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Trayvon's Legacy: How Diversity Hides Racism

Fifty years of civil rights gains shield a regressive paradox in the US and Canada. Fellman Award winner.

By Christopher Phelps 24 Feb 2014 |

Christopher Phelps teaches American Studies at the University of Nottingham.

[Editor's note: We're proud to present this piece by Christopher Phelps as the winner of the 2013 Michael Fellman Award. The prize was co-established by the SFU History department and The Tyee to honour Michael Fellman, esteemed professor of history and beloved Tyee contributor. For more information, go here. An early version of this essay was published in the Dissent magazine blog last summer.]

It is the age of Barack Obama, the age of Trayvon Martin; a son of Africa lives in the White House, a boy's life ends in Florida for the crime of walking home with a bag of sweets.

This summer we will mark the 50th anniversaries of Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights Act, next year Selma and the Voting Rights Act. On each occasion we will ask whether we yet judge each other by the content of our character rather than the colour of our skin. The answer, of course, is no -- and yes.

The reality of race today is nebulous, flecked with shadings, neither a utopia of little black boys and girls walking hand in hand with little white boys and girls nor simply a stew of racial slurs and terror. History's etchings on our psychology ensure that between awareness and callowness, solidarity and enmity, comprehension and smallness, lie infinite gradations.

Were it not but a phantom of memory, the euphoria of Obama's election night 2008 might have carried over into a smug self-satisfaction in marking these 50-year anniversaries. Instead, we have seen in the past year alone a Florida jury's acquittal of Trayvon Martin's killer, the Supreme Court's striking down of key Voting Rights Act provisions, and the bankruptcy of one of America's blackest cities, Detroit. Martin Luther King's dream holds lasting power not for its eloquence alone, but because the American present is still so separate, still so unequal.

Conservatives during King's lifetime reviled him. They now embrace the dream, reducing its meaning to simple race blindness. If racism is a bygone irrelevancy brought up only by liberal scolds, as they argue, then political correctness is all that divides us and inequality is a result of irresponsibility, as shown in teen pregnancy data or statistics that blacks are far more often killed by other blacks than whites. Slavery and segregation are over: stop blaming others.

North of the border the same applies to First Nations, who may walk beside Martin Luther King's daughter in a Reconciliation Walk but still find themselves blamed for destitution and addiction. Colonialism and residential schools are in the past: don't be a victim.

So it is that an outward commitment to colour blindness can sustain the pathologizing of race, an outlook shaped by the very history it denies. Just as conquest stripped aboriginals of their land and residential schools sought to root out their culture, so the slave system deprived black Americans of compensation, property, literacy and citizenship while unleashing ferocity upon any hint of independence. In the white mind, fear of red rebellion and black violence commingled with moralism, engendering a psyche that fancied itself the chivalric defender of civilization against animality.

It is an old story, and whenever confronted with the latest blatant outrage we doubt the white republic has ever left us. Yet our present is not monochrome. A black First Family resides in the White House, put there twice by the whole of the American electorate, and our own families and friendships are criss-crossed in black, white, yellow, brown and red. More and more North Americans identify as multiracial when census takers knock at their door.

Individual diversity, injustice in aggregate

The United States is in the midst of a third great system of race and class, the successor to chattel slavery and formal Jim Crow. Unlike its predecessors, the current system -- which operates so subtly that it gives only the barest appearance of being a system -- maintains diversity as an ideal even as it continues to produce injustice in the aggregate. Understanding it requires that we overlay our narratives of race upon our narratives of capitalism, taking them as one despite their partitioning into the separate academic disciplines of cultural studies and economics. What follows focuses upon the U.S. as epitome, but it should not be a stretch to see a similar dynamic at work in Canada.

Between the 1960s and 1970s, a new regime of capitalist accumulation came about. Not by accident did this neoliberal form of capitalism coincide with the civil rights revolution. Just as a global free trade regime required the dismantling of colonialism, so the logic of deregulation found an elective affinity with the end of formal segregation. While freedom songs were being sung in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Southern Christian Leadership Conference, libertarianism was being generated in the Mont Pelerin Society and Chicago School.

Since white supremacy's pervasiveness owed much to its immense profitability, the idea that a free market would best serve race blindness required conservative ideologues to improvise a dreamscape. In Capitalism and Freedom, published one year before King's 1963 speech, Milton Friedman argued that the invisible hand cared only for the content of one's character. "An impersonal market," he stated, would best protect black Americans "from being discriminated against in their economic activities for reasons that are irrelevant to their productivity."

To sustain this reverie, wide swathes of history had to be bracketed off as mere "residual discrimination," the detritus of the past of slavery and segregation, when market individualism was not yet in full sway. While others argued that economic exploitation explained the persistence of slavery and segregation, the neoliberals glimpsed utopia in a pure capitalism.

So it is that the black freedom movement and its crowning achievements, the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act and advent of a black elected officialdom, coincided with the consolidation of an elite consensus that removed constraints on corporate activity, cut tax rates on the wealthiest and social spending for the most needy, and instituted more flexible world trade regimes.

