The Anti-Racist Majority Comes of Age

In early July of 2007 the Supreme Court boldly struck down the legal underpinnings of Brown v. the Board of Education. In a five to four decision, the Republican majority on the court, overturned desegregation plans by school districts in Louisville, Kentucky and Seattle, Washington. The ruling was seen as a landmark victory by the neo-conservative right in their efforts to undo the civil rights achievements of the 1960s. Sharon Brown, lead lawyer for the right-wing Pacific Legal Foundation, remarked to the New York Times, “These are the most important decisions on the use of race since Brown v. Board of Education …With these decisions, an estimated 1,000 school districts around the country that are sending the wrong message about race to kids will have to stop.”

Just a year earlier, voters in Michigan and Nevada had opted to prohibit state universities from using race as criteria in admissions. Armed with the Supreme Court ruling and momentum generated by ballot initiatives, opponents of equality hoped to spark a new movement. Indeed with airways filled with the venomous hate speech of Don Imus, Paris Hilton, Michael Richards and more recently geneticist James Watson, racism seemed to gain a new standing in public and private discourse, to say nothing of official policy.

Significant though they may be, these referenda and judicial rulings now may only have been the last dying eddies of a spent and exhausted Republican wave. In the same mid-term elections, voters angered by the Iraq war, aghast at threats to privatize Social Security, and alarmed by the suppression of the African American vote in the presidential election two years earlier gave a sound thumping to Republican extremism. The electorate seems to have grown weary of the fear mongering, division and thinly-disguised hate displayed by an undistinguished and undeserving right-wing minority. The country was calling out for a change of course.

The depth and scope of this call is strikingly exemplified by the candidacies of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the two Democratic front runners, a status that by itself speaks volumes to how much things have changed. Voting patterns in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina suggest a new day is dawning in public perception and attitude. That such a shift in mass thought patterns could occur in the face of almost two decades of Republican rule is worthy of serious scrutiny. The ultra right's ideological assault accompanied by a political campaign aimed at undermining the gains of the civil rights period and the New Deal over this time period culminated with the economic and social impact of the Bush administration's sharply racist policies. Behind both the policies and the long-term campaign as source and inspiration lies a system of institutionalized racism, a system that operates within the framework of today’s monopoly capitalism.

Thus, in this first decade of the 21st century, the African American people are confronted by a complex and contradictory reality. Signs of clear progress conflict with an enduring legacy of segregation and unequal treatment; hope repeatedly confronts despair. Unequal pay, substandard education and housing, racist hiring practices, redlining by banks, a discriminatory criminal justice system all combine to create enormous systemic obstacles to achieving equality.

These challenges still exist and in fact in some respects have grown more severe. A study prepared by the Center for American Progress points to several systemic obstacles that have their source in the economics of racism. Median income, for example, has declined in the recent period: “African Americans' median income,” the study says, “declined by an average of 1.6 percent per year under the current administration. In 2006, African Americans' median income was $32,132, which is actually $2,603 lower than their median income of $34,735 (in 2006 dollars) in 2000.” This is substantially lower than for whites: “In 2006, their median income was $32,132, as compared to $52,432 for whites.”

Caution should be exercised when considering median income, as earnings by the two groups vary widely. Median income considers the earnings of all classes in a given population. White income, because it includes ruling class capital is therefore much higher than for African Americans, who have a much proportionally much smaller and less well-to-do elite. A more useful comparison would be between working-class whites and African Americans.

Unemployment rates also went up during the Bush years: “Unemployment levels for African Americans increased by an average of 0.2 percent each year under the current administration after declining in the 1990s” the study argues. “In 2007, the unemployment level of African Americans stood at a distressing 8.3 percent while white Americans hovered at 4.1 percent.”

