THE DYNAMICS OF DISCRIMINATION AGAINST AFRICAN AMERICANS
Identifiability of African Americans
Being black poses a problem in a white world: You stand out, and dramatically so. Black and white are perceived as opposite colors; a black person cannot easily “blend” into a predominantly white America. Skin color is, in the biological
sense, a minor genetic trait, but in the sociological sense it is anything but minor. Identifiability makes people easy targets of discrimination. Most members of white ethnic groups look like the dominant population, and most Latinos are not physically identifiable as members of an ethnic group. Black people cannot shed their color, but co-mingling has occurred since the Africans were pressed into slavery, resulting in generations of individuals with various degrees of dark-skin pigmentation. Interethnic marriages have increased somewhat in recent dec- ades, further influencing the color balance of the American population. Yet skin color, no matter what the permutation, continues to identify some as targets of discrimination.
Sociocultural traits also contribute to discrimination. Poverty and unem- ployment statistics for African Americans reflect their disproportionate repre- sentation in the lower classes; demeanor, speech, and dress further distinguish many members of the African American community. These characteristics are reinforced by black culture, which has evolved in reaction to slavery and the discrimination that blacks have endured since “emancipation.”
Even when socioeconomic standing and/or culture are not obvious, skin color alone remains as a basis of discrimination. For example, Joe Feagin (1991) conducted in-depth interviews with black middle-class persons and found that they experienced discrimination in public places, such as restaurants, stores, swimming pools, and parking areas. Thus, to be denied service, to be told to go, or to suffer epithets are still very common experiences for blacks in America. The prejudice and discrimination that middle-class African Americans live with cannot be attributed to class or culture, but simply to skin color
Negative Beliefs about African Americans
More than any other ethnic population in the United States, and perhaps in the world, African Americans have been the victims of negative beliefs and stereo- types. Negative beliefs have also reinforced the identifiability of blacks, making them unique in a negative way. Such stereotypes have then been used to legit- imize discrimination in a society whose core values are based on liberty, free- dom, and equality (Andrews, 1994; Staples, 1975).
In the early period of slavery, from 1650 to 1820, whites viewed Africans as “uncivilized heathens,” “bestial,” “sexually aggressive,” and as suffering the “curse of God” who made them black (Jordan, 1968; Turner and Singleton, 1978). Although there is some debate as to whether all white southerners held such hard views (Roediger, 1991:24), these beliefs changed somewhat when abolition- ists in the North challenged them. Slavery became a “positive good,” protecting Africans from their “savage impulses” and responding to their “childlike dependency.” Yet, even in the abolitionist North, stereotypes portrayed Africans as ignorant, lazy, and immoral (Fredrickson, 1971:51). During this period the “black Sambo” stereotype evolved (Boskin, 1986), which portrayed black people as childlike, helpless, shuffling, and fumbling (but with potentially aggressive tendencies) (see Box 5.1)
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After the Civil War, when the short-lived but significant gains of radical Reconstruction were undone, African Americans were portrayed as inferior because they had not been able to take advantage of the “equal opportunities” offered by Reconstruction. Even in enlightened circles, blacks were often por- trayed as not having progressed as far as whites on the evolutionary scale; so, without segregation as well as supervision and control, African Americans would revert to their more primitive state. In the South, this state was perceived to be one of laziness, criminality, and lustfulness (especially for white women, a belief that conveniently overlooked some slaveholders’ lust for black women); in the North, this state was viewed as one of childlike docility and kindness that needed to be channeled (by whites). Whether vicious or benign, treatment of African Americans was based on the belief that black people are biologically inferior and must be segregated (Fredrickson, 1971).
Between the world wars, from 1914 to 1941, evolutionary theory and results on intelligence tests were interpreted to confirm as “scientific fact” the inferior- ity of blacks, although social scientists began to attack this position and to argue that the differences between black people and white people (as well as all
“races”) were the result of environmental rather than biological differences. Yet the prevailing belief continued to advocate segregation as necessary and desirable in order to prevent “black inferiority” from diminishing the white biological stock.
