Symbolic Racism and the "US of KKK A - Hannity, Clinton, Obama, Rev. Wright and Racism 101: Part II
by Walter C. Uhler
I'd be a millionaire, if I had a dime for every time some white American expressed some variant of the opinion: "Slavery ended a long time ago. Blacks have it much better today. They've achieved equality under the law and many middle class blacks have achieved de facto equality. Why can't they just get over it?"
Well, it's one thing to insist that blacks take responsibility for their own lives, even in the face of past and present racism. In fact, a November 2007 Pew Research Center poll found that 53 percent of America's blacks believe: "blacks who don't get ahead are mainly responsible for their own condition." But, it's quite another thing to close one's eyes to the impact of past and present racism.
When discussing the current indifference of whites to the cumulative impact of past racism, perhaps political scientist Roy L. Brooks put it best: "Two persons - one white and the other black - are playing a game of poker. The game has been in progress for some 300 years. One player - the white one - has been cheating during much of this time, but now announces: 'from this day forward, there will be a new game with new players and no more cheating.' Hopeful, but suspicious, the black player responds, 'that's great. I've been waiting to hear you say that for 300 years. Let me ask you, what are you going to do with all those poker chips that you stacked up on your side of the table all these years?' 'Well,' said the white player, somewhat bewildered by the question, 'they are going to stay right here, of course.' 'That's unfair,' snaps the black player. 'The new white player will benefit from your past cheating. Where's the equality in that?' 'But you can't realistically expect me to redistribute the poker chips along racial lines when we are trying to move away from considerations of race and when the future offers no guarantees to anyone,' insists the white player. 'And surely,' he continues, 'redistributing the poker chips would punish individuals for something they did not do. Punish me, not the innocents!' Emotionally exhausted, the black player answers, 'but the innocents will reap a racial windfall.'"
Commenting on this "racial windfall," Paul L. Street concludes, "there is something significantly racist about the widespread mainstream white assumption that the broader white majority society owes African Americans nothing in the way of special, ongoing compensation for singular black disadvantages resulting from overt and explicit past racism." [Paul L. Street, Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis, p. 23]
Americans familiar with the work of sociologist Dalton Conley know that that slavery and Jim Crow sharecropping have been curses that keep on cursing, especially by preventing most African-Americans from accumulating the wealth they should have gathered otherwise. As Professor Conley sees it, "wealth accumulation depends heavily on intergenerational support issues such as gifts, informal loans, and inheritances." [Dalton Conley, Being Black, Living in the Red, p. 6] "Wealth is much more stable within families and across generations than is income, occupation, or education. In short," says Conley, "we are less likely to have earned it and more likely to have inherited it or received it as a gift." [Ibid, p. 14]
"In 1865, at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans owned 0.5 percent of the total worth of the United States...However, by 1990, a full 135 years after the abolition of slavery, black Americans owned only a meager 1 percent of total wealth." [Ibid, p. 25] According to Professor Conley, "In 1994, the median White family held assets worth seven times more than those of the median nonwhite family." [Ibid, p. 1] In a word, the deliberate impoverishment of slaves and Jim Crow sharecroppers played a major role in preventing blacks from passing significant wealth to their descendants.
(Much in the spirit of Barack Obama and, perhaps, Hillary Clinton, Professor Conley believes that the racial gap in wealth can be remedied by an "aggressive wealth-accrual policy" that would benefit both whites and blacks, who are "asset-poor." Class, rather than race.)
Moreover, it wasn't merely the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow sharecropping that retarded the creation of wealth by African-Americans. During the 1930s and 1940s, African-Americans suffered yet more discrimination and abuse -- this time from "Crackers" in the U.S. Congress who conspired with office-holding and administrative racists in Southern states to assure, to the best of their ability, that only whites benefited from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "New Deal" social welfare programs. It gave an insidious new meaning to the South's insistence on "States Rights!
