The Long, Strange Tale of American Race Relations

Rev. Martin Luthrt King Jr. after delivering his "I Have  Adream Speech" in Washington D.C.,  August 28, 1963. From that moment on, racism was no longer a problem.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. after delivering his “I Have A Dream Speech” in Washington D.C., August 28, 1963. From that moment on, racism was no longer a problem.

Here’s the thing about racism in America: it’s both ubiquitous and non-existent. Race plays a role in every major cultural issue that seems to tarnish our otherwise more perfect union — except when it has nothing to do with any given problem and we should stop talking about race because only racists talk about race. The latter is the preferred talking-point of the right-wing, whose collective fetish for American exceptionalism utterly inhibits their ability to interpret U.S. history as anything more than the triumphant march of alabaster altruists spreading benevolent, capitalistic, freedom-stuffed fruit baskets to all manner of benighted minorities who should be eternally grateful for this ivory-colored benevolence. Obviously, the history of race relations is more complicated than that, and leave it to a famous, gravel-voiced comedian to shed some light on how race really works in America.

In a recent Q & A with Frank Rich for New York Magazine, stand-up legend Chris Rock made some rather insightful comments about American race relations following the verdict in Ferguson, Missouri that let white police officer Darren Wilson off the hook for gunning down black civilian Michael Brown. When discussing the idea of racial progress, Rock was straightforward in his response: “When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before,” he stated.

What Rock is talking about is power, and the relationships that form around it. The period when white people were “crazy” constituted most of U.S. history, when they had the power to foist slavery, Jim Crow, and all manner of discrimination on blacks. That whites are “not as crazy” today is a sign of white enlightenment, not black “progress,” and it’s also a sign that whiteblack power relations are in an ongoing process of equalization that hasn’t yet been completed. Need proof? See Ferguson, Missouri.

As Rock notes, to talk about race in America is also to talk about power relations: the two are inextricably woven together. And power relations need not be limited to the highest echelons of society. They exist everywhere — within households; in schools; in offices; between employers and employees; between men and women; between blacks and whites — and they constitute the multiple realms within daily life in which people in different positions of dominance and subservience seek to readjust or reverse their respective roles.

Chris Rock: Still bringin' the pain.

Chris Rock: Still bringin’ the pain.

In her book A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America, historian Jacqueline Jones reminds us that race has never really existed in America; it’s a social construct, a myth that’s served “as a tool that one group can use to ratchet itself into a position of greater advantage in society, and a justification for the economic inequality and the imbalance in rights and privileges that results.”* In U.S. history, the myth of race has consistently been used to justify and perpetuate power relations that have always given whites dominance over blacks. As Chris Rock notes, these power relations have been slowly shifting, but the process is replete with setbacks.

Recent American elections offer some clues that this readjustment in race-based power relations still has plenty of rocky roads ahead of it. Consider President Barack Obama’s white voter problem. Writing for the ever-reactionary Washington Examiner, Byron York contends that Obama has left a “dangerous legacy” for Democrats, particularly via his hemorrhaging of support from America’s super-duper-important caucasian caucus. Citing Obama’s overall basement-level 32 percent approval rating among whites and his even lower 27 percent rating among working-class whites, York  warns that, “if Democrats don’t find a way to connect with those ‘attitudes and life positions’ of working-class whites in coming years, they’ll have a big problem.” Fair enough, but what does York mean by white peoples’ ‘attitudes and positions?’ Well, they partly include long-held stereotypes that working-class whites use to define blacks as lazy, perpetually on welfare, prone to violence and crime, you get the point.

But these stereotypes are rooted in a very real sense of victimization among whites — the sense that their heretofore powerful position in American race relations is slowly, but noticeably eroding. Consider the issue of welfare: it’s a standard assumption that most blacks are on welfare and are therefore living the high-life off of hard-working white folks’ tax money. No wonder why the white-working class doesn’t like Obama, right? Well, not so fast. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2012, the number of families benefiting from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program (TANF) — what Americans broadly refer to as “welfare” — was divided fairly equally along racial and ethnic lines. 34 percent of whites were on welfare in 2012, while 33.5 percent of blacks benefitted from the program. Welfare isn’t primarily a “black” thing, even though many working-class whites continue to view it as such.

Now why is that? After all, most white people aren’t hood-donning Klansmen. Rather, the tortured legacy of U.S. race relations manifests in a whole series of negative assumptions and “facts” about blacks (they’re lazy; they’re all on welfare; they’re all criminals; they’re all on drugs; they have no respect for family, etc.) that are tacitly accepted by whites, who still maintain the upper-hand in American race relations. In a previous post, I referred to this cultural legacy of negative white beliefs about blacks as “racialism:” “the belief that racial differences exist and that these difference continue to influence Americans’ cultural views.

Supporters of embattled Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. A very white example of how power relations in America run along racial lines.

Supporters of embattled Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. A very white example of how power relations in America run along racial lines.

Racialism, therefore, isn’t the same as racism; it’s less potent; less outwardly declarative when it comes to the notion that blacks are inferior to whites, but it nonetheless promotes the idea of black inferiority in the form of subtle, persistent cultural assumptions that ignore centuries of institutional racism in favor of unexamined “facts” about blackness that have taken on the Colbert-esque veneer of “truthiness:” that “not always rational feeling we get that something is just right.” Via their infectious viral spread throughout U.S. society, racialist assumptions about alleged black pathologies continue to shape the contours of American race relations in which, as Chris Rock observed, blacks must constantly prove themselves worthy of white approval even as whites have historically defined blacks in a negative light.

