Today most Americans tell themselves that we as a nation are finally beyond race. Or at least nearly so.
All the hope and self-delusion aside, racism runs much deeper than most Americans realize. Indeed, a sign of the depth of this fissure has emerged in the current Democratic presidential campaign. The last few weeks have brought to the surface some remarkably ugly tensions and enduring problems that neither Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, nor the American people really want to see.
Talk of race and racism tends to end conversations, even among people of good will. This is unfortunate. It is not possible to solve a problem that one refuses to put into words. It is why we as a nation remain suspended between a hopeful trajectory of racial progress and an endless number of eruptions of bitter racial tensions.
To say that racism still matters, however, is not to say that nothing has changed or can change. We are in a far, far better place than we were in, say, 1968. Almost exactly 40 years ago , a bipartisan Presidential Commission appointed by Lyndon Johnson declared that "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal."
The Kerner Commission pulled no punches as to the key source of the problem, declaring: "White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it."
We are not as segregated or polarized a nation today as we were then. In 1968 the average level of segregation was 85. This means 85 percent of the black (or white) population would have had to move to achieve a completely random and integrated mixture of people. In that same year some 56 percent of white Americans in national surveys agreed with the statement that "White people have a right to keep Negroes out of their neighborhoods if they want to, and Negroes should respect that right." The most recent national data now show that the average level of segregation is 62, a decline of 23 percentage points. And the number of whites agreeing to that statement about keeping blacks out their neighborhoods fell below 20 percent as long ago as 1993 and has continued to edge downward.
A similar story could be told about the once great bugaboo of racial intermarriage. In 1968, 56 percent of white Americans in national surveys supported laws against racial intermarriage (a much higher percentage of Southern whites said so than whites living outside the South). This happened even though in 1967 the Supreme Court had finally overturned all such laws which still existed in 17 states at the time of the Loving v. Virginia ruling. The number supporting such anti-miscegenation laws plummeted to less than 20% by 1990 and stood at 12% in 2000.
Today, racism is a more complicated and elusive thing. But the first hurdle we have to get over is the naïve and unhelpful assumption that we have somehow solved all of that "in the sixties." We did not and have not resolved this problem.
Correspondingly, seemingly every few months America rediscovers its "race problem". From the Jena-Six to comedian Michael Richard's flame-out, and from Don Imus's sad tirade to Golfweek's recently-fired editor, there is a steady stream of evidence that a real problem remains. It is deep and it can easily get ugly.
The durability of that problem stems from the intertwining of our day-to-day living conditions and our larger cultural ways of understanding.
Although segregation has lessened, we remain a deeply racially segregated people, especially along the traditional black-white divide. Currently, blacks in 29 U.S. metropolitan areas—home to 40 percent of the total black population—are hyper-segregated, experiencing extreme levels of residential segregation. This is nearly double the number of hyper-segregated cities on record in 1980, and blacks are unique in their experience of long-term segregation of this sort. Furthermore, we are sliding backward with respect to school segregation after having made much progress in the seventies and eighties. To be sure, discrimination in access to jobs is not the blanket sort of exclusion it once was. But, again, social science tests repeatedly yields evidence of substantial and persistent bias.
One study found that a white male with an admitted criminal record had a better chance of getting a job interview than a black man with no such record.
We have not cleansed our culture—the deep stuff of our most basic assumptions and taken-for-granted ideas—of the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and anti-black racism.
The successes of the civil rights movement made overt discrimination and segregationist practices illegal. It also cast bigotry into deep public disrepute. However, these strides forward do not amount to a whole new cultural make-up and way of understanding or seeing the world. When an entire society has always "seen" race, been "organized" around race divisions, and "allocated" material resources and social esteem on the basis for race for nearly 400 years, even 25 very intense years of struggle and progress do not a full revolution make.
We cannot let our hopes for the nation stand in the way of doing the work to truly defeat racism that remains ahead of us. We need to heed the dreadful frisson that has ran through us as we watch the Clinton versus Obama fight threaten to become a race war. There are real injuries and grave wounds that still attach to race in this country. We ignore them at our peril.
Most important, this episode reminds us that color-blindness is an aspiration for this nation, not a settled achievement. The 1968 Kerner Commission got the broad social trend wrong—we did not become a more polarized and segregated nation: we already were one. But, it set the right tone on the depth and fundamental nature of the American race problem. Hopefully this time, we will arouse the will and generate a new commitment to achieve a full healing of the racial divide.