Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Covering the sky with Your Hand: The Denial of Racism

Hola! Everybody...
Because it has to be said. Quite long...

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-=[ Covering the Sky With Your Hand: The Denial of Racism ]=-

There ain't no white man in this room that will change places with me -- and I'm rich. That's how good it is to be white. There's a one-legged busboy in here right now that's going: 'I don't want to change. I'm gonna ride this white thing out and see where it takes me.
-- Chris Rock

There's a dicho (saying, adage) Puerto Ricans are fond of using. It translates roughly to, No matter how hard you try, you can't cover the sky with your hand. And it addresses the very human tendency to deny uncomfortable truths. While at first, denial may work well to buffer us from trauma, eventually, as with all defense mechanisms, denial is as futile a coping strategy as trying to cover the sky with your hand. Not only does it not work, but often compounds the issue.

The introduction to this post (click here), served as introduction as well as a vehicle for a working definition for racism. I also attempted to outline a map of sorts. What follows is the meat of my premise that racism, far from being a thing of the past, is an integral, permanent, and almost indestructible part of our society. It is the challenge we all face. The well-being of all people -- black, white, yellow, and brown -- hinges on how we respond to racism. For racism is a pathology that infects all of us, not just blacks and other people of color.

I conceptualize racism in structural and institutional as well as individual terms. My definition of racism describes a system of oppression of African Americans and other people of color by white Europeans and white Americans. There is no black racism because there is no centuries-old system of racial domination designed by African Americans that excludes white Americans from full participation in the rights, privileges, and benefits of this society. Racism requires not only a widely accepted racist ideology but also the systematic power to exclude people of color from opportunities and major economic rewards (Feagin, Vera, & Batur, 2000).

While there are blacks and other people of color with anti-white prejudices and scattered instances of people of color discriminating against whites, these are not central to the core operations of this society (Bell, 1993). Or, as my friend the poet, Rage, says, "I'm not a racist, I don't have the resources."

One type of explanation for the persistence of black poverty and inequality argues that blacks have been victims of themselves and market forces such as the de-industrialization of old industries in the inner cities. Furthermore, these critics point out, blacks self-inflict damage by demanding high wages, failing to enhance their skills, turning housing projects into crime and drug infested areas, aided by females of low morality only too happy to have single parent families and live off welfare (D'Souza, 1995; Thernstrom & Thernstrom, 1999). Others dismiss the importance of race, citing other factors such as culture, gender, and class (Wilson, 1980) I call this newer perspective the racial conservatives.

Such accounts contain half-truths and exaggerations and completely underestimate the extent to which blacks have confronted blatant racism. Lets take one of the above assumptions, that de-industrialization served to undermine a black working class ill-equipped to take advantage of modern economic global trends. On the face of it, this sounds like a sound analysis. However, take into account the first wave of industrial restructuring disproportionately affected black workers in chemicals, steel, meatpacking, and coal industries. It did so because blacks were deliberately discriminated -- via rigged restrictions and seniority rules -- segregating them into jobs that were slated for automation (Rattansi, 2002).

But I get a little ahead of myself...

It is a well-worn clichè that the last thing a fish notices is the water. Similarly, we take the air we breathe for granted, just as European Americans take their race as a given -- as normal. While it is true that white Americans may face difficulties in their lives -- with finances and family, for example -- race is not one of them. Whites can afford to be nonchalant about race because they cannot see how this society produces advantages for them because these benefits appear so natural they are taken for granted (Kinder & Mendelberg, 1996). They literally do not see how race permeates America's institutions and how it affects the distribution of opportunity and wealth.

For blacks, Latino/as, and other people of color in the U.S. the same culture, laws, economy, institutions, and rules of the game are not as automatically comfortable and legitimate. In a white-dominated society, with color come problems (Sleeper, 2002).

Big problems.

