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"Symbolic Racism" and the "US of KKK A"

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Hannity, Clinton, Obama, Rev. Wright and "Racism 101": Part Two

I'd be a millionaire, if I had a dime for every time some white American expressed some variant of the opinion: "Slavery ended a long time ago. Blacks have it much better today. They've achieved equality under the law and many middle class blacks have achieved de facto equality. Why can't they just get over it?"

Well, it's one thing to insist that blacks take responsibility for their own lives, even in the face of past and present racism. In fact, a November 2007 Pew Research Center poll found that 53 percent of America's blacks believe: "blacks who don't get ahead are mainly responsible for their own condition." But, it's quite another thing to close one's eyes to the impact of past and present racism.

When discussing the current indifference of whites to the cumulative impact of past racism, perhaps political scientist Roy L. Brooks put it best: "Two persons - one white and the other black - are playing a game of poker. The game has been in progress for some 300 years. One player - the white one - has been cheating during much of this time, but now announces: 'from this day forward, there will be a new game with new players and no more cheating.' Hopeful, but suspicious, the black player responds, 'that's great. I've been waiting to hear you say that for 300 years. Let me ask you, what are you going to do with all those poker chips that you stacked up on your side of the table all these years?' 'Well,' said the white player, somewhat bewildered by the question, 'they are going to stay right here, of course.' 'That's unfair,' snaps the black player. 'The new white player will benefit from your past cheating. Where's the equality in that?' 'But you can't realistically expect me to redistribute the poker chips along racial lines when we are trying to move away from considerations of race and when the future offers no guarantees to anyone,' insists the white player. 'And surely,' he continues, 'redistributing the poker chips would punish individuals for something they did not do. Punish me, not the innocents!' Emotionally exhausted, the black player answers, 'but the innocents will reap a racial windfall.'"

Commenting on this "racial windfall," Paul L. Street concludes, "there is something significantly racist about the widespread mainstream white assumption that the broader white majority society owes African Americans nothing in the way of special, ongoing compensation for singular black disadvantages resulting from overt and explicit past racism." [Paul L. Street, Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis, p. 23]

Americans familiar with the work of sociologist Dalton Conley know that that slavery and Jim Crow sharecropping have been curses that keep on cursing, especially by preventing most African-Americans from accumulating the wealth they should have gathered otherwise. As Professor Conley sees it, "wealth accumulation depends heavily on intergenerational support issues such as gifts, informal loans, and inheritances." [Dalton Conley, Being Black, Living in the Red, p. 6] "Wealth is much more stable within families and across generations than is income, occupation, or education. In short," says Conley, "we are less likely to have earned it and more likely to have inherited it or received it as a gift." [Ibid, p. 14]

"In 1865, at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans owned 0.5 percent of the total worth of the United States...However, by 1990, a full 135 years after the abolition of slavery, black Americans owned only a meager 1 percent of total wealth." [Ibid, p. 25] According to Professor Conley, "In 1994, the median White family held assets worth seven times more than those of the median nonwhite family." [Ibid, p. 1] In a word, the deliberate impoverishment of slaves and Jim Crow sharecroppers played a major role in preventing blacks from passing significant wealth to their descendants.

(Much in the spirit of Barack Obama and, perhaps, Hillary Clinton, Professor Conley believes that the racial gap in wealth can be remedied by an "aggressive wealth-accrual policy" that would benefit both whites and blacks, who are "asset-poor." Class, rather than race.)

Moreover, it wasn't merely the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow sharecropping that retarded the creation of wealth by African-Americans. During the 1930s and 1940s, African-Americans suffered yet more discrimination and abuse -- this time from "Crackers" in the U.S. Congress who conspired with office-holding and administrative racists in Southern states to assure, to the best of their ability, that only whites benefited from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "New Deal" social welfare programs. It gave an insidious new meaning to the South's insistence on "States Rights!

As Ira Katznelson has written in When Affirmative Action Was White: During the New Deal and Fair Deal era of the 1930s and 1940s "the southern wing of the Democratic Party was in a position to dictate the contours of Social Security, key labor legislation, the GI Bill, and other landmark laws that helped create a modern white middle class in a manner that also protected what these legislators routinely called 'the southern way of life.'" [p. 17]

Thus, "at the very moment when a wide array of public policies was providing most white Americans with valuable tools to advance their social welfare - insure their old age, get good jobs, acquire economic security, build assets, and gain middle-class status - most black Americans were left behind or left out." [p. 23]

How could such a thing happen? It happened because a Cracker in the U.S. House of Representatives, John Rankin of Mississippi, "led the drafting of a law that left responsibility for implementation mainly to the states and localities, including, of course, those that practiced official racism without compromise." [p. 123] According to Katznelson, Rankin "keenly grasped that black veterans would attempt to use their new status, based upon service and sacrifice, along with a new body of federal funds, to shift the balance against segregation." [p. 126]

Take the case of the GI Bill. "Between 1944 and 1971, federal spending on former soldiers in this 'model welfare system' totaled over $95 billion." [p. 113] As Katznelson notes, "with the help of the GI Bill, millions [of veterans] bought homes, attended college, started business ventures, and found jobs commensurate with their skills." [p. 113] Yes, it helped many blacks and should be credited "for developing a tiny group of professionals into the large, stable, and growing 'black bourgeoisie' that exists today, composed of doctors, lawyers, teachers, and mid-level civil servants." [p. 120]

But, "on balance, despite the assistance that black soldiers received, there was no greater instrument for widening an already huge racial gap in postwar America than the GI Bill." [p. 121] Soon after the law's enactment, a delegation "told the Veterans Administration…that discharged Negro soldiers in the South are discouraged from enjoying the benefits of the 'GI Bill of Rights." [p. 122]

One consequence of this discrimination wouldn't be seen until 1984, when GI Bill mortgages had largely matured. In 1984, "the median white household had a net worth of $39,135; the comparable figure for black households was only $3,397…Most of this difference was accounted for by the absence of homeownership." [p. 164]

Whites, especially in the South, made a last ditch attempt defend "the southern way of life," when they engaged in violence to prevent the integration of schools, as required by the historic 1954 Supreme Court ruling, Brown v. Board of Education. As Mark M. Smith has observed, in his book, How Race is Made, "In years to come, civil rights activists let such men and women lay bare their visceral fury to the world, their glowering faces, punching fists, and kicking raw feet, frightening testimony to their determination to protect their society. It was a wise strategy. Seeing segregationists spew their hatred with such ferocity on national television shocked many." [p. 138]

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Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San (more...)
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