Another Dry, White Season

Wendy Johnson

Vol. 19, No. 2, 1997 pp. 1, 3-4

President Clinton's call for a national conversation on race comes at a pivotal time, a time when the neoconservative misuse of "color-blind" rhetoric has encouraged a willful obliviousness to enduring racial problems and a retreat from any meaningful engagement. Whether or not Clinton's race initiative can stem this disturbing tide and make progress toward racial justice will depend on the access that minority voices can have to the public ear, the effective content of the conversation, and the willingness of white Americans to listen and act affirmatively. What should the discussion include?

One place to start would be to publicly acknowledge the dramatic racial inequalities that persist. Advocates of racial justice must find ways to publicize and reiterate the facts: that the percentage of blacks and Latinos living in poverty is about three times more than the percentage of whites; that per capita income of blacks and Latinos is


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less than 60 percent that of whites; and that blacks and Latinos are about twice as likely to be unemployed.

Other disparities are lesser known but equally alarming, such as the fact that even middle-class African Americans and Latinos with identical incomes to whites are significantly poorer and less financially secure because their net wealth is about eight times less. Why do minorities have so much less in total assets than whites? To begin with, there is the historical legacy if racial and class oppression in the very direct form of less inherited wealth. Next, continuing institutional discrimination plays a large part. For years, white firms denied life assurance to African Americans, and African Americans ire still denied home mortgages at twice the rate of similarly qualified white applicants.

As such examples attest, the ludicrous notion that we now live in a discrimination-free society must be thoroughly dismissed. Such a repudiation has proven difficult largely due to tactics of white denial. Study after study using matched white and minority applicants (with identical education, work experience, age, and size and similar personal traits) have documented the persistence of discrimination not only in the housing but also the job market. These facts of discrimination, like those of inequality, must become part of the national common sense.

As those members of Congress who amended the Voting Rights Act in 1982 realized, the issue of discrimination must by taken out of the realm of personal intention and understood as a systematic process. In hiring practices, for example, minorities are systematically discriminated against because they have fewer contacts with those whites who can alert them to job openings and who make the majority of hiring decisions.

Another way discrimination can persist without conscious or malicious prejudicial intent lies in the normative considerations involved in any selection process. The notion that gatekeepers into schools, jobs, promotions, etc. can somehow impartially select the "most qualified" candidate out of hundreds, or thousands, of applicants by a pure assessment of technical ability is a myth, and must be repeatedly exposed as such. As historian Dan Carter puts it in this issue of Southern Changes, we must "challenge the worship of a handful of standardized tests as though they alone could judge what makes a person qualified for a job or for admission to college or professional school. We have to talk about the ways in which people actually succeed in college, in the workplace, and in life in general."

In the absence of perfect information, pure impartiality, or even a clear understanding of what being technically qualified for a position really means, normative qualities (including style, mannerisms, deportment, and other personality traits) play a major role in the hiring or promoting process. For many relatively privileged positions in business firms--sales, managerial work, etc.--these personal qualities may play the predominant role.

Unfortunately these qualities are highly subject to class, race, and gender bias. Because white men have monopolized the positions of privilege and authority for centuries, these jobs have been racially and sexually stereotyped to entail the very normative characteristics they possess, while subordinate positions are often stereotyped as appropriate for minorities and women. Asian Americans, for example, are the most educated population in the nation, but they are not promoted in proportionate numbers because they are frequently stereotyped as "technicians" poorly suited for people-oriented managerial work. Introducing people of divergent racial backgrounds, languages, and cultural identities into traditionally white male occupations will help break down such occupational stereotypes and may help change the very structures of power in the process.

Because of occupational stereotyping, entrenched networks, and other forms of systematic discrimination,


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white men continue to dominate the professions and the most influential positions in our society. As noted in The Affirmative Action Debate, edited by George E. Curry, while white men are 33 percent of the population, they constitute 86 percent of the partners in major law firms, 88 percent of the holders of management-level jobs in advertising, 90 percent of those occupying the top positions in the media, 90 percent of the members of the U.S. Senate, and 95 percent of all senior managerial positions at the rank of vice president or above. In Fortune 1000 industrial and Fortune 500 service industries, white men hold 97 percent of senior management positions, while African Americans hold 0.6 percent, Asian Americans 0.3 percent, and Latinos 0.4 percent. As of 1996, there were only two female CEOs in Fortune 1000 companies.

Numbers like these should convince the public that minorities continue to face systematic discrimination in the workplace. Even before entering the job market, however, minorities have already faced substantial structural discrimination in attaining the necessary educational qualifications. As Gary Orfield documents in this issue, the racial and ethnic segregation of African-American and Latino students is spreading across the nation and producing a deepening isolation from middle class students and from successful schools. This segregation, Orfield says, is "not simply racial segregation; it is segregation by class and family and community education background as well." While only about 5 percent of the nation's segregated white schools face conditions of concentrated poverty among their children, more than 80 percent of segregated black and Latino schools do. High poverty schools usually have much lower levels of educational performance on virtually all outcomes, for a variety of reasons that Orfield discusses.

Increasing segregation in schools is enabled by persisting residential segregation. This American Apartheid, as one study has deemed it, is perpetuated both by the preference of whites for predominantly white communities and by realtors who respond to this demand by steering black customers away from white neighborhoods. Housing audits conducted over the past two decades have documented the persistence of widespread discrimination against black renters and homebuyers. As with schools, these systematic patterns not only segregate by race but also concentrate poverty.

According to Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., however, it is neither the school-day nor the hours spent in one's neighborhood which are the most segregated times. "Four o'clock every day," says Jackson, "when editors meet with their staffs to discuss the next day's news consumption, is perhaps the most segregated hour in this nation."

The persistence of segregation in the newsrooms is particularly dangerous because the media plays a big role in deciding how and if issues of race are addressed and whether racial prejudices and stereotypes are challenged or exacerbated. In his article, "News and Blues: Minority Journalists in the South, Twenty-Five Years Later" in this issue, Reginald Stuart points out that while minorities have made impressive gains over the last twenty-five years, they remain under-represented in the media. To make matters worse, federal policies deregulating the media "threaten to wipe out what little minority ownership of mass media properties there is."

The final ingredient for a successful conversation on race will perhaps be the most challenging. Due to what Dan Carter identifies as the "dogma of the marketplace" dominating the current political climate, the effort to link the issues of racial injustice with those of class exploitation has become more difficult just as it has become more crucial. Both domestically and internationally, a disproportionate number of people of color continue to engage in the world's most exploitative work at the bottom of the wage and benefits ladder. Racial prejudice helps make the most egregious forms of economic exploitation more tolerable to the white, middle classes of America and other Western industrialized nations, just as it once helped justify the economic exploitations of slavery and colonialism. The conventional notion that it is somehow appropriate or acceptable that blacks, Latinos, or Asians occupy positions of subordination and poverty because of their supposed inferiority (whether defined biologically or, more common today, culturally) acts as a formidable barrier to the formation of broad-based political coalitions capable of demanding international labor market policies geared to minimize exploitation and social welfare policies geared to guarantee decent standards of living.

Is Bill Clinton up to asking the sort of questions raised by this issue of Southern Changes? Rather than waiting in dread through another dry, white season, we must use the space created by Clinton's initiative to encourage innovative work on remobilizing a consensus for achieving social justice.