Chapter One: The Collapse of Liberal Hope
The world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.
- James Baldwin
A generation after the civil rights movement, Americans are once again engaged in a radical rethinking of their attitudes toward race, and major changes in public policy are imminent. The choice is whether to preserve the existing structure of race-based policies or opt for a completely different approach. The moment of decision cannot be avoided: not to choose is to decide in favor of the status quo and to perpetuate current problems. Yet before adopting a course that will determine the future of race relations into the twenty-first century, Americans must step back from the sound and fury long enough to ask some fundamental questions about race and racism.
The public mood is not conducive to such prudent statesmanship. Indeed the crisis of American race relations is evident from the volatile combination of confusion and anger that characterizes the public debate. Both sentiments arise from a deep chasm of understanding that now separates white and blacks. Many whites have become increasingly scornful of black demands, and vehemently reject racial preferences. Most blacks, by contrast, support affirmative action as indispensable to fighting the enduring effects of white racism. On other racial issues as well, from the Los Angeles riots to the O.J. Simpson case, blacks and whites seem to view each other across a hostile divide. There is a political chasm as well: increasingly the Republican party is becoming the party of whites, while the Democratic party is beholden to its African American voting base. If these political and racial divisions are exacerbated, we are likely to witness a further decomposition of the bonds that hold the country together. Thus America's historically unprecedented attempt to construct a truly multiracial society may be doomed to fail.
This book is an attempt to explain and reconcile the perception gap between whites and blacks by resolving what appears to be the fundamental issue in dispute: is America a racist society? Deeply distressed by the continuing failure of blacks as a group to succeed in America, many scholars and social activists allege that all talk of racial progress is an evasion or a mirage. They assume that racism is not a departure from American ideals but a true expression of them, that the nation's institutions are ineradicably tainted by racism, and that racism may be an intrinsic part of the human or at least the Western psyche, so that we may never be able to transcend it. The dominant view today is that race is a social reality or, as African American scholar Cornel West puts it, "race matters"; therefore the only viable response is to institutionalize race as the basis of public policy. In the face of such pessimism, this book advances the view that Cornel West is wrong, that racism can be overcome, and that a serious attempt to do so must first involve revising our most basic assumptions about race. Specifically, I question and reject the following widely shared premises that shape the conventional wisdom about racism, as well as America's civil rights laws.
* Racism is simply an irrational prejudice, a product of ignorance and fear.
* Slavery was a racist institution, and the Constitution's compromise with slavery discredits the American founding as racist and morally corrupt.
* Segregation was a system established by white racists for the purpose of oppressing blacks.
* In American history, racism is the theory and discrimination is the practice.
* The civil rights movement represented a triumph of justice and enlightenment over the forces of Southern racism and hate.
* Although Martin Luther King, Jr. helped to secure formal rights for blacks, white racism has become more subtle and continues its baleful influence through institutional structures.
* The civil rights leadership is committed to fighting racism and building up the economic and cultural strengths of blacks, especially the poorest ones.
* Affirmative action is a policy that assures equal opportunity for disadvantaged African Americans and other minorities.
* Multiculturalism unites blacks and nonwhite immigrants in a common struggle against white racism.
* Blacks and other persons of color cannot be racist because racism requires not just prejudice but also power.
* Racism is the main obstacle facing African Americans today, and the primary explanation for black problems.
The three main features of the nation's racial crisis are the phenomena of black rage, white backlash, and liberal despair.
In 1992, a white congressional aide working for Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama was accosted at his home in Washington, D.C., and shot to death. A few weeks later, Edward Evans, a young black man, was arrested. Two friends of Evans testified that they saw him shoot the young staffer. One of them said that Evans harbored strong antiwhite sentiments and promised he was going to kill a white man. The material evidence against Evans, presented at trial, seemed overwhelming. Yet although eleven jurors including five blacks, initially agreed that Evans was guilty of murder, one African American woman, Velma McNeil, refused to convict. A frustrated white jury foreman claimed to the judge that "one juror" was simply unwilling to give credence to the prosecution's evidence against Evans. He also stated later that, during jury deliberations, McNeil told fellow jurors that the exoneration of Los Angeles police officers who beat black motorist Rodney King showed the systematic bias of the judicial system against blacks. Juror McNeil denied that her refusal to find the defendant guilty was based on race, pointing instead to possible contradictions in the statements given by the two eyewitnesses. The consequence was a hung jury, and the judge was forced to declare a mistrial. A Washington Post photograph shows McNeil emerging from the courtroom, smiling, chatting, and embracing a relative of the accused.
