Friday, March 10, 2017

Race: A way through?

It is all very well to hope, as Dr. King did, that children "will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of the skin, but by the content of their character." How long does it take to judge the content of someone's character? It takes less than 1.8 seconds to assess the color of someone's skin. As long as race has been salient in American culture, which as Jelani Cobb points out is as long as there's been American culture, this has been hard to get past. So while acknowledging all the progress that's been made on civil rights and race relations, we seem stuck in a place far from where we'd need to be to make King's dream a reality, or to achieve the level of community we'll need in the 21st century.

A huge step individuals can take to help us across the racial divide may be to acknowledge to themselves the persistent reality of race, according to three presenters from the Iowa Department of Human Services who led a workshop at St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids earlier this week. The workshop, entitled "Race: The Power of an Illusion," used the Public Broadcasting series of the same name as well as group discussions to ponder disproportionalities in social conditions, particularly for children. Black, American Indian and Hispanic or Latino children are far more likely to live in poverty, to be involved in the juvenile justice system, to be involved in the child welfare system, to age out of foster care, and to be treated differently in health care, both nationally and in Iowa.
Source: Institute for Research on Poverty (
To ascribe these disparities to individual failures is facile, because it ignores the disparate situations of racial groups in America and how they came to be. For centuries, American law and market forces heavily advantaged whites, who were given preferences for citizenship, voting rights, access to Social Security and Federal Housing Authority benefits, and educational and employment opportunities. Civil rights laws passed in the 1960s ended whites' legal entitlements, but at the same time intracity highways and urban renewal programs destroyed urban neighborhoods, with non-whites comprising 2/3 of those displaced. Lenders and real estate agents continued practices of redlining (refusing to make home loans in predominantly black areas) and block busting (frightening whites into selling cheap by threatening them with loss of property values as blacks moved into their neighborhoods). With whites holding vast advantages in resources and population size, their fears and preferences drove property values up where blacks were absent and down where they were present. And then came the 1970s, bringing economic change and the end of working-class careers. Blacks and Hispanics who had been pushed to the end of the line suffered most quickly.

The result is today's structural racism: facially neutral legal and economic systems that produce disparate outcomes because of the accumulated results of past injustices. Fortunately, I'd say, we can no longer afford not to have all hands on deck as we face the 21st century. We can't afford, either financially or ecologically, the infrastructure for people to live as far from each other as they'd like to. This means taking account of systems that don't offer equal opportunities and making those opportunities more equitable. Ways this can be done:
  • Designing cities to be walkable, with spaces that accommodate diverse people and multiple uses. This benefits everybody to some degree, but particularly those who have been excluded from opportunities.
  • Treating education, transportation and health care (and maybe housing?) as merit goods, not privileges, and as a society accordingly investing in them. The market can't make the investment in public transportation systems, and won't find the desired profit margins in middle-income housing or difficult students and patients.
  • Allowing the possibility of our own subconscious bias, and building in reality checks to ensure decisions (like employment) aren't based on superficial characteristics and prejudices. The DHS presenters quoted Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun's opinion in the 1978 Regents v. Bakke case: "To get beyond racism we must first take account of race. There is no other way."

No comments:

Post a Comment

Opportunity Zones in CR

Construction on 12th Ave in New Bohemia; does this look under-invested? Three census tracts in the center of Cedar Rapids have been des...