Tracing the History of Racial Inclusion and Debunking the Color-Blind/Post-Racial Myth

Vol. 40 No. 1

By

Professor John A. Powell is director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society (HIFIS) and Robert D. Haas Chancellor’s Chair in Equity and Inclusion at the University of California, Berkeley. Formerly, he directed the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University and the Institute for Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota. He is author of Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Concepts of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society.

The enduring hope is that race should not matter; the reality is that too often it does.

—Majority opinion, Justice Kennedy, Parents Involved

It has been suggested that there have been four critical times at which America could have transformed itself into a more inclusive nation. And each time it has come up more than a little short. Although much of this effort has been organized around race, the terms and breadth of inclusion have continually expanded to include, for example, religion, disability, and sexual preference. Race remains, however, one of the most powerful measures of where we are as a country in making a more perfect union. These four periods are the founding of our nation, the Civil War, the New Deal, and the civil rights movement. But each time the dynamic period neared its end, the new boundary of who could be counted as a full member of society excluded a large number of people of color. Part of the reason is that the function of keeping people out has defined the identity of who is in.

In this article, I will discuss the changes in racial inclusion over the last fifty years, trying to understand the trends as well as the errors to the past that we are repeating. But 2013 is not 1963. It would be both wrong and naïve to assert that things have not changed. But it would be equally wrong to assume that all changes have been in the right direction and that we will be saved by history, changing demographics, or the next generation. As Mark Twain remarked, history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. It is especially difficult to make sense of important changes while in the midst of them. This is not a simple task; it calls for a new language that has not been fully developed. This new language must abandon the color-blind and post-racial narratives, as they perpetuate a pernicious myth that race no longer matters. I take up this matter in the latter part of the article and propose several means by which to promote racial belongingness.

First, let’s add some context. In the early 1960s, America was still overwhelming white. The 1960 Census showed 158,454,956 whites and 18,860,117 “negroes.” There were no categories for Latinos, and the social meaning of Asians was just starting to take form. Women had mostly been pushed back into the homes as veterans returned from wars. Unions were still strong, though signs of decline were already evident to the careful observer. General Motors was the largest company in the world and it was still inconceivable that Japan or Germany could challenge the U.S. economy. If there was a challenge to the United States, it was from the Soviet Union, and this challenge helped lend some urgency to addressing issues of race and inequality in our country. Anti-miscegenation laws still existed in about twenty states, few radio stations played black music, and record companies refused to put pictures with both whites and people of color on cover jackets. Yet, there was hope in the air. There was a sense that we were headed in a direction of inclusion of the racial other.

But our country lost a charismatic young Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, amidst the expanding claims and hopes of the civil rights movement. We were subsequently guided by an older southerner from Texas who arguably had much less charisma but a great deal more skill. President Johnson would be constantly pushed and trodden by the Rev. Dr. King, a young black minister from the South, and a growing civil rights movement. The country carried on its haughty march forward, sideways, and backward as it tried to redefine itself in the latter part of the twentieth century.

But our nation’s history around issues of slavery and race continued to have a profound impact, not just on the racial other, but also on whites as well as on our institutions and structures. After the Civil War, we had claimed to have a two-party system, but we really had a three-party one: Democrat, Republican, and the South. The civil rights movement, or, more accurately, the southern civil rights movement, tried to do more than integrate blacks into the polity; it also tried to integrate the South into the United States. While it may not have fully failed on either account, it certainly has not succeeded on either. So as a number of important civil rights laws were passed in the 1960s and 1970s, the South became more hostile to the Democratic Party and eventually found a welcome suitor in a corporatized Republican Party. Unfortunately, corporations treat persons as property, thus broadly excluding them from participation in our nation.

What the South was doing was mounting a fight to concretize the boundaries of inclusion, which excluded the racial other, then the immigrant other, the religious other, and the gay and lesbian other. But as it gained power and adopted a new language, the South further contracted the boundaries of inclusion to roll back civil rights gains. The Democratic Party, suffering a number of setbacks, strategically moved away from championing civil rights, especially those associated with blacks. Not only would our nation begin to retrench on civil rights, we would also begin to retrench on economic equality to become one of the most unequal countries in the world.

