Monday, March 16, 2015

Racism in the U.S.

Upon request, I'm writing about racism in the U.S. This isn't a natural topic for me, since I'm a WASP living in one of the whitest states and have not spent much time around blacks. I probably didn't even see a black person until I was about seven. I'll give you a short rundown of my background and then offer you some of my views on the subject.

The first recognizable racism I heard about directly occurred while I was in college in Indiana. Indiana borders on the South, and was still quite racist in the 1960's. Some of the students at my college were black Africans who were afraid to drive to Bloomington because they were scared of what might happen if their car broke down near Martinsville, where a black woman had been killed in 1968. That murder was not solved until recently. Indiana had been a strong Ku Klux Klan state in the 1920's, and people there were still racists in the 1960's and 1970's. My father-in-law in Richmond, Indiana referred to black men as "boy" and my mother-in-law didn't want her daughter seen in public with one of my friends, who was half black. Blacks were implicitly banned from membership to their country club. I did spend the summer of 1972 in a poor black neighborhood in Ft. Wayne, Indiana living above a liquor store. On that occasion an old gay black wino made an unsuccessful advance on me at the local pool hall and I cashed a bad check while working in the liquor store, infuriating the owner, but that was about it for the experience. I noticed that the blacks were different in Louisville, Kentucky when I lived there from 1985 to 1987; they didn't have as much "attitude" as northern blacks.

The only black I had any exposure to after college was a black executive. At that time the company offered significant incentives to their managers to hire minorities. He was super-ambitious, and I thought he was a jerk because he never cared about anything besides advancing his career. He was the director of the printing plant where I worked, even though he didn't know anything about printing. By the time he was through with it, the plant was shut down and just about everyone, including me, was permanently laid off. Fortunately I was able to find a new job immediately at a different company. A few years later this man, Calvin Butler, left the printing industry for the utilities industry, and he is currently the CEO of Baltimore Gas and Electric. I don't think much of him. Although there is probably some racism, along with sexism, present in corporate life, at the company where I worked with Calvin minorities had a significant advantage if they could talk the talk. I'll never forget the charming Croatian woman named Nadia who could hardly speak English and didn't know anything about printing but got the job anyway.

My daughter lived for four years in a bad black neighborhood in Baltimore near the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing, which her husband attended. They got along well enough with their neighbors, but it was a high crime area, complete with murders. We have had numerous discussions about how historical conditions have limited the horizons for blacks. She is more sympathetic than I am, but I see her point. I tend to view racism with respect to blacks from a socio-cultural point of view. Basically, it takes a long time for a culture to reorient itself when it makes a transition from slavery to freedom. The same was true in Martinique, which I just finished reading about in Texaco (one of the best novels I've read in several years, by the way). The blacks and lower classes in Martinique were also living inhuman lives until they were freed in 1848, but the old economy collapsed, and many of them were soon forced to live in shantytowns, which was not much of an improvement.

The problem I have with American blacks is about the same as the problem I have with Americans in general: I don't like their culture. This is a crass country that focuses on consumerism, materialism and spectacle. I don't have much in common with Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian, Britney Spears, Usher, Eminem, Justin Timberlake or Sean Combs. I don't care about professional sports. Race doesn't have anything to do with it.

I suppose the obvious question for blacks in the U.S. relates to what happened in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere. Although this is not exactly a phenomenon that I think about much, I have some ideas. The problem I notice is the disconnect between the message of early civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, probably the greatest orator in American history, and the recognition of current economic reality in 2015. You get the impression from the media that fairy dust was sprinkled on blacks by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and somehow they were all supposed to have become prosperous by now. Everyone is just scratching their head and saying, "Well, I guess it must be racism." Sure, there is still racism, but the lack of prosperity among blacks has more obvious causes related to changes in the economy since 1964. The factory jobs that permitted the middle class to take off economically in the 1950's and 1960's are no longer there.

