A Call for a New Abolitionist Movement

From August 7th to the 9th, the Society for the Study of Social Problems (SSSP) held its annual meeting in San Francisco, CA. SSSP is an organization of scholars, activists, advocates and students, who apply the principles of social science along with a humanistic perspective to the study and solution of social problems. I had the privilege to hear Dr. Steven Barkan deliver his presidential address on August 8th, and his message is an important one that deserves to be heard beyond the walls of the conference hotel ballroom. Dr. Barkan graciously shared a copy of his speech with me, so I could write about it here.


In his address, Dr. Barkan called for a “new abolitionism.” The United States, he pointed out, as others have, has come a long way in addressing racism, and he celebrated this fact. “We should rejoice that many people of color have made gains unimaginable a generation or two ago . . .” Nevertheless, in 2009, almost 245 years after the Civil War ended, more than 100 years after W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,” and four decades after the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, “the problem of the color line continues,” said Barkan. People of color still deal with racism on a daily basis, both “symbolic racism” and more overt racism.


To illustrate how racial inequality manifests itself today, Barkan used the examples of racial disparities in wealth and health. He cited statistics showing that the median net worth of families of color is only $25,000 compared with a median $141,000 for non-Hispanic white families. With the exception of Asian Americans, the poverty rate for people of color in the United States is more than double – and for some groups, more than triple – the poverty rate for non-Hispanic whites. To these observations, I would add that while the racial wealth and poverty gaps narrowed somewhat during the 1990s, the current economic crisis has once again restored them to their 1970s equivalents. Moreover, as Barbara Ehrenreich recently pointed out, to be black and poor nowadays makes the probability of “being sucked into . . . the ‘cradle-to-prison pipeline’” increasingly high.


In looking at racial disparities in health, Barkan cited statistics on infant mortality (i.e., the number of infant deaths per 1,000 live births) that show black infant mortality to be more than double non-Hispanic white infant mortality (13.6 and 5.8, respectively). Life expectancy for African Americans is five years less than the life expectancy of non-Hispanic white Americans. As Arline Geronimus shows in her research on racial health disparities, the stresses resulting from daily life in a racist society “weathers” African Americans, causing them to age more rapidly than their white peers and to suffer more chronic illnesses associated with stress and unrelenting disadvantage (e.g., high crime, inadequate access to health care, poor health care, environmental toxins). Although social class mitigates this disparity somewhat, the “hypersegregation” that African Americans continue to experience in the United States means that they remain nearly as socially isolated from whites in their living arrangements and private lives today as they did under Jim Crow (see Patterson’s commentary).


As Barkan pointed out in his address, these are disturbing statistics, but we must remember that “behind them are the lives and stories of real people.”  And so he called for a new abolitionism, “a new movement to end racial and ethnic inequality.”  Specifically, Barkan argued that this movement should use all the strategies and tactics that progressive social change movements have used historically, including traditional political activity as well as protests and demonstrations, and these should be “responsible and nonviolent but . . . also constant, loud when necessary, and perhaps a tiny bit uncontrollable just to keep things interesting.” Barkan sees this new abolitionist movement as a coalition of diverse racial and ethnic groups, but it should not be a movement whose members are solely people of color because “racial and ethnic inequality is, after all, a white problem. It was a white problem in the past . . . and it is a white problem today.” Barkan is not naïve. He admits that many white people will not easily relinquish white privilege. But he urges whites, nevertheless, to fulfill their moral obligation by taking “a leading role in the new abolitionism.”  


I found Barkan’s address challenging, but inspiring.  He made a strong case against the notion of the US as a post-racial society. The complete address will be published in the February, 2010 issue of the SSSP journal, Social Problems. I urge all of you to read it and I urge you even more strongly to take up Dr. Barkan’s call for a new abolitionism.