While the South was attacking civil rights and who could be included as a real American, Republicans saw an opening to attack the New Deal and redraw the political and economic boundaries to permit corporate excess. Although many moderate Republicans had come to terms with President Roosevelt’s social welfare structure and its extension to blacks and other groups by President Johnson, this moderation was all but purged from the Republican Party as it would increasingly become the conservative white party in America. Despite the country’s growing racial and ethnic diversity, the Republican Party was becoming the white person party. Ninety-eight percent of Republican-elected officers are white. The South was not creating or joining a new open America; instead, it was pulling America into its confined, corporate-driven sphere.

One cannot understand where we are today as a nation without connecting these racialized political and economic shifts. The deregulated neo-liberal economy is built on anxiety and on fear of whites with a southern sensibility about who belongs. While the corporate elites might not share these sensibilities, they are more than willing to exploit them to expand their prerogative and limit any countervailing power, whether it is wielded by government or unions. So as this hardcore South re-inscribes itself in the twenty-first century, it is willing to suffer some economic hardship in order to protect its sense of whitewashed personal identity and swallow up the identity of our ever more diverse nation. Consider the threat to shut down the government or let our national credit rating slip.

Concurrently, the Supreme Court has been and continues to be an aggressive institutional SWAT team for this agenda. As the New York Times and others have noted, this current Court is the most solicitous to corporations since the New Deal. But equally important, and strongly related, the Court has been one of the most hostile in its history to civil rights and inclusion, especially as it relates to blacks. One might object to this criticism given how the Court ruled on gay marriage, but note that its position on this matter had aggressive and substantial support from elites that is not extended to the racial other. The history of the United States could be told as the story of who is, and who is not, a person under law—who is and who is not a full member.

Fortunately, the door is open for the Democratic Party to effect change, if it modifies its racial strategy. The Republican elites who have been very strategic in their alliance with the South now openly worry about the changing demographics and cultural shifts our nation is experiencing. They need more than conservative whites to remain viable. As Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) stated, the party is “not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.” The question becomes, however, can the party hold on to this base while expanding it to include a wider swath of voters? Can the elites bring in, among others, Latinos, a few conservative blacks, and gays and lesbians while keeping these conservative whites in play? It would not mean that these groups are being duped, as the Left might claim, but that the Republican elite wields more power and influence. What is also largely absent is an effective Democratic response. Many new-guard Democrats are emphasizing the importance of economic issues within only limited boundaries, thus failing to see how economic issues are closely interrelated to racial anxiety and anxiety about the other. As one pundit noted, much of our economic problems are really political. One could even go further: Much of our economic problems, including retrenching the New Deal, the tax revolt, and deregulations, are built on the anxiety of the racial other and the nondeserving 47 percent. For this reason, the Democratic Party needs to develop a new language that will change the game that confronts this anxiety. Unfortunately, the new-guard post-racial narrative is impeding this process, taking on a mythical quality that mirrors the Republican’s color-blind one. The end result is both further exclusion and marginalization of the racial other and growing anxiety among rank-and-file conservative whites.

Myths are not always falsehoods or old wives’ tales; they are often powerful narratives that ask and answer key questions, provide meaning, and determine values. Unfortunately, myths can be unsound, ethically, socially, or otherwise. Denis de Rougemont, a literary critic, suggests that some myths invitingly veil ways of thinking and behaving that, in broad daylight, would be unacceptable. As a result, they can win us over without our knowing it. The color-blind and post-racial narratives converge to create one such commanding American race myth. The key question asked in this myth is: “What kind of nation do we aspire to be?”