I first noticed serious distortion in the perceptions among blacks during the O.J. Simpson trial of 1995. Simpson was respected and wealthy and living the good life when he intentionally killed two innocent people for no good reason, but the black community decided that he was a victim of racism, and that was all there was to it. They were delusional then, and they're delusional now. Michael Brown, the Ferguson victim of police brutality, was himself a reckless criminal, though not on the scale of O.J. Simpson. There is probably a certain amount of racism in police profiling, but what do you expect? When you stick a police officer in a neighborhood where most of the crimes are committed by black males, do you think they won't make generalizations that seem like profiling? Is it financially feasible in poor neighborhoods to hire police officers who have advanced training that permits them perform their jobs according to all of the latest legal interpretations while being fully sensitive to the current issues in a particular community?

What disappoints me is the reaction by the media and black leaders. The media provides a third-grade analysis along the lines of "Are white people still being mean to black people?" The black leaders, Al Sharpton, for instance, stick to the obsolete white guilt narrative that worked well fifty years ago. Leaders like Barack Obama stress education, which, though it worked for him, is unlikely to be much of a solution for most blacks in the future. The real problem, I think, is that capitalism favors the wealthy, and that conditions for minorities can't improve without the forced equalization of the economic system - something far more radical than anyone is willing to discuss.

I think that even though racism may never evaporate, underlying economic problems are the true driving forces in places like Ferguson. Without major changes, the middle class in America isn't going to do as well as it did in the postwar years, and the lower middle class, which includes a lot of blacks, will do even worse. Crime levels will increase in poor neighborhoods whether or not the police have passed the latest political correctness tests. The traditional civil rights approach in these places isn't going to solve anything. The education approach offered by people like Obama won't work either, because without structural changes competition in the workforce will continue to intensify. The model used to be showing up at a factory and being hired for a job. In the future, the model could be getting a Ph.D. in software engineering until competition drives down wages, then getting a Ph.D. in advanced robotics until competition drives down wages there, and so on. A true solution can only come through significant wealth redistribution. By emphasizing education rather than economic restructuring, people like Obama are playing into the hands of corporate interests.

Finally, I should mention that racism in the U.S. isn't confined to blacks. My son-in-law is a Tibetan refugee, and he experiences it all the time. Unfortunately it is part of human nature to reject those who, for whatever reason, are perceived as belonging to a different group.


  1. Thanks Paul. 2 observations. When you say that it is hard for a race to reorient itself from slavery. My analogy might be a bit removed but this reorientation reminds me of the Jews persecution and then slaughter. While it remains part of their history and culture they have come through and seem prosperous indeed. The other thing was the somewhat lame attempt at change through the Occupy Wall Street movement in protest of economic inequality. Seems that while this was just a toe in the water attempt, if more of these spring up with better planning and some sort of weight behind the cause something may change.

    1. The Jews aren't much like American blacks in terms of their history, because they survived under conditions of persecution for a long period and eventually triumphed, whereas the African-Americans were permanently torn from their African backgrounds by the slave trade and then had to adjust again when they were emancipated. The Jews in the U.S.and elsewhere are survivors whose culture helped them succeed over many centuries, whereas African-Americans have a hybrid culture that has evolved considerably since they left Africa and during which time they have not been as successful as a group. Many ethnic groups have come to the U.S. and done much better than blacks, but you can't really consider them superior because they didn't come here against their own wills as slaves. Perhaps the problem with American blacks is their cultural identity, which, to put it bluntly, is associated with failure. The blacks in the U.S. who are successful now are ones who essentially dump their African-American identities or never have them to begin with. Barack Obama is a good example, because he has a background that is predominantly white: he moved to Chicago and married a black woman there to get street cred as a black. Having watched him now for several years, I can tell you that there is nothing about him that convinces me that he understands the black experience in the U.S.: he was skilled at using his apparent status as an African-American to achieve his career goals.

      I agree with you on Occupy Wall Street. As far as I can tell, their basic message was something like "Hey, this isn't fair, man." If they had the courage of their convictions they would have said something like "Capitalism sucks" or "Tax the bastards out of existence." Obviously they had no idea what they were doing.