As Ira Katznelson has written in When Affirmative Action Was White: During the New Deal and Fair Deal era of the 1930s and 1940s "the southern wing of the Democratic Party was in a position to dictate the contours of Social Security, key labor legislation, the GI Bill, and other landmark laws that helped create a modern white middle class in a manner that also protected what these legislators routinely called 'the southern way of life.'" [p. 17]
Thus, "at the very moment when a wide array of public policies was providing most white Americans with valuable tools to advance their social welfare - insure their old age, get good jobs, acquire economic security, build assets, and gain middle-class status - most black Americans were left behind or left out." [p. 23]
How could such a thing happen? It happened because a Cracker in the U.S. House of Representatives, John Rankin of Mississippi, "led the drafting of a law that left responsibility for implementation mainly to the states and localities, including, of course, those that practiced official racism without compromise." [p. 123] According to Katznelson, Rankin "keenly grasped that black veterans would attempt to use their new status, based upon service and sacrifice, along with a new body of federal funds, to shift the balance against segregation." [p. 126]
Take the case of the GI Bill. "Between 1944 and 1971, federal spending on former soldiers in this 'model welfare system' totaled over $95 billion." [p. 113] As Katznelson notes, "with the help of the GI Bill, millions [of veterans] bought homes, attended college, started business ventures, and found jobs commensurate with their skills." [p. 113] Yes, it helped many blacks and should be credited "for developing a tiny group of professionals into the large, stable, and growing 'black bourgeoisie' that exists today, composed of doctors, lawyers, teachers, and mid-level civil servants." [p. 120]
But, "on balance, despite the assistance that black soldiers received, there was no greater instrument for widening an already huge racial gap in postwar America than the GI Bill." [p. 121] Soon after the law's enactment, a delegation "told the Veterans Administration…that discharged Negro soldiers in the South are discouraged from enjoying the benefits of the 'GI Bill of Rights." [p. 122]
One consequence of this discrimination wouldn't be seen until 1984, when GI Bill mortgages had largely matured. In 1984, "the median white household had a net worth of $39,135; the comparable figure for black households was only $3,397…Most of this difference was accounted for by the absence of homeownership." [p. 164]
Whites, especially in the South, made a last ditch attempt defend "the southern way of life," when they engaged in violence to prevent the integration of schools, as required by the historic 1954 Supreme Court ruling, Brown v. Board of Education. As Mark M. Smith has observed, in his book, How Race is Made, "In years to come, civil rights activists let such men and women lay bare their visceral fury to the world, their glowering faces, punching fists, and kicking raw feet, frightening testimony to their determination to protect their society. It was a wise strategy. Seeing segregationists spew their hatred with such ferocity on national television shocked many." [p. 138]
Fury and violence weren't the only tools available to whites, who wanted to keep blacks "in their place." Until the enactment of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, most southern voting districts "employed literacy tests as a condition for entitlement to vote. The tests were employed in an explicitly racially discriminatory manner, with blacks given lower scores than whites regardless of their actual performance on the tests." [Blum, p.24]
Fortunately, the enactment of Civil Rights legislation greatly diminished the most overt forms of racism. Unfortunately, overt racism has been replaced by what scholars call "symbolic racism"- "a coherent set of beliefs including the sense that discrimination is no longer an obstacle for blacks, that their current lack of upward social mobility is caused by their unwillingness to work hard, that they demand too much of government, and that they have received more than they deserve." [Hutchings and Valentino, p. 390]
Symbolic racism, which is deeper and more widespread in the South than elsewhere in the United States, has become the bedrock upon which the Republican Party bases its "Southern strategy." Lee Atwater (who worked with both Bush's) put it this way: "You start out in 1954 by saying 'Nigger, nigger, nigger.' By 1968 you can't say 'nigger' - that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites." [Bob Herbert, "Impossible, Ridiculous, Repugnant," New York Times, Oct. 6, 2005]
Thus, even if we put aside the issue of a final reckoning for past injustices, there's still the matter of the willful blind eye that symbolic racists and other ignorant Americans turn to stark evidence of present-day racism.
Present-day racism? Yes, "in June 2000, American General Life and Accident Insurance Co., one of the nation's largest life insurance companies, agreed to pay $206 million to settle allegations that it had overcharged millions of mostly poor, black customers for burial insurance because of their race." Consider that, "in November 2000, Coca-Cola agreed to pay more than $156 million to current and former employees of color alleging racial discrimination." [Blum, p. 25]
Present-day racism? As professors Maria Kyrsan and Amanda Lewis note, in "Racial Discrimination Is Alive and Well" [Challenge, May-June 2005], "No matter what the employment rate generally is, African Americans are unemployed at twice the rate of whites." [p. 38] Fine, but how does racism enter in?