The post–World War II period saw a dramatic shift in beliefs about African Americans. A consensus slowly emerged in more progressive circles that segre- gation was harmful, that blacks were not innately inferior, that the appearance of inferiority reflected cultural deprivation stemming from undesirable envi- ronments, and that improvements in schooling, job opportunities, and neigh- borhoods were the key to making life better for African Americans. Such progressive beliefs began to shape broad public perceptions (though not universally), and perhaps more significantly, they began to affect federal governmental policies, at least to a degree. Yet many still believed that integra- tion was unnecessary and undesirable.
More recently, beliefs about African Americans have been mixed. Three decades ago, 65 percent of Americans believed that blacks were unmotivated, and only a decade ago almost 50 percent thought that blacks were lazy (see Turner and Payne, 2002, for a summary of the most recent poll results summa- rized in the following). These attitudes have softened somewhat, but not as much as one might think. In 2000, half of Americans still believed that African Americans lacked motivation, and one-third saw blacks as lazy. Moreover, pub- lic sentiment for government assistance for African Americans had turned much more harsh than it was at the peak of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Only 40 percent of Americans thought that government should aid blacks; and only 30 percent believed that government should ensure fair treat- ment in jobs. And between 30 percent and 40 percent believed just a decade ago that blacks “should not go where they are not wanted” and that it is acceptable to “keep blacks out of the neighborhood.” These kinds of attitudes have made it extremely difficult for African Americans to feel comfortable in so many con- texts critical to their well-being, because a significant proportion of the popula- tion holds negative beliefs about their motives and their rights to fair treatment.
Indeed, beliefs have hardened against help for African Americans over the last decade (for example, see Box 5.2). Some people think that liberal policies have gone too far: “Affirmative action,” or measures designed to rectify past patterns of discrimination, is often seen to discriminate against white people; busing destroys neighborhood schools; and integration forces people to live near those whom they would rather avoid. Others believe that liberal policies have encouraged African Americans to depend on government for welfare, jobs, and education, thereby preventing many blacks from improving their lives. Many others, fearing the emergence of an urban underclass of angry, un- employed youth, have called for more government spending on programs to provide opportunities for African Americans. Some have urged the government and the private sector to provide real rather than illusory opportunities. Others feel that individuals and communities must develop their own resources to break the cycle of poverty and government dependency. This last outlook has gained some currency over the last few years and has been used to cut back federal aid programs for the poor in general and African Americans in particu- lar. Some believe that “minorities are getting too much” at the expense of whites (Kluegel and Bobo, 1993). The passage of Proposition 209 (California Civil Rights Initiative) by the majority of California voters in the 1996 November election was fueled by the belief that “minorities had received more than their share” at the expense of white persons. And, in response to these sentiments, the welfare reform of 1996 ensured that the poor would get less, and for a shorter period of time.
What people say on a survey is often very different from what they really feel, and as a result, African Americans must constantly be aware that people will express in words or deeds their negative attitudes. White Americans cannot imagine what it is like to confront uncertainty in almost every situation about how one will be treated. This diffuse anxiety takes a heavy toll on African Americans, who must constantly monitor others to see if negative attitudes to- ward them will become manifest, and few whites are willing to even consider the psychological costs to African Americans, to say nothing of the sociological costs of experiencing subtle forms of discrimination in jobs, schools, public places, and neighborhoods.
Many studies document that when blacks and whites have opportunities to interact and associate, prejudicial attitudes decline. But this is at the interper- sonal level; at a community level, a different picture emerges. Ironically, nega- tive beliefs about African Americans tend to increase as their percentage of the local population increases. Marylee Taylor (1998), for example, found that whites’ prejudices toward blacks increased as the percentage of blacks in a community rose. Even when blacks were highly segregated and, hence, not in contact with whites, prejudice increased. In contrast, prejudice did not increase significantly when the proportion of other minorities, such as Latinos, increased in a community. Thus, African Americans’ presence escalates fears and preju- dice in ways not typical of other minorities, and these prejudices represent an enormous burden to African Americans.
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Institutionalized Discrimination against African Americans
Legal Discrimination Dominant beliefs usually become codified into laws; in turn, these laws sanction certain types of behavior. So it was with beliefs about blacks in America, against whom it was once legal to discriminate. Moreover, undermining and, often, defying the law are informal discriminatory practices that are not codified but are deemed appropriate in a climate in which the law makes discrimination acceptable.
