According to political conservatives, racial discrimination is no longer an institutional issue, and there is no longer any need for policies that provide socioeconomic protections for Blacks. Political conservatives also say that if any racial discrimination is happening, it is being committed by only a few bigoted individuals. These individuals, they say, have been socialized to hold such bigoted notions and believe that Blacks are lazy and inferior and that it is okay to commit racist acts against them.
The Donald Sterlings and Robert Copelands of the United States have been undoubtedly shaped by a racist culture. The U.S. government sanctioned discrimination and gave Whites permission to denigrate Blacks openly. But these sorts of people don’t hold those beliefs anymore, right? After looking at demographics information, I’m not so sure. Consider this: according to the U.S. Census taken in 2010, there were more than 23 million Whites over the age of 70 in America. By contrast, there were slightly more than 39 million Blacks in all age brackets. Why is this significant? Because the number of Whites 70 years and older equals more than half of the total Black population, who are potentially voting on or in some way influencing policies that affect all Blacks. Whites born in the early 1960s (those over age 50) would have also been socialized and participated in the practice of Jim Crow Racism. They number more than 56 million.
Let’s remind ourselves what was going on when these older Whites were young. Whites currently over the age of 50 engaged in race relations in the context of Jim Crow. Until the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, Jim Crow continued legally and unrestricted. Brown v. Board of Education was aimed at the integration of public schools in the South, but it had broader implications as well, which included the end of Jim Crow laws. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Jim Crow became a federal offense. This, of course, did not end racism. Despite being “illegal,” Jim Crow discrimination continued unofficially in small towns up until the 1990s.
If this lingering Jim Crow representation does not bother you enough, remember that these 80 million plus individuals had families, friends, and children. The racism of their social milieu became ingrained in their minds, and from them it spread passively and actively to their children and families: passively by imitation, actively by subtle, deliberate instruction. The end of legal, public discrimination has not prevented private discrimination from flourishing beneath the surface and continuing to have an effect on public policy, albeit in a subtler, more insidious way.
In light of this, it is evident that racism has strong institutional support. More than 80 million people in the United States were taught early on that it is okay to discriminate. Not only was it okay, but it is normal and expected. I don’t mean that every White person born during the era of legal racial discrimination is automatically a racist bigot. There have always been Whites who recognized the injustice of discrimination from the start. But if these Whites are of the same ilk as Donald Sterling and Robert Copeland, socialized during the 1920s through the mid-1960s when it was legally permissible in the United States to commit racial discrimination, then I have to raise a point against the political conservatives: More than 80 million people is certainly not “a few bigoted individuals.”
This institutional support aside, we cannot ignore the ugly fact that people can be racist, even violently racist, without this socialization. Dylann Roof, the White who wanted to start a “race war” by shooting nine Blacks in Charleston, South Carolina, was 21 years old. Not only that, but in a document reported to be his manifesto, he writes, “I was not raised in a racist home or environment.” Instead, he writes, he got his ideas from books. Contrary to how Roof is presented by various media outlets, he was not mentally disturbed or psychologically unstable. He was just plain racist. And Roof is surely not the only racist in America. Racial discrimination is therefore not just an artifact of Jim Crow socialization; it is a persistent cultural phenomenon that can overtake people of any age and any family background.
It is certainly not legally permissible now to discriminate against Blacks without a bona fide occupational qualification as it was back then, and it is not socially acceptable now as it was then to openly disparage Blacks or otherwise discriminate against them. But this does not protect Blacks from the political power of the racist vote, and it does not shield them from a bullet fired from a racist gun. It does not ensure that children will learn in their classrooms to actively accept those who look differently from them and to judge them “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” It does not ensure that Blacks will earn anything more than 64 cents on the dollar compared to Whites in similar professions. But it does ensure that privileged people will push aside racial issues as a thing of the past, what our President has called “dark chapters in our nation’s history,” embarrassing mistakes that we don’t—and shouldn’t—bring up anymore.
It should alarm us that a large group of privileged people who were socialized in a racist culture still hold significant representative power over Blacks. It should alarm us, and it should remind us that the abolition of Jim Crow is not a good enough reason to think that Black people in America can ease up on the struggle for freedom and equality. Blacks cannot passively accept the racist ideology according to which race “no longer matters.” Race does matter, and it will probably always matter, and Blacks need to lobby actively for policies that protect their socioeconomic interests against the real threat of racial discrimination.
What is lacking in numbers needs to be made up for in tenacity.
Lessie Branch is a Racial Policy Scholar whose research interests focus on race and class disparities in general and the discordance between Black racial attitudes and Black economic progress specifically. Lessie is on faculty at Monroe College in the School of Business and Accounting.