The conservative color-blind narrative employs a seductive, but deceptive, veil of “progress” and provides this answer: “We want to be a nation in which good Americans are beyond acting on the color of our skin—in fact, we nearly are such a nation already!” The color-blind claim by conservatives is often a strategy to halt any future substantive progress toward inclusion. In an almost callous way, conservatives employ color blindness, not just as a bar to address racial issues, but also as a justification to blame marginalized groups and preclude any intervention. Part of the attack against the federal government is the concern that the civil rights movement was able to use the federal government to change racial relations. Even with stubborn and at times growing racial inequality, this color-blind ideology casts a blind spot that makes sense of these racial inequalities. This approach ignores the work of structures and systems.

Color blindness only recognizes racial injustice if one can prove intentional racial animus and therefore render race-based solutions to inequities nearly impossible. Indeed, the Supreme Court has insisted that it is the notice of race that is the harm, not the conditions. This means that segregated housing and all-black and Latino poorly funded schools are not constitutionally actionable. Consider the majority opinion in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. Despite the small number of black students with access to the University of Texas, many of whom are trapped in poorly resourced schools in Texas, and the courts recognizing a compelling government interest in having a racially diversity student body, the Court still requires that the university also first show that there is no other way of achieving this diversity without using race. This is because the very noticing and classification of race according to the Court is a harm, not the exclusion from higher ed. In Justice Kennedy’s words, “[i]f a nonracial approach . . . could promote the substantial interest about as well and at tolerable administrative expense, then the university may not consider race.”

The post-racial narrative, mainly espoused by a growing group of liberals, and employing a veil of “pragmatism,” provides this answer: “We want to be a nation in which good Americans agree that talking about race is divisive and distracting and in which racial equality can be achieved through other means.” Those who supported President Obama may be more kind than the conservatives, but like their myth-mates, they are apt to dismiss race unless it can be employed in a “nondivisive manner.” More often, they claim that what looks like race is really class, culture, or some other historical residue; in any case, it will fade into our color-blind future. According to this narrative, both the explicit racists and the old-guard civil rights activists remain locked in a tired battle that has already been addressed; neither group has realized how much conscious racial attitudes have changed for the better, especially since the election of President Obama. But, in fact, they are the ones stuck in the past. The mind science that has emerged over the last thirty years shows us that the unconscious mind notices race and it informs our actions even when we consciously notice race.

Unfortunately, the color-blind/post-racial myth is overly simplistic, inaccurate, and harmful in at least two ways. First, it hinders us from recognizing the implicit racial biases that we all harbor. Maya Wiley, director of the Center for Social Inclusion, succinctly explained the nature of implicit bias before the U.S. House Democratic Steering & Policy Committee in July 2013. Most of us acknowledge that racism is wrong, but we do not always act the way that we want to think. Decades of research show that we all carry many kinds of biases that result from the way the mind works and interacts with structures in our society and the images that we constantly see: black men being arrested, Latinos being handcuffed at the border, Native Americans being drunk, or Muslims being called terrorists. Yet, we are unaware that our brains are acting like computer software, spitting out responses to these stimuli in a nanosecond. For example, a majority of Americans have implicit biases against blacks. This bias comes from the way our language, movies, and culture frequently associate blacks with danger. It is likely that the jurors, the judge, and the larger society already see young black men as dangerous on an unconscious level while at the same time asserting color blindness. It matters little that Zimmerman is Latino. But a Latino is no more immune to implicit racial biases against young black men than others. Fortunately, studies also show that we can change how our brains deal with our implicit biases. The more we work and live together, which fosters inclusion, the more we are able to bypass our circuitry. This requires us to change the way we arrange structures within our society. Unfortunately, the color-blind/post-racial myth obfuscates the structural racialization that permeates our nation, which is a second way in which it is harmful to us.