Legal Discrimination under Slavery and in Slavery’s Aftermath It is diffi- cult to determine whether the first Africans in America were slaves or inden- tured servants; the historical record is not clear on this point (Jordan, 1962). By the 1650s, however, there is evidence that some colonies had laws distinguish- ing between white and black servants, with black servants and their children consigned to servitude for life. By the early eighteenth century, the broad legal framework of slavery in the South had become clearly codified (Stampp, 1956; Starobin, 1970:7):
- Slaves were both property and persons; owners held title to blacks as
property and had some responsibilities to blacks as persons.
not testify against whites in court, nor could they sit on juries.
Such codes reaffirmed beliefs about the “bestiality” of slaves and legitimized slavery by making it acceptable for white Americans to buy slave labor. In the North, the laws were considerably more benign, but few questioned the biolog- ical inferiority of blacks or the norm of economic, educational, and political discrimination (Fredrickson, 1971:1–43, 1981, 1988; Litwack, 1961:30–38). With the admission of border and southern states to the Union in the early 1800s, a considerable amount of debate in Congress ensued over the legal rights of African-origin people. The coexistence of free blacks in the North and slaves in southern and border states made it difficult to define the constitutional rights of slaves in the growing Union. The issue was effectively avoided in 1821 when Missouri was admitted to the Union, for Congress enacted a loosely worded law that allowed the states to legislate as they pleased, with the proviso that no
citizens “shall be excluded from the enjoyment of any of the privileges and im- munities to which such citizen is entitled under the Constitution of the United States.” Thereafter, until the Civil War, northern laws were increasingly relaxed, while southern legislatures passed ever more restrictive laws.
Abolitionist pleas for at least “humane treatment” of the “inferior race” were beginning to have a small impact on public opinion, and those states with few black residents began to accord them broader citizenship rights. However, these formal laws contradicted informal Jim Crow practices of the North, which, despite the lofty tenets of formal laws, excluded most African Americans from access to jobs, education, and housing (Woodward, 1966)
It appears likely that the abolitionist ideology was used retroactively to justify a massive northern invasion of the South for economic and political reasons. Nevertheless, the war abolished forever the institution of slavery, and, hence, the economic base of the South. In 1866, the abolition of slavery was formally ratified in the Thirteenth Amendment.
In reaction, southern states began to enact black codes restricting the rights of freed slaves. These codes were enforced through violence, which, for the remainder of the century, was to become the key to maintaining black subordi- nation to whites. The details of these codes varied, but several restrictions were
common to all of them. Blacks could not (1) vote, (2) serve on juries, (3) testify against whites, (4) carry arms, and (5) enter certain occupations (depending on the state). The codes also stated that black vagrants could be consigned to forced labor. Thus, after the Civil War, the free South was unified in its attempts to impose new legal restrictions on African Americans.
In reaction to these codes, the violence used to enforce them, and percep- tions that President Andrew Johnson was being too conciliatory toward the South, radical Republicans in Congress began to assume control of Reconstruc- tion. The radicals in Congress mounted a two-front legal attack on discrimin- ation in the South by advocating (1) the division of the South into military districts and the enforcement of new constitutional conventions on each southern state and (2) the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amend- ments, which were ratified by northern and reconstituted southern states in 1868 and 1870, respectively. The Fourteenth Amendment was an extension of an earlier civil rights act (vetoed by Johnson and then overridden by Congress) that was designed to overrule the emerging black codes. The Fifteenth Amendment extended suffrage to African Americans. Reforms in the South were soon followed by the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which outlawed northern Jim Crow practices. In this way, Congress forced the South and, to a lesser extent, the North to accept black participation in mainstream American life.
Had radical Reconstruction continued over several generations, institu- tionalized discrimination in America would have been markedly reduced. However, by 1880, the radical Republicans had lost control of Congress and the presidency. Almost immediately, new exclusionary laws were passed at local and state levels. These laws were, in essence, a codification of informal practices of segregation and exclusion, reinforced by the ever-present threat of white violence (Williamson, 1984:229). In turn, the Supreme Court began to legitimize the reemergence of Jim Crow practices in the 1890s. First, the Court de- clared unconstitutional the Civil Rights Act of 1875, thus denying African Americans access to public conveyances and amusement facilities used by white Americans. Then, in 1896, the Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that seg- regated facilities for blacks and whites were not in violation of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, since, as the Court declared: “If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution cannot put them on the same plane” (Pinkney, 1969:28).
