Race to the Finish Line

Fifty years removed from that fateful May 1954 day when the Supreme Court ruled that separate is not equal, people frequently refer to the present as the post-civil rights era. But how do we describe the post-civil rights era? Certainly, we can agree that the notion of “separate but equal” that maintained the black/white divide for over two centuries is no longer legally permissible. But did the Court’s ruling ensure full equality for all U.S. citizens, or did the Brown decision merely raise new questions about what should succeed “separate but equal” as the primarily social descriptor for the diverse collection of people residing in the United States?

Rachel F. Moran, Robert D. and Leslie-Kay Raven Professor of Law and Executive Committee Member at the Center for Social Justice at the University of California at Berkeley, shares her thoughts on the end of segregation and suggests that racial, ethnic, and class differences continue to alienate millions of people residing within U.S. borders. New questions and conflicts concerning race and ethnicity have predominated the post-civil rights era.

The landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision is often heralded as the most decisive legal victory in the struggle to end segregation. But how effective do you think the Brown decision has been in altering attitudes about race?

Brown alone was limited in its ability to alter social practices. It was only after the Executive Branch and Congress backed the Supreme Court’s decision with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and enlisted federal agencies to enforce this law that Brown’s broad [influence and significance could be grasped].

Some people say that Brown didn’t make a difference because schools have since re-segregated. But I don’t think this is the case. Many people have had newfound opportunities to occupy positions of authority and importance due to the end of segregated practices. That is, Brown adopted an individualist model, so now everybody has a right [to attend a given public school, regardless of their race]. There are, however, limits to the individual’s ability to alter racial and class differences, and the best prepared individuals change [and benefit] the most.

Although certain structural issues were not accounted for by Brown, the decision played a significant role in revising notions of what individual opportunity required. You still couldn’t undo structural vestiges as easily because the [U.S.] Constitution is built upon individual rights and limits the extent to which the federal government can regulate the states and tell them what to do. So there are gaps, but by rethinking individual rights and opportunities, people can influence these structures through the new opportunities [they gained from the Brown decision.] Those benefits are real and will be long-standing. We won’t see the black middle-class disappear. We won’t see a reversion back to pre-Brown segregation practices.

Do you think that race continues to play as prominent a role in the United States as it did during the mid-1950s? In what ways have white privilege and more covert manifestations of racial alienation become a means of perpetuating racism?

Well, it’s really difficult for people who didn’t grow up during the 1950s [or weren’t alive during that time] to remember how difficult things were and realize how much things have changed. It used to be that blacks would travel across state lines, uncertain as to whether there would be a hotel where they could sleep or a restaurant where they could eat on the other side. Black families would have to strategize about where they would sleep and eat.

People tend to forget that race was inscribed in ways that were deeply humiliating and very pervasive. There was a Denver hotel owner, for instance, who said [his hotel] would tolerate pets but not blacks or Hispanics.

Racial groups are not as stratified as they used to be; the civil rights model has become so engrained that people forget these things. That doesn’t mean race is unimportant, but the official participation in racial segregation is far less prevalent than it was in the ‘50s. Even though the changes aren’t huge across the board, there are changes. There are black CEOs in major corporations. Blacks are now partners in Wall Street [law and stock brokerage] firms. In the [pre-civil rights] era, they couldn’t even get an interview.

This, of course, has created new dilemmas. Blacks have since found some kind of an identity built around race [through Hip Hop and other cultural phenomena]. Now there are questions about preserving this identity that they value while also participating in institutions that are predominately white. So these new dilemmas have … happened because change has occurred. Today race still affects the way we identify ourselves and relate to each other, and inequality is still real. But if you did not grow up with Jim Crow segregation, you can't imagine what that was like.

We don’t know now what the endpoint is; we still don’t know what racial utopia is or what it should look like. The worst transgressions of treating race as a caste system are over, so now we have to ask all of these questions. But we still haven’t arrived at a full understanding of what we’ll end up as. Will we be multi-racial? Colorblind? Or something else?

What impact do you think the contemporary debate concerning affirmative action in higher education and the rhetoric used by both its opponents and proponents has on the quest to achieve racial equality and privilege?

Well, I’m of the view that a lot of this debate [over affirmative action in higher education] is [actually] about access to elite institutions. Nearly everyone who is eligible to attend these institutions is privileged at some level. They have completed high school, and in the case of graduate admissions, college. And these applicants have [achieved] a level [of success] that makes it plausible for them to go on [to college or graduate school]. So it’s a fairly privileged cross-section of people who have an education and are successful and ambitious.

The rhetoric [surrounding affirmative action in higher education] focuses on leadership, so that the debate shifts from diversity as an internal pedagogical strategy to [understanding] elite institutions of public education and higher education as the training ground for leadership in various universities. This suggests that these institutions are the gateway to higher opportunities. There’s a huge [opportunity] gap between someone with a high school diploma and someone who doesn’t [have a high school or college degree]. [The disparity] is [growing], so the stakes … are higher. There’s a sense of scarcity; the costs of not making it are very high. People feel very vulnerable. There’s a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. So the affirmative action debate is really as much about how race affects who gets ahead. With fewer manufacturing jobs today, more people feel [like they have to get a college or even graduate degree]; there’s a feeling that it’s all or nothing. This bigger gap [between the haves and have-nots] gets masked, however, by the way that the affirmative action debate gets framed with regard to higher education. Centering the debate on a group of people who are academically competitive — regardless of their race — ignores the people who are left behind without meaningful access to educational opportunity.

