Wednesday, June 17, 2020

American Racism as an American Institution

By Eric Segall

The last few weeks have placed a spotlight on American racism in a way that holds some promise for real reforms and movement towards greater equality among and between whites and people of color. But true progress will never be made unless Americans fully accept that institutional racism is not some distant memory or remnant of a bygone era but is still very much with us today. We are a still a racist country, full stop. We must own our past and our present in order to move towards a less racist future.

The United States of America was built in large part on the foundation of institutional racism. Our Constitution continued the practice of slavery for three quarters of a century after ratification. It took a civil war to formally end our original sin of white people treating black people as their personal property.

From the mid-19th century to approximately 1964, much of our country engaged in racial apartheid, providing people of color grossly unequal access to government facilities such as public schools, hospitals, and parks, and allowing private businesses such as hotels, restaurants, and theaters to exclude people based on the color of their skin. When I was six years old, a hotel located two blocks from my current law school went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States to argue that it had the right to exclude black guests.

This history is well-known but institutional racism goes well beyond slavery and segregation. As I documented in my book Supreme Myths, many twentieth century examples of economic racism still haunt us today. The Social Security Act of 1935 provided millions of Americans retirement and disability benefits but excluded domestic workers and many agricultural jobs from that safety net, which (by design) had huge discriminatory effects on people of color.

When FDR's New Deal programs provided new protections for large labor unions, millions of Americans saw their salaries rise and work conditions improve. But these laws also allowed unions to exclude non-whites from their memberships, rolls which many did until as late as the 1970's.

And, perhaps most importantly, between 1934 and 1962, the federal government allocated approximately 120 billion dollars to support bank loans for home mortgages but roughly 98% of that money went to white families. In just Northern California, 350,000 new homes were built between 1946 and 1960 backed by federal tax dollars, but fewer than 100 of those government-backed mortgages went to African-America families. This practice of "red-lining" led to segregated neighborhoods which, even post-Brown v. Board of Education, perpetuated a system of de facto and unequal segregated public schools, which in turn still today harms opportunities for African-Americans to succeed in the workplace.

These economic policies, and many others, affect the relationship between the races today. The appreciation of housing prices mostly in the white suburbs allowed whites to invest and accumulate more wealth, increasing economic separation between whites and blacks. These conditions of inequality did not occur randomly but were the result of official laws, intentional policies, and racist programs created and administered by state and federal governments.

The very first African-American athlete to compete in a varsity SEC sport did so in 1966. The first African-American state troopers in Alabama were hired in 1972. In our entire history, there have been only ten African-American United States Senators. There have been four African-American governors in American history, and there are none today. The first African-American President of an Ivy League University was Ruth Simmons, who was appointed to lead Brown in 2001 (ten years after I became a law professor).

American racism is simply not a thing of the past. In 2017, black men on average earned only 69.7% of white men, and black women earned only 60.8% of white men. In 1953, four-fifths of white households earned more than the average black household. In 2018, almost nine-tenths of white households earned more than typical black ones. According to one expert, "even black workers with an advanced degree experience a significant wage gap compared with their white counterparts. And after controlling for age, gender, education, and region, black workers are paid 16.2 percent less than white workers."

Then there is the American criminal justice system. A recent article in the Washington Post collected an array of troubling studies demonstrating the inherent racism that infects American policing. A few low lights:

1) In Los Angeles, 24% of black drivers and passengers were searched, compared with 16% of Latinos and 5% of whites, during a recent 10-month period.

2) In the District of Columbia, over a four-week period, of 11,000 police stops, while blacks make up 46% of the city’s population, they accounted for 70% of police stops, and 86 percent of stops that didn’t involve traffic enforcement.

3) In Columbus, Ohio, while blacks make up 28% of the city’s population, about half of the use-of-force incidents by city police were against black residents.

4) A report on 1.8 million police stops by the eight largest law enforcement agencies in California found that blacks were stopped at a rate 2.5 times higher than whites. Black people were also much more likely to be stopped for “reasonable suspicion” (as opposed to actually breaking a law) and were three times more likely than any other group to be searched, even though searches of white people were more likely to turn up contraband.

5) A 2018 study of traffic stops in Vermont found that black drivers were up to four times more likely than white drivers to be searched during a traffic stop, even though whites were 30 to 50% more likely to be found with contraband.

The list goes on and on and is not limited to particular regions of the country. The reality is that black Americans are much more likely to be wrongfully targeted by our country's police officers than white Americans and much more likely to be the victims of police misconduct. These statistics are not from 1880 or 1980 but today. 

Racism is as American as apple pie. It is built into our institutions, our neighborhoods, our courts, our workplaces, and our schools. The social, legal, and economic consequences of racism dominated our politics in 1787, 1868, 1964, and are still with us today. The way forward isn't easy but one thing is perfectly clear. American racism is an American institution. Until we fully accept that tragic reality, and stop pretending that racism only haunts us around the edges, a demonstrably false proposition, real progress will be impossible.


