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.



One thought on “Does Racial Impact Imply Racist Intent?

  1. Neb

    I’ve been struggling with the question in the title of this blog. On the one hand I feel something like state laws disenfranchising felons might not have had a racist intent – but given it’s disproportionate impact (in Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia, at least 1 in 5 black Americans were unable to vote this year due to this type of law) – not rolling it back is racist.

    OTOH – I support progressive tax rates and estate taxes – but due to in equal distribution of wealth – it would be easy to make the case that they disproportionately impact people of northern European descent.

    Which makes sense – if there wealth was built in part by past racism – and it isn’t really targeted at northern Europeans they are just disproportionately impacted by a law aimed at the wealthy – but that ends up looking a lot like African Americans being impacted by a law aimed at felons…

    Anyway, struggling, I have no clear thoughts on the matter.


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