Codifying exclusionary and segregationist practices in the highest laws of the land firmly established the culture and structure of discrimination in America, in both institutional and informal practice (Cella, 1982; Horowitz and Karst, 1969). It was with this national legal legacy that blacks entered the twentieth century (Steele, 1990). During this period, African Americans became increasingly urban. In the North, however, a myriad of discriminatory laws pre- vented black integration into white institutions and black participation in the world of white American affluence. Many did not consider such laws illegal or immoral; they were legitimized by the highest court in the land and reflected the post–Civil War belief that blacks had been given a chance and had demon- strated their inferiority. These court decisions were subsequently reversed, bu
great damage had been done and informal discrimination in housing, jobs, education, and other spheres persists to this day. Such formal legal barriers and the informal climate of discrimination they created made up the legacy which African Americans sought to overturn in the civil rights movement of the twen- tieth century (see Box 5.6).
Legal Discrimination in the Twentieth Century Through the first half of the twentieth century, state and local codes discriminated against blacks in many vital areas of life. In education, African Americans in the South attended
segregated and inferior schools, a circumstance supported by state and local codes and enforced with threats of and actual violence from the white commu- nity. In housing, Federal Housing Authority (FHA) codes prevented integration of housing subsidized by the FHA, which confirmed and reaffirmed restrictive covenants in trust deeds (that certain ethnic groups could not own property in an area) and discriminatory lending practices of bankers. In the job market, most craft unions and many industrial unions established rules that either restricted or forbade black membership or created separate black auxiliary (and less powerful and effective) unions; in both cases, these practices prevented African Americans from moving beyond a narrow range of lower-paying jobs. In politics, especially in the South, state and local governments enacted voting laws that were differentially enforced for blacks and whites, a practice that kept African Americans disenfranchised. For example, in the 1890s and after, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia all enforced literacy tests for blacks but not for whites (Bell, 1973). Since two-thirds of the black population in these states was illiterate at that time, the vast majority of African Americans were disenfranchised. Such literacy tests, often loaded with trick questions, were common well into the twentieth cen- tury. In contrast, illiterate whites could have the literacy requirement waived if they owned property or if they revealed a “good character” or could under- stand English. Across all sectors of society, then, African Americans confronted laws and rules that excluded them into the 1960s.
From this blatant legal discrimination—which reinforced and encouraged informal discrimination in housing, schools, jobs, and politics—the civil rights movement was born. For two decades, in the 1950s and 1960s, blacks and sym- pathetic whites organized to eliminate the legal basis of discrimination. They employed a broad array of tactics—lawsuits culminating in Supreme Court decisions, mass protests, boycotts, sit-ins, and lobbying in Congress. The first big legal victory was the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which declared segregated schooling inherently inferior and, hence, discriminatory (Kluger, 1975). By the 1960s, public opinion outside the South had become sympathetic to the black struggle. The result was the enactment of a series of significant laws—the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968. Congress passed these laws to eliminate legal and informal discrimination in employment, unions, housing, voting booths, and schools.
These laws were not enacted until 100 years after the Civil War. Although they have helped African Americans enormously, these relatively recent laws cannot reverse the damage done by a long history of legal discrimination. Indeed, it was during the hundred years after the Civil War that the United States was transformed into an affluent, industrial society; yet, many African Americans were not allowed to be beneficiaries of this national success.
Undoing the legacy of legal discrimination is a formidable challenge to American society in the present century. Unfortunately, the 1980s and early 1990s did not evidence a strong commitment to meeting the challenge. In fact, there even were efforts to weaken some laws; for example, the Reagan and first
Bush administrations sought to soften the Voting Rights Act by limiting funding for its enforcement by the Justice Department, and by supporting a civil rights law that practically eliminated the Voting Rights Act. Moreover, attempts to reinterpret other laws in the courts, especially with respect to the affirmative action policies stemming from the Civil Rights Act, and to enforce laws selec- tively, particularly with respect to job and housing discrimination, were made by Congress and the presidents of the 1980s and 1990s. Most important is the near absence of political will to create laws to help African Americans over- come the cumulative effects of legal exclusion from the American mainstream. This lack of political will exists because the majority of Americans believe that today the inequities African Americans experience are the result of their lack of motivation and individual effort (Kluegel and Bobo, 1993; Kluegel and Smith, 1986). When a voting majority does not see the present problem, it is difficult to redress past discrimination. It is not surprising, then, that many African Americans continue to meet obstacles in their efforts to participate fully in the institutional structure—economy, education, politics, and housing—of the society.
