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Worse Than Discrimination? Racial Inequality in Postracist America

Why does a second-string NFL player caught using the “N” word on video receive 24-hour coverage by every major news network in the country for days, but the largest racial wealth gap since the government began keeping records almost 30 years ago barely causes a blip in the press?

The answer lies in the postracist moment currently holding us captive, a moment explored in the just-published Beyond Discrimination, a timely volume put out by the Russell Sage Foundation. Beyond Discrimination is a collection of essays by 16 scholars (including myself) grappling with the central racial paradox of our time: Why is racial inequality getting worse at the same time that racist beliefs and discrimination are at a historic nadir?

Just what does it mean for America to be postracist? In postracist America, citizens and governments have, over the last 50 years or so, rejected blatant prejudice and outright discrimination as well as arguments about biological or sociological inferiority predicated on race, according to editors Fredrick C. Harris, director of the Center on African American Politics and Society at Columbia University, and Robert C. Lieberman, provost at Johns Hopkins University. In addition to the absence of de jure and de facto racism, a postracist society has positive ideas about racial plurality and inclusion. Today, “Americans. . . recognize the value of diversity and integration in many arenas—workplaces, schools, public settings. . . . Whatever the degree of prejudice that remains in American society, it is unquestionably less widespread and virulent than it once was."

In some ways, it appears, “we have overcome.” Well, not quite. As the editors and contributors document, the declining significance of racism should not be confused with the imminent death of racial inequality. Racial inequality is manifest in every meaningful quarter of life: from one’s education and employment to one’s health and the consumer financial marketplace.

How does one explain the “stickiness” of race (a term from sociologist Devah Pager)—that is, the persistence and spread of racial inequality despite a general public bent on purging explicit racial beliefs, racist language, and discriminatory policies from our national midst? The stubborn durability of racial inequality lies in what Harris and Lieberman describe as “subterranean mechanisms” that operate beneath the surface of explicit racism, mechanisms deeply embedded in recondite structures and processes of housing, employment, higher education, criminal justice, health care and consumer finance.

Dorian Warren shows the durability of racial inequality by exploring employment inequality in the United States, noting the ways in which historical racial divisionsin employment have been exacerbated by the restructuring of the U.S. economy away from unionized, industrial jobs. Desmond King shows that the U.S. government’s constitutionalism has stopped it from proactively working to target material inequities, and has left it only able to approach racial inequality in universalist terms that fail to address the particular, long-lasting effects of historic racism.

Similarly, a complex set of subterranean mechanisms colors the criminal justice system, according to Philip Goff, Devah Pager, and Vesla Weaver. For instance, numerous studies show that Black Americans are no more likely to use drugs than Whites even though African Americans have a far greater chance of being stopped, arrested, and convicted.  This inequality in the criminal justice system has a multiplying or cascading employment effect. According to Pager, “Because blacks are so associated with the population under criminal supervision, it is easy to exaggerate and assume any young black man is likely to have—or to be on his way to acquiring—a criminal record." Consequently, it is this subterranean mechanism of racial stereotyping that not only screens out undesirable applicants (and Pager shows that black former offenders face far more barriers than white ones), but also ensures “even blacks with clean backgrounds fare far worse than their white counterparts.”  

In the final section, Naa Oyo Kwate explores the mechanisms that produce racial inequality in health, and explains that racialized marketing and siting of unhealthy products like fast food in black and Latino neighborhoods contributes to health disparities across race. Kwate writes, “Even in the absence of purposeful targeting, fast food is likely to proliferate owing to the downstream effects of segregation.” According to Kwate, these effects include economic disinvestment in the communities, high, local unemployment, and “weakened community political strength, thereby reducing possible opposition to siting.” 

Kwate and Warren each show how subterranean political economic mechanisms serve to systematically exclude consumers of color, or include them in broken or dysfunctional markets. They provide frameworks for understanding how subprime mortgage and home equity products, which disproportionately went to minority borrowers regardless of credit score and income, resulted in a Great Recession, which, while ostensibly colorblind, has resulted in the greatest racial wealth disparity since the government began keeping records a quarter century ago. Time and again, authors in the volume show that even in the absence of intentional and outright racism, the structures of our political economy have immense racial effects in many spheres of life.

Of course what makes Beyond Discrimination especially timely is the urging by the President for a frank dialogue on race. Indeed, there is no better place to jumpstart that national conservation than this new book and the analyses these authors provide.

Haley Swenson assisted with this post.