In each generation, we must recognize the subtleties of racial discrimination and address the inequities in our society.
Sociologists say we live in “the post-civil rights era.” More than 45 years ago, Congress passed the landmark civil rights bills. They guaranteed minorities access to public institutions and transportation, the right to service at previously segregated restaurants and hotels, and the right to vote without intimidation.
Even Martin Luther King’s last book was titled “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?,” reinforcing the idea that with civil rights’ victories a chapter in American history was settled.
Many saw an end to racism as the result of the gains of the civil rights movement. We marked a change in our cultural mores: bigotry was out, tolerance was in and racism faded from our collective consciousness. Or did it?
Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva believes we have entered a new reality since the civil rights era. The blatant racism and bigotry of Southern lawmen like Bull Connor and Southern governors like George Wallace and Lester Maddox has given way to what is now called “laissez-faire racism,” “colorblind racism” or simply the “new racism.”
Bonilla-Silva’s book, “Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America,” describes this new racial atmosphere as “subtle, institutional and apparently nonracial.” The new racial reality seems bland in contrast to the past.
Bonilla-Silva says, “Compared to Jim Crow racism, the ideology of color blindness seems like ‘racism lite.'”
This new racial attitude is characterized by a belief that with the victories of the civil rights movement, America’s race-related problems are behind us. Equality has been achieved; race is no longer an issue. America is poised to move forward as a colorblind society.
But Bonilla-Silva is not convinced and offers compelling evidence that we have simply entered a phase of a gentler racism that permeates our society.
For starters, this new racism is no longer personal. Bonilla-Silva explains that “for most whites, racism is [expressed as personal] prejudice.”
In the 1950s and 1960s during the civil rights struggle, photographs of angry white crowds, with faces contorted in hate-filled rage, appeared on the front pages of newspapers with each step toward desegregation. As public schools from Little Rock to Birmingham were forcibly integrated, white parents were photographed yelling obscenities and racial slurs at the little African-American children who were the first to attend previously all-white schools.
Part of King’s nonviolent tactic was to expose racism for all the world to see. Shamed by what we saw, a majority of Americans were “ready to demand that the Negro should be spared the lash of brutality,” according to King in “Where Do We Go From Here?”
Fifty years later, the lack of personal animus is interpreted as a lack of racial prejudice. One of the descriptions for the new racism is “smiling racism.” We Americans have traded our intolerance and vitriol for a public congeniality that often masks more subtle forms of discrimination. The new social watchwords are tolerance and diversity, but at the heart of racism is power that perpetuates the dominance of the majority race over minority races.
Bonilla-Silva’s book features dozens of interviews with individuals talking about racial issues. Their remarks were recorded verbatim. The new racism is reflected in many statements that begin, “I’m not a racist, but…” Interviewees finish their statements by making a comment that unfairly characterizes an entire minority group, such as “they’re all lazy” or telling an urban legend-type story about a highly qualified white “friend of a friend” who was not hired for a job.
Critics of the “new racism” often cite the election of Barack Obama as evidence that America has moved past race as an issue.
In November 2008, the New York Times ran a story about Obama’s election headlined, “Obama Elected President As Racial Barrier Falls.” Yet, in the two years since his election, the nation has witnessed public demonstrations of racial prejudice toward Obama as some demonstrators waved stuffed toy monkeys at anti-Obama rallies. Other expressions of racial prejudice directed at the president include continued questions about his birthplace and caricatures of Obama’s facial features.
In the book, “Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society,” the authors describe the new racism as “a sense of group position based on the accumulation of racial advantage.”
The book details the disparity in the accumulation of white wealth and the “disaccumulation” of African-American wealth. In other words, black Americans not only don’t keep up with whites in financial gains, they actually have lost wealth over the past two decades.
The New York Times noted the declining fortunes of African-Americans in predominantly black Memphis. Titled “Blacks in Memphis Lose Decades of Economic Gains,” the article confirmed the point made by “Whitewashing Race” – blacks are worse off economically in 2010 than they were in 1990 in Memphis.
The new racism and the racialization of American society have become the most important unaddressed issue in 21st-century America.
Charles Marsh’s book, “The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, From The Civil Rights Movement To Today,” quotes Dr. King’s vision for the civil rights movement and for America: “The end is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the beloved community.”
For America to move forward as one people, we must recognize the subtleties of racial discrimination and address the inequities in our society in each generation. For Christians, the commitment to love neighbor as self and to be peacemakers in an age of conflict means that we continue to bear witness with our words and our actions to the possibility of the “beloved community” of which King spoke.
Chuck Warnock is pastor of Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Virginia.