Monday, June 4, 2012

Has Racism Gone Away in Ward 6?

The short answer is: no. The problem with talking about racism is that most people view racism as a phenomenon of the distant past or as ideas and prejudices usually held by other people who are stuck in the past. The fact that people of many races may marry, be friends, and vote in unexpected ways does not mean unfortunately that racism has gone away. Therefore, we need to think more consciously about how to end racism.

In the Post a couple of Sundays ago, David Alpert of the Greater Greater Washington blog argued that DC was no longer divided by race. Alpert mainly focused on how DC politicians and residents are voting less along racial lines than in the past. He did recognize that there are income and educational inequalities among residents, which correlate strongly with race, but he suggested that these divisions created by "a legacy of segregation and discrimination" have been overcome as demonstrated by DC's "large black professional population" and the fact that all races and ethnicities are having trouble finding affordable housing. The article seems to suggest that racism is over or nearly over in DC because class inequalities are the real issue. Alpert warns that those who bring up race and racism "stoke division...for personal gain." The main dichotomy used in this article is that either you are for one city or you are using racist language for your own personal (political) gain.

Most sociologists would argue that race and class, in fact, work together. University of Wisconsin-Madison sociologists Matthew Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer have written an extremely helpful article on racism. They argue:
While it is true that poor Whites experience many of the same hardships as poor Blacks, it is not true that poverty somehow de-Whitens poor Whites. In other words, though they are in a similarly precarious economic position as poor Blacks, poor Whites still experience race-based privileges, while poor Blacks are oppressed not only by poverty but also by racism. In a similar vein, well-off people of color cannot “buy” their way out of racism. Despite their economic privilege, middle- and upper-class non-Whites experience institutional and interpersonal racism on a regular basis...
How do whites benefit no matter their class position? As I wrote about in a previous post, GWU sociologist Gregory Squires and his colleagues conducted a study of DC/VA/MD residents and found, among other things, that Blacks were about half as likely as Whites to obtain their first-choice housing unit. Real estate agents, landlords, and banks implement discriminatory practices, such as "racial steering, misrepresentation about the availability of homes, differences in rental rates for the same units and the number of units that were shown, disparities in mortgage interest rates, differential application of particular stands, and others." A recent Post article reported that SunTrust Mortgage's "minority borrowers in 75 geographic markets from Virginia Beach to San Francisco paid more in loan fees or higher interest rates based solely on race or national origin." More generally, Desmond and Emirbayer state:
Social scientists have amassed a significant amount of evidence documenting institutional racism, evidence that demonstrates how White people—strictly because of their Whiteness—reap considerable advantages when buying and selling a house, choosing a neighborhood in which to live, getting a job and moving up the corporate ladder, securing a first-class education, and seeking medical care (Massey 2007; Quillian 2006). That Whites accumulate more property and earn more income than members of minority populations, possess immeasurably more political power, and enjoy greater access to the country’s cultural, social, medical, legal, and economic resources are well documented facts (e.g., Oliver and Shapiro, 1997; Pager 2003; Western 2006).
Amazingly, whites have continued to benefit from being white in a city that has many African American city officials and politicians. So, no, racism has not gone away in DC or Ward 6. Instead of arguing that discussions of race and racism are divisive, we should study how racism and especially institutional racism works in DC and Ward 6, so that we can act to end racism, as well as reduce class inequality, to create "one city."

P.S. Based on an extensive literature review, Desmond and Emirbayer point out five popular fallacies about racism that should be avoided:
  • the ahistorical fallacy views the "legacy of segregation and discrimination" as in the distant past and no longer relevant to the current situation.
  • the fixed fallacy measures racism as increasing or decreasing quantitatively over time and thus seeing a decrease or disappearance in racism in comparison to the Jim Crow past. In contrast, Desmond and Emirbayer argue that there are new forms of racism: "we certainly cannot conclude that there is 'little or no racism' today because it does not resemble the racism of the 1950s. (Modern-day Christianity looks very different, in nearly every conceivable way, than the Christianity of the early church. But this does not mean that there is 'little or no Christianity' today.)" For the new forms of racism, see sociological discussions of racial apathy and color-blind racism.
  • the tokenistic fallacy "assumes that the presence of people of color in influential positions is evidence of the eradication of racial obstacles."
  • the legalistic fallacy "assumes that abolishing racist laws (racism in principle) automatically leads to the abolition of racism writ large (racism in practice)." Desmond and Emirbayer explain: "By way of tangible illustration, consider Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case that abolished de jure segregation in schools. The ruling did not lead to the abolition of de facto segregation: fifty years later, schools are still drastically segregated and drastically unequal."
  • the individualistic fallacy understands racism as conducted by individual "racists" with racist thoughts and intentions. By saying,“He is a racist; I am not,” we treat "racism as aberrant and strange, whereas American racism is rather normal. Furthermore, intentionality is in no way a prerequisite for racism. Racism is often habitual, unintentional, commonplace, polite, implicit, and well meaning (Brown et al., 2003). Thus, racism is located not only in our intentional thoughts and actions; it also thrives in our unintentional thoughts and habits, as well as in the social institutions in which we all are embedded (Bonilla-Silva 1997; Feagin et al., 2001)" (Desmond and Emirbayer 342-343).
Which fallacies does Alpert's Post op-ed implicitly endorse? How might we end racism?


  1. Johanna: Thanks . I did not mean to argue that racism has gone away. I was arguing that we need to stop talking like race is the ONLY dividing factor. Wealthy blacks and whites have a fair amount in common and often support the same policies; same for middle-class blacks and whites. Yet the discourse in DC often assumes that all black people agree on key issues and all white people do. That's not the case.

    1. On racism, wealthy or not Blacks tend to agree.
      On other issues, yes there is a diversity of opinion. so there is no real reason to be concerned about this when discussing racism