Nowhere is the lack of knowledge about the cumulative effects of discrimi- nation more evident than in the area of affirmative action. The civil rights laws of the 1960s, as interpreted by Executive Order 11246, required organizations doing business with, or receiving funds from, the government to increase minority representation in those organizations (Jaynes and Williams, 1989:316). In practice, these government mandates applied primarily to businesses receiv- ing (directly or indirectly) government contracts, and to education, especially higher education. As affirmative action policies were more rigorously enforced in the 1970s and early 1980s, they became increasingly unpopular. Charges (both legal and informal) of reverse discrimination could be heard from some white employees and students. Moreover, one effect of affirmative action was the creation of informal quotas favoring members of minority groups and, to a lesser extent, women in male-dominated occupations and in the sphere of edu- cation; this public perception that quotas do indeed exist is then used to vali- date the charge that some whites are the victims of discrimination. This charge has led many people to believe that affirmative action no longer is about equal- ity of opportunities but is about group preferences. Yet, without affirmative action, or a similar policy, how are the effects of past discrimination to be over- come? Without some degree of preference afforded African Americans affected by past discrimination, many will have difficulty achieving equality with white Americans in school and in the workplace.
In recent decades, the courts have issued somewhat contradictory decisions (Jaynes and Williams, 1989; Marger, 2000), perhaps reflecting the public’s ambivalence over affirmative action. In some cases, such as Weber v. Kaiser Aluminum in 1979, the Supreme Court ruled that employers could use “race” as a criterion for hiring and could employ quotas. A year earlier, however, in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Bakke, a white male who had been denied entrance into medical school because of quotas for minority students. During the Reagan and first Bush
administrations, the Supreme Court, which had been generally supportive of affirmative action, began to shift as new appointees to the Court began to influ- ence decisions. Recent decisions not only have weakened the impact of affirma- tive action but have also made it more difficult for members of minority groups to prove in court that they have been victims of discrimination. As the Court’s composition shifted again in the 1990s, it became difficult to predict the fate of affirmative action programs, but it is unlikely that any new laws will be enacted to bolster affirmative action programs in light of the general public’s hostility to such programs (Kluegel and Bobo, 1993; Takaki, 1987:223–32). Indeed in 1996, the Hopwood v. Texas decision, the first major decision since Bakke, went against the University of Texas, which had sought to use “race” as a criterion for special admission policies; and in a highly controversial decision in 1996, the Board of Regents of the University of California eliminated race and ethnicity as criteria for special admission to the university, a decision that was challenged in the courts but that, like the Hopwood ruling, worked against affirmative action as it was practiced in the 1970s and 1980s.
Despite gains in treatment by the legal system, the most volatile point of con- tact between African Americans and the legal system is the police. In a 1999 Gallup poll of blacks and whites on the question of whether or not the police pro- file blacks for questioning, 77 percent of African Americans say they believe that such targeting of blacks occurs, and four out of ten say that they have been stopped for no reason other than the color of their skin (Jet, 2000). This figure in- creases dramatically among young black men, 72 percent of whom indicate that they have been stopped, some many times. Despite these figures, it is rather sur- prising that a majority of African Americans have a positive opinion of their local police, but still over one-third do not. And a clear majority of African American men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four have highly negative views about the police—not surprising, since this is the targeted group. A somewhat surprising finding from the poll is that a majority of white Americans—some 56 percent—believe that police profiling of blacks is widespread. Thus, it is clear that negative stereotypes of young black males have worked against the black population, who are much more likely to be stopped routinely and questioned by the police than are their white counterparts. Like all Americans, African Americans want to be treated fairly by the police, since this is the portion of the legal system that directly touches their lives. It is not clear that they get the same treatment, and indeed the opposite appears to be the case. Most of the various mass “riots” and “revolts” of the last half of the twentieth century began with a “routine” police arrest; anger against not only the police but the larger white society often then led to violence that escalated until the military was called in to restore order. In the twenty-first century, there is still anger at the police, and it may have the same disruptive potential that it has had in the past (see Box 5.7).
