Race Still Matters in America — Part Two

Although many whites (and some blacks) deny it, skin color still has a pervasive influence on peoples’ lives in America. Even the place where you live is related to your color. While new research indicates this country is becoming less residentially segregated, the vast majority of us still live in homogeneous areas with a smattering of people from other racial groups. This was a vestige of official U.S. Government policy that proscribed integrating established white neighborhoods. Today the Department of Housing and Urban Development annually investigates around 10,000 fair housing discrimination complaints—a hopeless situation given their limited resources and the estimated 2 million annual racial housing discrimination cases in the United States according to the United Nations.

One of the most deplorable examples of racism can be found in our judicial system that incarcerates over 2 million people, more than any nation in the world. About half of those locked up are people of color. The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that there are more blacks in prison, jail, on probation or parole than there were enslaved before the Civil War. Nearly 1 in 9 young black Americans is incarcerated, more than any other group, and they receive harsher sentences than whites for similar offenses. Thanks to modern technology, we are getting candid glimpses of the verbal and physical abuse people of color must endure at the hands of some law enforcement personnel, and the Innocence Project has demonstrated racial inequities in capital sentencing.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” Despite attempts to improve the health status of blacks and Latinos, they still lag far behind whites. Blacks live five years less, and have more than twice the number of infant deaths than whites, and, along with Latinos, they die more often from infectious and communicable diseases, heart attacks, diabetes and other problems that could be attenuated by preventive behavior and adequate health care. Once again, the data demonstrate that these disparities are not the result of genetic differences. The landmark study “Unequal Treatment” conducted for Congress by the Institute of Medicine concluded

Racial and ethnic minorities tend to receive a lower quality of healthcare than non-minorities, even when access-related factors, such as patients’ insurance status and income, are controlled.

Republicans, who are overwhelmingly white, are not oblivious to these disparities. They prefer to attribute differences in opportunities and the way people are treated to individual aberrations—solely the fault of recalcitrant blacks and Latinos who violate norms of probity and civility. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the darling of Republican conservatives and an aspiring Vice Presidential candidate, reinforced this in a speech last August at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library:

The free enterprise system does not create poverty. The free enterprise system creates prosperity, not denies it. . . ; [And] . . . we must understand that poverty does not create our social problems, our social problems create our poverty.

This popular myth has been woven into the fabric of our society through a public school system that perpetuates segregation, and dashes the hopes of millions of children of color and poor whites. Over 7,000 students drop out of school each day in the United States. Because of the demise of busing and the court’s acquiescence to the principle of unitary status, there has been a reemergence of neighborhood schools. Since most neighborhoods in this country are de facto segregated, schools are now more monochromatic than before the Brown decision in 1954.

Republican leaders’ strategy of unifying white middle and working classes against the supposed excesses of minorities is inherently perverse, blaming the victims of racism when they themselves are struggling to keep their head above water. It may help some people retain a shred of dignity believing that despite their misfortune, they are still superior to others below them on the social ladder—even if the rungs separating them are moving closer as the wealth of the nation becomes centered in the hands of the few.

Demographic changes in our society will make the Republican Party irrelevant if it does not change its rhetoric and become more inclusive. In a few decades minorities will be the majority. Focusing on issues of values and morals may temporarily capture the public’s attention, but they will find that blaming the victims of institutional deficiencies and greed is hardly a formula for success.

H. Roy Kaplan was the Executive Director of The National Conference of Christians and Jews for the Tampa Bay area. His most recent book is The Myth of Post-Racial America.

Race Still Matters (But Republicans Won’t Admit It) — Part One

Among all the Republican candidates’ rhetoric about the necessity to create jobs and get people back to work, there is never a reference to racism and its impact on our society. It’s a topic they studiously avoid, but it is embedded within their ideology—an ideology that continues to have pernicious effects on our country. As a sociologist and community organizer (also disparaged occupations among some segments of society), I would like to share a few facts that I hope will cause them to reconsider their aversion to the subject and become engaged in a discussion about fairness and the quality of life here.