Not surprisingly, poverty rates saw an increase in this same period: More African Americans are in poverty under Bush. More African Americans were in poverty in 2006 than in 2000, just after we saw a vast improvement the 1990s. In 2006, 24.2 percent of African American individuals were in poverty. Compare this to 2000, when 22.5 percent were below the poverty line … Poverty among African Americans decreased substantially from 1992 to 2000, going from 33.4 percent to 22.5 percent.

Here again caution must be observed when reviewing poverty statistics, particularly the nine percent drop during a upswing in the economic cycle during the 1990s, much of which was due to single mothers moving from welfare to low-paying service jobs, taking them above the poverty line, but not by much. Most live precipitously near the poverty line, just a paycheck away from the brink.

Furthermore, these Black and Latina single mothers lost many of the gains in the recession of 2001. According to a study done two years ago, consideration also has to be given to the fact that the elimination of welfare and other transfer payments like food stamps, greatly affected income by almost completely offsetting gains made by employment. Thus greater employment reduced poverty by 3.3 points in the late 1990s, but less in transfer payments added back 1.6 points.

Access to healthcare also suffered under right-wing rule according to analysis by the Center for American Progress: “Under Bush, the percent of African Americans without health insurance has increased from 18.5 percent to 20.5 percent. In 2006, 7.9 million African Americans were not covered by health insurance.” The study points out again that during the 1990s there was a modest increase in the number of people insured, a gain dissolved in the aftermath of the 2001 recession and declining employment and wages since.

By many measures then, the plight of African Americans has worsened in the past several years. However, the picture is far more complicated and dire than so far described. Take the numbers of African Americans living in poverty quoted above, which suggest one-quarter live in such conditions. In actual fact the number is closer to one-half when those living in near poverty are included. In a report prepared by the Economics Commission of the CPUSA, Art Perlo writes that: Nearly half the African American population lives in poverty or near poverty – below a minimum adequate income. More than 1 in 9 lives in deep poverty, literally on the margins of survival. One quarter of all people in poverty are Black. Poverty increased by 5.3 million from 2000 to 2005; 1.2 million (22 percent) of the increase was African Americans.

It should be pointed out that these figures are repeated for Latinos.

A glaring indictment of capitalism is that these figures while varying slightly have gone virtually unchanged for the past last 25 years. Statistics are faceless, but those living on the bottom half are mainly the elderly, children, single mothers and the working poor. They are largely without health care or access to descent housing. With low skill levels, many are unemployed and have no hope of permanent jobs. Here is huge waste of human talent and potential, a waste that is perpetuated from generation to generation with seemingly no hope of escape. Anti-poverty programs have not helped them, affirmative action programs, while important, largely elude; and the social safety net that once protected have been shredded in the name of “tough love” and self help.

As indicated above, Black unemployment stands at around eight percent. However the numbers vary from region to region and by city. Perlo indicates that “in 2003, only 50 percent of African Americans in New York City had jobs.” It also is affected by age with youth experiencing higher amounts: “In 2004, fewer than 39 percent of young Black men (aged 16-24) had jobs (vs. 59 percent and 60 percent for white and Hispanic.)'

The Economics Commission study points out that actual figures of the unemployed are much higher as those who have been pushed out of the labor market are not counted. Perlo’s estimate is the real unemployment rate is more like 17 percent. The Commission’s analysis also points to lack of steady employment, particularly among Black men. “By 2002, one of every four Black men in the US was idle all year long.” The figures for young women are 20 to 25 percent.

A prime source of African American inequality is the racist wage gap: Black male earnings are 70 percent of white ($17,000 less); for women its 83 percent or ($6,000 less). This wage differential is the basis of a racist social division of labor that is the foundation of modern inequality. The difference paid Black labor is the source of extra or super-profits, an amassing of capital that runs in the billions of dollars. It has many origins including lack of unions, education, regional disparities in pay, occupational and age differentials. Thus wages are most equal where unions and federal wage standards obtain; where they do not, last hired first fired remains a standard practice. It is estimated that one-third of all employed African Americans work in the public sector which is without doubt a major contributing factor to whatever economic gains and stability that has been achieved.