Slavery and Its Aftermath Prior to the Civil War, the economic organiza- tion of the South became heavily dependent on a large slave population. While the historical record does not mark precisely when slavery was first institutionalized, it is clear that by 1670 most black people in America, adults and children, had been forced into lifelong servitude. Slavery became rapidly institu- tionalized because of the agricultural economy emerging in the South. In contrast to the North, which was beginning to industrialize and urbanize by the time of the American Revolution, the South remained heavily agricultural, relying on the export of cotton, tobacco, hemp, rice, wheat, and sugar. Different states tended to specialize in only some of these crops, but all states had one feature in common: the reliance on an inexpensive and relatively large labor pool to cultivate large tracts of land. It is not clear whether slavery was the most efficient form of agri- cultural organization (see Fogel and Engerman, 1974; Genovese, 1965; Williamson, 1984:12–14), but the shortage of labor and the abundance of land in the southern colonies placed a high value on involuntary labor. As a result, slaves were used to initiate the plantation system, and once initiated, the system was op- erated to “keep in line” a large and potentially volatile population. The initial im- portation and enslavement of blacks in the seventeenth century was facilitated by the early settlers’ cultural beliefs about the “bestial” nature and less-than-human status of Africans (Jordan, 1968). Such negative beliefs accelerated the pace of en- slavement, a process that violated the official core values of American society.
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The distribution of slaves in the South reflected the economic priorities and power relations within that part of the country (Stampp, 1956; Starobin, 1970:5). By 1860 there were about 4 million slaves in the South. Over 50 percent were owned by only 12 percent, who held the large tracts of fertile land that formed the basis of the southern economy. Slavery emerged and persisted largely because a small group of politically powerful landowners required cheap labor and made slavery acceptable in the agricultural sector of the economy and then, to a very limited extent, in mining, iron production, textile manufacturing, and small in- dustry (Lander, 1969; Lewis, 1979, 1989). Thus, by the dawn of the Civil War, most agriculture in the southern economy and a few industrial and craft sectors (Newton and Lewis, 1978) relied on slave labor. The institutionalization of slavery in the southern economy, plus the fear of retaliatory violence by slaves, partially accounts for the resistance of this “peculiar institution” to change (Stampp, 1956).
The South countered abolitionist attacks on slavery by further codifying beliefs based on the “Sambo” stereotype (Boskin, 1986; Turner and Singleton, 1978). Although most abolitionists did not hold the Sambo stereotype, even the most radical abolitionists believed in the intellectual inferiority of blacks (Fredrickson, 1971). Differences in the northern and southern belief systems no doubt reflected the respective economic dependency of the northern and southern economies on slave labor. Because few blacks lived in the North, its economy remained unaffected by abolition or the colonization of the black population. In the South, however, the loss of slave labor threatened widespread disruption of the southern economy and lifestyle.
Only a war between the states could break the culturally legitimized institu- tion of slavery in the South. During the brief period of radical Reconstruction afterward, large numbers of blacks gained access to many skilled trades and began to assume ownership of farms. But as noted earlier, Congress in 1877 changed its legislative mind toward ethnic relations. For thirty years thereafter
African Americans were systematically excluded from skilled nonfarm occupations and thrust into tenant farming or low-wage labor for white landowners or into menial labor and domestic work in both rural and urban areas. Such a dramatic reversal of the economic policies of radical Reconstruction was legitimized by the limited conception of “equality” of the then-dominant laissez-faire ideology (economic and individual activity should go unregulated) and by the Social Dar- winism (“survival of the fittest”) of the late nineteenth century.
