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Can America overcome racism?

January 2, 2009

The social and economic inequalities in America that are associated with race are staggering and persistent. Pick almost any category where you’d rather have more than less — income, health status, property and home ownership, likelihood of having health insurance, life expectancy, or likelihood of having a favorable outcome in the criminal justice system. In all of these categories there is a wide gap between black and white Americans. And this remains true even when we control for income — the health gap between white and black Americans earning more than $80,000 remains significant. So America has embedded a set of economic and social institutions that reproduce racial disadvantage. America remains a deeply racialized society.

These observations don’t necessarily amount to a conclusion about racist attitudes and deliberate discrimination on the part of most Americans. Attitudes and outcomes need to be distinguished. It is likely enough that there has been a lot of progress in conscious attitudes about race since 1950 for the majority of Americans. But persistent discriminatory outcomes can arise without explicit racist attitudes or discrimination on the part of specific individuals. Central examples of these forms of embedded “structural” mechanisms of racial discrimination include residential segregation and unequal educational opportunities for black and white children, based on where they live. Segregation certainly arose in part through deliberate efforts at excluding black people from certain neighborhoods — real estate “steering”, mortgage and insurance redlining, and overt violence and intimidation. But the mechanisms sustaining segregation today may well be more impersonal. The fact remains that patterns of racial residential segregation help to reproduce the kinds of racial inequality mentioned above.

These racial inequalities are also deeply intertwined with the social geography of major American cities. The concentration of poverty, racial isolation, poor schools, poor health facilities, and high crime rates create a multi-stranded social mechanism for reproducing racial inequality. It isn’t impossible for an African-American child to thrive and achieve in this environment — but it is certainly much harder. And the probabilities are stacked against her.

So, back to the main question: can America overcome its racism? Several things are necessary if this can happen.

First, we have to honestly face the facts — the outcomes mentioned above. We can’t delude ourselves by saying “the problems of race are finished in America” because we’ve elected an African-American president. The facts of racial difference in life outcomes need to be recognized, and we need to be vigilant in uncovering the mechanisms that lead to these disparities.

Second, we have to recognize why it is so important for our political culture that we address and resolve these continuing racial inequalities. Most fundamentally, we believe in equality — equality of worth and equality of opportunity. The persistent inequalities between black and white populations are a fundamental affront to these values. And we believe in democracy –but a democracy cannot thrive in circumstances of what amounts to two levels of citizenship.

But third, pragmatically, justice is a necessary component of social peace. Our country has seen violent outbreaks for over a century over the facts of contemporary race relations — Watts, Chicago, Detroit, Harlem, Miami. It is only enlightened prudence to realize that we must aggressively and consistently attack the institutional realities that reproduce racial disadvantage. Securing racial justice is a good investment in future social harmony.

Finally, we will need to have the resolve it takes to provide the resources necessary to assure genuine equality of opportunity for all Americans. This will be the work of a generation. But it will lay the basis for a more sustainable, harmonious, and productive society.

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