Liberty Begins at Home

Human Rights

People who wonder why a majority of African Americans do not support George W. Bush's invasion and occupation of Iraq might want to talk to a black gentleman and fellow Chicagoan I know named Tony. They should also review some recent and important research on hiring discrimination in and around Chicago, to be discussed below.

Tony possesses "only" a High School degree but enjoys greater political and sociological wisdom than most of America's college-certified population, including many high academics. He recently posed an excellent question after relating a media commentator's remarks to the effect that the US was going to bring justice and democracy to Iraq. "How," Tony asked me, "you gonna export something you ain't even got at home?"

One does not devalue the moral bases of blacks' skepticism regarding Bush's foreign policy by noting that African-Americans are in a unique position to see with special clarity through the disingenuous and narcissistic pretensions of the White House's declared overseas intentions. Similarly, one can debate the extent to which America enjoys a functioning democracy and a serious national commitment to justice. There is no denying, however, the simple fact that equality remains an elusive goal for African-Americans more than three and a half decades after the historic victories of the Civil Rights Movement.

In a nation that has the highest poverty rate and the largest gaps between rich and poor in the industrialized world, blacks are considerably poorer than whites and other racial and ethnic groups. Economic inequality correlates closely with race.

Tony's and my beloved city of Chicago is no exception to the national pattern. According to a recent analysis of (2000) US census and state labor market data by the Chicago Urban League:

* The median income for white families ($62, 680) in Chicago at the turn of the millennium was nearly twice that of black families ($32,776).

* The unemployment rate for black Chicagoans (18.3 percent) was four times the unemployment rate for white Chicagoans (4.6 percent).

* The poverty rate for black Chicago residents was 29 percent, compared to just 8 percent for white Chicago residents.

* In the Chicago metropolitan area, blacks live on average in neighborhoods with incomes just 59 percent as high as incomes in neighborhoods inhabited by average whites.

* Especially telling, Chicago's black community makes up 37 percent of Chicago's population but accounts for 58 percent of Chicago's poor. It makes up 13 percent of the Chicago metropolitan area's population but contributes 38 percent of the metropolitan area's poor. It makes up 9 percent of the state's population but accounts for 25 of the state's poor people.

The main problem with majority white racial attitudes at the turn of the Millennium is a failure to distinguish between overt and covert racism. The first variety has a long and sordid history in the United States. It includes such actions, policies and practices as the burning of black homes and black churches, the public use of derogatory racial slurs and epithets, the open banning of blacks from numerous occupations, the open political disenfranchisement of blacks and the open segregation of public facilities by race.

The first variety of racism is largely defeated, outlawed and discredited in the US. Witness the rapid public humiliation and political demotion of Trent Lott, who lost his position as Senate Majority Leader after verbally embracing the openly segregationist 1948 Presidential campaign of Strom Thurmond.

The second variety involves the more impersonal operation of social and institutional forces and processes in ways that produce deep black disadvantage in the labor market and numerous other sectors of American life. It includes racially segregated real estate practices, racial discrimination in hiring and promotion, the systematic under-funding and under-equipping of schools predominantly attended by blacks relative to schools predominantly attended by whites, the disproportionate surveillance, arrest and incarceration of blacks and much more. Richly enabled by policymakers who commonly declare allegiance to anti-racist ideals, it has an equally ancient history that has outlived the explicit, open and public racism of the past and the passage of civil rights legislation.

It may actually be deepened by these civil rights victories insofar as those victories encourage the illusion of racism's disappearance and the strongly related notion that the only barriers left to African-American success and equality are internal to individual blacks and their community. As Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown note, "it is hard to blame people" for falsely believing that racial discrimination has been essentially abolished in America "when our public life is filled with repeated affirmations of the integration ideal and our ostensible progress towards achieving it." Episodes like the recent demotion of Trent Lott may actually offer a potentially dangerous new opportunity for the nation to pat itself on the back for advancing beyond the primitive state of level-one racism while digging the hole of the deeper racism yet deeper.

In seeking to expose that persistent deep racism, it is crucial to realize that it continues to operate against African-Americans who have overcome or avoided some of the society's broader racially disparate structural forces by attaining the skills and credentials required to access modern labor market opportunities. This is the great contribution of matched-pair employment testing. We need, however, to go yet deeper, behind the smoking gun of pure discrimination to see that spatial, skill, and criminal record "mismatches" are themselves deeply colored by and expressive of a covert racism that involves special white fear and loathing toward males within the African-American population.

Paul Street is Vice President for Research and Planning at the Chicago Urban League.

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