Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Barack Obama expressed regret for appearing to side with a victim of racial profiling, and personally called the police sergeant in question to apologize for suggesting that the Cambridge Police Dept. had acted on any racial assumptions. (Henry Louis Gates, the famed Harvard scholar, was arrested about two weeks ago under the charge of “disorderly conduct” after a burglary call had been made by a neighbor who saw, around midday, two men jimmying a door—it was Gates’ house, his key wasn’t working—and Gates allegedly called the cop a racist among other minor details, reportedly involving the cop’s “mama”; it has just been disclosed that the 911 caller did not describe the men as black, though prompted to classify by race by the station.) In an effort to downplay any appearance of controversy, the president reiterated that he had poorly chosen his way of framing the issue. Gates—his nickname is “Skip”—is said to be a personal friend.

“Look, I want to be clear on this,” Obama declared, in an imaginary conference he never made. “What I should have said is that all of this ‘post-racial’ discourse is, frankly, bullshit. There are undoubtedly structural barriers to Black advancement in the United States, even today, and for those who make it to prestigious positions of influence and privilege like my buddy Skip at times find that institutional or systemic forms of racism has surmounted the older, explicitly interpersonal forms that seem more obvious, especially to white Americans.” Obama cleared his throat. “What I should have expressed is that this whole episode is just a small indicator of a much larger social problem we still face…”

The president paused to vocally mull his thoughts over for what the press corps described as an uncomfortable half-minute.

“Look,” he continued. “I’m conflict averse. ‘No drama Obama.’ Some could call that cowardice, you know, that I’m backtracking on principle and defending ‘the Man,’ by which I mean the correctional complex that disproportionately dragnets Blacks in this country, but I am just trying to say that the issue is not whether the Cambridge PD acted professionally or ethically. These men and women are just agents of law enforcement, working at the surface of a much more complex superstructure of racial injustice.”

He would be shot within the hour, and the perpetrator would likely be among the thousands of terrified white Americans who stocked up on guns and ammo since he rode a wave of popular revulsion against the last incumbents. But Obama is anything but stupid and, therefore, would never say anything like this. One can only hope that he, in private moments, thinks along these lines—if he really is the humane and sensible reformist people thought he was.

It is terribly upsetting and disappointing, but alas not too surprising, that the president found himself incapable of exerting clear moral leadership for fear of upsetting (mostly irrelevant, still feral) political forces, even in the face of clear realities. To recapitulate, he wants to avoid a “racial controversy,” but that is odd considering the lack of controversy among social scientists about the de facto apartheid-like conditions many Blacks face in these United States with respect to extravagant entitlements like decent housing, health care and education.

Pew Charitable Trusts Economic Mobility Project reported in 2007 that “nearly half of African American children born to middle-class parents in the 1950s and ’60s had fallen to a lower economic status as adults, a rate of downward mobility far higher than that for whites” (Alec MacGillis, “Neighborhoods Key to Future Income, Study Finds,” Washington Post, 27 July 2009, p. 6). In the new Pew study, we read,

Two out of three black children born from 1985 through 2000 [ages 9-24] were raised in neighborhoods with at least a 20 percent poverty rate, compared with just 6 percent of white children, a disparity virtually unchanged from three decades prior. (my emphases)

The 2009 report was written by Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at NYU.

This is supplemented by Glenn Loury, an economics and social sciences professor at Brown, who argues that the correctional system, known somewhat euphemistically as criminal justice, also stacks the deck (“Obama, Gates and the American Black Man,” New York Times, 26 July 2009). Combined with an utter dearth of respectable economic opportunities, conditions are bleak. Over the “last 30 years,” Loury writes, “a historically unprecedented, politically popular, extraordinarily punitive and hugely racially disparate mobilization of resources for … the institutions of domestic security” has disproportionately fallen on the shoulders of the undesirable underclass of our society.

Loury specifically points to “racial and class segregation in our cities; inadequate education for the poor [mostly vocational track if anything—Ed.]; and the collapse of the family as an institution in some communities.” The family-values argument can be deployed by racist whites and “Uncle Tom” blacks, but there is still merit in it to the extent that a family is a more or less stable and cohesive social unit. What the Civil Rights movement accomplished, through the effort and sacrifice of thousands and the work of decades, was the abolition of an unjust legal structure that denied equity, advancement and dignity to millions of ostensible citizens.

What evidently has not changed is the de facto realities of black Americans, not as Americans who can fully share the economic opportunities given to most of their white counterparts, but as an exploited and subjugated stratum of entertainers (ranging from “magical Negroes” to minstrels), sports players and gangbangers—the third option the only real remaining possibility for those dwelling in the ghettoes, which originated as liberal-minded social engineering projects. These are under near-total surveillance (a “ghetto bird” is a police helicopter, for example). Then there is the threat of gentrification, which serves the purpose of “development.”

We do not live in a “post-racial” age. The complexion of our first biracial president will remain symbolic if the actual conditions most Black Americans face persist in their current form. In Miller-McCune magazine, Ryan Blitstein cites the research of Arline Geronimus, who investigated why blacks and other minorities seem to age faster and seem more prone to disease than whites. Blitstein recounts that “Black residents of high-poverty areas … are as likely to die by the age of 45 as American whites are to die by 65” (“Weathering, The Storm,” p. 49). Geronimus’ “weathering framework” posits that “environmental pollution, high crime, poor health care, overt racism, [and] concentrated poverty” are better explanations for the disparity than innate differences (p. 50).

Needless to say the scholarly community has, in some quarters, blacklisted her and denigrated her reputation. Blitstein records that, fairly soon, Geronimus ran into the root of the problem: racism, in its structural, dominating social form, as opposed to the image of white-hooded thugs screaming “nigger.” Geronimus sees racism as “a fundamental cause of health disparities” because it leads to policies that contain “even middle-class blacks in crime-ridden, environmentally poisonous neighborhoods” (p. 53).

Jonathan Mahler chronicled the obliteration of the black middle class in Detroit, which Blitstein described (p. 57) as “a sort of urban reservation for black Americans.” Mahler observes that as the auto industry, a lifeline for black advancement following the exodus from the South, has crumbled so too have the prospects for a decent life. He writes that the atomization of social life, a lack of real community, has contributed to the decline (“G.M., Detroit and the Fall of the Black Middle Class,” New York Times Magazine, 28 June 2009; full article here).

Race and class form a tight nexus of social problems in America, and it is difficult to disentangle them. But the talk that we all have somehow transcended race as a cultural factor of enormous force, even today, is naive and dangerous because it conceals the savage inequalities that exist in our land and does harm to actual advancement by making white liberals feel better about themselves.

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