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Poverty and Racism Series, Part 2: A Brief History of Race

December 3, 2017

Dear Constituent:

This is the second in a three-part conversation about poverty and racism.

In my November 19 newsletter, I presented your thoughts about the causes of poverty, and responded by discussing some of my own. Poverty and other mutually-reinforcing social ailments appear to emerge from a complex social, economic, and cultural system that allows both success and failure, but then rewards success and punishes failure ... severely. Based on my individual exchanges with many of you over the last two weeks, it seems we all tend to agree with this general conclusion.

Today, I want to dig deeper into poverty statistics, and you don't have to dig very far to notice that poverty and other negative social outcomes are much more prevalent for some groups than for others. Whereas about 10% of White Americans live in poverty, the proportion is close to 30% for African-Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos/Latinas. Here, in Columbia, White unemployment is 4% whereas Black unemployment is 12% - down from about 16% a couple of years ago, and it was this statistic that drove the development of the City of Columbia's 2016-19 Strategic Plan.

The City has responded to these alarming racial disparities (as have many other institutions, organizations and communities) by focusing on "diversity," "inclusion," and "equity." These are critical concepts in any discussion of poverty and racism, and I'm very grateful to dozens of you for sending me your definitions and personal understanding of each of these terms. A little later in this newsletter, I will present a selection of your remarks and discuss diversity, inclusion, and equity in more depth.

But I want to start by asking "Why is “race” such a significant predictor of poverty in the US?" and, before that, "What is “race,” anyway?"

What is Race?

In 2014 while visiting Pittsburgh for a conference, I spent a couple of spare hours in a museum. While I cannot remember the name of the museum, I recall vividly an exhibit about "Race" that shattered a lot of assumptions I had lived with all my life.

Growing up in England, all of my relatives and most of my friends were White, Anglo-Saxon. At high school and college, I met Indians, Pakistanis, and Chinese, whose families had moved to Britain within the previous generation or two. I was aware of "West Indians" from the Caribbean islands, but did not really know any members of this group, personally - I also remember noticing that these immigrants tended to perform more menial, poorly-paid jobs and be less well represented in further education than Asians.

Without ever giving the matter a lot of thought, I held on to the vague notion that "race" was a scientific system for classifying different groups of human beings that had evolved in different parts of the world. When I moved to the United States, I encountered Hispanics, African Americans, and Native Americans and saw a similar hierarchical system with people of different races occupying different stations in life. I assumed that these disparate outcomes had something to do with biology or genetics, and that each group of people naturally gravitated to its own social and economic status, with a few notable exceptions.

That afternoon in the Pittsburgh museum, I learned how wrong I was! The exhibit included credible research reports demonstrating that there is no scientific basis for the classification of "races" that is so common in non-scientific circles. There is no gene or other characteristic that can be used to distinguish members of one race from those of another, or infer anything about the intellectual capacity, willingness to work hard, or morality of different races. Further, the exhibit provided compelling historical evidence that our concept of "race" is, in truth, a social, economic, and political construct designed by White Europeans to disproportionately channel advantages and opportunities to White people.

Starting 400 years ago with the International Slave Trade and continuing to the present day, "race" has existed and flourished as a concept in the minds of human beings (White, Black, and everyone else). Continually reinforced through cultural imagery and self-perpetuating prejudice, we fail to recognize that racial hierarchies were designed to justify exploitation and unequal access to power and wealth. The very idea of "race" is nothing more than an excuse for using brute force to benefit the dominant group.

The most compelling presentation of this startling truth I am aware of is the three-hour PBS educational program, "RACE - The Power of an Illusion" - I encourage you to check it out.

Why Does Race Predict Poverty?

Despite the fact that "race" is nothing more than a social construct, it has enormous consequences in the real world. For example, your life trajectory is likely to be very different, depending on whether you were born "Black" or "White" in the United States of America.

According to the Pew Research Center, the 2014 median household income for Whites was $71,300 compared to $43,300 for Blacks. This means that the typical Black worker earns about 60 cents for every dollar earned by the typical White worker.

I was not particularly surprised by this level of income disparity, but I was truly shocked when I learned that White households have about 13 times the median accumulated wealth of Black households - $144,200 versus $11,200. Yes, the typical Black family has just 8 cents of wealth for every dollar of wealth owned by the typical White family, and more than one in four Black households have zero or negative net worth versus fewer than one in ten White households.

And, while educational achievement correlates with higher income and wealth for Black families, it does nothing to narrow the racial gap. White households headed by someone with a college degree have a median wealth of $301,300 compared with college-educated Black households, which have a median wealth of $26,300 - about 9 cents on the dollar!

If the extent of racial wealth disparity is surprising to you, you're not alone. A Yale University research team asked people to estimate these disparities and concluded that "Americans, and higher-income Whites in particular, vastly overestimate progress toward economic equality between Blacks and Whites."

