response to eric grollman on race
A few days ago, Eric Grollman was outraged by my post on “post-racist” society. In the original post, I argued that it is disingenuous to say that race doesn’t matter. At the same time, it would be equally misleading to say that things haven’t drastically changed. Here is what Eric wrote:
Ironically, even he suggests that “at least we can talk about [it].” When I first saw this post, I was outraged. A tenured sociology professor, who has written a book about the Black power movement and the development of Black studies, and who is LATINO, said to the world that the days of old-fashioned racism are gone.
Yes, “polite” white people no longer intentionally discriminate, at least in terms of saying “we won’t hire her because she’s Black!” But, that does not deny the everyday reality of subtle exclusion thinly disguised as something other than race (“she doesn’t have good people skills”). He underestimates the persistence of racial prejudice in America, and just how easy it is to talk about race (e.g., without whites being accused of being racist or fearing such accusations, without people of color being dismissed as hypervigilant or overly sensitive). The biggest flaw of his argument is missing the continued reality of racism within institutional practices: redlining and mortgage discrimination, the overrepresentation of Black and Latino men in prisons, “standardized” testing in schools, and so on.
Eric raises some good points, and I thank him for plugging my book. Now, a few responses:
- Recognizing progress is not logically equivalent to saying that racism is absent in our society.
- It is important to recognize the drastic reduction in racist practices in American society for political and scientific reasons. Politically, we should reward good behavior. We should praise people when they stop engaging in overtly racist actions or passing race based law and policy. If we say “nothing has changed,” then people may say “why should I change? Nothing will make people happy.” Sociologically, it is simply erroneous to equate the era of Jim Crow with the era of Obama. African Americans and other minorities have changed in many remarkable ways. People of color make more money, get better jobs, get more education, are healthier, and have benefited enormously because of the Civil Rights movement. To deny that is folly.
- Before you get outraged again, I do not deny relative differences remain, which are often substantial. But once again, we must still recognize progress in absolute terms. And I’ll take large absolute improvements over changes in relative differences any day.
- Eric raises the issue of racial privilege and subtle forms of discrimination. I completely agree! Nowhere did I deny that these remain. But that comment itself shows how much things have changes. The cost of outright racism is now so high that it must go “underground.” That’s an improvement!
- On one point, I would agree with the skeptics who believe that racism is just as bad, possibly worse, than it was at the end of the Civil Rights era. People of color are subject to mass incarceration (again). In many ways, being stuck under the thumbs of an oppressive White majority in the South in 1920 isn’t so much different than being put in jail for non-violent drug charges. I’d also add that we should consider immigration law as one massive attempt to keep out ethnic outsiders as well. And of course, I haven’t mentioned the harassment that many people of Arabic descent have experienced post 9/11.
- Finally, I stand by my comment that it is good that we can talk about race. This is a *massive* cultural change. Remember, if you can name it, you can own it.
Thank for raising these points, Eric. I look forward to reading your blog.