Back – it seems long ago but really fewer than six years – when Barack Obama was elected president, much of the nation hoped that we were in for a new, “post-racial” age. Defeated GOP candidate John McCain himself spoke in those terms in his concession speech: “ This is an historic election . . . we have come a long way from the old injustices that once stained our nation’s reputation . . . . America today is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of [an earlier] time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African American to the presidency of the United States.” Some whites feared that Obama would try to benefit his race, but (to the chagrin of many in the black community) he steered in almost the opposite direction, a post-racial one.
Yet the new color-blind age was not to be. For one, the financial disaster Obama inherited disproportionately damaged African Americans, widening economic gaps that had been narrowing. For another, the politics of racial resentment was too tempting a tool not to be used. Ironically, Obama’s elections themselves were only tilted a bit by racial attitudes; those who voted by race, pro or con, were already voting Democrat and Republican accordingly (see here).
But we remain far from the post-racial dream. This post is another look-see at the status of race relations, presenting a few recent studies that show how, though the progress Senator McCain noted has certainly been made, race still matters — a lot. And then I return to the politics.
I was spurred to this post in part by a recent Pew survey (pdf) – and the attention it got – showing that by a great majority Americans were likelier to agree that “Blacks who can’t get ahead in this country are mostly responsible for their own condition” (63 percent) than to agree that “Racial discrimination is the main reason why many black people can’t get ahead these days” (27 percent). This is a pretty crude question. It doesn’t allow for matters of degree or for other explanations besides two blunt ones. The General Social Survey has for over a quarter-century used a more refined question and here is a summary of the results, by time and race:
Here are a few takeaways that I see: ♦ American respondents were less likely around 2010 than twenty years earlier to say “yes” to any explanation (maybe because it’s too hot a topic). ♦ Whites before and now are much less likely than blacks to accept discrimination as an explanation – but the gap is narrowing as many fewer blacks themselves give the discrimination answer (from 77 to 55 percent). This may be a sign that blacks see some progress. ♦ Whites have either abandoned or gotten reluctant to publicly agree with inherent inferiority explanations (now blacks are likelier to say that). ♦ Whites were likeliest then and are now to agree with the “willpower” explanation than any other one; and by 2010, blacks were just about as likely as whites to agree (50 and 47 percent respectively). These trends may reflect how murky it is becoming, in an age of more visible integration and a black president, to have a clear explanation for persisting black disadvantage.
As a side note, the Supreme Court majority in its various cases, notably on the Voting Rights Act, seems to share the popular (white) view that it’s all about black willpower.
So, how would social scientists answer?
I think most would say two things, in general: (1) Racial discrimination continues. It is depressingly easy to demonstrate discrimination in experiments and in “audit” studies concerning jobs and housing (studies which test how applications get differential responses based on whether a “John” or a “Jamal” is applying). But, racial discrimination has clearly declined. (2) Much of persisting black disadvantage can also be accounted for by the lasting effects of slavery and past discrimination.
A 2012 study (that I reported here) found that counties that had had high concentrations of slaves in the 1860s were especially likely to have high rates of black poverty in 2000. A new, larger study by economists Graziella Bertocchi and Arcangelo Dimico (h/t to Tom Jacobs) in the same vein finds that the greater the concentration of slaves in a county in 1860, the greater the economic gap between blacks and whites in 2000. The authors provide evidence that it was precisely slavery rather than other features of the county (say, the kind of soil) in 1860 that mattered. And they present evidence suggesting how slavery shaped the future for generations: counties that were most slavery-based were especially likely for decades later to under-fund black education. Given how much families pass down educational advantage or disadvantage, starting black grandparents behind has held their grandchildren back.
Blacks in the United States are “hyper-segregated,” highly concentrated in predominantly black neighborhoods and districts, much more concentrated than other groups. And black neighborhoods suffer disproportionately from poverty, crime, and disorder. Although rates of racial segregation are declining, black ghettoization remains extremely high. This is not news.