So what caused such extreme wealth disparity and why are so many of us oblivious to it?

History, if we care to study it, teaches us that most of the wealth currently enjoyed by many White families was created as a result of specific federal government policies and private sector practices in the decades following the second World War - policies and procedures that simultaneously denied the same opportunity to Blacks and most other minority races.

The primary driver of discrimination was a federal housing policy that injected vast public subsidies into new housing for Whites, and real estate practices such as "red-lining," "racial exclusion covenants," and housing market propaganda that preyed on the fears of Whites - a general fear of the "otherness" of Blacks, augmented by the economic fear of their property losing value if neighborhoods became integrated. "White flight" to the new suburbs, loss of the tax base in inner cities, and disastrous public housing projects created a self-perpetuating cycle of housing segregation and wealth disparity.

"How the Racial Wealth Gap Was Created" is a 30-minute segment from the "RACE - The Power of an Illusion" series - I urge you to devote half an hour to watching this video.

Federal transportation policy contributed to this process with a massive public spending program of its own (the Interstate Highway System) and discriminatory practices implemented primarily by local officials and communities. As writer Tim Wise describes in this National League of Cities panel discussion (10' - 15'), not only did the Interstates enable the new, White middle class to commute to jobs in the city and then drive back to their segregated suburbs, but decisions about where to build the highways were driven by racial and economic prejudice.

I had the opportunity this summer to visit the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul, MN, which was a thriving African-American residential and business district in the 1950s, until it was destroyed to make way for Interstate 94. According to local non-profit organization, "ReconnectRondo," more than 600 African-American homes, businesses, and institutions were demolished.

Similar acts of targeted destruction took place all across the country. For example, in this National Public Radio interview, former Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx describes the African-American neighborhood in Charlotte, NC where he grew up, which was devastated by the construction of I-77 and I-85.

Author Richard Rothstein relates that the chief lobbyist behind the federal highway bill - a man named Alfred Johnson who was also executive director of the American Association State Highway Officials - once stated (and I’m quoting here), "City officials expressed the view in the mid 1950s that the urban interstates would give them a good opportunity to get rid of the local nigger town." I apologize to those of who you are offended by that word, but that’s what he said and it’s important to understand the ways powerful local officials thought and acted during that time.

My purpose in writing about this period of American history is not to assign blame or evoke guilt among White people - it is to present important, accurate information that has been forgotten and ignored in our thinking about race and poverty. Accumulated wealth is critical to surviving in the middle class, and it is undeniable that institutional and structural forces in the middle of the last century made sure that wealth accumulation was only available to Whites.

This is what is meant by "systemic racism."

Systemic or Structural Racism

Most of us are familiar with individual racism, which might range from the use of racial slurs to horrific acts of violence such as Dylan Roof's murder of nine African Americans in a Charleston, SC church.

But, as described in the previous section, there's another form of racism which is more difficult to see, and which cannot be directly attributed to individuals. Often referred to as "systemic racism" or "structural racism," discriminatory federal policies in conjunction with prejudicial local government implementation and private-sector practices create a very un-level playing field. And that un-level playing field is where our competitive economic system which allows success and failure, but severely punishes failure, is played out.

Systemic racism creates the environment for economic injustice, but individual racism sustains that environment and is strengthened by the outcomes of that environment - yet another self-reinforcing vicious cycle. Without a clear understanding of how unfair the system is and has been historically, we make inaccurate interpretations of the world around us, and those misinterpretations feed the prejudices that sustain the unfair system. The Equal Justice Initiative, a civil rights organization led by Bryan Stevenson who spoke at the University of Missouri last year, discusses several distinct forms of systemic racism, with well-defined chronologies and transitions.

1. Slavery

Shortly after learning about "race" in that Pittsburgh museum, and while spending time with my family in England, I visited the recently-opened International Slavery Museum in Liverpool. Built on the Albert Docks - the precise location from which thousands of slave ships were launched - the museum documents two and a half centuries of British participation in the international slave trade.

Extraordinary fortunes were made by bankers, capitalists, and shipping magnates in the "triangle voyages" from (1) the trade in British manufactured goods with colonists in West Africa, (2) the capture, enslavement, transportation and eventual sale of African native people in the Americas (the infamous "Middle Passage"), and (3) the shipping of sugar, rum, and exotic spices from the West Indies back home.

For 250 years, slavery was the critical component in a very successful economic development project for Britain. Those same economic development benefits continued to flow to New World colonists, who needed large quantities of cheap labor to sustain their high quality of life, long after British abolition of the slave trade in 1807.

2. Racial Terrorism and "Jim Crow" Laws

When the Emancipation Proclamation put an end to legalized slavery in America in 1863, systemic racism re-emerged in the South in the form of racial terrorism and illegal, discriminatory practices that were tolerated, supported, and even enforced by local officials.

