Civil Liberties

How Social Connections and Networks Perpetuate Today's Racism

The old racism of KKK members, skinheads, and overt bigotry is an anachronism.

Photo Credit: spirit of america / Shutterstock.com

History still binds us to the present:

Five years after the inauguration of the first black president, racial inequality lives on, reproducing itself in a vicious cycle. Even if all discrimination were to end tomorrow, self-reinforcing racial disparities would continue, according to the new book “Reproducing Racism: How Everyday Choices Lock in White Advantage,” by USC Gould School of Law Professor Daria Roithmayr.

Roithmayr’s book focuses on racial gaps in housing, education and jobs—for example, Latino and black poverty rates are between 2.5 and four times the rate for whites, and black unemployment is double that of whites. Drawing on work in social network theory and other disciplines, Roithmayr argues that everyday choices recreate these racial gaps from one generation to the next.

“It’s really a racial ‘rich get richer’ story,” Roithmayr says. “It’s all about the power of networks.”

"Reproducing Racism" is an important book. I wonder if Barack Obama will be reading it?

In conversations about structural inequality and the "new" colorblind racism, one of the repeated themes is how inequality is largely reproduced through impersonal, macrolevel, decision-making processes. The old racism--what are now caricatures that remain nonetheless very dangerous--of KKK members, skinheads, and overt bigotry is an anachronism.

Here is the irony: as a society, Americans can (for the most part) claim victory over the most noxious and easily defined types of racist behavior in the public sphere. However, by focusing on the remnants of "old fashioned" racism, institutional and colorblind racism in the present is protected...if not nurtured.

President Obama will give his State of the Union Address in a few hours. He will say nothing radical or especially forward-thinking about wealth and income inequality. Moreover, wealth and income inequality in the United States is a stark reminder of the power of the colorline. It is no coincidence that African-Americans and Latinos have significantly less wealth and income than their white peers.

White wealth and black poverty was an intentional decision by white elites and policy makers from the founding of the United States until the end of Jim and Jane Crow. The destruction of inter-generational wealth for people of color, and the literal transfer of land, labor, cash, and capital to whites, was the nation's stated public policy. It was not an accident. American Apartheid was a system of racial exploitation by white society with the goal of economically marginalizing and oppressing people of color.

America has made great strides in the last five decades towards fulfilling its potential as a multiracial democracy.

Old habits and social structures still remain.

The author of "Reproducing Racism" continues:

For example, whites in well-paid jobs refer their friends for jobs, who in turn refer their friends and so on. White networks have more high-paid jobs; black and brown network contacts are more likely to be under- or unemployed. Likewise, affluent white neighborhoods finance their schools with their property taxes, providing students with richer learning experiences and opportunities. Those graduates go on to live in the same or equally affluent neighborhoods.

“It turns out that racial inequality persists because the old clichés are true: it does take money to make money, and it really isn’t what you know but who you know. Because racial disparities now run on automatic pilot, these gaps will continue even in the absence of intentional discrimination,” Roithmayr says.

Will affirmative action programs or an increase in school funding help to dismantle this cumulative inequality?

Unfortunately not, says Roithmayr. “Small reforms won’t help. I think racial inequality is probably locked in structurally at this point. Unless policymakers immediately take drastic steps, like rethinking how we finance public schools, pass along jobs or give our kids financial assistance when they’re starting out, these feedback loops will continue to reinforce existing racial gaps.”

The United States is extremely segregated: as such, the job and labor market is tiered by race, class, and gender. And for too many Americans, geography--the randomness of where one is born--over-determines life chances.

Those who have access to these networks are not "better at life", to borrow from the NFL player Richard Sherman, because of biology or breeding. Rather, they have access to opportunities that accrue material and social advantages over the course of a lifetime, advantages which can then be passed down to one's children, kin, and friends.

Public policy can impact the shape of social networks, neighborhoods, and opportunity structures. However, in the shadow of America's neoliberal nightmare, in the Age of Austerity, and with a president who has adopted a policy of incremental surrender and accommodation to the Republican Party, the types of innovative, race and class conscious policies that are needed to broaden access to economic opportunities for all Americans, will not be forthcoming.

Barack Obama, the country's first president who happens to be black, does not have the will or political capital to speak truth to power on such matters.

I worry that the American people will instead hear a version of the Scold-in-Chief who blames black people for the black-wealth income and wealth gap, offers up some corporate/neoliberal/privatization scheme to help "fix" failing local economies, and extols American exceptionalism as a solution to global economic policies that have sucked wealth out of the country's working and middle classes and siphoned it up to the 1 percent.

I do hope that I am wrong about President Obama's State of the Union Address.

Chauncey DeVega’s essays on race, politics and popular culture can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com/. He is a regular guest on Ring of Fire Radio and TV, and hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Follow him on Twitter.