Perhaps less appreciated, however, is the extent to which even middle-class African Americans are affected by hyper-segregation. In a recent paper, Patrick Sharkey shows that islands of middle-class black (and Latino) neighborhoods are highly likely to border poor neighborhoods, something one rarely sees with white middle-class neighborhoods. Moreover, over half of well-off black families live near poor neighborhoods, compared to about 10 percent of well-off white families. Indeed, affluent black families are likelier than are poor white families have concentrations of poor neighbors. Although this pattern has significantly declined in recent decades as some middle-class blacks moved into majority white neighborhoods, the exposure of middle-class blacks to nearby poverty – because of racial segregation, of racial discrimination – makes the settings for black children particularly dire. Poor neighborhoods tend to be hazardous to health and to prospects for moving up in the world.
Research has been accumulating showing that where children live makes a difference physically and academically. (Parents have always assumed this to be so, which is why they pay extra to be in “good neighborhoods.”) In 2008, Patrick Sharkey published a study showing how much poor families get stuck in problematic neighborhoods. Using a national survey that tracked families over time, Sharkey showed that children who grew up in severely disadvantaged neighborhoods were quite likely – other things being equal – to end up as adults in a severely disadvantaged neighborhood, whether the same neighborhood or a different one. And this propensity to get stuck is much higher for blacks than whites; racial segregation again. Moreover, getting stuck has consequences.
A large study of “neighborhood effects,” reported in 2008 by Robert J. Sampson, Patrick Sharkey, and Stephen W. Raudenbush, followed over 700 African American children who were initially living in Chicago to wherever they might have moved over the next several years. The researchers estimated that just living some time in a “severely disadvantaged” neighborhood, everything else about the children and their parents taken into consideration, reduced cognitive test scores by the equivalent of a year’s worth of school. Sampson and colleagues argue that the stress, fear, and social isolation produced in such neighborhoods takes its toll. Racial segregation makes this damaging experience overwhelmingly an African American one.
Back to Old Politics
There is much evidence that blacks are unusually weighted down by past discrimination on top of lingering current discrimination. Yet, most whites understand blacks’ situation as largely a matter of willpower. Thus, white racial resentment follows: How can “they” ask for “breaks” when “they” are to blame? A number of researchers have found evidence suggesting that, in general, the presence of a racial minority – notably, in the U.S., blacks – stirs the majority to resist paying for “public goods” that may benefit the minority. Hannah Brown, in a 2013 paper, provides a close study of how that works.
Brown closely examined how Georgia and Alabama handled the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. The federal legislation was designed to tighten up on financial support to poor mothers, but the states had some freedom to determine just how restrictive it would be in their jurisdictions. In both Georgia and Alabama, as elsewhere, popular opinion and politicians identified welfare as a “black” entitlement (whatever the hard facts might be). It was – and still is – a racialized issue. However, Georgia passed much more punitive restrictions on poor mothers than did Alabama. Why?
Brown discovered that the difference between the states lay in whether racial hostilities were fanned during the debates over welfare legislation. In Georgia, the immediately preceding hot issue before welfare reform was the governor’s proposal to remove the Confederate stars and bars from the state flag. The backlash was so strong and racially tinged that the governor was forced to demonstrate his racial bonafides to white voters by not only dropping the flag issue but also by being racially harsh on the next topic, welfare reform.
In Alabama, in contrast, the immediate context for the welfare debate was a storm over tort reform and excessive jury awards. That issue had no racial overtones. When welfare came up, even though white Alabamians also associated welfare with blacks, race was not “in the air” and the debate was not racialized. The result, Brown argues, was a relatively benign set of rules about this “public good.”
The extension I take away is that racial issues and racism simmer in the United States, even in the 21st century, but whether they affect politics depends on whether citizens have been alerted to a racial dimension and whether politicians exploit it. A tragic irony of the Obama administration is that his election certainly highlighted the topic of race and a set of media politicians did not hesitate to dial up the racial spotlight.
(Re-post on the Boston Review BR Blog on July 2, 2014.)