In 2008 the United States elected its first black president. That same year the black middle class began to suffer a precipitous decline in terms of rates of employment and home ownership, and the plight of impoverished black men, women, and children worsened. Even as an individual black man had reached the pinnacle of political accomplishment in the United States, black people as a group watched their economic fortunes enter a downward spiral.
Simon P. Owens would have understood and appreciated the apparent paradox: by the dawn of the new millennium, although explicit mythologies of racial difference had largely receded from public discourse, centuries of violent discrimination against people of African descent had deeply scarred and twisted fundamental structures of American life. Even in the absence of widespread, derogatory stereotyping, these structures—segregated housing, workplaces, and schools—perpetuated forms of inequality that no civil rights legislation, or enlightened rhetoric for that matter, could erode or erase.
Yet poverty is not—nor has it ever been—an exclusively “black” phenomenon. The postindustrial economy produces ever more multiethnic distressed communities around the country, in rural as well as urban areas. Running for president in 1988, the Reverend Jesse Jackson observed that the new global economy was blind to differences of ancestry or skin color when he declared, “When the plant lights go out, we all look the same in the dark.” Still, there is no denying that blacks as a group in the United States have suffered disproportionately deep wounds in the body politic and in local communities. These enduring wounds, inflicted by generations of people who promoted race as a social category, have festered year after year and generation after generation.
The devastating impact of the Great Recession of 2008 on black Americans reflects their unique, historic vulnerabilities. Between June 2009 and June 2012, median annual black household income fell 11 percent, compared to 5.2 percent for white households and 4.1 percent for Hispanic households. These patterns derived in part from a social division of labor that concentrated black men and women in public employment, manufacturing, and low-wage service jobs. Like Richard W. White, many blacks after 1865 found public-sector employers more open in their hiring practices than private employers. At the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century, black men and women were about 33 percent more likely than the general workforce to have jobs with the federal government or with state or local governments. They worked as bus drivers, postal workers, teachers, firefighters, police officers, social workers, secretaries, and office administrators. Beginning in 2009, drastic cutbacks in public services and wholesale layoffs of public employees took a particularly high toll on these workers.
Upheavals in the economy’s private sector also continue to have disastrous effects for black Americans. As part of a decades-long slide toward deindustrialization, some American manufacturers closed their doors during the Great Recession and others either shipped jobs overseas or installed labor-saving technology at home. A 2009 government bailout of Chrysler and GM rescued the domestic auto industry within a few years, but those companies, together with General Motors, continued a steady process of replacing people with robots on assembly lines and laying off or offering retirement incentives to plant workers. Although increasingly hamstrung by antilabor legislation some four decades after Simon Owens and his compatriots clashed with union leaders in the 1970s, the UAW acquiesced in a two-tier wage system that paid new, younger workers just half of what older workers were making. In Detroit the consequent lack of well-paying auto jobs, combined with a shrinking local tax base, had a particularly destructive effect on black families. In 2012 the city, with an 83 percent black population, had the highest poverty rate in the nation—37.6 percent, a figure that nevertheless underestimated the widespread misery borne of industrial change and shrinking government services. Valerie Kindle, a black Michigan state government employee laid off in April 2011, told a reporter later that year, “There hasn’t been one family member who hasn’t been touched by a layoff. We are losing the bulk of our middle class. I was much better off than my parents, and I’m feeling my children will not be as well off as I was. There’s not as much government work and not as many manufacturing jobs. It’s just going down so wrong for us.” Around this time Simon Owens’s successors, the editors of News & Letters, warned that Detroit had become an encampment of “the permanent army of the unemployed [which] Marx analyzed as a consistent feature of capitalism.” The national unemployment rate for blacks stood at 15.8 percent; for Hispanics, 13 percent; and for whites, 8.5 percent.
