There is no doubt that racism continues to exist in the United States. It is a new and more subtle form of racism that is adapted to the political realities of the post-Civil Rights Movement era. In contrast to pre-1965 racism, which believed that blacks are biologically inferior, the new racism prefers a cultural explanation, maintaining that economic inequality between blacks and whites is rooted in cultural differences. The new racism is more flexible, recognizing the high intelligence of some blacks, but believing that blacks in general are less intelligent and less motivated, particularly in the lower class, where black cultural influences are pervasive. In addition, the new racism expresses itself in the form of viewpoints that ostensibly have nothing to do with race. The attitudes of many whites toward the role of government in addressing social inequalities and toward crime can be reflections of a belief in the inferiority of black culture (Bobo et al. 1997; Bobo and Smith 1998; Bonilla-Silva 2001, 2003; Edsell y Edsell 1991).
Going beyond what has been written by scholars on the new form of racism, I would submit that a subtle form of racism is at the root of the dismissal of the critique and proposals of the African-American movement (see “The unresolved issue of race in the USA” 6/20/2015). There is prevalent in white society not only a pejorative view of black culture but also a dismissal of the forms of thought that emerge from the black experience. This dismissal prevents an encounter with black thought, which would lead to awareness that African-Americans have formulated a more advanced understanding of structures of domination and the meaning of democracy. As a result, the fundamental epistemological insight that wisdom comes from below is beyond the horizon of white society, undermining the possibility that whites could learn from blacks as the nation and the world confront various crises.
If racism is alive in a new form, then it is logical to think that discrimination against blacks and other minorities continues to exist, in spite of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And it follows that commitment to democracy requires adoption of a program that takes “affirmative action” to nullify the effects of the new and more subtle form of racism. This gave rise to what William J. Wilson described as a shift in government policy after 1970 from a focus on individual equality of opportunity to an emphasis on ensuring that minorities are adequately represented in certain positions in government, employment and education (1987:114).
In spite of the existence of racism in a new form and in spite of evident need for affirmative action, I believe that the emphasis on racism and affirmative action has been a serious strategic error of progressives in the United States since 1965. My view is no doubt shaped by my experiences. The grandchild of immigrants from Ireland and Italy, my fundamental social perspective was shaped by Black Nationalism in the early 1970s, specifically at the Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies in Chicago. Beginning in the 1990s, I began a period of study and living in socialist Cuba, where I have encountered the Cuban perspective, which is a synthesis of Third World national liberation and Marxism-Leninism. In Cuba, I also have had the opportunity for observation of revolutionary processes unfolding today in Latin America and the Third World, which have been extensively observed by Cuban journalists and intellectuals. From this vantage point, discussion of racism and affirmative action seems limited, and not politically effective.
As William J. Wilson observed in 1987, affirmative action is limited in what in accomplishes. It benefits middle class blacks, but it does not provide support for lower class blacks, who have greater need for support. Wilson contends that “the race-specific policies emanating from the civil rights revolution, although beneficial to more advantaged blacks (i.e., those with higher income, greater education and training, and more prestigious occupations), do little for those who are truly disadvantaged” (1987:110). Moreover, Wilson maintains that it is difficult to marshal and maintain political support for programs that target particular groups, whether they be minorities, women, or persons with low-income. Observing the different kinds of programs that exist in Western European societies, he maintains that universal programs, which benefit virtually everyone, have much stronger political constituency (1987:118).
We must keep in mind that proposals in defense of popular needs do not occur in a political and ideological vacuum. They occur in a context in which an elite class seeks to maintain its power and privileges, and it is prepared to exploit any divisions that emerge among the popular classes, including generating distortions and ideologies with respect to programs that target specific groups. And since 1968, the US elite has been threatened by crises: a relative US decline in production and commerce as well as the sustained structural crisis of the world-system. In response to its increasingly uncertain position, the US elite has become more and more aggressive in its ideological manipulation of the popular classes and sectors. Rather than supporting affirmative action as a limited and necessary reform measure, the powers that be have attacked affirmative action as “reverse discrimination,” generating opposition in white society. In the context of these political and ideological dynamics, affirmative action has negative political consequences.
Taking a cue from the movements that are unfolding in Latin America today, it seems to me that programs that benefit specific targeted groups can have political viability only if they are part of a larger project for social change, which includes a program for the political education of the people with respect to a number of national and global issues. Such a comprehensive political project has not been developed by progressive forces in the United States, as I will discuss in the next post.
Bobo, Lawrence, James R. Kleugel, and Ryan A. Smith. 1997. “Laissez-Faire Racism: The Crystallization of a Kinder, Gentler, Anti-Black Ideology” in Steven A, Tuch and Jack K. Martin, Eds., Racial Attitudes in the 1990s: Continuity and Change. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publisher.
Bobo, Lawrence D. and Ryan A. Smith. 1998. “From Jim Crow Racism to Laissez-Faire Racism: The Transformation of Racial Attitudes” in Wendy F. Katkin, Ned Landsman, and Andrea Tyree, Eds., Beyond Pluralism: The Conception of Groups and Group Identities in America (Pp. 182-220). Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2001. White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era. Boulder: Lynne Reinner Publishers.
__________. 2003. Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Edsell, T. and M. Edsell. 1991. “When the Official Subject is Presidential Politics, Taxes, Welfare, Crime, Rights, or Values . . . the Real Subject is Race,” Atlantic Monthly (May 1991), Pp. 53-86.
Wilson, William J. 1987. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.