Monthly Archives: September 2012

Does Racial Impact Imply Racist Intent?

Current political debate often becomes bogged down over questions about what is racism and how to determine when it exist. Conservatives typically argue that it is necessary to demonstrate pre-meditated personal intent to prove racism, much like first degree murder. They are inclined to view laws and policies that have a negative impact on racial minorities as something along the lines of collateral damage and not deliberately intentional. This approach ignores the historical structure of a society with systematically constructed institutions that perpetuate the impacts of racial discrimination.

Historically we can see a pattern of laws that were clear and explicit in their intent and purpose to discriminate against racial groups. Their impact fell almost exclusively on those groups. The Immigration Act of 1790 limited naturalized citizenship to free white men. This provision remained in force until 1952. The Jim Crow laws that required segregation of schools and public accomodations were explicitly racial. Starting at the beginning og the 20th C there was a broad national movement to develop a system of city zoning laws across the country. Many of these ordinances included explicit provisions for the exclusion of non-white persons from single family residential zones. These are but a few examples of the kind a openly racist legal structure that existed in the US. Even after the passage of the 14th amendment they were sanctioned by the Supreme Court.

The is another category of laws that has a disproportionate impact on the lives and circumstances of racial minorities, but are not explicit in their purpose and intent. Some of the major pieces of new deal legislation fall into this category. The congressional delegations from southern states used thier leverage to modify the original proposals in ways that would have a negative impact of blacks living in the south. However, race is not explicitly mentioned in the actual legislation. One example is the Social Security Act of 1935. It was modofied in committee to exclude workers employed in agricultue or domestic service. This amemdment effectively excluded 70-80% of the black workers in the south. It also excluded white workers who were employed in those industries. We have a historical record of southern politicians making public statements about their intentions in demanding amendments to the legislation.

Beginning in the 1950s US public opinion about race and racial discrimination began to shift. This was propeled by the rising force of the civil rights movement. There were court decisions and legislative actions that eliminated most of the explicitly racist laws. Conservative opinion would have us believe that by the beginning of the 1970s racism had vanished from America and that we now live in a color blind society. Unfortunately such claims do not stand up to present day reality.

There is a continuing economic gap between whites on one hand and balcks and Latinos on the other. The disparities are consistent in income, accumulated wealth and poverty levels. It has now been over 40 years since we took the signs off the restroom doors and dismantled the other visible forms of Jim Crow. Yet minorities have never even begun to catch up. There are clearly observable patterns of the persistence of historical discrimination.

One of the most fundamental factors influencing these continuing disparities are the long established housing patterns. A substantial majority of Americans continue to live in neighborhoods that are racially segregated in practical terms. Most people are inclined to attribute this to the impacts of income disparities. However, a close look at the history of city planning and real estate finance, tell a very different story. I plan to write about this history in some detail. The summary version is that racially exclusive zoning ordinances, restrictive covenants and the government initiated practice of redlining were all systematic and purposeful steps taken to create a national pattern of housing in which the ever spreading suburbs were almost exclusively white and people of color were relegated to decaying inner city neighborhoods. Much of the justification of these practices was made in terms of maintaining property values. The various forms of official government housing discrimination were abolished during the 60s. However, there is a continuing pattern of such discrimination on the part of private lenders and developers, driven by concerns about property values. It was a major factor in the recent sub prime mortgage crisis.

A wide range of other racial impacts have flowed from the housing arrangements. They have a significant impact on matters such as education and employment. Property taxes have traditionally been a primary source of funding for schools. School districts are typically tied to municipalities. High value suburbs have stronger tax bases than minority communities. The efforts of federal courts to reduce school segregation by forced busing created major political controversy with limited success. There has been a general retreat from the practice for a number of years. The movement of office parks and shopping centers to the suburbs have transferred large numbers of jobs from central city business districts. Inner city residents typically lack resources of public transportation for a “reverse” commute.

We continue to have a society that is strongly configured along racial lines. For most white people living in their suburban bubble this really isn’t apparent because in the normal course of events it is not their lives that are impacted by it. It is when there is an unexpected disruption to this pattern that their comfortable mindset begins to turn on alarm bells. If a black family moves into the neighborhood there is likely to be a flurry of concern about declining property values. If a black man is seen walking down the street in a neighborhood where he is not “supposed” to be, then the odds of a phone call to the police greatly increase. There is a raft of political and economic factors supporting these arrangements and these attitudes. They result from previous policies and practices that were explicitly racists and some current ones that are more covertly so. It can be termed structural or institutional racism.

