State of Denial

State of Denial

We live in interesting times. These days we can all pretty much acknowledge that race does not exist as a scientific construct; these days, we can all agree that racism is wrong.


We live in interesting times. These days we can all pretty much acknowledge that race does not exist as a scientific construct; these days, we can all agree that racism is wrong. It breaks down pretty much after that. For example, I think Southern Partisan, the neo-Confederate magazine John Ashcroft praised as “set[ting] the record straight” in its defense of “Southern patriots,” subscribes to racist ideas. But Christopher Sullivan, its editor in chief, would beg to disagree: “A racist is someone who fire-bombs churches or who hates people of a different race or thinks that a person of a different race shouldn’t have the same rights that they do.” Supremacist ideas, according to Sullivan, are not necessarily racist because they are not always premised on hate. Thus, he is not, repeat, not, a racist when he muses: “Could somebody love a person of another race and still think that they were inferior? Yes, I think so.”

Clearly, acknowledging there’s no biological basis for race is not the same as saying it has no force in the world. Acknowledging that we do not pop out of the womb with our religion, or national identity, or political ideology inscribed on our foreheads is not to say that belief about others or ideology about color doesn’t matter.

Yet nationally, the momentum for addressing these historical problems is on the wane. In my last column I wrote of my concern about Proposition 54, on California’s recall ballot, which would prohibit the gathering of statistics regarding race, color, ethnicity and national origin. Police investigations and publicly funded medical experimentation would be the notable exceptions. This sweeping suppression of all mention of such categorization would make it virtually impossible to monitor profiling in police departments, in housing rentals and sales, in lending and banking practices, in public schools and hospitals or to fully comprehend the implications of environmental disasters or pollution. Yet again, if the one goal that most of us can agree upon is the elimination of prejudice, why is the attempt to measure any gap contested so bitterly? Why this proposed muzzling of the messenger?

There’s a very good new book just out from the University of California Press that addresses the growing national tendency to minimize, ignore or outright deny the racial problems that still divide us. Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society is a definitive treatise written by Michael K. Brown, Martin Carnoy, Elliott Currie, Troy Duster, David B. Oppenheimer, Marjorie Shultz and David Wellman. It is an extraordinarily in-depth study conducted by two sociologists, two lawyers, a political scientist, an economist and a criminologist. The book is not just edited but actually written by all seven; it is not a collection of essays, but a collaborative project that required “speaking through and across all kinds of disciplinary boundaries,” according to Shultz. “We did not start with the same opinions about anything. It took us years of comparing data and methodologies to distill what we could all agree was a fair picture of what is at stake.”

The focus of the book’s examination is what they call the “new national consensus” about the success of the civil rights movement. They test the narrative, advanced by conservatives from Abigail and Stephen Thernstrom to Dinesh D’Souza, maintaining, in essence, that the civil rights movement was successful–and is over; that any remaining racial disparities are caused largely by those who are not sufficiently motivated to take advantage of the opportunities before them and that neither public policy nor law has any further role to play in leveling the playing field.

The new narrative relies on polls establishing that most Americans firmly deny being “racist.” But Whitewashing Race compares those polls with actual behavior and concludes: “People who do not show up as bigots in attitude surveys sometimes behave like bigots.” If studies show a majority of white Americans feel that African-Americans have a right to live anywhere they wish, they also reveal whites expressing strong preferences for residing in neighborhoods with as few black people as possible and blacks expressing strong preferences for integrated neighborhoods. The book is filled with data documenting the same attitudinal dissonance in the job market and education, in health policy, voting rights and criminal justice. Over and over, this great paradox: always the repeated expressions of belief in the ideal of equality–just not in my backyard.

Part of the tension has to do with what Brown et al. document as “changes in the character of racism.” Public debate has shifted away from analyzing the institutional practices of banks, factories, fire and police departments, realtors and schools. “Today…racism is expressed in the language of American individualism,” they write, quoting from Donald Kindler and Lynn Sanders’s book Divided by Color. Race isn’t the problem, according to this brand of pseudolibertarianism–if certain segments of society haven’t succeeded it’s because of lifestyle issues, personal initiative, bad choice and an unpleasant degree of whining.

It is good news that most of us Americans embrace racial equality. But for those people of good will who nevertheless plan to vote for Proposition 54, I do wonder: Do you really believe the disparities that divide us today are entirely the product of minorities’ choosing residential segregation, choosing to exclude whites from their schools and choosing unemployment? Do you believe complaints about police profiling based on skin color reflect a genuine problem–or do you see it as wholly the mouthing off of dissolute criminal elements? If there is room in your understanding for the possibility of racism’s continued existence, is there no role for public remedy? Finally, if racial and ethnic data may be collected by law-enforcement and medical experimenters, oughtn’t there to be just a little oversight of that process? And if the oversight process is prohibited from mentioning race, color or ethnicity or from analyzing any such data, just how should such monitoring proceed?

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