Although much contemporary Republican rhetoric is ostensibly designed to encompass everyone, their speeches are sprinkled with euphemisms and code words that reinforce stereotypes about people of color and the poor, e.g. dwelling on concepts of welfare, food stamps, immigrants, and miscreants who are supposedly sapping the strength of this nation. In actuality, the Republicans’ penchant for demonizing nonwhites and the poor is a calculated attempt to unify whites in a struggle to retain the power and privilege they have monopolized since the country was founded.

One of their most egregious errors is their failure to acknowledge the common origins and destiny of the people of this nation. Though they came from different places and for various reasons—some willingly, and others under duress, scientists have established through DNA research that we are all descendants from ancestors who lived in Africa about 60,000 years ago. There is only one human race, Homo sapiens, and there are no significant differences in intelligence or athletic ability based on the color of one’s skin or the shape of their ears, nose, lips or texture of their hair.

Now this is a difficult pill for some Republicans to swallow since the essence of their platform resides in assumptions about the innate moral inferiority of some people who are demonized as slackers, cheats, and ne’er-do-wells. It is much easier to blame the victims of racism and dysfunctional, unresponsive institutions than to tackle the systemic causes of the problems that plague our society. If we only expel illegal immigrants, lock up all the criminals, throw the welfare cheats off the public dole, curtail unions that shield incompetents and slackers, then we could save our society. And the plans they put forward at the local, state and national level are designed to do just that without regard to a few basic facts.

Republicans’ assume that the United States is a meritocracy with level playing fields that afford everyone equal opportunities to succeed, but research indicates that there are significant differences in the way people of color are treated, especially blacks and Latinos. Today, there are more Hispanic children living in poverty than white, over 6 million, even though Latinos account for less than a quarter of the nation’s children.

High school graduation rates (the percent of students who graduate with their peers in four years) reveal that less than half of black and Latino males complete high school compared to three-quarters of white males. Even more shocking are the incredibly low graduation rates of black and Latino males in some cities, hovering under 30 percent in Detroit, Buffalo, Cleveland, New York City and St. Petersburg. Places where the white male rates are only around 50 percent—also deplorable.

The level of education has a direct impact on one’s earnings: high school graduates bring in $8,000 more a year than dropouts, and college grads $27,000 more. The types of jobs workers obtain are also linked to their education, with the more interesting and autonomous jobs going to the higher educated.

I’ve heard the retort that things have changed. We’ve got a black man in the Office of the President. We’ve got 640 black mayors across the country—a far cry from the ‘60s when there were none. But the political power of cities has vastly declined along with their wealth. Most are on life-support.

“Well,” they say, “there are 43 black Congressmen and 25 Latinos.” Yet, political power is still wielded by whites in this nation. There are no black Senators and only two Latinos. There have only been four black Senators since reconstruction. There is only one black governor (Patrick of Massachusetts) and two Hispanics (Sandoval of Nevada and Martinez of New Mexico). Since blacks and Latinos account for over a quarter of the population, they are underrepresented in both Houses of Congress and governorships. They have not fared any better on the Supreme Court, with just 2 blacks and one Latina in its 220 year history.

Looking at the economy, there are only four blacks and five Latinos heading Fortune 500 corporations. For decades the unemployment rate of blacks and Latinos has been double that of whites, and large numbers of them are stuck in low-paying dead-end jobs. This is partly a function of their low education attainment, but research shows that blacks and Latinos earn less than whites with the same educational attainment in the same jobs. Other studies show that people with ethnic names are less successful in job hunting—less likely to be asked for interviews than whites with Anglo names.

While some blacks and Latinos have significantly improved their social and economic status over the last five decades, it is apparent from these facts that political and corporate power still resides in the hands of relatively few white men who are reluctant to share it. Our next installment will focus on other types of racial disparities and explore the Republicans’ ideological support for blaming the victims of inequality and perpetuating the myth of meritocracy.

H. Roy Kaplan was the Executive Director of The National Conference of Christians and Jews for the Tampa Bay area. His most recent book is The Myth of Post-Racial America.

Racial Inequality and “Meritocracy”: A Closer Look

Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting the nation’s only black four- star general , William E. Ward. His forty year career spanned work in the Middle East, Africa where he was the first head of the U.S. Africa Command, Deputy Commander of the European Command, a stint with the 82nd Airborne, action in Somalia and Bosnia and numerous other assignments. He is a charming, personable man who will be retiring this May. His successes over decades of service to this nation give credence to the belief that hard work can lead to good outcomes and triumph over racism.

