Race, Class, and Reconciliaton
By Dan T. Carter
Vol. 23, No. 3-4, 2001 pp. 10-13
People of color have had to deal directly with issues of race for all of this nation’s history; they couldn’t avoid it. For those defined as “white,” and particularly those outside the South, it’s been a sometime thing: notably during the struggles over slavery, war, and reconstruction in the mid-l9th century, and during the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and the struggles that followed.
There has always come a time, however, when whites tired of this subject.
For one of the inescapable themes of the history of the nation and particularly the American South is the effort of whites to maintain racial supremacy over their darker-skinned brothers and sisters. First there was slavery, then the struggle of white Southerners to maintain a separate nation built upon that institution, then the use of terrorism by the Klan and other vigilante groups to overthrow the legally constituted biracial governments of the post-war South, followed by the disfranchisement of black Southerners, the escalation of white on black terrorism through daily acts of violence–the most heinous of which involved the lynching of thousands of black men (and women)–the creation of segregation, a hellish institution designed to systematically degrade black Southerners through the first sixty years of the 20th century and exclude them from educational and economic opportunities within the South. . . .
No wonder we want to smooth over the rough and crooked places of our past–to dismiss the deep historical events of hundreds of years with an impatient: “Get over it: that was a long time ago.”
Some of it was a long time ago. Today, I think the majority of white Americans would agree with the proposition that a society that accepts any form of hierarchy based upon so-called “racial” considerations is inconsistent with our democratic aspirations and incapable of achieving a meaningful reconciliation of its citizens. Now this is a commonplace conviction; only a handful of extremists would openly accept the notion that genetic differences based upon race justify forms of discrimination. But I offer an important corollary: if we truly believe that skin color is not a determinant of intelligence, creativity or ability, we have an obligation–a moral obligation–to do more than murmur pieties about equal rights or equal opportunities. We must do everything in our power to change a society in which it is obvious that deep racial inequalities remain despite the progress of the last half century. That is not easy and it requires more than conventional rhetoric about equal opportunity; it requires uncomfortable choices and no little sacrifice.
And this at a time, when I suspect most of us would agree that “sacrifice” is not exactly the prevailing theme of our contemporary political culture. When lawmakers beholden to corporate America face the choice between building classrooms to replace trailers for our children or helping the super rich buy another chalet in Switzerland, it’s no contest. It is easier to fill our political platforms with a rainbow of complexions, to join enthusiastically once a year on Martin Luther King’s birthday to utter platitudes about equality. We insist that we’re serious about the problems of racial discrimination, but our actions–in contrast to our words–treat the conundrums of race as though they were minor annoyances; a vexatious hangover from an older era.
Yet the reality is inescapable: as we begin the 21st century, far more people of color than whites continue to live in the shadows of American life while the racial dimensions of disparate treatment in income, education, health services, and in our judiciary and penal system are ignored. And the question which John Kennedy asked a quarter century ago remains no less relevant today: As long as “Negro Americans remain in the shadow of a full and free life,” he asked six months before his death, “who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?”
It’s much easier to relegate the uncomfortable shards of our past to a safe and comfortable category we call “history.” Even the more recent past becomes the victim of our desire to forget uncomfortable truths. The hustlers of our popular culture have reshaped the complex history of the civil rights era into a slick pre-packaged series of rhetorical slogans that allow present injustices to live comfortably with historical memory and the great voice of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King survives as a soothing icon to black and white, conservative and liberal alike. California businessman Ward Connerly launched his successful anti-affirmative action referendum on King’s birthday with the announcement that Martin Luther King would have approved since he “personifies the quest for a color-blind society.”
Forgotten is the Martin Luther King who dismissed such arguments in his Stride Toward Freedom. It was “obvious that if a man is entered at the starting line in a
race three-hundred years after another man, the first man would have to perform some impossible feat in order to catch up with his fellow runner.” Forgotten is King’s denunciation of American foreign policy in Vietnam, or his call for a “restructuring of the architecture of American society,” a restructuring in which there had to be a “radical redistribution of economic and political power and wealth.”
As Julian Bond put it, we don’t like to remember “the critic of capitalism, or the pacifist who declared all wars evil, or the man of God who argued” that a nation that chose “guns over butter” would end up starving its people and destroying its soul. The historical radicalism of King’s call to struggle has been stripped away, leaving only a soothing pablum of feel-good sentiments.
There is actually a justification for promoting this kind of cultural amnesia. Historian Ernest Renan argued that every nation is a community both of shared memory and of shared forgetting. Forgetting, wrote Renan, “is an essential factor in the history of a nation.” To the extent that we may become caught up in an endless cycle of fruitless recrimination, Renan may be right.
But I prefer the ancient wisdom of the Jewish tradition: only remembrance can bring redemption.