In certain professions even highly educated African American men and women saw their prospects diminish in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis. Some elite law firms, for example, deemed their own affirmative action programs a luxury borne of more prosperous times, one their firms could now ill afford to support. Yet in law and other fields, these programs remained a critical necessity because social connections played such a large part in hiring and promotion decisions. For example, in many cases white applicants who had grown up in the same neighborhood or vacationed in the same place or attended the same college or professional school as their potential employer retained a critical advantage in the hiring process. Historic patterns of segregation thus contributed to the maintenance of all-white law offices and corporate boardrooms. Noted Gerald Roberts, a black lawyer, of his years working for a large, venerable Houston law firm, “For the most part they [blacks and whites at the firm] don’t go to church together on Sunday enough, they don’t have dinner together enough, and they don’t play enough golf together to develop sufficiently strong relationships of trust and confidence.” Without specific programs in place to redress this historic imbalance in job opportunities, employers in the professions would find it tempting to revert to custom—that is, to hire and promote those people in whom they had trust and confidence by virtue of their shared college fraternities, neighborhoods, and church pews.
In time-honored and in new ways, bankers and other economic and political elites continue to exploit blacks’ economic liabilities and aspirations for a better life. In the late twentieth and early twentieth-first centuries, predatory lenders sought to make money via a perverse reversal of earlier “redlining” efforts. Now, instead of denying mortgages to black credit-seekers whether or not they were qualified, banks aggressively marketed toxic financial products to blacks regardless of their financial condition. Elleanor Eldridge would have been chagrined, but not surprised, to learn that some banks considered the ideal mark to be an older, single black woman. Overall, black communities were five times as likely as white communities to be targeted by these lenders, even when class factors were held constant. Indeed, middle-class blacks received subprime loans at a rate three times higher than their white counterparts; such loans forced borrowers to pay exorbitantly high fees, interest rates, and hidden and deferred costs. Stable, gainfully employed black applicants for mortgages became caught up in predatory lending schemes when they lived in vulnerable neighborhoods (those with primarily black and older residents) and when they had fewer financial assets compared to their white counterparts. Because of the relative lack of equity accumulated over the generations by black families, deceptive lending practices had a crippling effect on the viability of the black middle class. Meanwhile, despite their illegality, the age-old discriminatory practices of real estate agents and landlords persisted; in some areas of the country, blacks looking to buy homes or rent apartments faced greater financial hurdles than their white counterparts and could not qualify for housing regardless of their income or assets.
Local lenders also engaged in practices called “equity stripping” or “equity skimming”; in these cases a lender offered to buy a foreclosed property and then lease it back to the former owner. Many minority residents did not understand that they were essentially signing away all their rights to the property in question. The disproportionate number of black households affected by foreclosures after 2008 suggests a dramatic loss of the hard-won gains of the post-1965 generations: between 2005 and 2009 black households’ median net worth—an indication of capital accumulation through the generations—declined from $13,124 to $5,677 (53 percent), while the decline for white households was from $134,992 to $113,149 (15 percent). Many black families saw their credit scores and retirement accounts plummet, their modest savings disappear, and their homes foreclosed, losses from which they would find it difficult, if not impossible to recover. The gap in average household wealth (based on assets, not income) between blacks and whites remained dramatic: in 2010 the average household wealth for blacks was less than $100,000, but for whites it was more than $600,000. The difference between these two numbers amounted to a harbinger of hardship among younger generations of blacks, who would not be able to count on substantial gifts or loans from their parents to start a business, pay for college, or buy a house.
Unlike other minority groups, such as Hispanics or Asians, the country’s black population has suffered from hypersegregation, with more than four out of ten black people nationwide living in neighborhoods characterized by concentrated poverty in 2010. Various means of exploiting the young black men who live there echo in modern ways both the greed and the fear of whites past. Like the lenders preying on black families who aspire to become home owners, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) makes millions of dollars each year from young black men looking for a way out of the ghetto. An estimated 90 percent of NCAA revenue comes from just 1 percent of the “stars,” 90 percent of whom are black. These players forfeit their constitutional rights of due process and give over their bodies, and images of their likeness, to college coaches in the unrealistic hope of a future in the National Basketball Association or the National Football League—a modern iteration of the “plantation mentality” among colleges and universities. Like other athletes within the NCAA system, blacks face severe repercussions if they or their family members accept even modest financial or material assistance from agents or sports fans; unlike white players, however, blacks are more likely to be from homes of modest means, unable to afford travel or living expenses on their own. The same dynamic applies to for-profit college recruiters who take advantage of black students’ desire for higher education, promising them good jobs at decent pay but actually leaving them heavily in debt and without prospects.