I would not want readers to misconstrue the tenor of my previous blogs. I do believe in the virtue of industriousness and the rewards of hard work and individual initiative. I grew up in this society and learned these values as other kids do through our education system. While these virtues often help some people to achieve success and gain recognition, (they certainly help perpetuate the existing social system), they do not guarantee everyone equal outcomes. For example, today’s military is thought to offer people of color access to upward mobility, but African Americans are still underrepresented in the highest ranks. While blacks comprise about 17 percent of the military, they account for only 9 percent of the officers. Only 5.6 percent of the 923 general officers and admirals were black as of May, 2008. Just ten African American men have ever attained four-star rank, five in the Army, four in the Air Force, and one in the Navy.

The highest echelons of the private sector are even more segregated. As of February, 2010, there were only nine African-American CEOs in the Fortune 500. A Wall Street Journal analysisin 2008 found only a tenth of the CEOs of the largest corporations in the United States were racial and ethnic minorities, and their percentage on boards of directors was small and virtually unchanged since 2000. In fact, the percentage of companies in the Standard and Poor’s 500-stock index with no minority directors increased from 36 to 41 percent between 2000 and 2007. (Women don’t fare much better in this white man’s world, with only 25 heading Fortune 1,000 companies in 2007.)

Although over 600 cities today have African American mayors compared to virtually none in the ‘60s (clearly a sign of political progress and demographic trends in the nation’s metropolitan areas), there are no African American members in the U.S. Senate, one black governor (Deval Patrick of Massachusetts), and only two African Americans have ever served on the U.S. Supreme Court. But hope springs eternal—I never thought I’d see a man of color in the White House, or, for that matter, a person of color as the head of the Joints Chiefs of Staff or Secretary of State. (The latter under Republican conservative President George Bush.)

While remarkable changes have occurred in race relations in this country over the last several decades, giving some people of color access to better lives and others (whites included) hope in the future, the fact remains that disparities between whites and people of color exist in important areas:

1. In educational attainment, as measured by graduation rates and standardized test scores in math, reading and science, blacks and Latinos are 30 percent lower than whites, and a disproportionate number of children of color are suspended and expelled and relegated to special education programs.
2. In health, measured in longevity, black life expectancy is as much as eight years less than whites; infant and maternal mortality nearly double that of whites; and blacks and Latinos have lower rates of health insurance coverage than whites
3. In criminal justice, measured in the disproportionate number of people of color incarcerated and the disparities in sentences they receive compared to whites for the same or similar offenses.
4. The net worth of whites is eight to ten times more than blacks. Three times as many blacks as whites live below 125 percent of the poverty level, and black median household income is only 65 percent that of whites.

These disparities have not changed significantly in decades. The gap between whites and blacks and Latinos has even been widening since the onset of the Great Recession. Unemployment among African Americans has been twice as high as whites and 50 percent higher for Latinos than whites.

We are raised believing in the notion of a meritocracy—that one can become successful by embracing the concept. The assumption in this proposition is that of a level playing field where we all have equal opportunities to develop our abilities and potential. Conversely, if someone or group fails in the game of life in America, then that is because of some personal defect of character or even biology. We have seen this theme repeated in attempts of the wealthy and their apologists in the Academy to link intelligence to success and superior genetic endowment. It is a recurrent theme used to blame the victims of systemic, institutionalized racism, sexism, abelism, homophobia and all other forms of discrimination used to marginalize people who have been systematically prevented from participating fully in this society.

While it may be comforting and convenient to believe that only the most highly qualified people are recruited to occupy the upper echelons of the organizations which run our society (and indeed the world’s), it is far too simplistic to assume that the centuries of human pain, suffering and failure experienced by marginalized groups rests solely on their purported social, psychological and physiological imperfections. Certainly, marginalized people have made political and economic advances. They must continue to believe that there is hope for more, but we all must recognize the limitations imposed on people by institutions that are dominated by a white male minority who continue to resist significant changes in their use and abuse of power. I believe in this country and the concept of a meritocracy, but I am also aware of the balance of power and political realities that limit people who have not had the opportunities which prepared them to assume the roles of political and corporate leadership. By analyzing and exposing the weaknesses in our system, it is my hope that we will be able to fulfill the promise of “liberty and justice for all.”