If juror McNeil's reluctance to convict a fellow African American was at least in part motivated by race, the incident is striking in that it reveals two paradigmatic cases of black rage: a poor black man, consumed with racial resentment, seeking to vent his hostility on a white man; and a middle-class black woman, perhaps equally alienated from society, using the system to settle a score against whites as a group. Black rage is also part of the undertow of the O.J. Simpson trial, where the defense seems to seek to capitalize on the antagonism of black jurors toward white policemen in order to win a hung jury or an acquittal. Both cases point to the justice system's vulnerability to racial politics. This is hardly a new problem: during the first half of this century in the segregated South, blacks were routinely victimized by racist policemen, prosecutors, judges, and juries. What is new is that, for the first time, whites may find it difficult to receive justice in many inner cities such as Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles which are fertile grounds for black rage. As African American legal scholar Randan Kennedy points out, "One dissenter is all that it takes to prevent a conviction."
The Constitution guarantees citizens the right to a jury of our peers, but in a racially polarized society, who are our peers? If justice is simply a matter of whose ethnic perspective prevails, neither African Americans nor whites can expect fairness when juries are mainly composed of members of the other group. This issue goes far beyond the criminal justice system. In a liberal society it is fair rules, a sense of common citizenship, and respect for reason that constitute the means to adjudicate disputes and conflicts of interest. Black rage, to the extent it affects the judicial process, is alarming because it defies prevailing norms of civility and rationality. Unchecked, such sentiments lead to fanaticism, riots, and even a possible physical conflict between the races.
These concerns are not entirely speculative. In 1990, a black alderman from Milwaukee, Michael McGee, worked to organize African Americans in several cities into a black militia that was arming itself for war against "property" if its demands for $100 million in racial reparations were not met within five years. "The only way to get respect is to be willing to use violence," said McGee. "I'm talking . . . bloodshed and urban guerrilla warfare." Inner-city blacks routinely applaud McGee's remarks, and McGee claims that more than a thousand have signed up for training in his militia.
On December 7, 1993, Colin Ferguson, a Jamaican immigrant living in Brooklyn, converted his racial antagonism against white society into an occasion for mass murder. Ferguson boarded a commuter train from Manhattan and proceeded to shoot passengers at point blank range, killing six and wounding nineteen. Notes found in his possession suggested that Ferguson had a vendetta against whites and what he called "Uncle Tom Negroes" whom he suspected of plotting against him. Remarkably, a National Law Journal survey showed that 68 percent of African Americans were persuaded by the argument of Ferguson's lawyers that white racism drove him to his crazed rampage. Yet Ferguson himself rejected this defense, claiming that he was being framed by racist policemen and prejudiced eyewitnesses. Although Ferguson was later convicted of murder, Martin Simmons, a black scholar at New York University, termed him "a hero" and observed, "I have colleagues who tell me they're putting his picture on the wall next to Malcolm X." African American psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint wondered aloud "why there haven't been more blacks who have exploded because of the mistreatment that they have received at the hands of white people."
Another well-known example of black anger was the savage beating administered to white truckdriver Reginald Denny in the aftermath of the Rodney King case. The Los Angeles riots themselves showcased the resentment of poor blacks and Hispanics who burned and looted without a hint of embarrassment or remorse. African American scholar Cornel West termed the riots, in which more than fifty people died and four thousand were injured, a "display of justified social rage." Black rapper and activist Ice T struck an even more defiant note.
The most peaceful time I ever experienced in South Central was during the riots. While everybody was looking for fires, we walked through the streets. Kids were setting shit on fire, people were smiling. Everybody was shaking each other's hands, feeling a camaraderie. It was as if the people had taken the city back.
