Racism in my lifetime

I’m 73.  I’m old enough to remember the 1940s and 1950s, where there were whole sections of the United States where not only were black American citizens segregated by law and denied the right to vote, but where white people could murder black people with impunity.

I always had faith that the American commitment to democracy and freedom would win out in the end.  But I never expected to live long enough to see an African-American elected President of the United States.

I can remember when it was taken for granted that not only could no African American be elected President of the United States, but neither could a Catholic, a Jew, a Southern white person or a woman of any background. In other words, prejudice barred a majority of American citizens from the nation’s highest office.

Barack Obama’s accomplishment in winning the Presidency was a remarkable one, apart from his victory over racial prejudice. He had to defeat the Clintons, leaders of the most powerful faction within the Democratic Party, and then John McCain, the most popular figure in the Republican Party. But Obama is not an outlier. The presence of people of color in American life is taken for granted to a degree I would not have thought possible 50 and 60 years ago.

Nobody is bothered by the fact that David Patterson, the Democratic Governor of New York state, is both black and legally blind.  Nobody thinks it remarkable that brown-skinned Bobby Jindal, the Republican Governor of Louisiana, is the son of immigrants from India, or that Nikki Haley, the daughter of immigrants from India, has a good chance of being elected Governor of South Carolina on the Republican ticket.

Some members of the Tea Party movement have been given to racist and sexist outbursts, but Tea Partiers mostly support the Hispanic Marco Rubio for Senator from Florida over Charlie Crist, a non-Hispanic white. I imagine most Tea Party members would be just as happy to see Clarence Thomas as Chief Justice of the United States as Sarah Palin as President.

I don’t of course claim that white conservatives or, for that matter, white liberals are free of racial prejudice. But there has been a change in American attitudes that once would have been considered revolutionary. It is something to keep in mind when we get discouraged about the possibility of change today.

Racial prejudice is pleasurable. That’s why it’s so hard to give up. Everybody has a need for self-esteem.  Most people like the feeling of being better than others in some respect.  Some of us wish we could belong to an elite group.  The problem is that all these things have to be earned.  The great thing about racial prejudice is that you get the feeling of belonging, of superiority and of belonging without having to do anything whatsoever.

Giving up addiction to prejudice can be as hard as giving up addiction to, say, cigarette smoking. You may say that nobody deserves credit for giving up things they should never have indulged in to begin with. Maybe so. But striving to free yourself of prejudice can be a difficult struggle, and those who undertake that struggle deserve some credit and moral support.

This is not to say that racial prejudice has disappeared from American life or that it is not important.

In 2001, a pair of black men and a pair of white men went hunting for work in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Each was 23 years old, a local college student, bright and articulate. They looked alike and dressed alike, had identical educational backgrounds and remarkably similar past work experience. From June to December, they combed the Sunday classified pages in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and searched a state-run job site called “Jobnet,” applying for the same entry-level jobs as waiters, delivery-truck drivers, cooks, and cashiers. There was one obvious difference in each pair: one man was a former criminal and the other was not.

If this sounds like an experiment, that’s because it was. Watching the explosive growth of the criminal justice system, fueled largely by ill-conceived “tough on crime” policies, sociologist Devah Pager took a novel approach to how prison affected ever growing numbers of Americans after they’d done their time—a process all but ignored by politicians and the judicial system.

So Pager sent those two young black men and two young white men out into the world to apply for perfectly real jobs. Then she recorded who got callbacks and who didn’t. She soon discovered that a criminal history caused a massive drop-off in employer responses—not entirely surprising. But when Pager started separating out black applicants from white ones, she stumbled across the real news in her study, a discovery that shook our understanding of racial inequality and jobs to the core.

Pager’s white applicant without a criminal record had a 34% callback rate. That promptly sunk to 17% for her white applicant with a criminal record. The figures for black applicants were 14% and 5%. And yes, you read that right: in Pager’s experiment, white job applicants with a criminal history got more callbacks than black applicants without one. “I expected to find an effect with a criminal record and some with race,” Pager says. “I certainly was not expecting that result, and it was quite a surprise.”

Pager ran a larger version of this experiment in New York City in 2004, sending teams of young, educated, and identically credentialed men out into the Big Apple’s sprawling market for entry-level jobs—once again, with one applicant posing as an ex-con, the other with a clean record. (As she did in Milwaukee, Pager had the teams alternate who posed as the ex-con.) The results? Again Pager’s African-American applicants received fewer callbacks and job offers than the whites. The disparity was particularly striking for ex-criminals: a drop off of 9 percentage points for whites, but 15 percentage points for blacks. “Employers already reluctant to hire blacks,” Pager wrote, “appear particularly wary of blacks with known criminal histories.

Other research has supported her findings. A 2001-2002 field experiment by academics from the University of Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, uncovered a sizeable gap in employer callbacks for job applicants with white-sounding names (Emily and Greg) versus black-sounding names (Lakisha and Jamal). They also found that the benefits of a better resume were 30% greater for whites than blacks.

via Mother Jones. [Added 7/7/11]

Click on this (and scroll down to the part about testers) for evidence that racial discrimination is still very much with us, and also on this and this and this.  We’ve come a long way, but we’re not at our destination yet.

P.S. 6/28/10

Click on this for a comment on how South Carolina Republicans chose a black conservative over Strom Thurmond’s son in a congressional primary.

Click on this for a comment on how unimportant it is that Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan is Jewish or how few people care that there will be no white Protestants on the Supreme Court.

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