By the turn of the century, 90 percent of all African Americans remained in the South, 75 percent living under oppressive conditions in rural areas. For a number of reasons, the quality of life for African Americans, especially those in rural areas, worsened dramatically during the early years of the twentieth century (Hamilton, 1964): (1) The high birthrates of rural families began to exceed their ability to secure sufficient income in the depressed economy of the South; (2) the nature of agriculture changed dramatically with mechanization and the conse- quent displacement of black labor; (3) the cotton industry, on which many blacks depended for survival, began to move to the Southwest and then was devastated by the boll weevil; and (4) many whites used violence—beatings, burnings, and lynchings—to maintain black subordination (see Box 5.8) (Aguirre and Baker, 1991; Rable 1984; Tolnay and Beck, 1992; Williamson, 1984:180–223). These and other “push factors” led blacks to migrate from the South into the urban areas of the North. By 1914, these “push factors” were combined with “pull factors” from northern cities: The onset of World War I had cut off European migration while rapidly expanding the very industrial production that had for decades drawn European migrants to American cities. Suddenly, there were economic opportu- nities for African Americans in northern cities, with the result that between 1914 and 1920, nearly a million blacks migrated to urban areas in the industrial North. This migration was to be the first of a series of large-scale shifts in the black pop- ulation; by 1960 over three-fourths of that population resided in cities, with only one-half remaining in the South. Patterns of economic discrimination became urban as opposed to rural, and national in contrast to regional.
Many of the early migrants to northern cities initially found jobs during the peak of wartime production, but they also encountered white discrimination and violence (Bonacich, 1976). African Americans tended to live in segregated tenements that early European migrants had abandoned because of their dilap- idated and unsafe condition; when blacks ventured into white neighborhoods and into certain occupations, acts or threats of violence frequently occurred. For example, twenty-five “race riots” broke out between June and October of 1919 (Turner, Singleton, and Musick, 1984). This violence was intensified as black laborers were used as strikebreakers in corporate America’s effort to stifle the union movement. Whites attacked blacks, then black workers retaliated, bring- ing a counterattack by whites. The resulting violence forced police to quell such riots. The hostility toward blacks; based on the threat of job displacement, persists today in many urban areas of the Northeast and Midwest.
With the end of wartime production and the onset of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the economic situation of African Americans worsened once again. Unemployment and hunger increased, and even welfare allocations were differentially distributed among blacks and whites (Pinkney, 1969:33–34). The New Deal ushered in some changes, but the capacity of nascent civil rights groups to generate change was limited. Wage and job discrimination and exclusion from unions continued until well after World War II.
World War II, like World War I, caused a massive black migration to urban areas in both the North and South. As African Americans became concentrated in key wartime industries in urban areas, they began to exert political pressure, forcing President Roosevelt to ban discrimination in wartime industries and pressuring the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) to allow some black workers into the unions’ ranks (although most unions, especially craft unions, used informal means to keep black workers out, or in low-paying positions).
Patterns of Present-Day Discrimination The effects of slavery and estab- lished patterns of discrimination persist today. Black workers are overrepre- sented in menial service jobs; they are underrepresented in professional and managerial occupations; they are twice as likely to be unemployed; they earn slightly less than two-thirds the wages of white workers; and they are twice as likely to be poor. This legacy of slavery costs all Americans a great deal in (1) lost productivity among the large pool of potential black workers; (2) lost consumption of gainfully employed African Americans, which could, in turn, encourage production for all workers; (3) lost tax revenues from African Americans who lack a steady job; and (4) lost federal, state, and local revenues allocated to social welfare programs in order to maintain black households.
The legacy of economic discrimination has been compounded by other con-
ditions over the last two decades:
- Thedecreaseinskilledandsemiskilledblue-collarjobsintheeconomyata time when most employment barriers have been eliminated.
- The movement of employment opportunities to the suburbs, making em- ployment difficult for inner-city blacks to secure because of past housing discrimination (see the section on this topic later in this chapter).
- The declineinindustrialunionpowerand membership atatime when they have become fully open to blacks.
- The increase in low-paying service jobs relative to the higher-paying and skilled blue-collar jobs that historically allowed many white immigrant ethnic groups to assimilate and become upwardly mobile.
- Theinfluxofnewimmigrantswhocompetewithblackworkersandsmall- business owners for jobs.
- Thenationalfiscalcrisis,whichhasreducedtheamountofmoneyavailable for social programs in general and poverty programs in particular.
- Theresurgenceofconservativebeliefsthatgovernmentcannotandshouldnot try to solve the economic problems of African Americans (indeed, government is now seen as part of the problem in that it supports welfare dependency).
Thus, the economic plight of today’s African Americans is difficult to address, even though many of the legal barriers to discrimination have been removed. Even though legal and institutionalized discrimination have receded, more subtle patterns of informal discrimination persist.