First, from the findings of researchers, who sent out resumes to a wide sample of potential employers. "The resumes were identical except for the name at the top. Some had black-sounding names like Tamika or Tyrone. Others had white-sounding names. But the resumes were identical. It turned out in this well-controlled study that the person with the white-sounding name was much more likely to get a call back than the one with the African American name." [Ibid, p, 40]
Second, "Kathryn Neckerman and Joleen Kirschenman did a study where they interviewed employers in-depth. They found widespread evidence of a racial hierarchy and belief in stereotypes. These views were quite readily verbalized by employers, who admitted that they, for example, selectively recruited in some communities. They preferred to hire white ethnics or Hispanics and had negative stereotypes of black inner-city applicants in particular." [Ibid, p. 41]
Thus, it's perhaps no accident that the huge expansion of the black middle class since the 1960s is due largely to jobs obtained in the government sector.
Present-day racism? In October 2005, Van Jones wrote about the disproportionate rate of arrests and convictions of blacks and cited an analysis conducted by two researchers for Justice Department: "Two-thirds of the studies of state and local juvenile justice systems they analyzed found that there was a 'race effect' at some stage of the juvenile justice process that affected minorities for the worse." [Van Jones, "ARE Blacks A Criminal Race? Surprising Statistics," Huffington Post Oct. 5, 2005]
Using data about drug use and incarcerations from four studies written between 1999 and 2005, Jones concludes: "The Monitoring the Future Survey of high school seniors shows that white students annually use cocaine at 4.6 times the rate of African American students, use crack cocaine at 1.5 times the rate of African American students, and use heroin at the same rate of African Americans students [sic], and that white youth report annual use of marijuana at a rate 46% higher than African American youth. However, African American youth are arrested for drug offenses at about twice the rate (African American 314 per 100,000, white 175 per 1000,000) times [sic] that of whites, and African American youth represent nearly half (48%) of all youth incarcerated for drug offense in the juvenile justice system."
Such racism in America's juvenile justice system is but part of a larger pattern of racial discrimination that recently prompted the United Nation's Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to urge the United States to rectify the "stark racial disparities" in criminal justice systems throughout the country. ["UN Faults US on Racism," Human Rights Watch, March 7, 2008]
Present-day racism? With reports that America's schools are experiencing a new wave of resegregation, it became national news when 16-year-old Kiri Davis recreated "the famous 1940s experiment conducted by Dr. Kenneth Clark that studied the psychological effects of segregation on black children." ["What Dolls Can Tell Us About Race in America," ABC NEWS, Oct. 11, 2006]
"In Clark's test, [black] children were given a black doll and a white doll, and then asked which one they thought was better."
"Overwhelmingly, they chose the white doll."
The results from Clark's experiment led him to conclude that "prejudice, discrimination and segregation" caused black children to develop a sense of inferiority and self-hatred; a conclusion that influenced the Brown v. Board of Education decision to end segregation in the nation's schools. [Ibid]
In the test administered by Kiri Davis some sixty years later, Davis asks a little girl, "'Can you show me the doll that looks bad?' The girl immediately chooses the black doll. Why does that look bad," asks Kiri. "Because it's black," the girl answers.
In fact, 15 of 21 children (ages 4 and 5) "said that the white doll was good and pretty, and that the black doll was bad." [Ibid] How's that for the impact of present-day racism?
Symbolic racists also would do well to consider the deadly present-day impact of previous racism. For example, when you think about hurricane Katrina's devastating impact on the lives of African-Americans living in New Orleans, think racial segregation. As Richard Thompson Ford writes, in recent book, The Race Card, "Racism didn't flood the black neighborhoods of New Orleans, but racism established and enforced the residential patterns that made those neighborhoods black." [p. 55]
And New Orleans wasn't alone. "Many American cities were segregated by force of law until the Supreme Court invalidated racial zoning in 1917. Those cities and many others replaced racial zoning with an almost equally effective private substitute - racially restricted real estate covenants - until those too were invalidated in 1948. Banks, real estate agents, residents, and in some cases the federal government conspired to enforce segregation informally until Congress prohibited housing discrimination in 1968." [Ibid]
Yet, although the evidence of present-day racism is overwhelming, such widespread and continuing racial discrimination does not justify the growth of a very troubling, self-destructive black "oppositional culture" in inner-city ghettos (See Elijah Anderson's Code of the Street.)
On the other hand, when a white Department of Defense colleague asked me to comment on a speech by Bill Cosby - in which Mr. Cosby tore into blacks, especially black parents, for the poor upbringing and resulting social pathologies of so many black children - I not only recommended Elijah Anderson's sobering book, but also asked why white Americans weren't equally outraged by the social pathologies of low-class whites - a much larger American sub-group, often called "white trash" by mean-spirited folks. I suggested to my colleague that the double standard, itself, constituted evidence of widespread racism in this country.