This does not mean that times have not changed, or that we should let our remembrance of a bitter past blind us to the journey we have made and the opportunities that lie ahead. Much has happened in the past half century for the better as the harshest contours of American racism have been worn away by the persistent struggles of the civil rights movement. In Columbia, South Carolina, today, my next door neighbors are an African-American couple who personify the American dream. He is the personnel director for a major international corporation based in Columbia; she a former assistant to the Governor of South Carolina. My neighbor across the street is a successful young Chinese-American attorney. My next door neighbor is a Lebanese-American cardiologist; a woman working in a specialty almost exclusively male just two decades ago. Three houses away is an African-American neighbor who has just become the number two budget officer for the state. These professionals are not simply tokens; they reflect the growing opportunities that do exist for those individuals given the chance to develop their abilities.
At the same time, the conflict between good and evil enacted on the television screens of the 1950s and 1960s seem far away. There are contemporary racial issues that reflect newer versions of that age-old struggle, but often we deal not with unambiguous moral decisions, but day-in, day-out struggles to determine what is the best of a series of uncomfortable choices. How should we judge “ability” and promise in a way that is fair? What discriminatory results are the consequence of purposeful racism and what reflect happenstance or simply the results of unquestioned institutional patterns? Was I denied this job because of the color of my skin? Or was the other candidate truly better qualified? Is it possible to achieve a redress of past injustices by fathers and mothers without penalizing sons and daughters? Each action, each word must be weighed; it is surely one of the most bitter and exhausting legacies of our past and our ongoing association of darker skin color with notions of inferiority.
One way to help understand the changing nature of our dilemmas is to recognize that racial ideas and attitudes increasingly reflect assumptions about class. In my Southern childhood the “single drop” theory of race was almost unchallenged. Black was black. We all know the once fashionable historical cliché about Brazilian race relations: that race was important, but “money whitened.” Well, that wasn’t really true about racial attitudes in Brazil, but there clearly was a difference between American and Latin societies.
That too is changing. I don’t in any way mean to suggest that race has disappeared as a constant (if often unconscious) measure of judgment by most white Americans. Still, as the overt racism of an earlier generation declines, and a broader African-American and Hispanic middle class emerges, the way is paved for whites (and some African Americans) to see class, as opposed to race, as a legitimate means of separating our society into winners and losers.
The problem for me is that this amounts to a shift from a hierarchical society built upon the foundation of racism, to one resting on the notion that there are vast differences in human beings that justify massive social and economic inequality. Increasingly that is seen as progress. Not for me.
Quite apart from the fact that I find it morally repugnant, I don’t believe that true social reconciliation in our democratic society is possible unless we arrest the growing economic inequality between our citizens. Since 1979, overall income in the United States has increased over 55 percent. But the greatest increase, by far, has been for the wealthiest Americans. Over half the growth in after-tax income has gone to the top one-half percent of America’s taxpayers and the results are what one would expect.
In 1977, the bottom 20 percent of the American people received a little less than 6 percent of the nation’s annual income, while the wealthiest 1 percent received some 7 percent. Today that bottom 20 percent receives 4 percent of the nation’s annual income; the wealthiest 1 percent has seen its share almost double, to 13 percent. And today, the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans control
more than 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, a maldistribution of wealth greater than at any time since the 1920s.
Now the argument, of course, is that a rising tide lifts all boats. With everyone growing richer, why should we be concerned if some groups are a little wealthier than others?
Only that is not the case. In inflation corrected dollars, the top 1 percent has seen its after-tax income increase 120 percent in the last quarter century, the bottom 20 percent has actually suffered a decline of 12 percent in after-tax income. Thirty million Americans–more than half of them children–still live below the poverty line; forty-two million Americans still have no health insurance. And despite the last ten years of steady economic expansion–once you exclude increased family income due to the growing number of dual wage earners–it is only during the last two and a half years that childhood poverty has begun to decline and the mid-50 percent of households in America has seen a slight increase in income. So much for a rising tide lifting all boats.
Now this shift in the distribution of income and wealth stems from many sources: The internationalization of trade, the opening of a global labor economy, the decline of trade unions and the displacement of semi-skilled and skilled workers through new technologies. But the evidence is inescapable that the growing gap between rich and poor has been exacerbated by deliberate government policies of the past two decades, particularly tax policy.
Despite all the talk of “tax cuts” in the 1980s, the bottom half of the population actually saw its taxes increase as escalating social security, medicare and excise levies and increasingly regressive state and local taxes offset the marginal declines in the federal income tax rates. While the 50-to-90th percentile received a very modest reduction in taxes, the nation’s richest 1 percent of Americans saw an annual decrease of 15 percent in federal income tax liabilities in the decade of the 1980s.