Another indicator of the dire circumstances of impoverished young black men is their high rate of incarceration. In 2010 black men were incarcerated at a rate of 3,074 per 100,000 in the population; the figures for Latinos and whites were 1,258 and 459, respectively. Almost 40 percent of all black male high school dropouts were in jail. A whole host of prejudgments based on ancestry have shaped America’s criminal justice system, determining whom the police stop and then among those stopped, who is arrested. Many judicial officials hold that black youths brought before the criminal justice system are culpable as individuals, whereas white youths supposedly have mitigating factors of family dysfunction and mental illness. Moreover, many of these youthful offenders had been arrested for drug use. A report released by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2013 found that blacks were nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested for possession of marijuana. Some observers charged that local police departments sought to boost their drug-arrest statistics by targeting poor or minority communities. Blacks thus became victims of law enforcement agents’ attempts “to meet numerical arrest goals instead of public safety goals,” in the words of one critic of such policies.
The widespread practice among law enforcement officials of associating young black men with criminality remains in force in the twenty-first century. This is the same kind of association that animated lynching and other forms of domestic terrorism with which William H. Holtzclaw and his students had to contend in the segregationist South. In the antebellum period slaveholders sought to contain young black men by harnessing their labor within the system of bondage; now modern law enforcement agents reflect a general (white) anxiety toward the same demographic and, on the pretext of drug use in many cases, seek to remove men of this age from the general population altogether by confining them within the penal system. In 2010 nearly seven out of ten black male high school dropouts thirty-five years and younger had prison records.
This “carceral state,” in which black men are jailed in wildly disproportionate numbers and the owners of for-profit prisons prosper, can be viewed as a modern response to an oversupply of black labor, especially now that workers are no longer needed in the fields or mines. Such high rates of incarceration have also fueled the nonsensical myth that the victims of these historical forces are members of a distinct race of people. Like Antonio and the eighteenth-century South Carolina black rebels and runaways, young black men in the modern era remain stigmatized as inherently dangerous to whites. Now, though, whites “racialize” a threat that is in fact a function of historical developments: the physical concentration of impoverished people, setting them apart from other domestic populations. More generally, local and state authorities continue to subject jobless and homeless applicants for basic kinds of public aid to humiliating conditions, such as drug tests, reams of paperwork, and stringent work requirements imposed without providing child-care assistance or even reasonable compensation. Thus does a whole segment of the US population, imprisoned and “free,” suffer from state-sanctioned forms of monitoring and control.
The crosscurrents of history both mitigate and exacerbate the legal and political vulnerability of American blacks. In the early twenty-first century, to a large extent place—not race or skin color—is destiny. Poor neighborhoods perpetuate gross inequalities regardless of the ethnic or cultural makeup of their residents. Together with refugees from Central America and Southeast Asia, black men and women remain overrepresented in low wage service jobs that lack benefits such as health insurance. Most children growing up in poor communities have no access to quality public schooling, and as a result few have opportunities to pursue higher education. In these and other ways discriminatory patterns of employment, housing, and education are inscribed in twenty-first-century American life. At the same time, employers, college coaches, public officials, police officers, and bank officers have no need to resort to historic mythologies of race in perpetuating such patterns. In fact, “place” has now become a signifier of “race,” with whites making a whole host of assumptions about the character and abilities of men, women, and children confined to all-black neighborhoods.
The idea of race itself has emerged and then undergone dramatic transformations over the last four hundred years of American history. In the seventeenth-century Chesapeake, slave owners exploited a group of people uniquely vulnerable within the Atlantic world without needing to invoke racial reasons for doing so. Likewise, in the early twenty-first century, employers, bankers, politicians, and policymakers can boast of their color-blindness while remaining willfully ignorant of, or indifferent to, the history that produced concentrated populations of impoverished black people. Therefore, these elites—and the managers and technocrats who do their bidding—take advantage of those who are poor or those plagued by job insecurity, not because these people belong to a specific race, but because they are easy targets for fraud and exploitation. All this is to say that in certain times and places race has a raison d’être; but at other times structures of power carry their own logic, and their defenders believe these structures need no explaining.