For more information on these points see:
1. Joe R. Feagin, Racist America. Second edition. N.Y.: Routledge, 2010.

2. Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man. N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.

3. H. Roy Kaplan, The Myth of Post-Racial America. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Education, 2011.

4. Stephen J. McNamee and Robert K. Miller, Jr., The Meritocracy Myth. Second edition. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009.

H. Roy Kaplan, Ph.D.
Research Associate Professor, Department of Africana Studies, University of South Florida

How Much is Enough?

Two articles that appeared on April 1 in USA Today caught my attention. At first you might think they were an April Fool’s joke. Over a million homes went into foreclosure this year and last. Nearly 15 million people are unemployed and, according to a Gallup Poll last year, 30 million more are underemployed. Poverty is pervasive among people of color, especially their children. More than a third (34 percent) of African American children and 29 percent of Latino children live below the poverty level. A report in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine in November, 2009 noted that nearly half of all children and 90 percent of black children will be on food stamps at some point during childhood. And yet we learn that 75 percent of top CEOs received raises in 2010. While middle and working class people are tightening their belts and being inexorably forced into poverty, (one in seven lives below the poverty level in the U.S.), we find that the compensation of the top 25 CEOs ranged from a low of $15,121,370 for David Cordani of Cigna to the “comfortable” $84,409,515 of Phillippe Dauman of Viacom. (USA Today, April 1, 2011:2B)

It would seem the economy is doing well—at least for some people.

On page 12C of the same paper sports aficionados can scan the salaries of all the teams and players in major league baseball. There are disparities there, too, though many people struggling with their rent or mortgage payments, food, fuel and health care bills probably would not commiserate with players on the “low end” of the scale, drawing in a paltry $414,000 annual salary. And who would begrudge Alex Rodriguez, of the New York Yankees his $32,000,000, or Vernon Wells of the Dodgers his $26 million? With average player compensation this year at $3.31 million, they won’t have to worry about cuts in Medicaid, Head Start, and food stamps.

Should we begrudge businessmen and athletes their salaries? The American Dream, based on the concept of a meritocracy, holds out the promise of wealth to anyone who works hard and plays by the rules. Tell that to the victims of Bernie Madoff, and the millions of children who were not lucky enough to be born to wealthy parents or win the genetic lottery as they struggle to survive. I ask you, how much is enough? Is any job worth that kind of money? What will be the effect of the recent budget deal on the lives of American children?

H. Roy Kaplan is Research Associate Professor in the Department of Africana Studies at the University of South Florida, and author of The Myth of Post-Racial America.

Racism and Personal Worth

If you’re one of those people who are wondering why our so-called economic recovery is passing you by here’s why: Thanks to the devastating economic collapse that has plagued our nation for the last several years we know:

1. Wealth has, with the assistance of federal policies and tax breaks, flowed into the hands of the few to an unprecedented extent. The top decile of pre-tax income earning Americans accounts for 50 percent of the total income of U.S. families—the highest level since 1917, with the top 1 percent of wage earners controlling nearly a quarter of the nation’s total income.
2. Wealth disparities are falling disproportionately on people of color, especially their children. More than a third (34%) of African American and 29% of Latino children live below the poverty level in the U.S.
3. Nearly half of African Americans born into middle-class families have spiraled down into the bottom 20% of income distribution compared to 16% of white children.
4. Between 1984 and 2007 the wealth gap between blacks and whites increased four- fold. (Some sources here and here)

These facts not only reveal the increasing immiseration of people of color, but of working class and middle class whites. They are realizing the fallacy of the American Dream as they struggle to survive in the face of increasing costs for food and fuel and devaluation in personal property and assets.

People of color have long been on the short end, receiving far less compensation for wages and, as I have shown in my book, injuries awarded by judges and juries. The color of one’s skin not only affects employment, housing, educational, and health opportunities and outcomes, it follows some people to the grave. The question is “If you were queen or king for a day, which one of our social institutions would you try to reform and how would you do it?”

(Dr. H. Roy Kaplan is in the Department of Africana Studies, University of South Florida, and is author of The Myth of Post-Racial America: Searching for Equality in the Age of Materialism.