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Emphasising that racialisation is far from simply an event, John Powell explores the history of racial segregation in the United States and the evolution of understandings around racism’s persistence and effects on day-to-day life. Just as racialisation reinvented itself in the shape of the Jim Crow laws following the end of slavery in the 19th century, today’s race-neutral approaches to issues of social and economic inequality can in reality simply compound racial disparities, Powell contends. In an Obama age, the author argues, tackling structural racialisation can only be achieved through ‘targeted universalism’: approaches and policies true to the individual circumstances that different social groups face.

The racial landscape of America changed dramatically on 4 November 2008. Early that evening it became clear Senator Barack Obama would be the next president of the United States. What was not clear and may take some time to unfold is what this means in terms of racial justice in the US and the world. Some rush to claim that the election means the United States has moved past race and more particularly racism. Others argue that nothing has really changed and non-whites continue to face deep racial barriers. Both of these positions are much too simplistic and represent a naïve view of race. Racialisation is not simply an event, but a complicated process that reflects a social history and set of structural arrangements. There is a reason that we are likely to make the mistake that either nothing has changed or that everything has changed. Only a few years ago, it was all but impossible to imagine the US populace electing a black person to the highest position in the country. However, race still largely determines where we live, who we live with and how we live.

There is an increasing understanding that racialisation is largely a historically rooted social project. But we fail to take this insight seriously and continue to think of it in concrete terms. This failure does not help us to understand or anticipate how race has changed and continues to change based on social and cultural conditions. It is clear that the conditions and meaning of racialisation were very different before and after the Civil War, for example. For those who associated racialisation only with slavery, there were reasons to suggest that ending slavery would necessarily end racialisation and hierarchy. Most people did not anticipate the Jim Crow laws that mandated segregation and the rise of anti-black racism, which reached its zenith following the end of slavery from the late 1800s to the beginning of the 20th century.

During that time, the state-sponsored racial arrangement helped create what author Douglas Blackmon calls ‘slavery by another name’. Racialisation became different but essentially unfinished. The language of racism became part of the American lexicon during the 1930s when the word ‘racism’ first became popularised in the US, and explicit white supremacy was called into question. Events in the United States, Germany, Africa and Latin America and the rest of the world helped to usher in a new racial consciousness and set of practices. In the US, the poster child for racism was the southern segregationist explicitly holding on to claims of white supremacy and Jim Crow. This also became the challenge as the US fight against racism was a fight against Jim Crow in addition to the conscious expression of racial animus and hierarchy.

When lawyer Thurgood Marshall won the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which effectively outlawed racial segregation in education, he and millions of other Americans believed that racism was on its death bed. Marshall and others thought that ending segregation would necessarily end racism. Judge Robert Carter, who worked with Marshall on the Brown case, would later lament that he was mistaken in thinking segregation was coterminous with racial hierarchy. He further stated that segregation was not the cause of white supremacy but an expression of white supremacy. Thurgood Marshall would go on to serve on the United States Supreme Court, but he died with a deep sense of regret that much of his work to integrate schools was undone by de facto segregation. The failure to understand the mutating and multiple expressions of racialisation was also made by many whites. They feared that ending segregation and laws limiting interracial marriage would not only end racial hierarchy but would also destroy the white race.

It is important to note that around the time of the Brown decision, the housing market was being restructured so that whites were more likely to end up in suburbs. The Federal Housing Administration subsidized migration to suburbs and the Federal Highway Act of 1956 further facilitated the process of ‘white flight’ and disinvestment from urban areas. The segregation that resulted had a fundamental effect on the quality of education available to minorities living in low-income neighbourhoods. This connection between housing and education is one component of a broader reality that where you live determines your access to opportunity structures and your life chances.

By the 1960s, we began to understand that racialisation was not just an expression of conscious individual prejudice, but also an expression of institutional norms and practices. America was introduced to something called institutional racism. However, this insight never completely penetrated the heart of American discourse, partly because the United States is a country obsessed with an ideology of extreme individualism. This ideology is largely fiction, but it frames how people make sense of the world. It makes the work done by structures all but invisible. If there is racialisation, this position holds that it must be located in the conscious mind of the individual. There are a number of counter examples, but they simply do not stick within this narrative. For example, if non-whites are doing worse than whites and there is no conscious racist to blame, the failure must rest with the non-whites themselves.

