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.

Adverts: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz


Written by fabiorojas

February 14, 2013 at 12:01 am

Posted in fabio, sociology

10 Responses

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  1. During the Civil Rights movement the whole society was talking about race. Before the Civil Rights movement people could talk about race, although it was embedded in either essentialist or pragmatic resignation frames. Now it is hard to talk about race, which makes it invisible and so supports tales of post-racial society or great progress. So where are we? There has been essentially no progress in employment since 1980, there has been some progress in college completion and standardized testing for African Americans who complete high school, and the rise of class inequalities and mass imprisonment have meant that the black working class are probably worse off than they were in 1980. I have no idea if they are worse off than they were in 1970, 1960, 1890, 1870. That would be a great dissertation.


    Don Tomaskovic-Devey

    February 14, 2013 at 12:24 am

  2. This line of inquiry is really starting to bother me. I shared some of Eric’s problems with your line of argument:

    Perhaps it would help to operationalize terms. They seem to shift mid-argument construction. What do you define as “racist”? That would be important to understanding the ways in which a society could be pre- or post-.

    I’m afraid that in your original argument you do preclude institutional racism from the definition of racist. How else can you simultaneously argue that we are post-racist AND that social facts like the mass incarceration of blacks are both true and accurate? If the latter isn’t racist what would you call it?

    This also seems odd coming from a sociologist who studies race and organizations. Talking about race (even if we accept that we do, as a culture, talk about race a great deal which I’d argue is not a foregone conclusion) is not a condition of the absence of racism at the meso or macro level. I don’t even think it’s evidence of the absence of racism at the individual social psych level but I’m confident that it’s not at the other levels.

    This is really quite a provocative argument to make without some clear definitions of terms, operationalization of constructs, and perhaps some greater sign of awareness of contemporary debates about race.



    February 14, 2013 at 1:50 am

  3. I’ve always liked to define racism (at least individual racism) as the set of beliefs that legitimize inequality on the basis of race. We might have moved away from beliefs that legitimize inequality based on biological differences but the ideas of cultural inferiority, individual-blame, and meritocracy are alive and well and these continue to make cast legitimacy on inequality in pay, poverty, incarceration etc.The definition may be a bit tautological but it captures the shifting nature of racist ideology.


    Richard Benton

    February 14, 2013 at 7:29 pm

  4. I don’t see how immigration doesn’t help your argument. Pre-1965 immigration was more restrictive.


    Wonks Anonymous

    February 14, 2013 at 8:12 pm

  5. I think there is a disconnect here, driven not only by the historical trajectory of race and racism in the U.S., but also by the under-development of a common framework to which Tressie points. As Fabio couches the central piece of his argument, we have made progress in that the full force of law and enforcement are not brought to bear on enforcing the racial order. At the same time, I think Richard hits the nail on the head. We may not legalize and enforce the racial order so explicitly and collectively as we used to, but racism is still built into widely-shared beliefs, norms, and values which generate not only everyday racist interactions, but systems of policing and incarceration, admissions and support in occupations, family dynamics and a host of other fundamental social contexts. I don’t want to rehash Bonilla-Silva here, but we live at a time when we can pat our backs and say that we’re not Jim Crow, but that doesn’t get us very far in understanding the persistent, everyday existence of racism which feeds our contemporary ghettos and other asylums for blacks. Some of the old mechanisms are gone and we should be happy about that. But, the same process continues to create the same exact kinds of inequality, dehumanization, and subjugation we thought had ended.

    I think Fabio and Eric are both right. But we don’t have a framework to connect the monumental social change of the past with the fact that little has actually changed in the present. I would really love to see the results of the dissertation Don proposed. Standard of living aside, has anything really changed from 1870 to 2013?


    Jason Radford

    February 15, 2013 at 5:58 am

  6. […] — a pingback from Fabio’s blog,  It was a new blog post by him: “Response To Eric Grollman On Race.”  Oh My Goddess,” I thought.  “I am going to get kicked out of graduate […]


  7. […] “post-racism” thesis, Tressie’s first response, my first response, Fabio’s response to me, Tressie’s second response, and my second […]


  8. […] original post-racist society discussion, Eric Grollman responds,Tressie McMillan responds, my response to Eric, McMillan part deux, Eric responds […]


  9. […] to clarify that progress toward racial equality has, indeed, been made in some aspects of society: [February 14, […]


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