The result for black America, plain by the 1980s, was a flight of capital from urban centres in search of cheaper labour, the rout of labour unionism, the devastation of black working-class prospects, a decline of urban tax bases, and the centrifugal deterioration of social life. Black neighbourhoods in deindustrialized cities became prime territory for the drug trade, which doubled as an escape from despair and a lucrative growth field for black youth without occupational alternatives.

Far from an "impersonal" market, studies find call-back rates for job interviews markedly lower for applicants with stereotypically "black" names. In every significant metric -- income, wealth, employment, education, housing, poverty, debt, longevity, incarceration -- black Americans fare much worse than whites. The carceral state has ballooned, with supermax facilities substituting for leg irons. From 200,000 in prison or jail in 1970, the ranks of the confined have swelled to well over 2 million, most of them black and Latino men under 40.

Liberation requires economic equality

The black freedom movement coincided with the dawning of neoliberalism, but they were always distinguished by a major difference of emphasis. Black leaders never imagined liberation to be genuinely possible without economic equality. Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, the now-forgotten socialist architects of the March on Washington, demanded "jobs" as well as "freedom." In Malcolm X's more militant cadence, "You can't have capitalism without racism."

582px version of MartinLutherSign_600px.jpg
The Martin Luther King Jr, Business Empowerment Center in Worcester, MA was established to help people compete in the job market and foster small businesses. Photo via Creative Commons Flickr.

A redistributive outlook underlay King's late-life criticism of the Pentagon as the world's greatest purveyor of violence; his call for putting social needs first in the national budget; his organizing of a Poor People's Campaign that prefigured Occupy by planning mass encampment on the Washington mall; and his support for striking sanitation workers in Memphis at the time of his 1968 assassination.

In 1964, King wrote,

"The Negro today is not struggling for some abstract, vague rights, but for concrete and prompt improvement in his way of life. What will it profit him to be able to send his children to an integrated school if the family income is insufficient to buy them school clothes? What will he gain by being permitted to move to an integrated neighbourhood if he cannot afford to do so because he is unemployed or has a low-paying job with no future?"

If King's "I Have a Dream" speech emphasized law and attitude, his broader career indicates that his unfinished agenda is more structural, economic and social. Race is sunk in 'hood and 'burb, in property values and school district boundaries, in wage differentials and portfolios, and in credit ratings and loan rates.

Race is still perceptual, as when a hoodie functions as synecdoche for threat and makes walking while black a capital crime. And the law remains crucial, as the Supreme Court's evisceration of the Voting Rights Act demonstrates. We should oppose "stand your ground" laws that pervert self-defence doctrine, justifying lethal force by subjective fear rather than demonstrated responsibility for a life-threatening altercation; demand an end to long mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offences; and oppose constrictive voter I.D. laws.

When freedom is confused with equality and diversity confused with justice, however, conservatives can assume that racism is in the past because of a Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court, a Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice in the cabinet, or a black person as McDonald's CEO. The same confusion of diversity for justice allows liberals enamoured of progress in symbolic representation to ignore how Obama's team and policies favour Wall Street, blaming his shortcomings wholly on Republican nullifiers.

There is still a colour to money. Black homeowners were most fleeced by subprime mortgages, and black unemployment is double the national rate. Blacks are far more likely than whites to have a negative net worth. Blacks, along with Latinos and First Nations, fall disproportionately among the working poor. A diversity ethic correlates with globalized capitalism, wary of offending any market segment, but it has primarily opened a narrow set of opportunities at the top, creating a black one per cent ensconced in boardrooms and country clubs that encounters the underclass rarely, if at all.

A dream renewed

While supersession of neoliberalism is not on the agenda any time soon, better apprehension of its race and class terrain might spur fresh thinking about how to parry inequality. At least it should help to rule out two kinds of one-sidedness endemic on the left. The first reduces race to economics and emphasizes class solutions exclusively, like those who speak of "the trouble with diversity" or see only fragmentation in identity politics. The obverse embraces black leadership as progressive regardless of whether its programs serve corporate interests. Both are limited by partiality given a system with coordinates of class and race.

Our politics must combine race with class, just as reality does. We might begin by brainstorming inventive race-class demands. A Robin Hood tax on all financial transactions, for example, might be used not only to reduce financial speculation but to make possible zero-interest loans for building health clinics, food co-ops, and the like in black-majority areas (or barrios or reservations). Stringent fines on polluters might be allocated to funds for creating green spaces and self-managed organic farms in current urban wastelands. Banks and corporations whose profits derived from slavery might be pushed to atone by giving grants to shore up underfunded municipal pension plans for public workers, since cities and public sector workforces have higher concentrations of people of colour and their pension plans support urban economies.

We face a social system, not merely a set of attitudes. Redress will not come from good will alone, but from an erosion of the material foundations of bigotry. We need a contemporary theory and practice -- not abolitionist, not "civil rights," but suited to our day. Equality and justice are freedom's prerequisites. To rescue the dream from descent into nightmare requires nothing less than social reconstruction.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice

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