So what about the people who don’t want black neighbors or call the police when the see a black person on the street. Are they racists? Doubtless they would claim that they are not. They would say that they are simply trying to protect the “legitimate” rights of their families. Certainly they don’t look a lot like people wearing sheets and burning crosses. However, we live is a society that was build on pervasive racism and we can’t escape it. There is some amount of it in all of us.



A Look at the US’ Historically Schizophrenic Immigration Policy

Most of us can remember the touching spectacle of Meg Whitman running for governor of California in all of her Republican splendor. In the home stretch of the campaign she was confronted by the fact that she had hired a nanny who didn’t have one of those little green cards. Such a heartbreaking sight to watch this paragon of traditional society and law and order sputtering around. Ms. Whitman’s difficulties neatly encapsulate the contradictions of the history of US immigration policy. How do you get cheap labor and maintain racial purity?

There is nothing whatsoever new about the debate over immigration in US society. Throughout the entire history of the country it has been a struggle between economic interests looking for a supply of cheap labor and essentially racist movements who claim to be protecting the interests of the “rightful” real Americans. Immigration, both voluntary and involuntary has been a central theme in out history. Our economic and political institutions have been and continue to be shaped by it. The notions of who qualifies as a “real” American has shifted over time as various of people have been identified as the alien threat of the moment. For all of the myth of the melting pot, there has never been a time when the Emma Lasuras poem on the Statue of Liberty represented a national consensus.

In the spirit of manifest destiny the dominant Anglo-Saxon US establishment had taken control of the North American continent by the middle of the 19th C. They found themselves with more space and resources than they really knew what to do with. Thus began the revolving search for cheap help that continues to this day. People came in large numbers from Europe and Asia. The African slaves were mostly confined to the south and remained there after they were at least technically no longer slaves. There was ongoing debate about European and Asian immigrants that periodically erupted into violence. There was the recurring strain of racism that saw differences from the WASP establishment as marks of inferiority. During economic downturns there were populist uprisings blaming the newest immigrants for the shortage of jobs.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first legal restriction placed on immigration. In 1907 the so called gentleman’s agreement to cutoff Japanese immigration was negotiated. These actions curtailed the supply of labor to the expanding economy of of the West. Industries such as agriculture, mining and railroads turned their eyes south of the border in a search for replacements. The pressures of WW I raised the level of nationalism and xenophobia. The Immigration Act of 1917 cutoff all immigration from Asia. The first red scare following the war was added to the brew of racist hysteria resulting in the Immigration Act of 1924 which imposed draconian restrictions on immigration from the more threatening sections of Europe. The golden door to was officially closed to the huddled masses from across the sea.

No quota was placed on immigration from Mexico and the various industrial interests managed to get most of the administrative difficulties placed in the path of immigrants waived. Mexican workers were seen as an ideal source of cheap docile labor that could easily be shoved back over the border when they weren’t needed. At the same time black workers from the South began to migrate north to fill the cheap labor gap that had resulted from the greatly diminished flow of European immigrants.

In 1929 what can be seen as a first version of immigrant amnesty was passed as the Registry Act, it provided for full legalization of status for immigrants who had been in the US since 1921. With the arrival of the depression the tide turned and workers became a surplus commodity. The various forms of racist hostility that had previously directed toward immigrants from Europe and Asia were now focused on Mexicans. The American Federation of Labor decided that they were the enemies of the American working class. More radical unions came along and attempted to organize agricultural workers in California. There was a series of brutal and nasty strikes, with not a lot gained in the way of labor rights. The Wagner Act of 1935 that opened the door to union organizing in northern industrial states, specifically excluded agricultural workers from its provisions. They was done at the behest of the Jim Crow oligarchs.

With the arrival of WW II the tide turned again. Suddenly there was a severe shortage of labor particularly in agriculture at a time when the US needed to maximize its food producing capacity. Locking up all the Japanese farmers in concentration camps added to the problem. This led to the establishment of the bracero program of contract labor of workers from Mexico. As implemented by the US government it was a form of virtual indentured servitude. It brought a large number of contract workers to the US under controlled conditions. However, the demand for labor attracted others on undocumented status. The pendulum had swung back to a relatively open door. With the end of the war which had created the emergency justifying the bracero program, the agricultural interests were able to use their political muscle to get it continued. Border enforcement was kept light, particularly during harvest season and the flow of undocumented migrants continued to grow. Undocumented workers were attractive to employers who didn’t even have to make a token pretense of following the government regulations of the contract program.

