The very question seems foolish to a generation so often taught that racism remains part of America’s DNA. But the wider messages about race are deeply conflicting and often not explicitly spoken. Even while college diversity trainers implore first year students to acknowledge their inner racism and critics allege that guilt is the main product of what they call the “diversity industry,” the wider cultural idea circulating seems to be that racism is over, that we are One America, neither white nor black. And all this is made more confusing by media portrayals that present multiculturalism as happily universal.
At a recent talk given on my campus, I heard a sociologist cite the statistic that close to 80% of Americans believe the goals of the civil rights movement have been accomplished. The percentage of black Americans who agree is significantly lower. A Pew Research Center study found that 67% of black Americans say that blacks are “almost always” or “frequently” victims of discrimination when job seeking; only 20% of whites agreed. A Harris Poll found that only 53% of Americans think the slur nigger is extremely offensive; the percentages drop to less than half regarding faggot (45%) or kike (39%). A roughly stable ten percent of respondents didn’t find any of these terms offensive at all. When George Allen used the word macaca twice in responding to a heckler, only 37% found it offensive. When Isaiah Washington used the slur faggot against a colleague, a full 40% said they weren’t bothered. And when Mel Gibson said “The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world,” 34% said the sentiment did not offend them (all these findings came out of the same Harris Poll).
Recent events also make me wonder at the true level of genuinely base and unmasked racism in American culture. The polling of Democratic voters in West Virginia, which has been much debated but appears to show an unexpectedly high number of voters rejected Obama because he is black, is only the latest controversy activating concerns about existing racism. Whether one agrees or not with the charge that the Clintons have subtly played the race card (and I think they did, especially in South Carolina), a series of other incidents reveal the troublingly stubborn nature of racial stereotyping. That same Pew Center study revealed 6% of respondents who said they would be less willing to vote for a candidate if she or he were black, a number that seems small but reflects more than 18 million citizens (even more, 15%, said they’d be less likely to vote for a candidate who was Hispanic, another 12% if she was a woman, and 11% for a Jewish candidate).
One concrete measure is the reported incidence of hate crimes, which are up if one relies on the FBI crime reporting system, and up in all categories, which is troubling given the notorious conservatism in national reporting (in the last reporting cycle Mississippi reported no hate crimes at all and Alabama only 1, this in a year when the lowest otherwise was Wyoming with 5 and nearly 1300 reported in California).
On college campuses, meanwhile, ugly racism is increasingly common. Reports of racially charged hazing incidents, hateful graffiti, self-segregation by race, and the return of whiteface and (on at least one campus) “tacos and tequila” parties demeaning blacks and Hispanics, seem to be on the upswing. All this helps produce a continuing gap in graduation rates by race; data from the Department of Education shows the black graduation rate at four-year colleges at roughly twenty percentage points lower than for white students. At Catholic University in Washington, DC, the percentage of black students graduating is 25%, while the percentage of whites graduating is 72%, an astonishing 47% gap. In a blistering report based on this data, Education Sector argues that the problem is even worse than it appears, since (they claim) the solutions to this gap are well known and not that hard to implement. The implication is that major institutions are willfully refusing to do what they, we, know will work to narrow achievement disparities.
A major challenge, of course, is that when racially inflected issues arise, the tendency is widespread to deny that they have anything to do with race at all. The problem isn’t race, it’s poor schools, or you’re just not qualified, or erratic behavior, or this is all the housing we have available, or I’m sorry but your creditworthiness score is too low, or it’s a youthful gang problem, and so on. When a city park was proposed for a mainly white community in New Jersey, a whole sea of euphemisms were tossed around when the main point seemed to be, we don’t want to build a park that will attract black people, this according to an essay by Mark Warren, which notes that this is “how the code normally plays out: we have ugly things to say, we just don’t want to be thought of as people who say ugly things.” Racism remains shielded behind euphemism and going on the attack, a fact recently and sadly exemplified when Geraldine Ferraro, responding to criticism of her argument that Barack Obama had gotten where he is solely because of his race, replied “They’re attacking me because I’m white.”
SOURCES: Peter Schmidt, “Improving Black Graduation Rates Is Mainly a Matter of Will, Report Says,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 2 May 2008, pg. A20; Lucia Graves, “The Gap in Graduation Rates,” USNWR, 12 May 2008, pgs. 62-63; Mark Warren, “Cracking the Code,” Esquire, May 2008, pg. 121.