Volume , Number 0
Clarence Thomas and the Republican â€¦
Gay and Lesbian Book Notes
There are no articles.Culture
There are no articles.Features
There are no articles.Zaps
There are no articles.
NOTE: Z Magazine subscribers and sustainers have access to all Z Magazine articles here and in the archive. The latest Z Magazine articles available to everyone are listed in the Free Articles box at the top of the table of contents, and are starred in the list below. Questions? e-mail Z Magazine Online.
Class, Color, and The Hidden Injuries of Race
What studies reveal and leave out
Sometimes its the silences that speak the loudest. Consider, for example, a study released last year by a team of public health researchers at the Childrens Memorial Hospital in Chicago. As noted in a front-page Chicago Sun Times story titled Danger Zones for Kids, this study reported that injury was the leading cause of death for youth in the United States. The problem is especially great, its authors learned, in Chicago, where injuries killed 106 adolescents per year during the mid-1990s. Especially disturbing was the studys discovery that the citys youth mortality rate for intentional injury, that is violence, was much higher than for accidental injury. The leading cause of intentional injury for Chicago kids over 10 years old was gun violence. Beyond citywide numbers, the researchers reported on the distribution of youth injuries and deaths across the citys 77 officially designated Community Areas. Neighborhood disparities, they found, were severe, ranging from one West Side community where 146 per 100,000 were hospitalized for injuries per yearmore than 4 times the city-wide averageto more than 30 neighborhoods where fewer than 6 youth were hospitalized for injuries.
Take a front-page New York Times piece that appeared late last summer under the provocative title Rural Towns Turn to Prisons to Re-ignite Their Economies. According to this article, rural America relies like never before on prison construction to produce jobs and economic development formerly provided by farms, factories, coal mines, and oil. Reporting that 25 new prisons went up in the United States countryside each year during the 1990s, up from 16 per year in the 1980s and just 4 per year in the 1970s, the article quoted an Oklahoma city manager to chilling effect. Theres no more recession-proof form of economic development, this official, whose town just got a shiny new maximum-security prison, told the Times, than incarceration because nothings going to stop crime.
A final example is provided by another front-page story in the Chicago Tribune. Last July, the Tribune reported that Ford Heights, a desperately poor inner-ring suburb south of Chicago, led the nation in percentage of households headed by single mothers. This article included a map showing the United States top 20 communities as ranked by percentage of single-mother households. While it related Ford Heights dubious title to residents poor education, weak job skills, and south-suburban de-industrialization, it especially emphasized residents self-defeating social patterns including, naturally enough, teen sex. Echoing the findings of the latest academic poverty research, it noted a strong connection between teen pregnancy and young peoples hopeless sense that the future holds little and there is little reason to defer gratification.
Good, well written reports and articles all. There was something curious missing, however, from each. Strange though it may seem in one of the worlds most racially segregated cities, the Childrens Memorial team and the Sun Times did not link their findings to readily available, recently released census data on the racial composition of Chicagos neighborhoods. They had to go out of their way not to make the connection. Of the citys top 20 Community Areas ranked by injury-related youth mortality, no less than 15 are currently 90 percent or more African-American. All but one very disproportionately Black for the city. By contrast, more than three-fourths of the 31 neighborhoods where just 6 or less injury-related youth hospitalizations occurred per year were very disproportionately white.
In a similar vein, the Tribune piece, while curiously including three photographs of African-American Ford Heights teen moms, refrained from mentioning that all of the top 20 single-mom communities were very disproportionately African-American. Seventy percent of those communities where youth feel especially hopeless are more than 90 percent black. All but one are at least two-thirds black. Nowhere, finally, could the liberal Times bring itself to mention the very predominantly white composition of the keepers and the very predominantly black composition of those kept in Americas burgeoning new prison towns.