This pattern of schizophrenic immigration policy has continued to the present day. It has really been in existence in some form since the beginning of the nation. Having Mexican workers as the primary focus of the conflict has been in effect for almost a century. It seems improbable that there is any way to resolve the forces of racism and greed which continue to propel it.


The New Deal: Designed for Jim Crow

The great depression created an earthquake in American politics second only to that brought by the civil war. It led to sweeping changes in political and economic institutions and in class relations. Looking back on it from the perspective of 80 years progressives are inclined to romanticize it and conservatives to vilify it. However the political maneuverings involved in passing legislation were complex and messy. The Roosevelt administration could not pass legislation without the votes of the southern delegations. In the tradition of the Solid South they acted as a unified bloc. As a price for their votes they demanded and got modifications to social and economic programs that cut racial minorities out of the picture.

In 1877 in order to get the necessary votes to end the Hays-Tilden presidential standoff, the party of Lincoln, like Pontius Pilate, washed its hands of the brief efforts at reconstruction in the south. The white oligarchs and former slave owners regained political control and for the next century they were utterly dedicated to maintaining the tightest possible authoritarian control. They established a system of racial control that became known as Jim Crow. Like most authoritarian states it became a one party political structure. Republicans virtually did not exist. Thus, the congressional delegations from southern states were exclusively Democratic and they stuck solidly together in defense of racial segregation. During the long period of Republican domination of national politics, southerners composed a majority of Democrats in congress. With the great landslide of 1932 the Democrats took over control of congress. The southern bloc was now a minority within that party, but they were still a large minority. They had enough votes to make or break the passage of any legislation. Their one party system at home meant that southern congressmen and senators were likely to be reelected, gaining seniority and the control of important committees.

Jim Crow restrictions applied to African Americans in all of the southern states. At that point about 75% of them still lived in the south. They also applied to Mexican Americans in Texas. Laws were devised to effectively deny them the right to vote. The electorate was almost all white. The southern economy had been essentially disconnected from the industrial revolution taking place in the northeastern quadrant of the country. It remained an overwhelmingly agrarian society. With very few exceptions racial minorities were employed in agricultural labor or domestic service. They typically received wages significantly below those of white workers. Preserving this cheap labor was a major agenda of the southern establishment. The south was the poorest region of the country.

There were a number of major pieces of new deal legislation that were substantially modified to conform to the demands of southern racists. These included:

The Agricultural Adjustment Act

The Social Security Act

The National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act)

The Federal Housing Act


The Agricultural Adjustment Act established the system of agricultural subsidies and price supports that is still with us today. One of the major economic problems of the depression was serious deflation. This had caused the prices of goods to fall below the cost of production. The approach taken by the AAA was to provide incentive payments to farmers to take land out of production. Reducing the supply of agricultural products would raise prices. Taking large amounts of land out of production meant that agricultural labor would be out of work. This had a devastating impact on wage workers and share croppers. The southern congressional bloc supported the idea of payments to land owners. However, they opposed the efforts of liberals in the administration to see to it that a portion of the payments would go directly to the displaced workers and share croppers. Jim Crow won the fight and the displaced workers helped to fuel the great migration depicted in The Grapes Of Wrath.

The Social Security Act created the Social Security program and public assistance programs that became generally known as welfare. Social Security is still with us today but regularly under attack. The general plan was to create a dedicated tax that would fund pension benefits for all workers. However, the southern oligarchs saw this as a threat to their supply of cheap colored labor. They demanded that agricultural and domestic workers be excluded from the program. At the time that impacted a large majority of black workers in the south.

The National Labor Relations Act gave labor unions significant new rights to organize American workers for collective bargaining. It resulted in a major expansion of union membership in the industrialized sections of the country. Again the southern congressional delegations held the bill ransom until agricultural workers were excluded from its provisions. They were willing to vote for unions in northern factories as long as southern blacks were cut out of the arrangement. As the south became more industrialized during WW II they suddenly found themselves with industries that were covered under the Wagner Act. In 1947 the southern congressional bloc switched sides and voted with the Republicans to pass the Taft Hartley Act limiting the rights of organized labor.