Still, the use of race as a partisan political strategy endures, albeit in slightly altered form. The runup to the 2012 presidential election saw a multipronged effort by Republican state legislators to suppress the vote of minorities and the poor in general, and blacks in particular, in ways reminiscent of the segregationist South. Just as delegates to late-nineteenth-century disenfranchisement conventions showed great ingenuity in preventing blacks from voting, so, too, have modern officials devised a range of measures to diminish the black vote, all in the name of eliminating the nonexistent, so called scourge of “voter fraud.” These measures include requiring would-be voters to obtain specific kinds of official personal identification, curtailing early voting, disenfranchising felons who have served their time, and intimidating voter registration groups. The requirement that voter registrants who lack a driver’s license present a birth certificate (available only for a fee) at the polls has prompted critics to claim that the new regulations are poll taxes only thinly disguised.
Periodically, a party official will drop the pretense of protecting the integrity of the political process and acknowledge that the aim is to prevent blacks from voting. Doug Priesse, the Republican Party chairman of Franklin County, Ohio, complained in August 2012 that extending voting hours, especially on the weekends, would amount to a “contortion” of “the voting process”: “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban—read African-American—voter turnout machine.” He and other Republicans objected to the practice of transporting black voters to the polls after Sunday services—a practice known as “souls to the polls,” common in urban areas. Complementing these efforts to restrict minority voting were aggressive measures by some southern legislatures to gerrymander representative districts to concentrate blacks in the smallest number of districts possible and thereby dilute their voting strength in mixed or swing districts. Taken together, disenfranchisement measures gave new expression to the antebellum Rhode Island legislator’s response to debates surrounding black suffrage: “Shall a nigger be allowed to go to the polls and tie my vote? No, Mr., Speaker, it can’t be.”12
Although that derogatory term (a form of outmoded racism) is rarely invoked anymore by politicians or mainstream media commentators, it continues to lead a lively life, as revealed by Google searches, if not by material published, broadcast, or otherwise disseminated to a large audience. And the emotions and prejudices evoked by the word have not gone away. The presidential campaign of 2012 suggested that, to a certain segment of the population, Barack Obama represented a threatening combination of the exotic “other” and an enduring figment of “racial” mythologists. Some of these fears were expressed in coded language—the conviction of “birthers” that the president was not in fact a US citizen, the demand that he “learn how to be an American” (John Sununu), and the claim that he was an agent of global socialists. With his Ivy League credentials and professorial air, Obama confounded the purveyors of black stereotypes, but antagonists linked him to those stereotypes nonetheless. Denouncing “moochers” and “freeloaders” feeding at the public trough at taxpayers’ expense, rivals portrayed him as the “food stamp president” (Newt Gingrich) and as a chief executive determined to dismantle work requirements for welfare recipients (Mitt Romney). Glenn Beck, a right-wing entertainer, claimed that Obama had a “deep-seated hatred for white people.” In an effort to dodge stereotypes of both style and substance, Obama projected an almost preternatural calm in public (he was obviously not “an angry black man”) and avoided prolonged disputations on “racialized” subjects such as poverty, affirmative action, and the depredations of the ghetto.
The results of the 2012 presidential election indicate that history mattered: Republican nominee Mitt Romney won all but two of the former Confederate states (Virginia and Florida were the exceptions), and an estimated 93 percent of black voters cast their votes for Obama. Nevertheless, some black men and women considered Obama perversely inattentive to the plight of descendants of America’s slaves, and in the process they suggested the perils faced by any group that found itself taken for granted by one of the two major parties. Richard W. White discovered that, despite his lifelong allegiance to the Republicans, most whites in the party of Lincoln felt no compunction to address deep forms of inequality. In the early twenty-first century, the two-party system remains stubbornly unresponsive to the proliferation of distressed communities, whether inner-city neighborhoods or faltering coal and steel towns.
The son of a Kenyan father and a Kansas mother, Obama embraced America’s unique construction of “blackness” by marrying a woman descended from South Carolina Low country slaves and by joining a black church. In answer to critics that he himself was not “authentic” because he did not have the blood of American slaves coursing through his veins, he pointed out that he was authentic enough to have trouble hailing a cab driven by a white driver. Nevertheless, in the way pinpointed by Simon Owens, Obama had little choice in identifying himself as a black man because that identification derived from the color of his skin.