American attitudes toward race have certainly changed, and it would not have been possible for a black person even of Barack Obama’s stature to be elected president even ten years ago. Today, much of the work that produces and reproduces racial hierarchy is done through institutional arrangement and structures. This is called structural racialisation. It does not mean that other racial dynamics no longer exist; they continue to play the same central role as before. There are still some people screaming about the demise of the white race and about losing control over the country, who are consciously hostile to non-whites. While these attitudes persist, they are not dominant, and as the election of Obama suggests, they do not represent majority opinion even among whites.

This suggests a change in racial attitudes in America, but not an end to racialisation. The meaning of race has changed, but change should not be confused with the end. In order to better understand this new racial dynamic, we must reject views of society and membership prevalent in the 1940s. As we travel further into the 21st century, we are likely to see another kind of racialisation that will be informed by a different understanding of society and people.

So what does racialisation in the United States look like today? First, we are talking about a process that is too unsettled to define with exactitude, but one in which some contours are clear. We as a society are more socially conscious and racially egalitarian than at any time in our short history. However, this improvement in the societal position on race is not reflected in either our conscious attitudes or our inter-institutional practices and policies. Recognising this gap, scholars have pointed to a phenomenon called implicit bias. There is a growing body of work that documents that Americans have implicit, unconscious biases which can be tested. These attitudes can shift to be more salient in some situations rather than others. One cannot identify implicit racial bias by simply asking an interviewee, because the individual will not be aware of it. In spite of this, implicit attitudes can impact behaviour and choices. It is interesting to note that implicit bias is a social phenomenon reflecting the collective social culture. This means that even non-whites are likely to carry some level of implicit bias, but generally not to the same extent as whites.

The second insight is that structures interact to produce outcomes that are not dependent on conscious or even unconscious intent. Consider the problem of climate change. It is not something that anyone intended, but rather a result of several interactive institutions and practices that have produced disturbing results. So why do institutions produce racialised outcomes? One reason is that people are situated differently in relation to institutional practices and arrangements. For instance, there is some indication that creating universal health insurance would likely make doctors less available in rural areas and to people of colour. This is because a system based solely on insurance would likely drive doctors away from areas where blacks are overrepresented.

Also, the current sub-prime lending problem has powerful racial overtones that continue to be largely ignored. A history of racially discriminatory housing and lending practices contributed to economic segregation and concentrated poverty of low income minorities. Discrimination was achieved through redlining which limited the availability of mortgage loans for minorities and through racial covenants that prevented minorities from living in certain areas. In the absence of traditional lending institutions, the practice of reverse redlining or predatory lending became prevalent as sub-prime lenders targeted these isolated communities. These sub-prime loans are high risk, and have much higher interest rates, fees and penalties. The racial impact of predatory lending is evident as sub-prime loans are three times more prevalent in low-income areas and five times more likely in African-American neighbourhoods than in predominately white neighbourhoods. As a result of the crisis, it is estimated that African-American borrowers will lose between $71–$122 billion dollars in wealth, while Latino borrowers will lose $76–$129 billion. The unwillingness to consider the racial component of the sub-prime crisis will lead many to continue blaming these communities for the problem and inevitably result in further marginalisation.

Structural racialisation as an analytical tool is a particular example of a systems approach. This approach recognises that causes are not linear or unidirectional, but cumulative, mutual and interactive. This model has been well developed in the areas of health and the environment. Recently, the economist Jeffrey Sachs in his work on poverty mentions a similar, albeit narrower systems approach which he calls clinical economics. His approach marks a shift away from the IMF’s structural adjustment programmes which adopted false universalism and promoted static economic solutions while neglecting the particularities of specific developing countries. Clinical economics partially corrects this, but it does not however pay enough attention to Western normative assumptions about culture that too easily dismiss and misinterpret cultural complexities. This does not suggest we adopt simplistic relativism that asserts our inability to understand one another, but rather the need to reject the hubris of racial objectivity based on underlying notions of superiority. Instead, we should recognise that our interconnectedness is based not only on our material situatedness, but also our interactions with others and others’ cultures, and the broader social and physical environment within which these interactions take place.

