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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?

Creating Spaces of Belonging and Distance

Monday, February 6th, 2012

Unlike at other points in American history, racism in the post-racial twenty-first century is marked by subtlety. Racism is a multi-sited system of legal, economic, and social practices that promotes inequalities and that is built on a history of institutional and individual actions. At the individual level, racism is a discriminatory attitude based on racial and cultural assumptions and employed to place as much social and psychological distance between one’s own group and perceived inferior groups. Although overt racism has decreased since the 1960s, it has been supplemented (some say, supplanted) by “colorblind racism,” which refers to “contemporary racial inequality as the outcome of nonracial dynamics” (Bonilla-Silva, 2010, p. 2). Racism is difficult or even impossible to track since the ways in which people articulate racial ideologies are indirect and somewhat obscure (Essed, 1990). The lower socioeconomic status of racialized minority groups is explained not through biological racial difference but by way of cultural inferiority (e.g. “they just don’t like to work hard,” or “they don’t have the same family values as us”).

Far more destructive and fundamental, however, is the structural framework of racism which serves to distribute wealth and advantage to some but not to others. Unequal access to education, housing, employment, and health care are among the many manifestations of structural racism. A 2005 article in the Washington Post cites three separate studies detailing persistent health care disparities between whites and blacks.[1] Advantaged groups hold that we should collectively move beyond race by disallowing preferential treatment to minority groups (e.g. “opportunity is available to all who work hard enough”) rather than recognizing the prevalence of structural discrimination such as targeted arrests in African American neighborhoods (Alexander, 2010), unbalanced political representation for minority neighborhoods (Bonilla-Silva, 2010), and the redlining of African American businesses and home mortgages (Oliver and Shapiro, 1995).

As an historian, I examine immigrants’ perceptions of racialized groups in the southernUnited States in the post-Civil Rights era. My work investigates the ways in which immigrants migrating fromSouth Asia (in particular,India andPakistan) toHouston,Texasbetween 1965 and 1980 positioned themselves in increasingly obscured racial hierarchies. As a result of passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, large numbers of immigrants from all overAsiaandLatin Americabegan to settle in theUS. A relatively select group of Indians and Pakistanis applied for admission to theUSeither as university students or under the 1965 act’s third or sixth preference—that of professionals or skilled labor currently in short supply. Many of these students remained in the country to fill the demands of the labor market. Unlike recent South Asian immigrants, this group was highly professional and highly educated or seeking advanced degrees, allowing these “elite” communities to achieve socioeconomic success with unanticipated speed.

My research uncovers how immigrants became racialized citizens and how this experience evolved over time. It is important to note that for the immigrants I examine, race entailed more than just attitude or ideology; it was the strategic choices made as a result of those attitudes. In particular, race informed major life decisions including location of residence, marital partners, and schooling for children. Upwardly mobile immigrants eventually settled in affluent, largely white suburbs and enrolled their children in majority white schools. In accordance with the theory of segmented assimilation, the “sector of American society [into which] a particular immigrant group assimilates,” determines an ethnic group’s adaptation (Portes and Zhou, 1993, p. 82). Newcomers to American society construct a racial system predicated on their socio-economic status. Several other immigrant groups during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including Irish and Koreans, have similarly used racial hierarchies to advance their own group interests.

Although South Asian immigrants were perceived as racial Others, foreigners, and immigrants, their class standing enabled them to imagine themselves as part of the dominant group, those with power, those who accrued the most benefits from an economic system. In fact, immigrants used their own success to demonstrate that anyone could overcome the strictures of race but that African Americans did not share the same values of education and hard work that South Asian immigrants espoused. This construction of dichotomous value systems bolstered immigrant social status by placing greater social distance between themselves and those historically held at the bottom of the American racial hierarchies.

Seemingly neutral decisions such schooling and housing for immigrants were mitigated by race, whether or not they intended to promote segregation and inequality. South Asian immigrants aimed to enhance their children’s life chances, economically and socially through the accumulation of forms of capital such as status based on education and professionalization or power derived from wealth. Yet, acceptance as full, unhyphenated Americans was not possible for South Asian immigrants—or their children, for that matter—due to a process that racialized them as foreigners while it obliged them to racialize others. Through residential self-segregation and school choice, materially privileged Americans strategized to ensure optimal positioning in class and race hierarchies. Thus, the dismantling of legal racist structures through Brown v Board in 1954 and the Civil Rights Act in 1964 among other legislation necessitated not the wholesale reconceptualization of racial ideology but the reframing of its articulation.


  • Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press.
  • Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2006. Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and Racial Inequality in Contemporary America.  Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
  • Essed, Philomena. 1990.  Everyday Racism: Reports from Women of Two Cultures. Translation by Cynthia Jaffe.Alameda, CA: Hunter House.
  • Oliver, Melvin L.and Thomas M. Shapiro. 1995. Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality.New York: Routledge.
  • Portes, Alejandro and Min Zhou. 1993. “The New Second Generation: Segmented Assimilation and its Variants.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 530: 74-96.
  • Sullivan, Shannon. 2006. Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of Privilege. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Bio: Uzma Quraishi is a PhD Candidate in the History Department at Rice University. She studies the construction of race by South Asian immigrants migrating to the US between 1965 and 1980.

What is racism in the post-racial America of the 21st Century?

Monday, February 6th, 2012

I am a race scholar, in the sense that I theorize race with the hope that such theorization might help eradicate racism. More specifically, I am a straight WASP, with more social than economic capital, who tries to make sense of racism as it intersects with (and emerges out of) many Western religious beliefs and cultural expressions. I am also a graduate student, narrowing down my theories and methods, and asking myself a vexing question: Just what is racism?