African Americans experience both overt and systemic reasons forms of discrimination. In 1999 there were over 2 million instances of the former for minorities and women according to Perlo’s study. Systemic reasons attributed by the study include, lack of personal networks, job locations away from urban centers, outsourcing, de-unionization, criminal records (one in four Black men) and education.

Yet another form of systemic discrimination in the Economics Commission’s view is the imposition of a “ghetto tax,” a five to ten percent extra cost paid in Black and Brown communities for goods and services, including groceries, loans, rent and insurance. A glaring example of this tax is in purchasing cars and homes:

• African American car owners with identical cars and driving records pay more for car insurance and car taxes – between $400 and $1,000 more per year in some states.

• Low-income families pay an average of two percentage points more for car loans. This can easily add $35 to monthly payments. They pay one percentage point more for home mortgages – adding at least $100/month

• African Americans buying cars (and presumably shopping for mortgages, houses, and other major items) are targeted with higher prices or inferior products.

Another important measure of equality status is homeownership. The Center for American Progress, stressed the relative losses experienced in recent years because of ruling class profiting and governmental neglect under Bush: The increase in African American homeownership has been slower under Bush than the 1990s. The homeownership rate for whites increased three times faster than the homeownership rate for African Americans between 2000 and 2006. This trend is in part because African Americans have actually seen their rate decline since 2004. Compare this to the 1990s, when African Americans' homeownership rate increased by an average annual growth rate of 0.8 percent from 1994 to 2000.

Even with some increase in homeownership the rate were still far less for African Americans, not surprising given the patterns of economic racism discussed above. Perlo states that “Homeownership rates for 2003 were 48 percent for Blacks vs. 75 percent for whites. Median home equity was $64,000 for white homeowners, $35,000 for Black homeowners. Among families with similar credit ratings, Blacks and Hispanics are 30 percent more likely than whites to be charged the highest interest for sub prime mortgages.”

The subprime mortgages crisis is sure to affect minorities more severely than others. At a recent conference held in New York by the Fiscal Policy Institute, James Parrot documented how Black and Latino new home buyers in New York were pushed to take out such loans even when they could have afforded the normal loans. Only 25 percent of sub primers are not in foreclosure. The foreclosure rate is expected to go to 40 percent this year.

It is in the structure of the economy then, jobs, housing patterns, unemployment, the “ghetto tax” to name a few, that institutionalized racism manifests itself. A new civil rights, movement aimed at addressing continuing discrimination must in the first place address itself to radical reforms aimed at rooting out the ingrained structural foundation of racist practice.

The demand for reparations was the popular form this economic demand took, particularly at the turn of the century, and received a wide hearing, until the tragedy of September 11th, when it was pushed off the historical stage by Bush’s war on terror. While not receiving wide support outside of the African American community, the attention reparations received by the mass media pointed to a growing recognition that the economics of racism must be addressed. A major question however is whether such redress will take working-class or petty-bourgeois forms.

It may have been that some sections of the ruling elite were intrigued by the idea of settling the historic dispute regarding the unpaid and underpaid labor of slavery and beyond with a cash payment. However, more broadly resonating was the concept of social grant that would introduce a massive outlay of capital for scholarships, housing, health care, schools and infrastructure, special measures that would provide a foundation for real equality. This coupled with an elimination of wage gap and full employment measures for the poorest half of the African American community would go a long way to making good on the broken promises of the past. It is unlikely however, that such measures will be addressed on their own, separate from wider social movements for peace and justice.

More feasible would be to address these special measures within the context of a broader struggle of other minorities, workers and women against the big monopolies and the profiteers of the coming economic crisis, of which these demands must be a central part. Are such reforms possible? Is there a basis for building such a movement? Recent election cycles along with shifts in public sentiment suggest the answer is yes.