What's more, if people of color cry foul, if they call attention to the way they are treated or to racial inequality, if they try to change the way advantage is distributed, if they try to adjust the rules of the game, white Americans see them as trouble makers as asking for special privileges.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, what this means is that people's perspectives on race reflect their experiences on one side of the color line or the other. Whites routinely misperceive the reality of black lives. For example, though blacks are about twice as likely to be unemployed, 50 percent of whites say the average black is about as well off as the average white person. Conversely, blacks tend to be more realistic in their perceptions of their economic status as compared to whites (Morrin, 2001). My point being that if white Americans make no effort to hear the viewpoints and see the experience of others, their awareness of their privilege suffers. They can convince themselves that life as they experience it on their side of the color line is the objective truth. This is the error that poses serious problems for conservatives' (both black and white) analysis of racial inequality.

I'm not saying that individual views differ within racial groups. Not everyone who shares the same subjective perspective will come to the same conclusions about policy. However, any perspective that is uncritically locked inside its own experience is stunted, and this is even truer when that perspective reflects the dominant culture. It is the failure to understand that they take whites' racial privilege for granted that leads conservatives to ignore the way in which race loads the dice in favor of white Americans while at the same time restricting African Americans' access to the table. White privilege, like water to the fish, like the air we breathe, is invisible in their analysis.

But you can't cover the sky with your hand.

Apostles of the new conservative perspective on race insist that racism is a thing of the past. The reason why they come to this conclusion is because they operate from a very narrow (culturally blind), outdated, and discredited definition of racism as intentional, blatant, and individual -- causing them to filter out evidence and judgment.

Many American institutions, including the current Supreme Court majority, share these misconceptions. Because racial conservatives ignore the range of racial reality in America, they are unable to see that racism is lodged in the very structure of society, that it permeates the mechanisms of the legal, economic, political, and educational institutions of the United States. The problem is that without that recognition we will continue to attempt to resolve the disease of racism by attempting to cover the sky with our collective hands.

At a workshop on race I helped facilitate, a young lady stood up and bluntly stated, I agree that slavery was messed up, but that was something in the past and I didn't have anything to do with that! (Remind me to tell you the story of this young lady.) Racial conservatives operate from the same assertion. Racism is regarded as a remnant from the past because whites no longer express bigoted attitudes or racial hatred. Indeed, the Thernstroms (1999) actually assert that despite the violence that erupted in the streets in 1968, there was no evidence that whites were drifting toward the virulent anti-Black sentiments of the 1940s and 50s. On the contrary, according to racial conservatives, the real story is that racism has all but disappeared.

Racial conservatives conclude that racism has ended because of the massive change in white attitudes toward blacks. For example, they note that at one time more than half of all whites once believed that blacks were intellectually inferior. In 1994 that changed, only 13 per cent of whites believed that blacks had less in-born ability to learn than whites. Whites also used to favor school segregation by an overwhelming majority, but now 90 per cent favor school integration. In the 1940s, whites believed they should be favored in competition for jobs. today, in a complete turn around, whites almost unanimously agree that blacks and whites should have an equal chance to compete for jobs. Shoot, the Thernstroms go as far as stating that white attitudes had already changed before the civil rights movement exploded in the 1960s! (p. 177, 1998)

Got dam, freakin' black people!

To the racial conservatives, this means that the race line has been all but abolished. Although many Americans still accept one or more negative stereotypes about African Americans, a recent study (Sniderman & Piazza, 1995) asserts that only 2 per cent of the population could be considered old school bigots who subscribe to a large number of racist stereotypes. Therefore, it follows, that the hanging of nooses at an all white tree in Jena, TX, Texaco's executives calling African Americans black jelly beans, a member of the Dallas school board referring to African Americans as niggers, and radio shock jock personality Don Imus calling black female college students, nappy-headed ho's, are rare cases of extreme racism.

The problem with racial conservatives' evidence is that they, like most whites, use a specific, narrow understanding of racism. This is the concept that racism is motivated, crude, explicitly supremacist, and expressed as individual bias. Racism, for racial conservatives, is a form of prejudice. Paul Sniderman and Thomas Piazza (1995) define racism as a consistent readiness to respond negatively to a member of a group by virtue of his or her membership in the group, with the proof of prejudice being thus the repetitiveness with which the person endorses negative characterization after negative characterization.