These were policy decisions, deliberately made, not the inevitable consequences of free market forces beyond our control. The underlying philosophy seems to be: If you make the lives of the poor, the working class and the marginal middle class more precarious and give them less money, they will be more productive and resourceful workers, returning benefits to society as a whole. And then if you give the rich and the well to do more money and make their already secure and prosperous lives even more secure and more prosperous, they will be more productive and resourceful in returning benefits to society as a whole. You think I engage in polemical exaggeration? How else can one describe the policies of the dominant national party whose main economic goals are to freeze the miserably low minimum wage for the poor, give a massive tax cut for the rich and allow them to pass on their vast wealth to their sons and daughters.
I realize that I am on far shakier ground here. For the last thirty years, conservative think tanks have been pouring out an endless intellectual justification for this proposition: that there is a natural hierarchy of class and intelligence which functions equitably on the basis of social and economic competition and any attempt to interfere with the unfettered forces of the marketplace can only lead us backward on that archaic and discredited path of socialism and social democracy. As Dinesh D’Souza concludes in his recent book on The Virtue of Prosperity, the “prime culprit in causing contemporary social inequality [in America] seems to be merit.”
Really? In 1974, the nation’s corporate chief executive officers made, on average, 34 times as much as their workers. By 1996, it was 180 times that of their workers. By the beginning of this century, it was nearly 200 times that of their employees. Are we to believe that the merit of corporate leaders has increased sevenfold over that of the men and women in their employ?
I have a word for that kind of smug justification for the status quo; it’s not one that I prefer to use in polite society.
To be fair, most of us–conservative, centrist and liberal alike–are uncomfortable with the fictional character Gordon Gecko’s unvarnished assertion that “greed is good.” And so we conceal the unpleasant realities of our current economic system with slogans about promoting individual opportunity, or using education as a means of redressing powerful imbalances of economic and educational opportunities. At times I feel as though I’m watching the captain of the Titanic solemnly hand out teaspoons to the passengers left on the sinking decks, with the cheery instructions: “Start bailing, you’ll be fine.” The truth is, those of us who are safe in our life rafts daily check our retirement portfolios as our hearts increasingly vibrate in harmony with the raucous Muzak of our contemporary culture: that clanging bell that daily opens and closes the New York Stock Exchange.
So where can we begin.
First, I would suggest, by expanding our vision of reconciliation beyond the issue of race, gender, ethnicity and sexual discrimination to include a demand for broader economic and social justice.
Looking back on the last generation, we can see now that there has been a constant struggle for personal freedom and autonomy. Remember in the 1960s and 1970s–all politics is personal? While the battles still rage, I would argue that victory was won by social libertarians–Jerry Falwell and John Ashcroft notwithstanding. In the 1980s, there was a different kind of struggle: a battle for unre-
strained economic freedom. To a considerable degree, that struggle was won by conservatives. But somehow in our headlong race for cultural and economic freedom, we have lost touch with an earlier dream most recently embodied in the call for what John Lewis describes as “the beloved community.” Instead we have come to accept as normal a society divided into the fabulously wealthy few, a comfortable upper middle class and half a nation one short step away from economic disaster, struggling to survive.
I do not believe real social reconciliation is possible based under these conditions. But recreating a sense of what might be–what should be–will not be easy.
A couple of brief suggestions:
Today we live in “America, Incorporated,” in which rampant individualism operating within the framework of the marketplace reigns with only a murmer of protest. Well, let me enter my dissent. We are not autonomous. If we look honestly at our own lives we see the truth of the old Irish expression: that “we all drink from wells we never dug; we warm ourselves by fires we never built.” As a means of allocating resources and creating wealth, corporate capitalism has a positive place in our culture, but if we allow it to make our decisions, as a society we end up in the same position of the cynic described by Oscar Wilde. We know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
I don’t underestimate how hard that may be, for words have been corrupted in true Orwellian fashion. Some people, said the Puritan martyr Richard Rumbold as he stood upon the scaffold, believe that “Providence had sent a few men into the world, ready booted and spurred to ride, and millions ready saddled and bridled to be ridden. I do not.” But today those who are booted and spurred no longer swagger and proclaim their God given right to exploit those beneath them; now they speak with the voice of humility and concern–everyone feels everyone’s pain–and there is much talk of offering a helping hand to those in need.
Well, I propose that we all become cantankerous naysayers whose main duty is simply to remind all who will listen that those of us who are comfortably settled atop the pyramid of our unequal society, are always ready to talk about “compassion.”
But there is another language that has come from authentic social movements bent on changing our society by breaking down the barriers that divide us: the struggle for economic justice in the 1930s; the fight for racial justice in the anti-slavery and civil rights movement. These authentic political movements have emerged when least expected. As one of my favorite writers said, a keen sense of irony has seldom led anyone to mount the barricades. Our task in the future is to not to lead, but to be a part of that struggle.
What I do know is that, when that moment arrives, the voices that bubble up from the grassroots will not use the paternalistic language of “compassion”: they will speak of something far more fundamental–justice.
Dan T. Carter is Educational Foundation Professor of History at the University of South Carolina.This article is adapted from a speech Carter presented at the Reconciliation Symposium held at Emory University on January 26, 2001.