Racism wanes, but prospects still derailed by class divide

June 15, 2008|By Cynthia Tucker

Would the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States prove that racism is dead? Of course not. An Obama victory would merely serve as symbolic confirmation of what we already know: Over the past several decades, racism has been beaten back and severely diminished. It isn't dead, but it is dying.

An Obama victory would also serve as a potent reminder of something else we already know: While race may once have automatically determined everything from life expectancy to job prospects, it doesn't any longer. Class is much more likely to determine outcomes than race. And affluent black Americans have more in common with other affluent Americans - white, black or brown - than they do poor Americans of any race.

Condoleezza Rice has more in common with Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, than she has with a never-married mother of several living in the 'hood. Colin L. Powell would be more comfortable associating with other high-achieving public figures, regardless of race, than with the average black high school dropout.

My 9-year-old niece attends a trendy private school and has her own passport. All of her friends - and they come in every conceivable color - read at grade level or above, take the requisite music and dance classes and know how to use computers. They live worlds apart from the children whose homes have no books, no computers and no bedtimes.

On the whole, black Americans no longer see themselves as a coherent group bound by a common culture or limited by a common enemy. Last year, the Pew Research Center released a remarkable survey of black Americans in which a stunning 37 percent said that given divergent attitudes within the community, blacks should no longer even be thought of as a single race. In the study, 61 percent said they believed that the values of poor blacks have become "more different" from the values of middle-class blacks in recent years.

Most black Americans still see racism as a potent force in American life, according to the survey. Still, 53 percent said that blacks who don't get ahead are mainly responsible for their situation, while just 30 percent said discrimination is mainly to blame. They're quiet about it, but many black Americans agree with Bill Cosby and his message of black self-help.

Given all that, it's incredibly backward-looking to believe there should be race-based remedies for the problems facing the most beleaguered black Americans, those languishing in prisons or crime-infested public housing, those who are drug-addicted, illiterate and unemployed. Now, it's absolutely true that black folks are disproportionately afflicted by a host of ills, from poor health to poor educational attainment, because of the legacy of discrimination. Oppressed, shut out and segregated for centuries, black Americans were given the worst schools, the worst medical care, the worst housing, the worst neighborhoods.

That legacy was bound to have lasting effects. As Ms. Rice, the secretary of state, put it in a recent interview with The Washington Times, "Descendants of slaves did not get much of a head start, and I think you continue to see some of the effects today."

But those black Americans left behind - those without the resources to benefit from the success of the civil rights movement - are not likely to be helped by any plans or programs designed with a consciousness of lingering racism at their core.

Consider, for example, the dilemma of the criminal justice system and its effect on black life. Black men constitute a higher percentage of those behind bars now than in 1950, when Jim Crow was brutal and the criminal justice system clearly biased. Obviously, something more complicated than simple racism has fueled the rise in rates of black incarceration.

Aware of the complexities of race and class, Mr. Obama himself has spoken with some skepticism about using affirmative action to boost college admissions prospects for black children as advantaged as his young daughters. In an interview with George Stephanopoulos, host of ABC's This Week, he noted that "white kids who have been disadvantaged and have grown up in poverty and shown themselves to have what it takes to succeed" might more properly be the beneficiaries of such affirmative action efforts.

He didn't disavow affirmative action programs, noting that "there are a lot of African-American kids who are still struggling, that even those who are in the middle class may be the first generation, as opposed to fifth- or sixth-generation college attendees." But he did speak of a day when affirmative action "becomes a diminishing tool for us to achieve racial equality."

That day may be just over the horizon.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears regularly in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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