometimes furthers the goals of racial justice. Sometimes, blacks need to close ranks to protect their interests. Among those Kennedy identifies as justifiably ostracized are William Hannibal Thomas, Otterbein College’s first black student and author of The American Negro, What He Was, What He Is and What He Will Become, a 1901 book beloved by white supremacists for its argument that blacks were “an illiterate race, in which ignorance, cowardice, folly, and idleness are rife.” Kennedy provocatively contends that the Montgomery bus boycott succeeded because blacks who were indifferent to the protests walked to work or joined carpools for fear of being denounced as sellouts. Kennedy even exculpates Clarence Thomas, “a charter member of the ‘Sell Out Hall of Shame.'” Kennedy argues that Thomas’s jurisprudence is misguided, his aversion to civil rights troubling and his rejection of the affirmative action programs that benefited him in college and law school hypocritical. Nonetheless, Kennedy sees Thomas as a genuine “race man,” committed in his own misguided way to bettering his people. Kennedy argues that even Thomas’s staunchest critics, such as the late federal judge A. Leon Higginbotham and UCLA law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, presented no evidence of “intentional misconduct on Thomas’s part.” No intention, no guilt. Thomas remains inside the circle of blackness.
Kennedy’s exceedingly generous and controversial treatment of Thomas is indicative of the fundamental problem with his attempt to redeem the term “sellout.” The problems facing black America will not be solved by drawing a tighter circle around “true” black people with “true” black beliefs or widening the circle of “us” to include the likes of Thomas. Intentions should matter far less than results. Reinforcing racial essentialism–which is what the concept of the sellout essentially does–or wasting time reading the minds of alleged race traitors and backsliders does not undermine racial oppression. Clarence Thomas is no more or less a sellout of black interests than fellow Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito or John Roberts. There may be some psychic relief in naming Uncle Toms, but it is a political dead end to quibble over authenticity rather than to challenge bad ideas and public policies with damaging results, regardless of who champions them and the nature of their motives.
In The Race Card, Richard Thompson Ford, a professor at Stanford Law School, grapples with our myopic focus on individual racist thoughts and actions rather than persistent structural inequality. Ford chronicles our impoverished racial discourse, in which “cheap theatricality stands in for valuable insight” and “simplistic dogma masquerades as analysis.” Though he doesn’t use the term, Ford describes a sort of false consciousness wherein personal slights, interpersonal disputes and legitimate differences of opinion are elevated to the status of racism.
Ford plucks his examples from the garish world of celebrity culture: O.J. Simpson’s attorneys painting him as a victim of a racist conspiracy; Oprah Winfrey turning a rude encounter with snobby French salesclerks at an Hermès shop in Paris into a cause célèbre; and rapper Jay-Z’s boycott of Cristal Champagne because its corporate flack dissed “‘hip hop’ culture.” There is more than a little sensationalistic fluff padding Ford’s accounts of spurious charges of racism (do we really need another rehash of “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit”?). But when he gets into real-life examples, such as taxi drivers refusing to pick up black passengers (it’s the logical consequence of persistent residential segregation, concentrated poverty and crime, not usually the bad intentions of cabdrivers), and the disparate racial impact of Hurricane Katrina (the real villain here is not George Bush but instead systematic racial segregation, the marginalization of the black poor and long-term disinvestment), his insights are bracing. Ford also challenges the slippery ways that aggrieved individuals (including the obese, people with tattoos and piercings, and white critics of affirmative action) have created a politics and jurisprudence of prejudice analogous to racism. “Fat is not the new black,” Ford argues, dismantling arguments that when airlines require overweight passengers to pay for two seats or gymnasiums decline to hire a person of size to run an exercise class, it is the equivalent of systematic Jim Crow. “Weightism and looksism aren’t problems of social order or of social injustice,” as were laws that excluded blacks as a group from the full prerogatives of citizenship.
Ford’s critique of the race card is rooted in a larger, institutional understanding of racial discrimination. “Our tools for describing, analyzing, and righting racial injustice assume that racial injustices are the work of racists,” he writes. Such tools create confusion when applied to what Ford provocatively calls “racism without racists,” which is what occurs when people get trapped in the legacies of discriminatory policies. The result is disabling. The scandal-hungry media feast on ridiculous or exaggerated charges of racism while ignoring the real problems of racial inequality in their midst. Whenever the race card gets played, by either a multiculturalist or an opponent of affirmative action, it trivializes racial inequality and oppression and harms the cause of civil rights: “Practices that create a permanent underclass,” he writes, “are unjust in a different and more profound way” than isolated, arbitrary acts of prejudice. Fingering a few bigots–
rightly or wrongly–does nothing to challenge pervasive educational and housing segregation, the black-white wealth and health gaps, or the disproportionate impact of the prison-industrial complex on young black men.
If there is one lesson to be learned from the past half-century of struggle for racial equality, it is that accusing elite blacks of selling out, calling on poor blacks to shape up or ship out and making a high-minded effort to change the hearts and minds of white Americans have not fundamentally reshuffled the deck of racial inequality in America, especially when black interests threaten white power and privilege. Change did not come only because of high-minded rhetoric or hope. It took the coercive power of the federal government and courts to desegregate schools. The opening of the American workplace did not happen because the shingles fell from the eyes of racist employers. It took grassroots activism and the threat of disruption, along with litigation and the power of regulation, to break down Jim Crow on the factory floor and in the corporate office.
The struggle for racial equality and its partial and incomplete victories are forgotten in our confused time. The politics of race in 2008 is, more than ever, a politics of national redemption through personal transformation. It is all strangely removed from the experience of most black and white Americans. Despite more than a half-century of progress on racial matters, rates of black-white segregation remain incredibly high; neighborhoods and public schools in the North and South remain separate and unequal (and, despite our myths of progress, they are resegregating); and blacks fare worse than whites on nearly every measure of health, well-being and success. Nearly half of African-American children live in poverty, and there are more black men in prison than in college. Black households have on average only 10 percent of the wealth of white households. The current housing crisis affects all Americans, but blacks are disproportionately represented in the ranks of those with subprime loans and foreclosed properties. All of these amount to a crisis–but one that is almost wholly absent from the political agenda. So long as the battle for racial justice continues to be fought on the battleground of hearts and minds, so long as it misinterprets the gauzy politics of symbolism and rhetoric as victory, and so long as it holds out the misguided hope that ferreting out the last hard-core racists or sellouts will transform American life, then the day when “we shall overcome” will remain a distant dream.