One has to go elsewhere than the nations leading newspaper to learn that blacks are 12.3 percent of the U.S. population but comprise fully half of the roughly 2 million Americans currently behind bars. The exact same omissions were glaringly obvious, however, in a March Tribune article titled Towns Put Dreams in Prisons (about downstate Illinois towns scrambling to build employment-generating prisons) and a July piece in the Detroit News titled Ionia [Michigan] Finds Stability in Prison: Lockups Provide Fast Growing Community With Jobs. In all of these reports, there was but one reference to race. It was buried deep in a methodological appendix to the Childrens Memorial study, where the researchers claimed that they chose not to examine the relationship between race and injury, because 30 percent of the injury cases reported by the State were missing racial classification.
Under the rule of color-blind rhetoric, significant and widespread racism is largely a thing of the nations past. There is a widespread belief among U.S. Whites that African-Americans now enjoy equal opportunity. As white America sees it, write Leonard Steinhorn and Barbara Diggs-Brown in their sobering By the Color of Their Skin: the Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race (2000), every effort has been made to welcome blacks into the American mainstream, and now theyre on their own... We got the message, we made the correctionsget on with it.
In our current officially color-blind era of American history, older and more blatant forms and incidents of classic explicit and intentional racial bigotry are still fit subjects for open discussion. It helps if those forms and incidents are understood as anomalous and identified primarily with lower- and working-class whites who do not understand the new rules of the game. The more significant and persistent structural inequalities that continue to shape, limit, and imprison African-American experience are largely outside the parameters of polite public discussion. The new reluctance to speak freely about race comes in conservative, liberal, and left forms. For conservatives, predictably, the conventional argument that racism is essentially over and that the main barrier to black advancement comes from within the black community, in the form of self-destructive behaviors and beliefs. Theres nothing surprising in this reactionary racist sentiment, which parallels triumphant capitalist end of history wisdom on the related and supposed irrelevance of class and other barriers to freedom and democracy in the U.S.
There are now liberals who share the sense that racism has ceased to be a significant barrier to black well being and success. Among liberals, and some further to the left, however, color-blind rhetoric appears more commonly in the argument that society will best serve blacks by downplaying the danger zone of race and emphasizing the shared dilemmas faced by all economically disadvantaged people regardless of color. No one made that argument more famously than black, left-liberal Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson. Wilson claimed that only race-neutral political-economic analyses and policy solutions can meaningfully address the problems of truly disadvantaged blacks, who are victimized, by Wilsons analysis, more by color-blind, political-economic, and class forces than they are by race. This perspective reaches well into the white liberal and even left intelligentsia. It shapes the reflections of such diverse writers as Michael Tomasky, Todd Gitlin, Jim Sleeper, E.J. Dionne, and others on what went wrong with the American post-1960s left and how progressives might build a new social democratic movement to overcome injustice.
Blame the Victim
Whatever form it takes, however, color-blind rhetoric and the illusion of integration it conveys render much of Americas harshly divided social landscape shockingly unintelligible. The phenomena that are hopelessly muddled include an inequitably funded educational system that apparently just happens to provide poorer instruction for blacks than whites; an electoral system whose voting irregularities and domination by big money happens to disproportionately disenfranchise blacks; a criminal justice system that happens to especially stop, arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate African-Americans; a political economy whose tendency toward sharp inequality happens to especially impoverish and divide black communities; and residential markets and housing practices that happen to disproportionately restrict African-American children to the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods and communities, where kids chances of learning are significantly diminished by the threats of injury and violence. The list goes on.
Worse, Americans trained to believe that all the relevant racial barriers have been torn down are conditioned to think that the nations millions of truly disadvantaged African-Americans have no one but themselves to blame for their persistent pain and disproportionate presence at the bottom of the American hierarchy. That thought lies at the heart of Americas new color-blind racism, which draws ironic strength from the relative decline of acceptable explicit racial bigotry in American life. It is at the core of the hesitancy some liberals and progressives feel about speaking openly on race. It makes well-intentioned anti-racist liberals and leftists reluctant to fully examine the color of modern social problems, for to do so in the current ideological context is, they reason, with some justice, to fuel the fires of new racist (color-blind) victim-blaming and even to damage black self-esteem.