One important point Sachs makes is that two people with a fever may experience very different symptoms and each require a different diagnosis. Similarly, two people or groups of people who are poor may be experiencing very different situations. This point was made by Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal over 60 years ago in a study entitled ‘The America Dilemma’. According to Myrdal, there was a qualitative difference between black and white poverty in the United States. He asserted that blacks suffered from a cumulative causation or mutually reinforcing constraint – a set of interconnected structures, institutions and norms that operate simultaneously to produce a negative cumulative impact.

A seemingly race-neutral approach to issues of social and economic inequality and exclusion will not only fail to address the situatedness of particular groups, but may make disparities worse. This was the consequence of many race-neutral programs adopted in the US under the New Deal and after World War II. For example, the National Labor Relations Act protected the right of unions to organise, but excluded occupations such as ‘farm worker’ and ‘maid’ typically open to African-Americans. Also, the Social Security Act which claimed to provide a universal social insurance plan excluded domestic and agricultural workers in acquiescence to demands from southern politicians. In addition, there was the G.I. Bill, which appeared to be race-neutral but proved to be problematic in two ways. Blacks had a more difficult time getting into the military in part as a result of a poor, racially segregated educational system. For those who did get into the military, the G.I. Bill gave them the same federal money for education, but they had to use it in a deeply racialised education system that locked blacks out of higher education. This further contributed to disparities between blacks and whites.

Universal programmes that are likely to be pushed using a colour-blind, post-racial frame are not likely be effective in disrupting entrenched and structured racial inequality. This is not because of racial animus, but because these programmes will be mapped onto other circumstances and conditions that will translate these efforts into new racial disparities. When this happens, the public discourse seeks to explain the continued inequality. Unfortunately, instead of seeing structures and systems at work, the rationalisation is more likely to default to a personal or culture explanation that locates the failure in the marginalised group. A universal approach will only be effective if it is sensitive to the situatedness of particular groups and to the operation of institutions and policies. We call this ‘targeted universalism’.

The failure to develop a structural understanding will not only exacerbate racial inequality, but will likely usher in a new type of racialisation. This suggests that plans which fail to understand how people are positioned in relation to institutional practices are likely to have racial impacts. For example, a plan in New Jersey assumed that making affordable housing available in a race-neutral way would still address race because blacks and Latinos were more likely to be poor. However, while poverty was the major constraint holding back poor whites, there were a number of constraints operating simultaneously against blacks and Latinos. This untargeted plan benefited whites, but only marginally impacted Latinos and did not benefit blacks at all. The end result was a racially stratified housing market with blacks becoming more isolated from opportunity. It is necessary then to take an approach that is sensitive to the work of interactive institutions on the situatedness of particular populations and to the inter-sectionality of issues such as race, gender class, and sexuality.

Neglecting the role of structures and systems will allow weak structures to impede the life chances of all and limit the ability for people to contribute to society economically and politically. The structures in place impact all groups but operate unevenly. The identification of structures should not be seen as a rejection of personal responsibility or autonomy. In the US we are too often inclined to see social structures and social responsibility in direct tension with the responsibility of the individual, but this is misguided. A healthy society requires both structures and social footing to support healthy individual expression. Also, individual responsibility requires individuals to collectively call the appropriate structures and institutional arrangements into being. Political science professor Iris Marion Young made the observation that the greater the complexity of a society and its interactions across distances, the more likely relations and opportunity within that society will be mediated by institutional arrangements.

Barack Obama’s ascendancy to the US presidency has radically changed the world. However, if we are to avoid a kind of incipient individualism that allows structures to reproduce and creates new forms of racial hierarchy, we must participate in developing an understanding of situatedness and propose remedies along the lines of targeted universalism. While it is certain that the role of structural racialisation will become more important under the Obama administration, it is not clear that this is on the radar of the new administration. It remains to be seen whether the election of President-Elect Obama will move us to a type of false transcendence of race and particularity, or if it will allow us to more robustly examine the work that structures and institutions are doing to promote or hinder inclusion for racially marginalised populations.

* Professor John A. Powell is a widely recognised authority in the areas of civil rights, civil liberties and issues relating to race, poverty, and the law in the United States. He is director of the Kirwan Institute for the
Study of Race and Ethnicity, Colombus, Ohio.

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