Indeed, surveys of public opinion in recent years point to a steady swing away from overtly racist attitudes. Already in 1954 at the time of Brown v. Board a simple majority of Americans supported the court’s decision to do away with de jure segregation. As Jeffrey Rosen wrote in the New York Times reflecting on the significance of the Michigan affirmative action vote, “When Brown was decided, 54 percent of the country supported the result.”

Attitudes today particularly with regard to affirmative action betray a similarly mixed response, however, there is a steady drift towards non-racist and anti-racist consciousness. This tendency is present on a number of issues including marriage, affirmative action, integration efforts and opinion about race itself.

In a USA Today /Gallup poll taken in August and September of 2007, for example, respondents approved of marriage between whites and Blacks, 79 percent to 15 percent. In 1983 only 43 percent approved, with 50 percent answering in the negative. In 1968, the year of Dr. King’s assassination, 20 percent supported the right to marry, but 73 percent did not. In 1958 four years after legal segregation was declared unconstitutional 97 percent were opposed to “mixed” marriages.

Seemingly flying in the face of these trends is support by wide margins for the Supreme Court’s July decision with 73 percent agreeing that “an individual’s race should not be considered in admissions for schools.” However the wording of the Quinnipiac University question doubtlessly contributed to the response. Thus, when ABCNews/Washington Post poll asked more specifically “the Supreme Court recently restricted how local school boards can use race to assign children to schools. Some argue this is a significant setback for efforts to diversify public schools, others say race should not be used in school assignments. On balance, do you approve or disapprove of this decision?” 56 percent disapproved of the court vote, with 40 percent approving.

When in a Newsweek poll taken around the same time whites were asked: “Do you approve or disapprove of last week’s Supreme Court decision to limit the use of race for school integration plans? Thirty five percent approved with 29 percent answering in the negative. When all respondents were factored in 36 percent did not agree with Supreme Court, with 32 percent concurring. Similar results are to be found in attitudes on racial insensitivity with over half having heard racist remarks and felt offended, while approximately one-third did not.

A half century of struggle has not been without results. The concept that all people share a common humanity has gained a strong foothold. Clearly, the civil rights movements, the King and Cesar Chávez holiday struggles, along with desegregation and affirmative action efforts have positively influenced mass consciousness about race. This must be seen as a major ideological victory.While many racial prejudices and practices abound, a majority oppose racism as they understand it. Taken together it is evident that the Communist Party’s assessment in the late 1980s that an anti-racist majority was forming was percipient.

The concept of an anti-racist majority when first advanced was hotly disputed, with opponents warning against it as potentially disarming and overly optimistic, an understandable response in light of the Reagan and Gingrich counter-revolutions of the period. With the smell of the Baake, Weber and other anti-affirmative action assaults in the air, coupled with Willie Horton-like political campaigns and the beginnings of an attack on welfare and other entitlements, the concept that the mass base for racist ideology was shrinking rather than expanding, was difficult to digest. An additional factor in left thinking at the time was the influence of the “labor aristocracy” thesis, the concept that white male workers had privileged status in relation to rest of the working class, a privilege resting on material benefits from racism.

It may be that the “white privilege” theorists of today are the ideological descendants of the labor aristocracy advocates of the 1960s and 1970s. However, likely or unlikely, the gnarled hands of white workers pushing the button for Barack Obama in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada are a call for uniting class and democratic interests for hope in a common future. It has to be said that African American voters in their overwhelming majority in election after election have made such appeals. This new reciprocity will surely be taken note of and heeded.

Hope and new forms of unity are emerging in the great struggles of today. That and more will be required to defeat the Republican right in November, an achievement that progress in the struggle for African American equality depends. Anti-racist sentiment must be translated into anti-racist action. At the center of such action must be deep going radical reforms to eliminate economic racial inequality. Capitalism has proved itself inadequate to the task. More, capitalism itself breeds and profits from such inequality.

But this is all the more reason that pointed demands to address the economics of racism must be forward with the demand for immediate implementation. Dr. King explained almost a half century ago, why we can’t wait. Today’s struggle for full economic and political equality now will produce tomorrow's answer.