Among liberals and leftists, racially reluctant rhetoric stems partly from progressive ideas about the primacy of class and economic inequality over racial and other important differences, such as gender. It also reflects some liberals and leftists depressing calculations regarding the narrowing boundaries of acceptable debate regarding class and capitalism in the United States. Americans in the last 30 years have seen the practical corporate-administered collapse of legitimate space for public discussion of relevant historical relationships between socioeconomic hierarchy, political power, social behavior, and human misery. This breakdown restricts meaningful public discussion of the ways that structural inequality and the related social order of capital produce such related negative behavioral outcomes and attitudes as teen pregnancy, hopelessness, violence, family disintegration, and substance abuse among significant portions of the population. It makes meaningful discussion of class and capitalism into a danger zone that also makes race more dangerous and difficult to discuss. For with their vulnerable and in fact persistently relevant structural explanations increasingly banished from acceptable discourse, progressives increasingly have reason to fear that they cannot make the relevant racial connections. To do so, they fear, is to feed Americans penchant for seeing its most disadvantaged citizens, who happen to be disproportionately black, as personally responsible for their own plight or worse, as genetically inferior.
Thus it is that a black elementary school principal on Chicagos West Side recently told me that she and parents in her schools 99 percent black neighborhood were angered by what they saw as the Sun Times racist designation of their community as one of the citys leading danger zones for kids. The real problem, the principal and parents felt, was that by omitting the dire social and economic circumstances of their kids neighborhood, the story left no meaningful context other than race and the alleged self-defeating social patterns of urban blacks to explain the danger experienced by their children. Those circumstances include rampant unemployment, poverty, affordable housing shortages, and a chronic lack of livable wage jobs. Even while technically deleting race, then, media coverage of youth injury and violence in Chicago actually highlighted it and in a most unfavorable way from an African-American perspective. Much the same could be said for the Tribune article on single motherhood, where the racial connections were curiously encouraged by photographs of single black mothers. In a similar vein, nightly local television parades dangerous black criminals and suspects across the screen almost nightly without ever actually mentioning either race (except in occasional descriptions of criminal suspects) or the social and economic circumstances that give rise to high crime rates in poor urban neighborhoods. To receive necessary and appropriate attention, racism requires that class not also be a danger zone.
It is too much to say liberal-left intellectuals have created this situation. Still, they have contributed to it in recent decades by spending a considerable amount of energy on a dubious debate between traditional class-based, social democratic politics and a more modern (or postmodern) politics of identity, as in gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, culture, and race. This controversy is based partly on a false and counterproductive dichotomy, however, for class and race have always been inseparably wedded to one another in the American experience. From colonial origins to the present, failure or inability to comprehend one part of Americas simultaneous race and class equations system has undermined the ability to grasp and act on the others. Its about race and class, not one or the other. Among the many developments for which this is true, we could include the colonial Virginia ruling-classs fateful discovery that Black chattel slavery was the solution to their unexpected New World class problem with rebellious white ex-indentured servants, the abandonment of the former slaves after the Civil War (something that partly reflected business class fears about the signals that southern Reconstruction would have sent to northern white wage-earners), and the U.S. elites unmatched (in the industrialized world) ability to use racial division to keep unions, the welfare state, and independent labor politics at bay.
Certainly, liberals and leftists will not create the color-blind society of which Martin Luther King so famously dreamed by acting as if it has already arrived. Intellectuals and activists will not answer mainstream denial of racisms deep and stubborn persistence nor respond effectively to the attack on structural understandings of racial inequality by relegating race to the forgotten footnotes. They will carry the moral and political responsibility to write and speak about race and racism as long as skin color continues to significantly shape dominant social, political, and economic structures of opportunity and outcome. To discuss racial differences without reference to cross-racial questions of economic inequality and political economy is to further the racial divide in a way that thwarts social justice and democracy in general. Z
Paul Street is director of Research and vice president for Research and Planning at the Chicago Urban League. His articles and essays have appeared in In These Times, Dissent, Z Magazine, Monthly Review, and the Journal of Social History.