By Sally Lehrman
African Americans with a college diploma find themselves unemployed almost twice as often as whites with the same education. Hispanics must get by on only about half of the individual income that Asian Americans and whites divvy up among the bills. And when blacks and Latinos are hospitalized with a heart problem, they are less likely than European Americans to receive catheterization, be sent home with beta blockers or even be advised to take aspirin to protect their health.
While many Americans agree that open racial bigotry is generally a thing of the past, stark disparities in daily life persist, as documented by academic researchers, the U.S. Census Bureau and the Institute of Medicine. Frustrated with theories plainly unable to explain the problem, more and more sociologists are relying on a new framework to understand racism and develop solutions. “It’s not just Archie Bunker any more,” says Troy Duster, a sociology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and New York University and president-elect of the American Sociological Association.
These scholars are putting forward a fresh analysis of racial injustice that sets aside overt prejudice and individual acts of discrimination, which they say have little actual impact in today’s world. Instead they pull back the covers on social practices and policies sewn into the fabric of work, school and the medical system that privilege whites. Even the most well-intentioned white person, they say, benefits from a legacy of accumulated preferential treatment.
In part they are responding to intellectuals such as Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom (America in Black and White: One Nation Indivisible, 1997), and Shelby Steele (A Dream Deferred, 1999), who assert that discrimination is old news. This group says the country needs to transcend race by acknowledging progress made over the past several decades. Race-conscious policies, they argue, promote racial awareness and separatism, which in turn foster exclusion and discrimination. They note that the Human Genome Project has produced evidence that race has no biological foundation. In fact, the concept was invented in the 18 th century to justify status differences between European settlers and conquered and enslaved peoples, then expanded to support efforts such as the Nazi extermination of Jews.
But it’s far too easy – and misleading – to discard the concept as unimportant, the American Sociological Association says in a 2002 statement. Race-based hierarchies are embedded in the routine practices of society, even if the old ways of understanding disparities are no longer very useful. An increasing number of sociologists are now attempting to unravel the ways racial privilege has been structured into the day-to-day workings of institutions from education to public transportation to criminal justice.
“White-Washing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society,” written by seven scholars including Duster, begins the story in the 1930s with Roosevelt’s New Deal, aimed to protect the working class but revised by Congress to safeguard racial segregation as well. The Social Security Act excluded domestic and agricultural workers from old-age pension and unemployment compensation. Three-quarters of the black population, from domestics to self-employed sharecroppers, fell through the net.
Similarly, the Wagner Act, which empowered unions, also allowed labor to shut out black workers from closed shops. Loans under the Federal Housing Act differentially provided whites the wherewithal to move into new suburbs, while federal subsidies built public housing to contain black migrants from the South in urban areas.
The GI bill, enacted in 1946, broadly expanded the already racially biased economic provisions of the time. While 25 million returning veterans and war industry workers became eligible for low-interest mortgages and free access to higher education, whites benefited most. Federal lending rules favored segregated suburbs and white people had the educational credentials necessary for college. These policies formed a foundation that has supported white economic advantage generation-to-generation to this day, the book’s authors write.
The racial hierarchy established over the middle of the 20 th century has largely held fast because one generation builds on the accomplishments of the last. Like interest on a bank deposit, children collect economic potential for themselves from the property and social status of their parents. Just as directly, Duster says, disadvantages such as barriers to well-paying jobs, segregation in housing and discrimination in lending reverberate from parent to child.
Far from lessening over time, UC-Berkeley sociologist Andrew Barlow contends, the disparities built into American society are becoming more entrenched. In the 1960s and ‘70s, social programs such as business regulation, low-income housing, job training and public health began to compensate for long-term economic advantages held by white people. But starting in the 1980s, the trend reversed with the growth of the service sector and information technology jobs, the mobility of businesses and policy changes such as deregulation and the curtailment of taxes.
Scholars now are studying the cause and effect of racial stratification in more detail, from a city’s choices in garbage disposal sites to the ways housing segregation limits people’s job options. They are examining hidden racial animosity, tracking racial profiling in traffic stops and investigating differences in the ways the same teachers treat students of different races.
Barlow, Duster and their colleagues emphasize that whites may have no awareness of their privileged status even as they protect their interests. When parents successfully fight to protect funding for suburban high schools, for example, they enable those facilities to offer advanced placement classes and leadership opportunities that in turn help students win a spot in the best colleges. Urban educators rarely have such advocates, and thus are unable to offer the same level of academic advantages. But both parents and graduates of top-tier schools – most often white or Asian American – are likely to consider their achievements solely the result of the young peoples’ own hard work.
As industry extends its global reach and creates large pools of investment capital in developed countries, whites are clinging tightly to their privileges, Barlow suggests. “A greater disparity in income and growing inequality makes more and more of the middle class experience a sense of crisis, so they try to buffer themselves,” he says. “We need to think about racism in a new way.”
This article was originally written as part of a three-part series on race for the Institute of Justice and Journalism at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication.
1 White-washing Race, Brown et al.
2 US Census
3 Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care; Brian Smedley et al, eds., Institute of Medicine
Race, class, ethnicity, and stereotyping