The classic civil rights formula for defining and spotting racism—Power + Privilege = Racism—has a number of problems. One of which is the changing social, cultural and economic cartography of the United States where simultaneously the African American middle class is larger than ever meanwhile a growing percentage of the population lives in poverty across all races. This definition does nothing to address the way geography, sexuality, gender or education contributes to such a disparity. This “old” definition simply does not take into account the web-like nature of oppression (or privilege), preferring to understand oppressed and oppressor as locked in a racialized binary from which both sides’ steps are arranged. Though this definition once may have been politically expedient, it has never been very analytically helpful. What’s more, through an induction fallacy it tends to ontologize whiteness and white people as fundamentally “racist,” as it creates the analytic category of “white racist” and applies it to whites regardless of other demographic markers like class, gender, etc. This presupposes contemporary moods, motivations and actions of whites based on historically improper conduct.[1] It makes whites into sole perpetrators of racist violence and operates under the assumption that all whites are equally guilty for the racism perpetrated by other whites historically and today. The history of anti-black racism may cause some to feel such an assumption is warranted, but induction is nevertheless a fallacy.

I have a more pressing pragmatic challenge as a white antiracist scholar speaking to a white audience. If I want white people—the racial group which disproportionately benefits from a structurally-constructed ideology of domination that produces a variety of unjust social practices—to address and redress their thinking about race, then I cannot begin my work with the accusation that they are hopelessly racist or guilty for history’s past injustices. Yet, the awful irony is that redefining racism from the perspective of (and for) whites might reinforce the faulty logic of the old definition by controlling the discourse and proving the old definition not so “old” after all. But quite simply, if I am to have white audiences buy into my arguments about eradicating racism, then paradoxically, it behooves me to rescue these white readers from the rigid, ontological implications of the old definition that leaves little reason for whites to work against racism.

Then I read this! [Take a minute to read it, and then come back.] Originally, I wanted this post to swiftly and efficiently point out the perils of the old definition of racism (there really are many) while simultaneously redefining the term in a way that was palatable to my white audience. Such was my intent. Instead, Rev. Melvin Thompson of the Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church points out the difficulty of redefining racism for the 21st Century. The old version is not so old, and is alive in the 21st Century!

Aside from operating as a clear example of how race and religion intermingle to perpetuate the hate and fear experienced by so many in the United States, Rev. Thompson offers a powerful teaching moment. Instead of redefining the term, we might be better served by recognizing that multiple racisms operate in the 21st Century and consequentially, so should multiple definitions. Reflecting on my own privilege as straight, middle-class WASP leads me to think that this multiplicity of definitions takes shape when analytic assessments of different types of racism (operating in any given field, i.e. data) filter through the analyst’s social context.

As to what this looks like from my context, here are a few types of racism operating in the 21st Century and inchoate comments for each: (1) there is overt racism. Rev. Thompson’s decision to bring to vote whether or not to allow membership of multi-racial partners into their church is a perfect example of this. Think Bull Conner—He wasn’t racist, either!?! But even as Thompson’s claim, “I am not a racist,” is laughable to most (as it betrays its own proposition), he believes what he is saying. Then there is what I call (2) dispositional racism. Dispositional racism happens when I am viscerally more fearful of a black guy walking towards me on the sidewalk than occurs for his white counterpart (unfortunately, this is not merely hypothetical). And even as I, a race scholar, realize what is happening when it happens (fortunately, these instances are rare), I cannot do anything about it in that moment because the racism is physiologically and psychologically motivated. Not all racism is volitional nor can it be corrected in the moments when such dispositions emerge, though we wish that it could be. How to correct the embodied, racist dispositions of one’s habitus should constitute much antiracist work moving forward. Finally there is (3) institutional racism. Institutional racism is found in the extremely disproportionate numbers of black and brown individuals who face poverty, prison, death row, lack of adequate education or housing, etc., etc. Institutional racism is much discussed, but in my opinion there has been a failure from scholars to address the relationship between dispositional and institutional types of racism. When we find ways to offset dispositional racism, much institutional racism might be avoided. But it also seems necessary that scholars pay closer attention to other forms of oppression, like poverty and education level, because all of these factors shape the individual dispositions of legislators, judges, prison officials—and their victims.

To conclude, these types overlap and bear the weight of history in such ways that this typology does not make antiracist scholarship easier; it makes it more difficult! Furthermore, this typology is open-ended, and many more definitions are surely to be added to it—including forms of racism perpetrated against white people. For those committed to work that is both analytically sound and ethically advantageous for the victims of racism then such shift towards an open typology of multiple definitions of racism offers the analyst and activist greater conceptual dexterity for continued scholarship and dialogue across individual social context and disciplinary parochialism.

I ask that you contribute to this dialogue by posting other definitions that should be added to the list, or comments about how contexts not my own might agree, disagree, rebuild or modify the typology started here.

[1] This might amount to a “hysteresis effect” for the antiracist scholar, where strategies learned in one socio-historical context create problems once that socio-historic context comes in contact with another.

Asad, Talal. Genealogies of Religion.
Bourdieu, Pierre. The Logic of Practice.
Hartigan, Jr., John. Odd Tribes: Toward a Cultural Analysis of White People.
Some works that address the idea of multiple racisms include: Tariq Modood. Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea. 44.; Mairtin Mac an Ghaill. Contemporary Racisms and Ethnicities.

Bio: Christopher Driscoll is a third year graduate student in the Religious Studies department of Rice University. His work addresses the intersection of race, religion and culture. Currently, he serves as Co-Chair to the Critical Approaches to Hip Hop and Religion Group held at the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion and recently Guest Edited a collection of essays included in Bulletin for the Study of Religion Vol. 40, No. 3. He can be reached at chrisdriscoll@rice.edu