The Racial Divide
Our April 5 discussion revolved around three books that described racial issues in the US from an historical, as well as modern, perspective. We also reviewed the recent address to the US Congress by the new Senator from Georgia Rafael Warnock.
The Warmth of Other Suns (2010), by Isabel Wilkerson, chronicles the migration of blacks from the US South to the industrial North. After the Civil War, although slavery was outlawed, the condition of blacks was barely improved. They still were subservient to whites in employment and social status. They harvested cotton and other products for white owners and were barely paid for their efforts. If they were suspected of theft — even with no evidence — or of not being subservient enough they could be beaten or even lynched with impunity. What is called the Great Migration took place from about 1915 to 1970. Families escaped to northern cities primarily by train along three main routes that led to the Eastern Seaboard, to Chicago and California. “Over the course of six decades, some six million black southerners left the land of their forefathers and fanned out across the country for an uncertain existence in nearly every other corner of America. The Great Migration would become a turning point in history. It would transform urban America and recast the social and political order of every city it touched.” (Page 9)
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010), by Michelle Alexander, is about the current form that white supremacy takes. It uses the criminal justice system, and in particular the ‘War on Drugs,” to justify making poor and working-class blacks into second class citizens, imprisoning them, disenfranchising them, and permitting discrimination. Unlike the old Jim Crow (the system of legal discrimination in the South from the Civil War up until the about 1970), it pretends to be race neutral, relegating many African-Americans to second-class citizenship based on the unequal enforcement of laws and criminal convictions rather than directly on race. Our prison population has gone from 350,000 in the early 1980s to 2.3 million in the 2000s due almost exclusively to increases in sentencing.
“The total population of black inmates in Chicago with a felony record is equivalent to 55% of the black male population.” (Page 255) Many of those with a record are for minor drug charges who can be excluded from many types of employment, made ineligible for public housing, be left out of welfare benefits, and can lose their right to vote in many states. The origins of the policy began under Nixon and Reagan who waged “law and order” campaigns, but was made worse by Bill Clinton who declared an end to “welfare as we know it.” Employment in the inner cities also plummeted, leaving residents few options. A conservative US Supreme Court also allowed random searches and seizures by police that previously had been considered unconstitutional. The US Drug Enforcement Agency provides incentives for police to arrest as many as possible by providing funds for drug enforcement.
Fatal Invention (2011), by Dorothy Roberts, discusses the perception of race in society and its consequences. “Race is the main characteristic most Americans use to classify each other. It is the first or second thing we notice about a stranger we pass on the street or a new acquaintance approaching to shake our hand. Race determines which church most Americans attend, where they buy a house, the person they choose to marry, who they vote for, and the music they listen to.… But the only way we know which racial designation to assign each person is by referring to the invented rules we have been taught since we were infants.… Race is not a biological category that is politically charged. It is a political category that has been disguised as a biological one.… Race is very real as a political grouping of human beings and has actual consequences for people’s health, wealth, social status, reputation and opportunities in life.” (Pages 3–5)
The author goes on to chronicle the history of how the perception of race has led to unequal treatment of many in different periods of history, including mistrust and mistreatment of immigrants of numerous backgrounds including Jews, the Irish, Italians, Chinese, Latin Americans and others. In the late 1800s and the first part of the next century, scientists, as well as politicians, assumed that the Darwinian concept of “survival of the fittest,” explained the extermination of American natives and the assignment of most blacks to menial positions. IQ tests that were geared toward whites and segregation laws perpetuated the myth of racial inequality. The Virginia Racial Integrity Act of 1924 forbade interracial marriage until struck down by the US Supreme Court in 1967. Minority populations have less access to healthcare and thus their lifespans are considerably less than that for whites. Dwelling in stressful environments also leads to poorer health outcomes. Many diseases — and treatments — that are considered to be race-based, such as Sickle Cell Anemia and Tay-Sachs, actually are based more on genetic rather than race factors.
We concluded with a discussion of the impressive Inaugural Address to the US Senate of Rafael Warnock of Georgia on March 17, 2021. He described how, at the time of his birth, the two Georgia senators were openly racist and in defiance of attempts at integration. The hand of his 82 year old mother who once picked cotton more recently “picked her son to be US Senator.” He discussed how, since the 2020 election, over 250 voter suppression bills have been proposed by Republican legislatures, and how voter suppression has a long history in his state. But nevertheless: “Refusing to be denied, Georgia citizens and citizens across our country brave the heat and cold and rain, some standing in line for hours just to exercise their constitutional right to vote.” He urged the Senate to pass the For the People Act, which includes reforms such as “automatic voter registration for every eligible citizen and allowing all citizens to register to vote on election day, requiring every state to offer at least two weeks of early voting” and other reforms. He tied his emphasis on spirituality to the success of democracy: “I, as a man of faith, believe that democracy is the political enactment of a spiritual idea: the sacred worth of all human beings, the notion that we all have a spark of the divine and the right to participate in the shaping of our destiny. Humanity’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible but humanity’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
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Steve Zolno is the author of the book The Future of Democracy and several related titles. He graduated from Shimer College with a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Sciences and holds a Master’s in Educational Psychology from Sonoma State University. He is a Management and Educational Consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been conducting seminars on democracy since 2006.