We’re Dreaming if We Think We’ve Dealt With Racism

As Attorney General Eric Holder recently explained, in its most obvious forms, racism may be receding. But discrimination does not always come in the form of Jim Crow or a hateful epithet.

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In 1903 W.E.B. Du Bois opined that one of the burdens of blackness was facing down an ever-present question: “How does it feel to be a problem?”

More than a century later, the changes on our social and political landscape have led us to an equally challenging question: How do you solve a problem like white privilege in America?

It seems that the first step is admitting we have a problem.

The recent controversies surrounding Cliven Bundy—the Nevada rancher now infamous for wondering aloud if African Americans were better off as slaves—and Donald Sterling, the NBA owner with an unabashed plantation mentality, have reinvigorated debates about the true nature of racism, its origins and its outcomes.

The unseemly news that a police commissioner in New Hampshire boldly and unapologetically referred to President Barack Obama using the n-word was disturbing, of course, but after six years of increasingly commonplace, thinly veiled race-baiting attacks by Republicans in Washington, D.C., it was barely worth more than one news-cycle headline.

From the outside, the ages of these men—67, 80 and 82 respectively—might lead one to conclude that this kind of racism is generational, and that as time passes, outdated attitudes and the social constructs in which they thrive will eventually fade.

Sadly, that American dream is only a mirage.

As explicit expressions of racism have been curbed during the past 50 years, since the civil rights era brought sweeping social progress, structural and institutional racism has actually deepened. And this is where the problem of blackness has met a wall of white privilege.

One hundred and fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, there are now more African-American males in prison than were enslaved in 1850. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 846,000 black males were incarcerated in 2008—making up 40.2 percent of the total prison population, though white males commit the vast majority of crime, and violent crime in particular. Michelle Alexander, in her book, The New Jim Crow: Colorblindness in the Age of Mass Incarceration, points out that more African-American men were denied their right to vote in 2004 because of felony convictions than were disenfranchised in 1870.

Economic disparities are equally staggering—with the unemployment rate for blacks consistently more than double that of whites. According to the Census Bureau, whites have 22 times more wealth than blacks. The median household net worth for whites was $110,729 in 2010, versus $4,995 for blacks.

Darrick Hamilton, co-author of an Economic Policy Institute paper called “Whiter Jobs, Higher Wages,” suggests that “occupational segregation” (and white privilege) plays a large role in the wage gap. “Nearly 90 percent of U.S. occupations can be categorized as racially segregated,” he says. The study showed that in jobs in which black men were underrepresented, the average salary was $50,533 annually, but in occupations in which black males were overrepresented, the salary was $37,005. Even when controlling for education levels and skill sets, the racial gap persists, with whites benefiting from generational advantages, connections and opportunities that those outside their closed circles were not afforded.