Racism's Surface and Deeper Levels
The United States, where median Black household wealth is less than seven cents on the white household dollar and where the mild slogan "Black lives matter" is considered controversial, is still very much a racist nation. Grasping the nature of this national racism in the 21st century means looking at the different levels on which race operates here. One level is at the nation's discursive and symbolic surface. It is about language, imagery, signs, the color of elite personnel, representation, and, well, symbols.
A different and deeper level is institutional and structural. It's about how labor markets, the financial sector, the real estate industry, the educational system, the criminal justice complex, the military state, the corporate system, the dominant media, and capitalism more broadly all work to deepen, maintain, and/or reduce racial oppression and inequality.
At the surface and symbolic level, racism has experienced significant defeats in the United States since the rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the middle and late 1950s. Open public bigotry has been largely defeated in the nation's corporate-crafted public culture. Prejudiced whites face public humiliation when they voice openly racist sentiments in a nation that took "Whites Only" signs down half a century ago. Favorably presented Black faces are visible in high and highly public places across the national media and political landscape. The United States, the land of slavery, put a Black family in the White House in November of 2008.
Even in the South, a racially mixed Black couple now does not generally have to fear white violence and insults as they walk down a city street. The formerly all-white University of Kentucky basketball team now routinely competes for the NCAA championship with nearly all-Black teams before tens of thousands of screaming white fans and white cheerleaders. Black players dominate on the perennial college football champion in the heart of Dixie -- the Alabama Crimson Tide. Nightly television news teams are racially mixed across metropolitan America. Images of smart and handsome Black people are standard in commercial advertising, public relations, and human resources programs.
At the deeper institutional and societal level, however, racism is alive and well beneath the public and representational surface. It persists in the more impersonal and the more invisible operation of social and institutional forces and processes in ways that "just happen" to reproduce Black disadvantage. This deeper racism is so ingrained in the social, political, and institutional sinews of capitalist America that it is taken for granted -- barely noticed by the mainstream media and other social commentators. It includes widely documented racial bias in real estate sales and rental and home lending; the funding of schools largely on the basis of local property wealth; the excessive use of high-stakes standardized test-based neo-Dickensian "drill" and grill curriculum and related zero-tolerance disciplinary practices in predominantly black public schools; the concentration of black children into over-crowded and hyper-segregated, pre-incarceratory ghetto schools where a highly disproportionate share of the kids are deeply poor; rampant and widely documented racial discrimination in hiring and promotion; the racist "War on Drugs" and the related campaign of racially hyper-disparate mass black arrest, incarceration and criminal marking. The technically color-blind stigma of a prison history and felony record is "the New N word" for millions of Black Americans subject to numerous "new Jim Crow" barriers to employment, housing, educational and other opportunities.
Place and Race
Persistent de facto residential and educational race apartheid/segregation is a very underestimated underpinning of the institutional racism that lives on beneath the "color-blind" mythology supported by the rise of highly successful and publicly visible Black Americans like Oprah Winfrey and the Obamas. This is because place of dwelling is strongly connected to economic status and opportunity.
As sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton noted in their important 1998 book American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass "housing markets" distribute much more than a place to live; they also distribute any good or resource that is correlated with where one lives,." The relevant goods and resources include jobs, education, safety, access to green spaces, civic community, healthy food, public and social services, and wealth in the form of home equity.
By concentrating poor and working class Black people in a restricted number of geographical places, including "downstate" (in Illinois) and "upstate" (in New York and Michigan) prisons , U.S. de facto race apartheid reinforces Blacks' persistently disproportionate presence in the lowest socioeconomic places. It also renders Black experience largely invisible to most whites. This makes many Caucasian Americans susceptible to fantastically exaggerated and socially decontextualized media-generated notions of Black success and power (LeBron James, Oprah Winfrey, and Barack Obama) and -- on the evening news, often delivered by "good Black" newscasters -- to equally inflated images of "bad Black" criminality and "thuggery."
Another critical and underestimated part of the societal racism that lives on beneath the representational and symbolic surface is the steadfast refusal of the white majority nation to acknowledge that the long (multi-century) history of Black chattel slavery -- the vicious torture system of mass racist labor exploitation (itself the key to the early rise of American industrial capitalism, as the historian Edward Baptist has shown) that the Confederacy arose to sustain in 1861 and which prevailed across the U.S. South until the Civil War -- and its Jim Crow aftermath are intimately related to the nation's stark racial disparities today. There is something significantly racist about the widespread white assumption that the white majority United States owes Black America nothing really in the way of special, ongoing reparation for the steep and singular Black disadvantages that have resulted from centuries of overt, explicitly racist, and brutal oppression and exploitation.
As anyone who studies capitalism in a smart and honest way knows, what economic actors get from the present and future so-called "free market" is very much about what and how much they bring to that market from the past. And what whites and blacks bring from the living past to the supposedly "color-blind" and "equal opportunity" market of the post-Civil Rights present (wherein the dominant neoliberal authorities and ideology purport to have gone beyond "considerations of race") is still significantly shaped by not-so "ancient" decades and centuries of explicit racial oppression.
Given what is well known about the relationship between historically accumulated resources and current and future success, the very distinction between past and present racism ought to be considered part of the ideological superstructure of contemporary white supremacy.