African Americans often hear that they have been displaced by Hispanics as the largest minority group in the United States. How has the increase of Latinos affected the national conversation on race, which has historically been primarily a black/white dialogue?

Well, up until the 1970s, it was demographically a black/white dialogue. Back then, only one out of ten [people in the United States] would identify themselves as non-white, and nearly all non-whites considered themselves black. Today, far more Americans say they're non-white, but the portion of the non-white group who identify themselves as black is smaller. And many issues affecting race relations and racial equality still haven't been resolved.

It’s almost a bicoastal issue. On the East Coast, they’re still looking at the population in primarily black and white terms. But on the West Coast, they can’t. Latinos are now the majority in some parts of California. There’s a lag on the East Coast to come to grips with this presence. African Americans have a unique history and connection. Many worry that their history will somehow get lost in the numbers, and problems they have as a community won’t get addressed. There is also some concern that African Americans won’t be able to build coalitions.

Although Blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans share a number of concerns related to discrimination, Latino and Asian American communities also have some distinct concerns from blacks. Both groups have grown dramatically through immigration, and so they face language and cultural barriers, internal diversity because of a range of countries of origin, and the challenges of dealing with non-citizen status and naturalization. Relatively few blacks are immigrants, and so most are native-born, speak English, and are American citizens. The challenges for black immigrants are sometimes forgotten, just as the problems facing native-born Latinos and Asian Americans are ignored at times.

Latinos disproportionately find themselves in the ranks of the working poor, and so they often emphasize class-based concerns — lack of access to health care, inadequate job protections, insufficient resources for schools and neighborhoods — more than race issues.

Asians, because such a high proportion are recent immigrants, worry about being treated as foreigners. Also, some Asians are affluent and highly successful. Consequently, Asian groups worry about hitting a glass ceiling, being told that there are too many Asians at the top. So, a black/white model that is wholly preoccupied with race won't last. What takes its place is the question, and I think that's a complicated question. Unexpected events like 9/11 could change everything. Think about the way that Arabs have suddenly become a suspect class after September 11th.

That raises another question. What impact do you think racial politics and white privilege are playing in post-9/11 America? In Bush's America where partisanship reigns and you're either “with us or against us,” do you get the sense that more people are interrogating racial stereotypes and what constitutes race? Or have people in the United States become more complacent, questioning racism and race consciousness less frequently and less critically?

Issues of racial profiling for national security have prompted questions about what race means. The debate shows that it is very difficult to define what constitutes a protected category. It is not just a racial issue; these questions also have to do with national origin, immigration, religious issues, and questions of what constitutes a relevant form of identity for intrusive practices. These are tricky questions, but not what most people are talking about. They’re asking whether one’s racial or ethnic identity is a legitimate consideration in predicting dangerousness. They’re asking what kinds of evidence, how useful such evidence is, and how we should balance individual rights against the national good.

Consider how politicians and the media often talk about “the Latino vote,” “the black vote,” “the female vote,” and “the Jewish vote,” stereotyping or playing up just one aspect of the identities of the people who identify themselves as such. To what extent do you think the parameters and interests of these communities become oversimplified as a result of the media’s characterizations of particular categories of people?

Politics has always had that feel for ethnicity. You always have a way in which you want to reach people in hopes that they’ll vote for you.

It’s even trickier now. We live in a world with all kinds of media. Now there are also so many more TV stations. But newspapers and television news no longer predominate. They are being replaced by the Internet. So there’s no way to compartmentalize the way you behave with one group and keep other groups from finding out.

Politicians must think about how [the way that they] cater to one audience will be perceived by others; they often say the most innocuous things to avoid angering [other elements of the population]. Now politics is more impersonal than ever. Candidates don’t connect with you; instead they have to create the illusion of connecting with the little audience at a rally as well as the whole world that might see later
People used to say that Clinton felt everybody’s pain. Politicians take on personas like that, very general and generic, and create a brand of self [that makes] it seem like you’re someone’s friend, emptying out concepts of friendship, identity, [and] community. Everything you do is replayed on C-SPAN and the six o’clock news, so it’s hard to have a [public] personality that is real. You only have a persona, an image that’s managed … That makes it harder to do racial politics; you can’t do anything that will alienate the middle. The Democratic Party feels [like it has] been hurt by doing racial politics and then losing the white male swing vote. This has created a conservatism regarding difference. Because you have to make everyone like you, you can’t tailor your message to any group.

… Recently, there was a study that said single women don’t vote as often as married women and tend to be more progressive than married women. So people started asking why the Democratic Party doesn’t reach out to single women and mobilize them. And the Democrats said they couldn’t do that because they’d look anti-family. It's a case of leveling out politics to the blandest common denominator. The same is probably true for race, ethnicity, class, and other categories as well.

Laura Nathan is the Managing Editor of Inthefray.com.

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