Whew! LOL!

It's no surprise then, given this narrowly defined concept of racism and the use of opinion surveys to measure it, that many people believe racism is a thing of the past. In fact, the Supreme Court has used just such a definition when hearing cases of discrimination. As a result, no one goes to prison for discrimination. This narrow definition, which erroneously conflates racism with prejudice, severely restricts what counts as bias or as evidence of bias. This definition tends to exonerate whites, blame blacks, and naturalize (make seem natural) the reality of racism in America.

In addition, this definition of racism, as I have noted earlier, is empirically and conceptually flawed. It depends almost exclusively on data uncovered by opinion polling. This poses two problems. First, even on its own terms, this interpretation of racism ignores significant recent research that demonstrates the degree to which racist attitudes have persisted. For example, in his book, The Ordeal of Integration, Orlando Patterson (1998) concludes that all things considered, it is reasonable to estimate that about a quarter of the Euro-American population harbors at least mildly racist feelings toward Afro-Americans and that one in five is a hard-core racist. This is not a small number by any measure.

Secondly, by relying on survey questions constructed in the 1950s, this research ignores possible changes in the character of racism and incorrectly measures the modern manifestation of it. As Donald Kinder and Lynn Sanders (1996) put it, a new form of prejudice has come to prominence, one that is preoccupied with matters of moral character, informed by the virtues associated with the traditions of individualism. Today, we say, prejudice is expressed by the language of American individualism. In other words, statements about individual failure are racially coded expressions of negative stereotypes.

The fact is that there is abundant evidence documenting the persistence of widespread racial prejudice 40 years after the civil rights movement. Interestingly enough, racial conservatives using polling data to show the decline of racism cherry pick among the surveys and omit this evidence. Some of the most compelling evidence of persistent, tenacious racism comes from studies of residential discrimination. The Detroit Area Survey, for example, found that 16 percent of whites said they would feel uncomfortable in a neighborhood where 8 percent of the residents were black, and nearly the same number said they were unwilling to move to such an area. If the black percentage rose to 20 percent, 40 percent of all whites indicated they would not move there, 30 percent said they would be uncomfortable, and 15 percent would try to leave the area. Were a neighborhood be 53 percent black, 71 percent of whites would not wish to move there, 53 percent would try and leave, and 65 percent would be uncomfortable (Farley, et al., 1994)

A more recent study of four cities (Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, and Los Angeles) found that more than half the whites expressed a preference for same-race neighborhoods, while blacks expressed a strong preference for integrated neighborhoods (Charles, 2003).

Contrary to the false optimism of racial conservatives, one finds very little evidence, even in the polling data they use, that many white Americans believe in integrated neighborhoods. Especially if it means a neighborhood with more than a few black families. These racial stereotypes are not restricted to residential preference. As I will show in my next entry, they continue to be fundamental to (white) American culture. When the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center asked people to compare blacks and other ethnic groups on a variety of character traits, for example, they discovered that 62 percent of non-black respondents believed that blacks were lazier than other groups, 56 percent stated that they were prone to violence, and 53 percent thought they were less intelligent (Smith, 1991).

How racial conservatives twist the meaning of survey data and how they use them is problematic because people usually operate under expressed values as opposed to values-at-work. In other words, people will often commit verbally to what they think people want to hear (what is the right answer), as opposed to how they actually make decisions and live their lives. In the vernacular, it would be expressed as talking the talk versus walking the walk.

Outdated survey questions used to measure racial attitudes essentially tap into what people presume to know about American ideals as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. They know the right answers to these questions. But the narrow catch of this net reflects only the limited definition of racism. The gap between what people tell survey researchers and what they actually do is wide. However, a very different picture emerges when people are asked about behavior as opposed to abstract ideals. Here the discrepancy between racial attitudes and behavior is large and pervasive.

