The Empire’s New Clothes: How Racial Prejudice Has Evolved in the US.

We’ve healed so much from our dark history.

We ended slavery, shut down Jim Crow with the Civil Rights Act, made national heroes of Dr. Martin Luther King and other people of color. We passed laws to fight preferential hiring.  We twice elected a black president.

Many believe that if a black person can’t get ahead in this country, it’s their fault.

However, for the past 10 years or so, scholars, researchers, lawyers, and social activists have provided evidence for a different story – claiming that the preferential treatment of whites over other people of color is alive and well in our county.

It’s likely however that you haven’t heard this side of the story.  This information doesn’t tend to make the 6:00 news and certainly hasn’t seen much Sunday morning pulpit time.

Below is a quick “dummy” version – a primer if you will – of facts and figures that are critical to our understanding.  Consider the following in contrast to what many would say are common “white, evangelical” perspectives on current racial issues.

“We’ve Done Everything We Can”

Nobody would argue that blacks in particular are more educated, empowered, motivated, qualified – overall more “free” to pursue their dreams than ever before.   Yet black unemployment is currently twice that of whites.

It’s been that way for 60 years.

Regardless of the barriers that have been removed, the “leaps and bounds” we’ve made in education, hiring, etc., this statistic has held fast since we started measuring employment rates.

There’s more.

In 2004 researchers Marian Betrand and Sendhill Mullainathan sent fake resumes to 1300 employers in Chicago and Boston, targeting sales, administrative support, and customer service/clerical positions.  Half of the “applicants” had white sounding names (e.g. “Emily” or “Greg”), the other half had black sounding names (e.g. “Lakisha” or “Jamal”).  Resumes with “white” names received 50% more callbacks.

Devah Pager, Associate Professor of Sociology at Princeton University, is well known for her research in this area.  She and a colleague sent black and white, equally qualified, “tester” applicants for live interviews in the low wage labor markets of Chicago and New York City.  In two different studies her white applicants were 2x more likely to get a second interview than blacks.

In her concluding remarks, Pager makes note of the difficulties with our current antidiscrimination laws:

“In order for these protections to be invoked, however, potential plaintiffs must be aware of and able to document discriminatory treatment. Given the subtlety of contemporary forms of discrimination, it is often difficult to identify discrimination when it has taken place.”

The problem isn’t limited to the hiring process.  For example, studies show that blacks are the first to be fired when the economy weakens, and the “wage gap” between blacks and whites is larger than it’s been in 40 years.

“Blacks Commit More Crime”

For years we’ve imprisoned more blacks than any country in the world.  The numbers seem to speak for themselves, and fuel the perception that blacks are more likely to commit crime than any other race in the US.

While the prison numbers might support this, many crime statistics don’t.

Drugs

In 2010 Michelle Alexander published “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” introducing the disparities between black and white incarceration rates, and the stories behind them.  In 2016, Netflix aired director Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” highlighting many of Alexander’s concerns.

Nobody should talk about racial prejudice in the United States without a basic grasp of these two accounts.  Both offer, among other things, strong evidence that whites and blacks use illegal drugs at the same rates, but blacks are somehow incarcerated at a much higher rate than whites.

Alexander and DuVernay claim that these consistent, way-out-of-balance statistics are driven primarily by the same spirit that fueled slavery in the US.

Violence

“New Jim Crow” isn’t without its critics.  Yale Law School’s James Forman Jr. wrote:

“While rates of drug offenses are roughly the same throughout the population, blacks are overrepresented among the population for violent offenses.  For example, the African American arrest rate for murder is seven to eight times higher than the white arrest rate; the black arrest rate for robbery is ten times higher than the white arrest rates.”

The phrase “arrest rate” can be misleading for those of us not well versed in statistical analysis.  It’s much simpler to look at raw numbers.  How many people are committing these crimes, what color are they, and how many from each group are we keeping behind bars?

For example, in 2011, BJS reported 42,768 black arrests for robbery vs. 38,599 white arrests.  To confirm Forman’s point above – a higher percentage of blacks were arrested.  However, in the same year 8,936 whites were incarcerated vs. almost 23,447 blacks in our state and federal prisons.

If roughly the same number of blacks were arrested for robbery, how is it that almost 3 times the number of blacks were incarcerated?

Following are yearly statistics on violent crime in general – note the disparity between arrest and incarceration numbers.

While the Bureau of Justice Statistics doesn’t publicly report Federal Prisoner race/offense statistics as consistently as they do for state prisons, their detailed 2015 and 2014 reports reveal that twice the number of blacks occupy Federal Prisons for violent crime than whites.