When we talk about “racial progress,” what we’re really talking about is whites’ continued ability (or inability) to examine their privileged role within the dynamic of American race-based power relations. Until this process is complete — until we can understand why a guy like Darren Wilson always had the cultural benefit of the doubt with regard to the shooting of Michael Brown — we can’t really appreciate all of the excess historical baggage that’s stuffed into the bulging suitcase of American race-relations. It’s time to unpack, people, so let’s get to it.

* See Jacqueline Jones, A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America (New York: Basic, 2013), x.

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5 Comments

  1. It’s a lot more complicated than you’re making it out to be. For starters, white working class victimization stems largely from the fact that their incomes have been stagnant if not declining since 1970. And the factories that they could depend upon for union jobs have been disappearing. One of the problems of the civil rights movement was that its success came at the moment when white working-class fortunes were declining, so the white working-class felt resentment at both the people on the top and the ones at the bottom.
    The other problem was that while crime in the Deep South has been perceived to be black at least since the days of convict leasing, in Northern cities like New York, there were many “ethnic gangs”. But again, at around the same time the Civil Rights movement succeeded, black and Hispanic gangs became dominant and crime started rising in those cities. Which is not to say that Northern city-dwellers were free of prejudice before this. But this reinforced and exacerbated existing tensions.
    And Democrats really DID tend to dismiss white concerns about crime as being racial. There was a racial element but there were also legitimate fears. The Willy Horton case was a perfect example- the Republicans did exploit the case racially but it was a case of a liberal governor that vetoed a bill to stop murderers from being furloughed and didn’t apologize to the woman who got raped as a result until the press pressured him.

  2. All very good points. Regarding white working class victimization: I always maintain that the Democratic Party has done next to nothing for working people since probably the late 1960s, so I understand their still-declining support for that party today. That said, one of the crippling faults of the white working class throughout U.S. history has been its endless susceptibility to race-baiting.

    This happened via the sustaining of Herrenvolk Democracy in the antebellum South, and it continued with whites’ reactionary dedication (when they could get past poll taxes and literary tests to actually vote) to the Democratic Party after the Civil War. Plenty of historians, for example, have discussed the failure of unions to thrive in southern coal mines and factories because whites couldn’t imagine organizing with blacks. Especially in the South, anti-unionism is still, in part, driven by a legacy of racial fears. And then there was the ultimate failure of populism, which crumbled along racial lines after demagogues like Tom Watson convinced the crackers that it was better to die poor than be well-off next to a negro.

    As for Civil Rights: those are good points about the convergence of white working class economic decline, Civil Rights, and urban turmoil, but the economic decline wasn’t a natural evolution: it happened (and is still happening) because of specific systems and planning made by people who could give a damn less about working people but are all-to-happy to offer them the chance to shake their collective fist at minorities (see Horton, Willie). And so the white working class continues to throw their support behind “God, Guns, and Law and Order for Minorities” even as the conservatives they’re supporting are rigging the economic game against working people. But at least they get to spite the blacks!

    Of course, crime has been an issue too, but even crime has always reflected core problems of poverty and discrimination that tend to fuel its spread. The fact that ethnic crime has always been present in the U.S reveals much about white America’s tendency to ostracize and delegitimize other ethnic groups to the point where those groups end up feeling that they have no place in American society and seek out other forms of group support. Throw economic malaise into the mix and you’ve got a recipe for social isolation and gang culture. Thus, you get rampant gang activity in places that were established by institutional discrimination and economic atrophy: Indian reservations, urban ghettos, etc.

    And that’s my whole point: sure, things are always complicated, but race always plays a role in America. By the way, I appreciate your pointed critiques, they keep me thinking beyond the confines of single posts.

  3. Interesting interview this morning on NPR with Constance Rice, an attorney who pursued an aggressive campaign of litigation against the LAPD int he 1990s:

    Cops can get into a state of mind, David, where they’re scared to death. They panic, and they act out on that panic. I have known cops who didn’t have a racist idea in their bodies and in fact had adopted black children. They went to black churches on the weekend. I mean, these are white cops. They weren’t consciously racist. But you know what they had in their minds that made them act out and beat a black suspect unwarrantedly? You want to know what they had in their minds? They had fear. They were afraid of black men.

    I know a lot of white cops who have told me – and I interviewed over 900 police officers in 18 months – and they started talking to me – it was almost like a therapy session for them. I didn’t realize they needed an outlet to talk. They would tell me things that just left my mouth hanging open. Ms. Rice, can I tell you something? Yes, you can tell me something. You won’t use it against me? No, I won’t use it against you. And they would say things like, Ms. Rice, I’m scared of black men. Black men terrify me. I’m really scared of them. You know, black men who come out of prison, they’ve got great Hulk strength, and I’m afraid they’re going to kill me. Ms. Rice, can you teach me how not to be afraid of black men? I mean, this is cops who are 6-feet, 6-foot-4. You know, the cop in Ferguson was 6-foot-4 talking about how he was terrified. But when cops are scared, David, they kill. And they do things that don’t make sense to you and me.

    This strikes right at the undercurrent of “racialism” that you discuss. The problem is not a few bad actors, but a systemic way of thinking that pervades society.

      • Irrational, maybe, but no less compelling. When the adrenaline starts pumping, people don’t distinguish between fears that are justifiable and those that are not. I don’t know how one fixes that.

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