When asked, white Americans overwhelmingly support civil rights principles. By 1980, for example, only 5 percent of whites were willing to tell a pollster they preferred segregation. Yet only 40 percent said they would vote for a law stating, a homeowner cannot refuse to sell to someone because of their race or skin color (Schuman, Steeh, Bobo, & Krysan, 1998). White Americans say they support the principle of fair housing, but less than half say they are willing to act on this principle.

One study that served as a revelation for this writer was American Apartheid, an award-winning study by Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton (1998). Massey and Denton used demographic data about where African Americans and whites actually live and demonstrated that levels of segregation have barely changed since the 1960s. Applying a sophisticated index of segregation to thirty metropolitan areas with the largest black populations, they concluded that blacks living in the heart of the ghetto are among the most isolated people on earth (p. 225, 1998)

The Thernstroms challenge this conclusion, arguing that Massey and Denton exaggerate residential segregation. However, they offer no counter-evidence, nor have they generated scientifically-grounded indices of segregation. Their analysis is laughable, in fact. They state that The strongest proof that residential segregation has been declining for a generation comes from national surveys [that] have intermittently asked blacks and whites whether members of the other race live in the same neighborhood as they do (p. 222, 1999). The Thernstroms imagine that people's beliefs about who lives in their neighborhood are a more accurate indication of residential segregation than measures of where and how people actually live. SMDH

People will attempt to pooh-pooh what I have written here, or dismiss racism as one small part of a larger global dynamic. Or, that all this is common knowledge, blah blah blah...


Racism in the U.S. is an overriding factor in the lives of all Americans with dire consequences for people of color. It influences almost every arena in U.S. social life, as I will show in the next installment.


Bell, D. (1993). Faces at the bottom of the well: The permanence of racism New York: Basic Books.

Charles, Z. C. (2003). Processes of racial residential segregation. In A. O'Connor, C. Tilly & L. D. Bobo (Eds.), Urban inequality: Evidence from four cities (pp. 233-237, 257-258). New York: Russell Sage.

D'Souza, D. (1995). The end of racism. New York: Free Press.

Farley, R., Steeh, C., Krysan, M., Jackson, T., & Reeves, K. (1994). Stereotypes and segregation: Nieghborhoods in the Detroit area. The American Journal of Sociology, 100(3 ), 750-780.

Feagin, J. R., Vera, H., & Batur, P. (2000). White racism New York: Routledge.

Kinder, D. R., & Mendelberg, T. (1996). Individualism reconsidered. In D. O. Sears, J. Sidanius & L. Bobo (Eds.), Racialized politics: The debate about racism in America (pp. 44-74). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kinder, D. R., & Sanders, L. M. (1997). Divided by color: Racial politics and democratic ideals. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.

Massey, D., & Denton, N. (1998). American apartheid: Segregation and the making of the underclass. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Morrin, R. (2001, July 11). Misperceptions cloud whites' view of blacks. Washington Post.

Patterson, O. (1998). The ordeal of integration: Progress and resentment in America's "racial" crisis. Washington, D.C.: Civitas Book Publisher.

Rattansi, A. (2002). Racism, sexuality, and political economy. In S. Fenton & H. Bradley (Eds.), Ethnicity and economy: Race and class revisited New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Schuman, H., Steeh, C., Bobo, L. D., & Krysan, M. (Eds.). (1998). Racial attitudes in America: Trends and interpretations (Revised ed.). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Sleeper, J. (2002). Liberal racism: How fixating on race subverts the American dream. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Smith, T. W. (1991). Ethnic images, GSS Technical Report (No. 19). Chicago: National Opinion Research Center.

Sniderman, P. M., & Piazza, T. (1995). The scar of race. Cambridge: Belknap Press.

Thernstrom, S., & Thernstrom, A. (1999). America in black and white: One nation, indivisible. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Wilson, W. J. (1980). The declining significance of race: Blacks and changing American institutions (2nd ed.). Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.

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