The destructive legacies of various racial mythologies continue to ravage American society. And the word race itself remains ubiquitous, reinforcing the destructive consequences of those mythologies. Pollsters and social scientists reify race when they ask respondents to describe black people as friendly and intelligent, or violent and complaining, and to associate black or white faces with words such as hurt and failure or joy and love. Physicians and journalists continue to write about racial disparities in health when the factors at work are products of class-based inequalities. For example, a 2012 study summarized in the New York Times purporting to show that “How Well You Sleep May Hinge on Race” pinpointed a range of factors affecting black people’s sleep patterns, including their residence in high-crime, noisy neighborhoods and their chronic health problems, such as hypertension and diabetes. The article blatantly conflated socioeconomic status with the idea of race. Contrary to the headline, sleep problems afflict poor and stressed people rather than a particular race.
The attempt to portray all American descendants of Africans as inferior to all whites in intelligence and moral sensibility remains a component of modern pseudo-scientific racial inquiry. More often today, though, race is invoked to allude to divisions in American society flowing from the institution of slavery. If in fact the word has evolved as a kind of shorthand to distinguish descendants of enslaved Americans from descendants of people who were not enslaved, what is the harm in that? The harm is that problems labeled racial are in fact historical and that persistent use of the word keeps the fiction of race alive in all its adaptable destructiveness. Moreover, it is doubtful that those who use the word know much about its specific historical dimensions, the many ways it was deployed to justify a whole range of legal restrictions and violent attacks upon people defined as black.
And so the powerful legacies flowing from the myth of race appear to be facts best forgotten, as when widely read commentators and public intellectuals recycle the claim that a foundational “American creed” consisted of “liberty, individualism, [and] equal opportunity,” thereby deftly eliminating slavery from the nation’s past altogether. Such pronouncements ignore the fact that the country’s longtime defense of human bondage mocks its presumed timeless commitment to the principles of this creed.
Most disturbingly, our continued fixation on race distracts us from multiple forms of injustice in twenty-first-century America, not just those that affect so-called black people. Arguably, the most vulnerable people—those most likely to suffer from rampant labor exploitation, wage theft, and lack of basic legal protections—are undocumented foreign immigrants, demonized as criminals who drain the public coffers. In the Great Recession of f2008 and beyond, indicators of widespread economic distress did not hew neatly to racial categories; rather, the increased demand for food stamps, housing vouchers, aid for the disabled, and other forms of assistance registered hard times among various segments of the US population. Thus, dependence on the government-sponsored free lunch program remained high in predictable places such as Newark, Chicago, and the Mississippi Delta, but spiked among families whose living depended upon industries and enterprises hit by the recession: lumber and paper mills in North Carolina; high-tech firms in Rochester, New York; the construction industry in Las Vegas; and various businesses throughout the country that closed their doors, shipped their operations overseas, or downsized their workforces. In the twenty-first century, then, the success of the American democratic project depends upon public policies that take into account two distinct but interrelated aspects of the nation’s political economy: first, the enduring institutional structures produced by narratives of race, and second, the recent economic transformations that reach deep into the lives of many Americans regardless of their skin color or heritage.
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Ultimately, the myth of race can be best understood through an examination of the lives that have been defined by it. Whether an enslaved laborer in colonial America, a freed person in the Reconstruction South, or a worker on a modern assembly line, people labeled “black” have been affected in various ways by the term. At some points in American history whites did not feel the need to invoke race, but at other times they did. Exploring race as a political strategy peculiar to a particular time and place offers an alternative history of the evolution of this insidious notion.
For Symon Overzee, race had no practical meaning in his decision to put to work enslaved Africans in the seventeenth-century Chesapeake; Overzee chose his field hands on the basis of a precise calculation he made about various groups and their viability within an immediate and long-term labor force. Antonio’s plight stemmed from his extreme vulnerability as an individual wrenched from his homeland, without a tribe or a nation-state to protect and defend him in the Atlantic world. Subsequent laws decreeing that the offspring of an enslaved woman would remain enslaved signaled that bondage was never a “race-based” labor system; for over the generations, many white owners and overseers fathered children by black women, meaning that an indeterminate number of slaves would be as white as black or, in some cases, more white than black. Similarly, Revolutionary-era South Carolinians felt no need to justify human bondage by invoking race-based differences; they framed the issue of slavery as a matter of their own self-interest, one they could defend by force without bothering to explain themselves. In his search for a transcendent identity based on religious faith, Boston King countered this crass politics of self-interest among whites, a politics that informed the military strategies of patriots and British alike.