Again, why?

One of the most prevalent narratives about blacks in the US is that they are on some sort of crime spree – they just can’t seem to reign in their impulse to break the law.  But the incarceration numbers – statistics most of us have never seen –  tell an entirely different story.

Legalized Discrimination

According to Alexander, DuVernay, and others, incarceration is only half the problem.

“Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination – employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service – are suddenly legal.  As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow.  We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” “New Jim Crow” pp. 2-3

This formerly incarcerated cross-section of our population is more likely to be poor, without hope, controlled, depressed, angry, and much more likely to commit repeat offenses than someone with a less “murky” future.

“All Lives Matter”

Many blacks have rallied around the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” citing the above issues (and more), crying injustice, and (still) calling for some semblance of equity.  Many Evangelicals have responded with “All Lives Matter.”

Evangelical Pollster organization, Barna Group, recently published their findings of a 2015/2016 survey of Americans regarding racism.  Among the participants, white Evangelicals and/or political conservatives were most likely to believe that

  • Racism is a problem of the past
  • People of color face no social disadvantages because of their race
  • Reverse discrimination is a greater threat to whites
  • Christian churches are currently playing an important role in racial reconciliation
  • “All Lives Matter” is an appropriate response to the black community’s cries for justice

We’ve come to believe that the problems mentioned above lie squarely in the hands of the black community to solve.  Having clothed ourselves with the illusion of equity on every front, we’ve become convinced that blacks have nothing to complain about.

That’s why we get so upset when some of them take extreme measures.

Brooke Hempell, Vice President of Research at Barna Group, summarized their findings with the following:

By failing to recognize the disadvantages that people of color face—and the inherent privileges that come from growing up in a ‘majority culture’—we perpetuate the racial divisions, inequalities and injustices that prevent African American communities from thriving…

There are now a growing number of white evangelical leaders, pastors, sociologists, and researchers claiming that racism is huge problem among evangelicals.  I know, we’re all tired of hearing about it, but that doesn’t make it false.  I’m currently working on a post here and hope to publish it soon.

And while I’m personally proud of the people who showed up en masse to protest the alt-right and white supremacy, I agree with the many voices who feel like the current racially prejudicial systems are far more dangerous – not just because they affect so many lives, but because they’re rarely-to-never protested.

“Look How Far We’ve Come”

I recently sat in a meeting where a white community leader offered a personal apologetic on how far we’ve come in our journey towards equity. “I just see all the progress we’ve made and I just want to celebrate it.”

But it’s difficult to talk about progress when we’re also talking about injustice.  To illustrate, consider the following parable:

Say you and I had an arrangement where I physically assaulted you once a day.  You had no say in the matter, it was something you had to endure.  It ruined you, weakened your sense of dignity, stole hope, etc.  One day, I announce that I’ll only be attacking you 3 times a week.

Technically that’s progress, but not the kind any victim would want to celebrate.  Even if the beatings were to stop altogether, there would still a glaring issue.

One of the dominant conversations when Civil Rights legislation was first being considered centered around the idea of justice.  Even if we could get to the point of perfect equity, who should pay for these centuries of abuse?

Any victim is right to expect that 1) the abuse will end and 2) justice will be served.  We’ve offered the black community neither.

Change

Racial prejudice in the US hasn’t gone away, it’s simply changed its clothes.  Gone are the white hoods and black iron bracelets.  Now we have laws – really impressive legislation that’s sometimes effective, but complicated enough to allow our contemporary expression of racial prejudice the space it needs to keep our ancestors’ foot-to-throat status quo well intact.

That’s why so many blacks aren’t celebrating.  They’re angry, tired, hopeless.  Some get desperate and riot, to which we respond, “See?  Nothing but a bunch of criminals.”

The facts and figures cited here only scratch the surface, but are enough to kick-start a new narrative –  one that acknowledges that blacks in the US have been set up for failure.  Some succeed, and are frequently used as evidence that there’s nothing to riot about.  But the many who do fail are used as further evidence for the centuries-old narrative that there’s “just something wrong with black people.”

These stories need to change.  Our understanding of the black community and of white privilege needs to change.  And the first step might be easier than you think.

We need to talk about this – in our small groups, from the pulpit, among friends.  These truths can be spread just as easily as the falsehoods that are currently in residence.

Equity will require much more than awareness.  Injustice only answers to personal/corporate sacrifice.  But for now, since this current “style” of racial prejudice depends so heavily on ignorance, misinformation, false narratives, and naked, knee-jerk emotion, awareness would be a big first step toward something that our country has never known.