Anticipating many such outbreaks in the future, some black leaders have adopted something like a martial posture. "Basically, we're at war," declares publisher and author Haki Madhubuti. In"Young, Black and Male in America,"Jewelle Taylor Gibbs predicts that African American rage will eventually find violent expression in the suburbs. "The violence which young black males now direct mainly against the black community . . . will inevitably erupt and spread throughout urban and suburban America."
Legal scholar Derrick Bell says:
We should appreciate the Louis Farrakhans while we've got them. While these guys talk a lot, they don't actuary do anything. The new crop of leaders are going to be a lot more dangerous and radical, and the next phase will probably be led by charismatic individuals, maybe even teenagers, who urge that instead of killing each other, they should go out in gangs and kill a whole lot of white people.
Both a prediction and a warning, Bell's statement suggests that multiracial societies depend on a radius of trust between groups, and that is now gone. His remarks make one wonder whether white flight to the suburbs can restore the peace or merely postpone the inevitable. Sister Souljah, Al Sharpton, and Louis Farrakhan are the bellicose prophets of black rage in America today. Like Bell, they combine threats of anarchy with forecasts of racial apocalypse. And while their appeal is mainly to poor blacks, there are signs that many successful black professionals identify with these voices of militancy, and share in the racial resentment directed against whites. Middle-class blacks, Ellis Cose writes in The Rage of a Privileged Class, suffer from "deeply repressed rage. . . . They are at least as disaffected and pessimistic as those struggling at society's periphery." Other recent books such as Brent Staples's Parallel Time, Jill Nelson's Volunteer Slavery, and Nathan McCall's Makes Me Wanna Holler convey this same molten anger. Given the intensity of black rage and its appeal to a wide constituency, whites are right to be nervous.
Black rage is a response to black suffering and failure, and reflects the irresistible temptation to attribute African American problems to a history of white racist oppression. Despite substantial progress over the past few decades, African Americans continue to show conspicuous evidence of failure - failure in the workplace, failure in schools and colleges, and failure to maintain intact families and secure communities. Taken together, these hardships and inadequacies virtually assure that blacks will not eve equality of earnings and status with other groups anytime soon. Even more seriously, they threaten to destroy poor black communities and endanger the economic and physical integrity of society as a whole.
* The annual income of African Americans who are employed in full-time jobs amounts to about 60 percent of that of whites.
* The black unemployment rate is nearly double that of the whole nation.
* One third of blacks are poor, compared with just over 10 percent of whites.
* One half of all black children live in poverty.
* The infant mortality rate for blacks is more than double that of whites.
* The proportion of black male high school graduates who go on to college is lower today than in 1975.
* More young black males are in prison than in college.
* Homicide is the leading cause of death for black males between the ages of fifteen and thirty-four.
* Although African Americans make up 12 percent of the population, they, account for more than 35 percent of all AIDS cases.
* The life expectancy of black men is sixty-five years, a rate lower than any other group in America and comparable to that of some Third World countries.
* Nearly 50 percent of all African American families are headed by single women.
* More than 65 percent of black children born each year are illegitimate.
What, if not racism, has caused these terrible problems? Alvin Poussaint attributes black afflictions to enforced victimization of a nation with a "record of flagrant racial prejudice." Author John Edgar Wideman rhetorically asks, "Do black newborns die at three times the rate of white babies because of some factor intrinsic to blackness or because being black means they're treated by society as only one-third as valuable as white newborns?" Activist William Cavil explodes, "I don't understand, if there's not some conspiracy going on, how every group has managed to flourish and get ahead except African Americans." Sister Souliah charges that "racism has turned our communities into war zones, where we are dying every day."