Structural racialization looks at the impact of structures and systems even in racial-neutral work or design. Implicit bias is a reflection of entrenched social structures, historical patterns, and cumulative inequalities that either enhance or compromise life opportunities and identity. A structural theory of racialization gives us the language and vocabulary necessary to talk about and understand why racial disparities persist on almost every level. A clear example of how structural racialization operates in the absence of intentional racism is the continuing racial and economic isolation that plagues our inner cities and schools, which are just as segregated today as they were when the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) procedures valued racial homogeneity, labeled blacks as “adverse influences” on property value, and largely refused loans to blacks in white areas and the reverse. Even when structural functions do not cause a racial disparity, they can be racially motivated. When whites decided to close swimming pools instead of integrate, there was not a clear racial disparity. Similarly, the attack on the New Deal may exact an equal or even greater cost on whites than people of color, or consider the fear of undocumented immigrants having access to the Affordable Care Act. Instead of perpetuating these dynamics, a structural inclusive approach fosters the development of “communities of opportunity” in which residents can flourish by way of challenging schools, affordable and accessible nutritious foods, healthcare facilities that accept varied insurance plans, labor markets with sustainable employment, green space, and more.

Unfortunately, race-neutral and universal policies will not suffice to create these inclusive communities of opportunity. Historically, we have developed allegedly universal programs that in fact have a targeted impact, benefiting some and harming others. The Social Security Act intentionally excluded certain occupations, including agricultural and domestic work, jobs that were disproportionately held by blacks, especially in the South. What I call “targeted universalism” is a more appropriate strategy to remedy structural racialization. It takes into account the needs of all groups, especially the most marginal. It pays attention to the reality that we are situated differently within structures. An escalator may appear to be neutral, but it does not serve those in a wheelchair. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 is a perfect example of a universal policy whose positive impact on marginalized populations could be enhanced through targeting. One of its universal goals is to stimulate job growth by investment in infrastructure spending. But this approach is blind to the racially uneven, white-dominated process of public infrastructure contracting. Under a targeted universalist approach, the program would acknowledge that the shovel-ready approach adopted by the government meant that communities of color without a shovel would be largely excluded.

My point is this: We must reject the color-blind/post-racial myth and construct a sounder narrative about race in America. We can still ask what kind of nation we aspire to be, but we will base our answer on the realities of race, not their absence or their divisiveness. Consider more of King’s dream:

This is our hope. . . . With this faith we will be able to transform . . . our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. . . . This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning. “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountain side, let freedom ring.” And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

The old way of talking about race does not serve us well, but neither does the claim or hope of racial blindness. We can become this nation of brotherhood and of belongingness, which is the primary good that is distributed or withheld in a legitimate democracy. It is this by which our well-being is considered and our ability to impact society’s structures is realized. The state’s failure to recognize a group or its needs unjustly generates contempt and aversion toward that group, which justifies segregation and opportunity hoarding. The alternative is to expand, not contract, our nation’s circle of concern.

There are several approaches to increasing belongingness. Working out of the color-blind/post-racial myth is not one of them. Instead, we must acknowledge and humanize the racial other as well as other others by increasing our exposure to racial outliers in diverse settings and meaningful activities. We are more likely to understand and strive to eliminate racialized structures if they impact someone we actually know or can relate to. More transformative approaches might engage with the racial other through higher-order thoughts and actions such as those exhibited by Martin Luther King Jr., who employed friendship and love, not hatred.

It will take much effort to create and live out of this more honest and challenging American race narrative. We know that resistance from both the Left and the Right will persist, but, in the words of Justice Kennedy, “[t]his Nation has a moral and ethical obligation to fulfill its historic commitment to creating an integrated society that ensures equal opportunity for all of its children. . . . Our Nation from the inception has sought to preserve and expand the promise of liberty and equality on which it was founded.” Like King and W.E.B. Du Bois, we have to recognize the interrelated nature of civic/human rights, the economy, identity, and belonging. We may be actually approaching the fifth moment in our history in which we have the opportunity to become a more inclusive and perfect union. We have learned a great deal about implicit bias and some are attempting to put racialized structures back on the table, backed by our changing demographics. But how we deal with these realities depends on us. We can make history, not by repeating our failures of the past, but by fashioning and bringing about a more just future. This will require a different story as well as different structures.

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