It's hard to over-estimate the appalling and terrifying impact lynchings must have had on Black communities throughout the South. In 2004, University of Missouri Professor of English Doug Hunt researched and published the story of the 1923 lynching of James T. Scott in Columbia, in an essay titled "A Course in Applied Lynching." Hunt's publication of this story led eventually to a 2011 public ceremony, acknowledging Scott's innocence of the crime of which he was accused and placing a proper gravestone on his unmarked grave in a corner of the Columbia cemetery. The ceremony - led by Rev. Clyde Ruffin, pastor of Columbia's Second Missionary Baptist Church, where Scott had been a member - was extremely moving for me, as I'm sure it was for many of you who also participated. More recently, a historical marker has been placed on the MKT Trail at the site of the lynching.

The Equal Justice Initiative has documented more than 4,000 lynchings in 12 Southern states between 1877 and 1950. In another curious "time and place" coincidence, I found myself staying in a hotel next door but one to the Equal Justice Initiative office, while on business in Montgomery, AL earlier this year. I was fortunate to receive a guided tour of their educational exhibition and learn about their National Memorial to Victims of Lynching, which will open in downtown Montgomery in April, 2018.

During this same 100 years, "Jim Crow" laws in the South and the post-war federal housing and transportation policies described earlier served as additional structural and systemic barriers to opportunity for Blacks in America.

3. Mass Incarceration

When the Voting Rights Act was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1965, systemic racism transformed itself again.

The era of mass incarceration of poor and minority Americans, which continues essentially unabated to the present day, is well documented by Michelle Alexander in her landmark book, The New Jim Crow.

I will simply list a few statistics:

  • Black men are more than six times more likely to be incarcerated than White men.
  • African Americans make up about 13% of the nation’s population, but constitute 28% of all arrests, and 40% of those incarcerated in jails and prisons.
  • African Americans are arrested at rates 2.5 times higher than Whites and are 87% more likely to be subject to pretrial incarceration.
  • One of every three Black boys born in 2001 will go to jail or prison if current trends continue.

Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity

In order to overcome injustice and create a society/community in which everyone can thrive, I believe two things need to happen:

  1. There must be widespread understanding and acknowledgement of the history of race and racism;
  2. Institutions and organizations must embrace diversity, inclusion, and equity.

Thanks to those of you who sent me your understanding of those important terms. Here's a sampling of your remarks:

  • "The three words are intertwined - we cannot have either inclusion or equity until we first define diversity"
  • "Diversity celebrates similarities, as well as differences"
  • "Diversity - we are each one unique. there is no one exactly like anyone else - not just in terms of race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, sexual orientation, but intelligence, education, income, profession or manual job or unable to find work"
  • "Look at what diversity is doing to Europe. With wave after wave of migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe is undergoing a massive cultural change, ... which will basically wipe out the white race and culture in Europe in another 2-3 decades - letting untold number of migrants stream into your nation is a death blow, just ask the Native Americans, if you can find any. Or the Aztecs ..."
  • "My studies of the adoption of “diversity” ... indicated that it is a euphemism that allows speakers/writers to avoid tougher forms of difference such as race"
  • "Inclusion is appreciating and respecting those distinctive characteristics each member of the community adds to our institution."
  • "Inclusion goes beyond numerical diversity ... [it] is the creation of a climate where all feel valued and appreciated, where there is substantive interaction between and among groups"
  • "Inclusion - embracing diversity with empathy, trying to open hearts as individuals and as community to provide help and opportunity for everyone"
  • "Equity - FAIRNESS - not the same as equality ... equity means giving everyone a fair chance"
  • "Equity means different/fair treatment to arrive at comparable outcomes"
  • "Equity is important in our legal system, in terms of special education, affirmative action, gender equity, etc. But it raises more hackles from people who believe the country is based on equal/same treatment."
  • "Diversity, inclusion, equality? All "politically correct" words of finesse. We need to all sit down together, walk a mile in each other's shoes, and get real. Are we ready for that? I don't think so. The black community wants to segregate itself with a Black Culture Center and with whole blocks of blacks in "our black community" but, at the same time, does not accept a friend of another race, because the skin color happens to be different."
  • "Equity- having a big enough piece of the pie to thrive regardless of diverse backgrounds"

I deeply appreciate your engagement in these conversations. I will just add one thought of my own - while I agree that everyone should have "a big enough piece of the pie," I do not believe that "the pie" is fixed and finite. I do not believe that giving someone a larger "piece of the pie" means that someone else has to give up something. By ensuring that everyone can thrive we expand our capacity as a society, and as a community, and we all benefit.

Let's continue this discussion at my next Constituent Conversations on Sunday, December 17 and through my next newsletter. To help me prepare, please send me your responses to the following question:

What should the City Council be doing to increase diversity, inclusion, and equity, and address poverty and racism?

Cheers, Ian