The case for holding white racism and its historical legacy responsible for the contemporary hardships of blacks is a strong one. Film producer Spike Lee argues that "when you're told every single day for four hundred years that you're subhuman, when you rob people of their self worth, knowledge and history, there's nothing worse you can do." As Lee suggests, unlike other immigrants, African Americans did not come to this country voluntarily; they were brought here in chains. Slavery lasted for more than two and a half centuries, during which most blacks found their lives largely bent to the wills of their masters. African American scholar Gerald Early writes that "every single black life today is tied inextricably to the tragedy of slavery." Afrocentrist Molefi Asante invokes the enduring consequences of slavery to argue that whites should pay monetary reparations, estimated in some cases at several hundred thousand dollars per family, to compensate for "wages that our ancestors lost that we now require for a new start in life."
Others go beyond slavery to attribute African American problems to the residual effects of segregation and discrimination during the twentieth century. "Young people forget, but I am old enough to know that not long ago blacks were basically non-citizens in this country," remarks Margaret Bush Wilson, former chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Like many others, Wilson views segregation as an American form of apartheid, which imposed indescribable deprivation and humiliation on blacks. For much of this century most black men were forced to work in degrading menial jobs, such as janitoring and field work. Black women had few occupations open to them other than cleaning and cooking in white households. Historian John Hope Franklin says, "Many young blacks are angry because they do not believe that we have come very far. And there are times when I have to agree with them."
As Franklin's remarks imply, many blacks view racism not as a thing of the past, but as a continuing force which brutally limits the aspirations of African Americans today. Many contemporary examples support this suspicion. In 1993 Christopher Wilson, a thirty-one year old black man, was abducted, robbed, and set on fire by two white men who shouted racial slurs and applauded his cries for help. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported numerous horrific hate crimes that year: two white men placed a rope around a black man's neck and burned a cross to terrorize him; a group of Skinheads cornered a black man whom they beat and tortured; two white bikers assaulted an interracial couple; a white man picked a fight with a black neighbor who was married to a white woman, and stabbed a Hispanic passerby who attempted to stop the fight.
Although hate groups are less visible today, African Americans point out that such groups continue to spread their toxic message in America. Most people are familiar with David Duke's past as a Nazi and Ku Klux Klan leader, but the world he claims to have left behind continues without him. In northern Idaho, white supremacist Richard Butler runs a Christian Identity church whose members are preparing for a racial Armageddon, an apocalyptic final struggle between whites on behalf of God and nonwhites on behalf of Satan. From his pulpit decorated with racist paraphernalia, Butler preaches that "the Bible is the family history of the white race." Butler warns that white intermarriage with Jews or blacks results in "mulatto zombies." Many commentators have seized upon the recent bombing of an Oklahoma City federal building to argue that white racist extremists continue to pose a serious threat to American institutions and public safety.
Civil rights activists complain that even apart from the indignities of white supremacist groups, blacks on a routine basis suffer racial discrimination in getting a job, being promoted, applying for a loan, seeking justice from the police or the courts, even in getting a taxi or being served at a restaurant. As far as minorities are concerned, Jesse Jackson protests, "All the evidence I know says there's not a level playing field." For example, numerous accusations of racism have been registered against the national restaurant chain Denny's. Robert Norton, a white employee, reports that as young black customers approached the doors one evening he saw Denny's employees rush to lock the doors. Although they claimed the restaurant had closed, Norton reports that the doors were promptly opened for white customers when the blacks left. At various Denny's restaurants across the country, African Americans were reportedly subjected to regular demands for prepayment, minimum purchase requirements, gratuities added to the bill, denials of advertised free birthday meals, back-room seatings, and scandalously rude service.
In addition to these documented incidents, many African Americans argue that white racism now operates in the form of "code words" and institutional standards that disguise deeply bigoted sentiments that dare not speak their name. "It is unlikely that racism is declining in the United States," Alphonso Pinkney writes. "The most obvious cases of gross discrimination and segregation have somewhat abated, but the basic racism remains." Ralph Wiley argues, "When they want to say niggers, they say crime. When they want to say niggers, they say welfare. When they want to say niggers, they say drugs." Summing up both the direct and indirect evidence for the pervasiveness of bigotry, political scientist Ronald Walters said at a recent lecture, "Look at Bensonhurst. Look at Howard Beach. Look at Susan Smith blaming a black man for abducting her children when she drowned them herself. If white racism is not to blame for black problems, you tell me what is."
Back to the top