What we know about race and racism in the United States

An attempt to add historical and statistical context to recent events

July 21, 2013

Public discussions around race often focus on individual events that have focused national attention, often without enough context on the systematic roots of racism and why these events continue to happen. There is a vast academic literature on the impact of race in the United States. One of the problems with highlighting single case like the Trayvon Martin case is that it cannot tell us much about the overall situation in the United States. Even if we were completely sure of what happened, knowledge of one death in a country where 44 people are killed each day is of limited informational value. (All cases are important and have personal and emotional value, but individually none of them really give us the big picture).

Overt racism is down to around 20 to 30 percent among whites. Unfortunately, overt racism is not the only problem. The problem is implicit and aversive racism that leads to systems that exercise power in racially biased ways. Unconscious biases and impressions still turn into public policy. As OSU professor Corrine McConnaughy writes:

Stopping at overt racism, however, is stopping far too short. Research on aversive racism uses implicit measurement strategies to show that even those white Americans that express racially egalitarian views are not immune from holding—and acting upon—racial prejudice. Negative implicit views are most likely to produce discriminatory or harmful behavior toward blacks when there is no social monitoring of the behavior—that is, no one is “watching”—and the behavior can be justified or rationalized based on a factor other than race.

Soss, Fording, and Schram go into more detail on how race impacts policy-making. They argue that it proceeds in three basic steps.

  1. In order to design effective policies in a complex world, policy-makers rely on social classifications and group reputations.
  2. If racial minorities are a salient group in a policy decision (as for example welfare reform, prison reform, zero tolerance policies, mandatory minimums, etc) then race will be used as a basis for social classification in order to target differences that are perceived as relevant to policy goals.
  3. The likelihood of this leading to racially patterned (or biased) policy outcomes is dependent upon three factors: a) prevailing stereotypes, b) policy actors holding those stereotypes, and c) the presence of stereotype consistent cues.

Soss, Fording, and Schram go on to show how this model played out in welfare reform, with the perception of black laziness peaking in 1996 during welfare reform after the abundant presence of social and media cues to reinforce that stereotype. They also show welfare reform playing out at the state and county (in FL) levels, and the clear relationships between race and welfare reform and sanctioning policy.

There is also abundant observational as well as experimental evidence of racial bias in the economy today. Simply looking at employment data, black individuals with some college have a higher unemployment rate than whites who dropped out of high school. As an experiment, researchers sent out identical resumes with different names in order to test for bias in hiring. They found that, “Job applicants with white names needed to send about 10 resumes to get one callback; those with African-American names needed to send around 15 resumes to get one callback.

In the absence of policy bias it is hard to explain the massive disparity in academic and economic achievement between blacks and whites, or the disparity in incarceration rates. One in three black men will spend time in prison in their lifetimes, compared to one in 17 white men (Sentencing Project). Even if this only reflected a higher rate of criminal activity one would still need to ask why so many young black men find themselves in situations that lead to criminal activity. I’ll get to the historical background in a moment, but first it’s worth pointing out that only 61 percent of the racial disparity is due to differing amounts of criminal activity, while the rest is due to biases within the criminal justice system (Sentencing Project).

The story of the creation of the urban ghetto is well-documented and relatively well known. The division of neighborhoods into white and black stems from a time of explicit racism. That division, and the attending economic and academic disparities, continues to this day. Less well known is the role of the G.I. Bill, which was implemented in a way that jump-started the creation of the post WWII white middle class while failing to do the same for black veterans. Nick Kotz reports the history well in the NY Times:

Southern Congressional leaders made certain that the programs were directed not by Washington but by local white officials, businessmen, bankers and college administrators who would honor past practices. As a result, thousands of black veterans in the South — and the North as well — were denied housing and business loans, as well as admission to whites-only colleges and universities. They were also excluded from job-training programs for careers in promising new fields like radio and electrical work, commercial photography and mechanics. Instead, most African-Americans were channeled toward traditional, low-paying ”black jobs” and small black colleges, which were pitifully underfinanced and ill equipped to meet the needs of a surging enrollment of returning soldiers.

The statistics on disparate treatment are staggering. By October 1946, 6,500 former soldiers had been placed in nonfarm jobs by the employment service in Mississippi; 86 percent of the skilled and semiskilled jobs were filled by whites, 92 percent of the unskilled ones by blacks. In New York and northern New Jersey, ”fewer than 100 of the 67,000 mortgages insured by the G.I. Bill supported home purchases by nonwhites.” Discrimination continued as well in elite Northern colleges. The University of Pennsylvania, along with Columbia the least discriminatory of the Ivy League colleges, enrolled only 46 black students in its student body of 9,000 in 1946. The traditional black colleges did not have places for an estimated 70,000 black veterans in 1947. At the same time, white universities were doubling their enrollments and prospering with the infusion of public and private funds, and of students with their G.I. benefits.

My grandfather came home from WWII, went to college on the GI Bill, got a job at IBM and sent my father and uncle to good private schools and then on to college. This educational privilege was passed on to me, and for all I know is the difference between me and a smart young Black man who went to bad public high schools and was never encouraged to go to college since no one in his family had. (Or perhaps went to college and dropped out due to lack of support).

The explicit racism in our society that persisted over hundreds of years still shapes us today. To ignore that is to ignore history. The history of explicit racism is still very recent in our society, with most of us having parents and all of us having grandparents that encountered it directly and were shaped by it. Hundreds of years of slavery, segregation, and discrimination are not going to be overcome less than 50 years after the civil rights movement.