Racism and “Colorblind” Society

Against the Current, No. 126, January/February 2007

Malik Miah

THE DECISION TO create a Martin Luther King, Jr. monument on the Washington mall — the first ever for an African American — has been praised by some as a sign of a progress and proof that the United States is a “colorblind” society. President George Bush, former President Bill Clinton and civil rights leaders including Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton all came together in Washington, D.C., on November 14, 2006.

The King memorial, scheduled to open in 2008, will be the first monument for a non-politician and Black leader on the large park at the Capitol’s Mall. It will occupy a four-acre plot on the banks of the Tidal Basin, near the Potomac River. The Jefferson Memorial and Lincoln Memorial stand nearby.

The design is based on King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech given at the massive 1963 March on Washington. Within a few years thereafter, the Civil Rights, Voting Rights and Housing Rights acts were adopted by Congress effectively ending Jim Crow segregation.
History in the making? Yes. Is this the public and symbolic proof of a colorblind society where race no longer matters in government or corporate policy? No. The Bush-Clinton celebratory unity, while a nice photo op, is not based on an established future — that racism as we’ve known it is gone.

A colorblind society cannot be proclaimed. Two weeks after the monument celebration, undercover cops in New York City opened fire after a bachelor’s party of unarmed African American men, murdering the groom. Some 51 shots were fired.

The mayor of the city initially came to the defense of the cops’ actions — only outrage led to a modest retreat by the mayor. The cops were placed on paid leave, but none have been charged for the slaying.

Voluntary Integration Unconstitutional?

On December 4 the U.S. Supreme Court began hearings on cases involving the use of race in the voluntary integration of public schools.  Little more than 50 years after the famous Brown v. Board of Education case that spurred on the civil rights movement, the court appears poised to rule against using race to help end historical racial discrimination in public education.

The fundamentalist religious right, open bigots and some conservative Blacks reject using race as a factor in assigning schools, calling this a form of “reverse discrimination.”
As The New York Times reported after the hearings, “By the time the Supreme Court finished hearing arguments on Monday [December 4] on the student-assignment plans that two urban school systems use to maintain racial integration, the only question was how far the court would go in ruling such plans unconstitutional. There seemed little prospect that either the Louisville, Ky., or Seattle plans would survive the hostile scrutiny of the court’s new majority. In each system, students are offered a choice of schools but can be denied admission based on their race if enrolling at a particular school would upset the racial balance.”

Civil right leaders, not surprisingly, aren’t too positive about what the Court will rule.  There is a certain degree of resignation, yet no plans for mass mobilizations to defend the use of race (a fact that every Black person lives) and to protect the gains of the civil rights era.

The “strategy” — if you can call it that — of civil right leaders is to place hope in  the free market system and/or the Democrats now in control of Congress to stop the neoconservatives’ attacks. There is no evidence, however, that the Democrats plan to take up the battle to defend affirmative action, school desegregation or other major issues of concern to African Americans.

In the Jim Crow era the civil rights leaders — excluded from most positions of power — understood that visible mass protests were our best defense and the most effective way to build alliances and bring about positive legislative and legal changes.

While there is no legal segregation, de facto segregation in public schools has reoccurred in most major cities. Ghettos still exist: This is why some cities are looking at voluntary desegregation programs that the Supreme Court may attempt to stop.

Race Matters: U.S. Census Data

Some 25% of Blacks live in poverty. Black males are disproportionably imprisoned. The high school dropout rate for young males is astronomical in major cities. For example, three quarters of Black young males in Baltimore don’t graduate from high school.

Here are a few other statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau:

* Forty-eight percent of Blacks own their own homes in comparison to 75% of whites. The significance? Wealth for working class families is based on savings. For most working families their biggest asset is their home. Without home ownership, there is less equity to borrow from to send kids to college and enhance retirement resources.

* Some 25% of African Americans live below the official poverty level. The number for whites is 8%. Lack of employment opportunities and home ownership is a big reason for that parentage gap.

* African Americans with college degrees are 18%; for whites it is 30%. The number of Blacks in elite institutions (Harvard, Stanford, etc) is steadily declining with attacks on open admissions and affirmative action.

* A majority of Black young men in major urban areas fail to graduate high school. Not surprisingly, imprisonment is rising.

The numbers confirm, four decades beyond King’s speech and the March on Washington, that ending historical discrimination can’t be overcome by a change of law, good will or desire alone — or a monument. Racism and race does matter in determining public policy.

The King Monument shows the legal and social progress of the civil rights revolution in King’s lifetime, and the fact that the “talented tenth” (a term W.E.B. Du Bois coined for the African-American elite) is now acceptable to most whites as partners in running the country.

The Monument reflects the ruling class’s comfort level and acceptance to work with that layer of the African-American community. A reflection of class more than race, that element of “colorbindness” represents an advance of sorts. For African Americans as a whole, the King monument marks an acceptance as Americans that wasn’t evident in American history — from times of slavery through Jim Crow.

It is that acceptance that most Blacks salute, cheer and honor. African Americans, at the same time, recognize that we must continue to mobilize to fight for our rights. Real progress to win full equality requires fundamental and permanent political change. It requires more than a change in government by Democrats replacing Republicans.

Oprah Winfrey, who spoke at the November 14 event, interestingly summed up the shaky foundation African Americans of all classes are quite aware of concerning U.S. history and race relations: “It’s because of them [King and civil rights leaders] that I’ve been heard. I do not take that for granted, not for one breath.”

ATC 126, January-February 2007