The subjugation of free, native-born citizens in the antebellum North did require a robust justification, however; here the persistent legal vulnerability of people of African descent fueled new notions about their “natural” inferiority to whites. Elleanor Eldridge surprised her antagonists when she refused to play the part of the helpless woman of African and Narragansett heritage, but she was savvy enough to understand that she would need the patronage of powerful whites to overcome the obstruction of race. More generally, ideas of racial difference prevented blacks from gaining access to public education, the ballot box, and better jobs, thus cementing the privileges of whites, no matter how poor. White political leaders eagerly promoted the project of discrimination, which bolstered the fortunes of their own constituents. A similar dynamic pertained after the Civil War in the South, where white Democrats and Republicans either crafted or acquiesced in legal mechanisms that ensured black people as a group would remain landless and powerless. Despite his willingness to die for the Union, Richard White could not overcome the limitations of race, which trumped his education, military service, and even skin color.
William Holtzclaw contended with a particularly pernicious form of racial ideology: ideas according to which the inherent inferiority of blacks naturally inclined them toward criminality and shiftlessness. And the late-nineteenth century southern segregationist imperative gave license to lynch mobs, officials enforcing barbaric convict-lease laws, duplicitous landlords, and murderous whites generally. The fact that Holtzclaw and Booker T. Washington demonstrated extraordinary personal ambition, and that many ordinary black men and women aspired to a better life for themselves and their families, exposed the myth of race, but whites remained unmoved because they believed they gained much by invoking the myth and lost much by acknowledging it as a fiction. By this time generations-long structures of inequality had produced a largely poor and disenfranchised black population, thus perpetuating the stereotypes that produced it.
Simon Owens understood that the power of race could withstand the everyday realities that refuted its lies. On the front lines of the Detroit labor wars of the mid-twentieth century, Owens saw white and black workers laboring under the same debilitating conditions in the plant, victims of the same forces of inexorable technological change on the line. Nevertheless, members of the white working classes persisted in paying obeisance to race, a tactic they hoped would insulate them against the vagaries of a new, postindustrial world. In all these stories resources—land, labor, public tax dollars—were at stake, and in all these stories whites used the idea of race to advance their own interests on the assumption that the more rights and property blacks gained, the less whites themselves would possess. The American creation myth, then, has sprung not from misguided but ultimately corrected notions of social difference, but from the calculations and recalibrations of specific groups who sought to protect what they had, or go after what they wanted, at all costs.
Together these biographical accounts do more than illuminate the past. They point the way to a more humane future arising out of the need to challenge in a robust way those who cravenly worship the market, a catchall term used to rationalize slavery and other injustices in the name of individual “self-interest”; the need to dismantle a white supremacist culture that continues to feed off historic forms of discrimination and state sponsored terrorism; the need to make equal opportunity a reality—not just a tired slogan—through a collective commitment to public education and job-training programs, residential integration, a living wage, and universal health care; and the need to promote strong labor unions as a counter to the overweening power of big businesses and transnational corporations. Thus, these stories continue to resonate: Antonio’s ongoing, desperate resistance to enslavement; Boston King’s quest for a universal community of men and women; Elleanor Eldridge’s determination to follow her entrepreneurial impulses as far as they would take her; Richard W. White’s challenge to the mythology that skin color denoted identity; William Holtzclaw’s defiance of the generations-old injunction that black people were incapable of learning and hence that they should be prevented from learning; and Simon Owens’s prescient critique of technological change and the attendant costs borne by workers in all sectors of the economy.
These stories, and their continued resonance, stand as a warning. Racial mythologies as a rationale for injustice are not necessarily just America’s history. Preserved in the ongoing use of the word “race” itself, they could be America’s future as well.
Excerpted from the book "A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race From the Colonial Era to Obama’s America," by Jacqueline Jones. Copyright © 2013 by Jacqueline Jones. Reprinted by arrangement with Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved.