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Is there racism in the 21st Century?

Friday, February 10th, 2012

Since the election of President Barak Obama, we have started asking the question whether we live in a Post-Racial society.  At this point, the question is now met with collective groans, by some who argue that only having a Black identified president could not remove the blight of racial discrimination from a society, and others who find it offensive to continue to highlight the notion of race as barrier in the face of so much progress.  But what few can seem to articulate is whether there is a consensus that racism is still a part of our lives. If it’s a word that still has meaning, and if so, what does it constitute?  Every morning I receive a series of “Google Alerts” giving me links to stories that include the word, “racism.”  And every morning, I look through the list of stories.  If someone didn’t know what racism was, my impression would be clear by the stories covered in the press.  Racism is an individual act, it characteristizes the use of racial slurs targeting racial minorities, like the English soccer team captain John Terry who used a racial slur when shouting at a Black opponent or a similar incident involving football.  The republican party’s nominees for president have been noted for using “racism” like Ron Paul’s use of racial slurs targeting Black Americans decades ago is what are now called the “racist newsletter” scandal, or more recent discussion of Newt Gingrich’s suggestion that Spanish was the “language of the ghetto.” The exceptions are articles on practices that can be construed or interpreted as racist, such as lending practices by mortgage Giants, as is detailed in this editorial on Country wide appearing in the Atlantic.   Charges of racism are mostly attacks of character, using bad words in ways we that we collectively understand as inappropriate to characterize people.

But these aren’t the only stories that cover issues of race, they are just the ones that reference racism.  For example, an article in Nature appeared detailing how Blacks are less likely to get NIH grants than their white counterparts, or reports by the Pew Center for research on the growing wealth gaps between Blacks, Whites, and Hispanics  Or even the analysis back in December of presidential pardons that found that while 30 percent of white applicants were pardoned, none of the over sixty Black applicants received a presidential pardon.  The list goes on, reports of police harassment, growing segregation in public schools, and many other trends, all deeply stratified by race.  While all acknowledge an inexplicable racial difference, none or very few mention the word “racism.”

Is this what racism looks like in a post-racial era?   Racism as a term refers to an ideology, drawing on the same general foundation that is captured by racial prejudice, and racial discrimination where races are understood as inherently less worthy of equal access to rights and opportunities supposedly available to everyone.  But attributing the fact that Blacks and Latinos continue to live shorter lives than Whites, are more likely to be incarcerated, are more likely to be poor to “racism” or “discrimination” is a tall order on today’s social and political landscape.  On one hand, there’s the issue of volition.  Do these dynamics emerge from some explicit ill intent directly by whites towards people of color?  This question emerged in a recent meeting of Dialogue Partners, the Race Scholars book club, where we discussed the new book The New Jim Crow  by Michelle Trent Alexander. The text asserts that the state of incarceration of Black males mimics an alarming number of the features of formalized segregation in terms of reduction of rights and access to political voice.

On the other hand, how does the public understand the nature of race itself?  Last fall Race Scholars hosted Professor Ann morning who lectured about her new book Nature of Race: How Scientists Think and Teach about Human Difference.  This book examined the reach of an understanding of race as an in-born unchanging biological trait through high school and college classrooms that is more successfully transmitted to the public compared to a “constructed” understanding of race that highlights how race reflects cultural, political and social realities.  The very definition of race goes to the heart of what we do about racism – if differences in education, for example, are linked to a sense that race is a biological reality, so Morning argues, we are less likely to see it as a function of unequal and unfair treatment, nor do we see any reason apply policies to intervene.

Perhaps the issue is that race itself has become so complex because of how it overlaps with gender, sexual identity, and class.  Recently, Race Schoalrs hosted a lecture by Professor Mignon Moore who discussed her new book, Invisible Families: Gay Identities, Relationships and Motherhood among Black Women.  Professor Moore demonstrates how race is so thoroughly intertwined with issues of same-sex desire, gender, and class.  Its clear that when we talk about race what race means, how it operates, and whether it matters, we have to consider how it operaterates side-by-side with many other dimensions of self.

The challenge and the call to Race scholars is documenting, examining, and tracing out the pernicious effects of divide that is as old as the republic, not only in the form it takes but how its understood.  Two resident race scholars provide powerful essays that announce their contribution to this huge question: Uzma Qurashi and Chris Driscoll. Their work and perspectives are insightful and provide the needed complexity to answer this deceptively simple question – what is racism in the 21st Century?