Racial Inequality after Racism: How Institutions Hold Back African Americans

By Harris, Fredrick C.; Lieberman, Robert C. | Foreign Affairs, March/April 2015 | Go to article overview

Racial Inequality after Racism: How Institutions Hold Back African Americans


Harris, Fredrick C., Lieberman, Robert C., Foreign Affairs


Last summer, the killings of two unarmed African American men- Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri-by white police officers reignited the national conversation about racial inequality in the United States. In both cases, grand juries declined to indict the officers involved. The rulings provoked a wave of protest marches, rallies, and road blockades across the country, as demonstrators of all skin colors proclaimed to the nation and to the world that "black lives matter."

The upheaval has stood in stark contrast to the promise of a transformation in race relations that President Barack Obama's inauguration appeared to hold six years ago. For many of Obama's supporters, his election represented a milestone in U.S. history, marking the dawn of a "postracial" society-a new era in which skin color would no longer stand as a barrier to opportunity or achievement. Obama himself embraced this imagery, insisting that "there's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America." Although he acknowledged the country's history of racial division and conflict, he clearly envisioned a future in which racial distinctions would fade into insignificance, and he promoted himself as an avatar of that future.

Such lofty rhetoric already seems dated. But even as recent protests over race affirmed racial inequality as a defining feature of American life, it also offered a reminder of just how much the racial landscape in the United States has changed since the mid-twentieth century. Analyzing U.S. race relations in 1944, the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal identified what he called " an American dilemma": the wide gap between the American ideals of liberty and equality and the actual conditions of African American life. In Myrdal's view, racism was the root cause of the problem. Myrdal found that white Americans' support for segregation sprang from a widespread belief in black inferiority and that blacks' disadvantaged status tended to reinforce this sentiment. For Americans to resolve this clash between ideals and reality, Myrdal argued, something had to give: either whites' racial attitudes had to change, allowing for fairer treatment of blacks, or the circumstances of African American life had to improve, triggering a change in attitudes.

In the subsequent decades, one of Myrdal's prescriptions did come true- but only one: white Americans' attitudes toward race have indeed been revolutionized. Yet across a wide range of measures-including income, employment, education, health, housing, and criminal justice-African Americans and other minorities of color have continued to lag behind whites, with severe consequences not only for those disadvantaged groups but also for American society as a whole. African Americans, for example, are nearly three times as likely as non-Hispanic whites to be poor, almost six times as likely to be incarcerated, and only half as likely to graduate from college. The average wealth of white households in the United States is 13 times as high as that of black households.

Disparities of this sort have remained a permanent feature of American life even after the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s removed the two most egregious means of reproducing racial inequality: state-sanctioned segregation and explicit discrimination. Today, overt expressions of prejudice are almost universally considered illegitimate. Mass belief in biological or sociological theories that imply the superiority of some racial groups over others has nearly vanished. Americans now broadly accept, at least in principle, the basic premises of legal, social, and political equality across racial lines. Most Americans celebrate diversity in workplaces, schools, and public settings. And the antidiscrimination laws of the 1960s, especially the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, have succeeded at establishing the idea, if not the practice, of racial integration as a public good. …

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