Joe said...

Love is important to fight racism.

Eric Charles said...

Some short counterpoints:

-Black women make nearly as much as white women. West Indie blacks make more than whites so it seems something more is going on than just skin color racism.

-Blacks commit disproportionately more violent crime than other groups. So much so (up to 2/3 of all violent crime in some cities) that some have argued they are under-profiled in regards to how much crime they commit. Naturally, they will have more conflict and contact with law enforcement because of this.

That being said, I think major policy reform is necessary especially in regards to the war on drugs and civil immunity that protects bad cops.

Anna said...

May I ask from where you are pulling the stats? From what I've found, black women make approximately 80 cents on the dollar compared to white women (; I've also seen a few studies noting, in general, that immigrants from the West Indies have had greater economic success than black Americans, but I am struggling to find studies comparing income averages of West Indian immigrants' to those of white Americans, let alone any stating that West Indians have higher incomes (full disclosure, I haven't devoted significant time to the search).

To your other point, there are numerous studies linking poverty to crime rates. So, even if, demographically, more violent crime is committed by blacks than other racial groups, that does not mean that black people are inherently more violent. Rather, the crime rate very likely is symptomatic of other systematic racism (housing, education, employment) and the failure of our society to invest in black communities.

I agree with you that major reform is necessary.

Eric Charles said...

Hi Anna,

The female stats are from Current Population Reports where is shows black women make 95% compared to white women and black men make 73% compared to white men. It's from 1979 so not exactly current. I'll see if I can find more current data. The disparities between Asian populations in American are the largest of all groups which points to non-racial discrimination reasons.

The reason behind crime is a different issue though and I'm sure it's largely cultural and drug war related. Police respond to behavior and more crime behavior results in more contact just as males are much more likely to commit violent crime than females yet females are a higher percentage of the population. Yet we don't conclude the system is sexist against males based on these superficial stats.

Michael A Livingston said...

All of the ranting about racism would be more convincing if people had talked about it before it was popular. As it is it sounds more like a hostage video. It’s inspiring but not very convincing.

Sarah said...

People have been talking about racism and American institutional racism for years, decades, and centuries. This is what the Civil Rights Movement was all about, and what activists have been fighting for since well before the 1950's and 1960's.

Sarah said...

People have been talking about racism and American institutional racism for years, decades, and centuries. This is what the Civil Rights Movement was all about, what activists have been fighting for since well before the 1950's and 1960's, and what we are still fighting for today.

Coyote said...

The fact that there was historically an extremely massive amount of racism in the US is both indisputable and inexcusable. That said, though, when it comes to present-day discussions of racism in the US, two factors that need to be kept in mind in this discussion are the lower average black IQ and the higher average black crime rate. For instance, in regards to average IQ, given the correlation between IQ and economic success (for individuals as well as for countries), it would be unsurprising that the fact that US blacks have a lower average IQ than US whites have results in them, on average, being poorer than US whites. (There is obviously a lot of overlap for both IQ and wealth, but I am talking about *averages* here.) Similarly, any discussion about blacks being disproportionately incarcerated or disproportionately arrested needs to factor in the per capita crime rates of different racial and ethnic groups in the US. For instance, the statistic "blacks are eight times more likely than whites to get killed for resisting arrest in the US" needs to be weighed against the fact of just how much more frequently blacks are arrested in the US in comparison to whites--which in turn needs to be weighed against their per capita crime rates.

As for employers being less likely to call back black applicants in comparison to white applicants with the same qualifications, while black and white applicants might have the same qualifications on paper, there is a risk of black applicants previously benefiting from affirmative action--thus making their resume look stronger than it would have looked in a completely meritocratic system.

This article discusses and debunks a lot of arguments in regards to the present-day US being racist:

At the very least, I would advise all of you to take a look at it. As for things such as "bad schools", please keep in mind that we did have various interventions such as Head Start in order to try improving academic performance and raising IQs. However, unfortunately these interventions failed to have much of a lasting effect--especially in recent decades:

Indeed, I suspect that "bad schools" are simply the rest of underperforming students and that if you put overperforming students in "bad schools" in extremely large numbers, these schools would stop being "bad" extremely quickly. Likewise, I suspect that "good schools" would quickly become "bad schools" if they would be flooded with extremely large numbers of underperforming students. I'm serious.

By the way, here's another argument against using statistics to argue in favor of systemic racism or systemic prejudice or whatever: Jews in the US perform better than gentiles in the US do in regards to various factors (and my hunch tells me that this would still remain true even if we limited the comparison to white Jews and white gentiles):

Does this mean that there exists systemic prejudice in favor of Jews and against gentiles in the US? Or might there simply be a different, more banal explanation for this--such as (for instance) Ashkenazi Jews evolving a higher average IQ than gentile whites did as a result of centuries of divergent evolution in Medieval Europe, as Greg Cochran has previously suggested?

I'm Jewish myself, for the record, so please don't casually throw around allegations of anti-Semitism towards me!