The Face of Racism Today

We have this stereotype of a racist in white America. The racist, almost always male, embodies just about every trope that we associate with poor white Americans. He comes to us unkempt, wrapped in a Confederate Battle Flag and a white sheet, or a brown shirt and an armband. He nearly always speaks with a southern accent. Such people do exist, just as people who speak with the same accent and fight for racial justice exist. So too to people bearing the totems of success. I’ll have a bit more to say about these upmarket racists tomorrow, but wanted to highlight something I’ve just seen over at Salon.

They had the good sense to ask Eric Foner what he thought about racism in modern America and my sort-of professor had this insight well worth remembering:

The problems of black Americans today, putting aside this terrible event, are rooted in history, but are also rooted in the present. The face of racism today is not a slaveowner; it’s a guy in a three-piece suit at Wells Fargo who had been putting blacks into subprime mortgage, until they lost their homes in 2008. It’s the people who will not hire a black person. It’s the people who will not hire a person when they see he has a black-sounding name [on his résumé]. In other words, the point of studying history is to understand its link to the present — but it’s not to displace the problems of the present. It’s not to say this is rooted in history and the slaveowners are responsible for whatever the problem is today.

Our preoccupation with linking things we find disreputable, at least in public, with the trappings of poverty and ignorance both obscures the good work done by good people born in the nation’s most stereotyped region or who didn’t go to elite universities and blinds us to the sophisticated, white collar assaults on the lives of black Americans. We too easily pretend that class has nothing to do with race, ignoring that white Americans have long ensured black Americans remain disproportionately poor. If we condemn racism but do nothing to remedy the economics deprivations and still-extant barriers that drive it, have we done anything at all?

Slavery served as a system of racial control, but enslavers invented race to justify their economic exploitation and bring into solidarity with them poor whites who did not benefit financially from it like the great planters did. We have ended slavery, at least de jure, but the exploitation lives on. Neither removing some flags nor our applauding of the removal will do change that.

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