The Federal Housing Act created a role for the federal government in subsidizing and regulating real estate finance. During the 1920s under the patronage of Hubert Hoover, first as Sec, of Commerce and then as president, a public private partnership had emerged that supported the use of zoning regulations and restrictive covenants to promote racially segregated housing development. The housing finance agencies established under the new deal turned to many of the people who had been active in this movement. They adopted regulations that established the practice of redlining. People of color were effectively excluded from government subsidized mortgages.

These are examples of some of the major pieces of new deal legislation that were deliberately structured in ways to make them racially exclusionary in practice. The south as a whole was the region that received the greatest economic benefit from the new deal. It provided a transfer of wealth from the northern industrial states to the south. However, it was overwhelmingly white southerners who benefited from the operation. The force of Jim Crow was able to exert control and influence all along the way. The results of those efforts still have impact on the lives and wealth of African Americans today. 

Henry Louis Gates and Trayvon Martin: Protecting White Space

There have been two highly visible recent incidents that started me thinking seriously about race and space. The first was the arrest of Dr. Henry Gates when he was simply occupying his own home. The other was what I view as the murder of Trayvon Martin. The first of these ended in a fairly polite conversation on the White House lawn, The second has resulted in the tragic death of a young man who was minding his own legitimate business and an effort by many to celebrate his killer as a victim of black aggression. What both incidents make clear in my mind is that there are many supposedly public spaces in this country where there is a tacit understanding that blacks, particularly black men, are under an obligation to justify their presence in those spaces. That understanding is most often linked to neighborhoods that are all or predominantly white.


If Dr. Gates had been a white middle aged college professor it is high unlikely that anyone would have called the police because he was trying to get into his own house. If the police had arrived and found a middle aged white college professor they would have been respectful and apologetic about disturbing him. Even though George Zimmerman is clearly not the brightest light bulb on the tree, it seems unlikely that he would have found it necessary to stage a confrontation with a white man walking down the street. These two incidents came to public visibility in part because the president commented on them and his own racial connection turned that into a matter of controversy. However, incidents like that are playing out the same social dynamics are happening many times in many places everyday in this country.


While it is difficult to get a picture of Zimmerman as a person through all the hype and debate, he may well qualify as what many of us think of as a racist, a person motivated by prejudice and hate. The woman who called the police about Dr. Gates and Officer Crowley who investigated the complaint don’t fit so easily into this traditional stereotype. Yet, they were caught up as actors in the structure of institutionalized racism.


I followed discussions about both of these situations on the internet. What struck me was the large number of people who are at great pains to claim that they aren’t racists but still attempt to justify this kind of enforcement activity as being necessary to the protection of legitimate public safety. We dismantled the de jure structures of Jim Crow over 40 years ago. Yet we still live in a society that is deeply racist. Most of the racism that occurs on a daily basis is embedded in the structural fabric of our society. It has been created through out the history of the country. It appears in the constitution in the way that native Americans are pushed out into fictitiously separate nations and the slaves counted as 3/5 of a person. It appeared in the first immigration act of 1790 when naturalized citizenship was restricted to free white men.


There has been a long history of both formal and informal approaches to erecting legal, political and economic structures to support systematic racism. There have been two notable periods in which there were reactions against some of these structures. The passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were outcomes of the civil war. The only one that fully took was the 13th. We did abolish formal legal slavery. Conservative courts readily assured the nation that we need not be inconvenienced by the 14th and the 15th was roundly ignored as all the southern states instituted Jim Crow regimes that in practical terms returned the former slaves to conditions of bondage.


The civil rights movement that reached its zenith in the 1960s reopened the issues of racial justice that had been kept on the back burner. The marches and the murders did result in legislation and court decisions that dismantled the institutional structures of southern Jim Crow regimes. Openly enforced segregation became illegal. The courts revisited the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment and suddenly discovered that separate really wasn’t all that equal. As a college student I participated on the fringe of that movement. At the time I believed along with many others that a new dawn had arrived. In the years that have followed it has become apparent that far more of the structures that buttress racism were left in place than those that were changed.


Racism is embedded in most of the institutional structures of our society. It is difficult to see patterns that have always been before our eyes, especially if they are eyes that have enjoyed the benefits of white privilege. Tracing the history of how these institutional structures developed not only helps to make their present reality more visible, it also makes it clear that they exist not by accident, but by purpose and design. Our present state of affairs is the result of almost a century of government and economic policy. Much of it has its genesis in the politics of the New Deal and the role played by the congressional delegations of the solid south.