But, beyond this racial double standard, symbolic racists do their country a double disservice. Not only do they belittle the existence of present-day racism, thereby turning a deaf ear to potential remedies, they also provide fertile soil for the reemergence of overt racism.
As with Rev. Jeremiah Wright's "God Damn America" (a sentiment that was shared by Thomas Jefferson, see part one of this article here: http://www.walter-c-uhler.com/Reviews/damn.html ), Sean Hannity and FOX NEWS also has heaped scorn upon Rev. Wright's reference to the "US of KKK A." Again, Hannity's racial hypocrisy was astounding!
Simply consider that on November 14, 2007, Hannity's former co-conspirator to fill WABC's airwaves with hate, Hal Turner, went on the Warren Ballentine radio show and asserted: "We are going to begin lynching blacks in this country again next year!" He followed that assertion with a suggestion that we must return to what worked in the past, a rope. ["Hate Groups: Mainstreaming the Far Right," The Center for Democratic Renewal, February 2008]
Turner made his assertion in the wake of the huge September 2007, "Jena 6" rally against racial discrimination and hate in Jena, Louisiana that sparked a flurry of some 50 to 60 "noose incidents." The flurry marked a spike in noose-specific offenses that, according to a Justice Department report in 2000, have been increasing in professional environments. In fact, in October 2007 "seven black workers employed by an Oklahoma-based drilling company won a $290,000 settlement in a discrimination lawsuit which claimed they felt threatened by the display of a noose on a Gulf of Mexico oil rig." ['Noose incidents; Foolish pranks or pure hate?" CNN.com, Nov. 1, 2007]
In fact, the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement (NSM) had put out a call: "All across the country, white people are spontaneously hanging nooses from trees to say that white people will not be intimidated by nigger mob rule and to show support four our 'Lynch the Jena 6' campaign."
The NSM appears to have picked up where the KKK left off. As the authors of "Hate Groups: Mainstreaming the Far Right" have written: "The practice of lynching exploded following the establishment of the Ku Klux Klan in 1867 as the organization used lynching to promote the concept of white supremacy. It has been estimated that between 1880 and 1920 an average of two African Americans per week were lynched in the United States."
"Lynchings weren't just murders - there were, in many cases, sanctioned murders: casually reported in the newspapers, ignored by law enforcement; celebrated with family picnics; photos of hanging victims turned into postcards, and 'souvenirs' were taken from the scene of the crime." [Ibid]
Mr. Turner's prediction of more lynchings came just last year, when the number of hate groups operating in America rose to 888. That number represents an increase of 48% increase since 2000. ["The Year in Hate," Southern Poverty Law Center, Spring 2008] And it came just a year after law enforcement agencies reported that 4,737 single-bias hate crime offenses were racially motivated. Of these offenses 66.2 percent were motivated by anti-black bias.
Thus, although it might be a bit of a stretch today (but certainly not during the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century) to refer to the United States of America as the "US of KKK A," Rev. Wright's assertion did not merit the outrage it received across white America, especially in light of the "noose incidents" that have increased since 2000 and spiked in 2007. Are we a nation of amnesiacs?
My closest African American friend, Stanley Brown, gave me his considered opinion about the outrage, which I publish here with his permission: "They finally found Barack's swift boat issue. It will probably never stop. Politics is a dirty business and Americans are easily led around like sheep (sheep are dumb). This issue of Rev. Wright allowed race to become the issue, to which white America can assert their sense of superiority making white (thought) right. The media disguises the whiteness as patriotism because most Americans have little knowledge of world events unless provide[d] by our fair and balanced media. It's as if the sons and daughters of slaves and victims of a Jim Crow society, now James Crow, Esq., should have the same perspective of America. It would actually mean that African Americans [were] insane, if they did. We are all a sum of our experiences. It's a testament to how far we haven't come and our lack of desire for real intelligence."
"Symbolic racism" and the "US of KKK A." My brief, two-part, introduction to "Racism 101" should persuade you that Rev. Jeremiah Wright's utterance about present-day racism is no more outrageous than are the smug, self-serving beliefs of symbolic racists who maintain that "discrimination is no longer an obstacle for blacks, that their current lack of upward social mobility is caused by their unwillingness to work hard, that they demand too much of government, and that they have received more than they deserve." And nothing said by FOX's Sean "Lee Atwater" Hannity will make it so.