Many African Americans today continue to pay a penalty for their skin color when seeking jobs—assuming that they live in an area where they have access to jobs. For example, the Urban Institute in Washington, DC, sent teams of black and white men as job seekers to over four hundred interviews for jobs advertised in the newspapers of Washington and Chicago. The workers were matched with identical qualifications. The results showed that 15 percent of the white appli- cants received job offers compared to 5 percent of the African Americans. During the job selection process, white men advanced to the next round of interviews 20 percent of the time, whereas black men did so only 7 percent of the time. White men reported rude or otherwise unfavorable treatment during the job- seeking process 27 percent of the time, while the corresponding figure for black men was 50 percent. These findings were confirmed in a landmark study by the Russell Sage Foundation (1999). Employers still hold many negative stereotypes about African Americans, and these prejudices influence their hiring decisions. In Detroit, for example, it took unskilled and unemployed whites 91 hours to generate a job offer, whereas it required 167 hours for a black to receive an offer. Beliefs that blacks are welfare dependent, that they are more likely to commit crimes, and that they are difficult to get along with all work to bias the hiring practices of employers against African Americans. These stereotypes are partic- ularly pernicious because they place blacks at a disadvantage in job competition with recent immigrants who are not subject to these negative beliefs and who, as a result, are more likely to get jobs than blacks. Thus, despite Americans’ beliefs
that affirmative action guarantees African Americans favorable treatment, this study indicates that African Americans still experience discrimination.
Once employed, African Americans often are not promoted because of informal discriminatory practices, especially in white-collar corporate jobs. In a pioneering study on women and minorities in nine of the Fortune 500 corpora- tions, the U.S. Department of Labor (1991) found a “glass ceiling” blocking these groups from access to “corporate pipelines” leading to managerial and ex- ecutive positions. African Americans, in particular, experience this subtle, al- most invisible barrier in a variety of ways. First, blacks and other minority groups are more likely than whites to be placed in human resources and public relations positions, which, unlike sales and production jobs, are off the “fast track” to management. Second, blacks are more likely than whites to be excluded from networks, mentor programs, and policy-making committees; as a result, they do not acquire the contacts, information, and experience necessary for movement up the corporate ladder. Third, hiring at the executive level is typically conducted outside the human resources and personnel departments, without concern about affirmative action and without systematic efforts by corporate executives or their “head hunter” search firms to create a diverse pool of applicants. Instead, informal networks and discussions usually influence hiring at the higher levels of a corporation, the kind of contact from which African Americans are routinely excluded African Americans often encounter another pattern of informal, and per- haps at times inadvertent, discrimination when attempting to set up a business. For many white Americans, owning and running a business has been one path to affluence. For African Americans, however, this path is strewn with obstacles. African American–owned businesses tend to be economically marginal, labor- intensive proprietorships that must withstand heavy competition from entre- preneurial immigrants vying for the same clientele. Also, it is more difficult for black Americans to secure credit than it is for white Americans, since lending agencies use criteria that favor those with “white credentials” (such as higher education, current collateral, and high credit ratings) and those who intend to service white shopping-center clientele. However, while all small businesses are high-risk ventures, there is no evidence that black businesses in ghetto neighborhoods are any more risky than white ventures in white neighbor- hoods. For example, in the 1960s the Small Business Administration began extending loans according to criteria other than credit history and collateral. In 1964, 98 of 219 special loans went to African Americans; and only 8 of the 219 loans became delinquent and none were liquidated (Turner and Singleton, 1978). For a while the Minority Business Development Agency helped expand minority-owned businesses, but in the 1980s its resources and programs were cut back. Such cutbacks are a form of discrimination, especially when it is rec- ognized that African Americans do not receive Small Business Administration loans proportionate to their numbers in society. Almost thirty years later, the Federal Reserve Board of Boston issued a report showing that blacks were 60 percent more likely than whites to be rejected for bank loans (Smith, 1992). Thus, the public’s perceptions of “preferences” for blacks are inaccurate Part of the informal process of discrimination are the criteria defining a good worker—criteria that are biased against African Americans in favor of white Americans. For instance, employers look at formal education credentials, which white Americans are more likely to have, even for jobs that do not require them. Or, to take another example, white speech styles and personal demeanor associated with middle-class subculture (which, in reality, are seldom related to actual job performance) are preferred in certain jobs (Jaynes and Williams, 1989:321). Invidious discrimination is thus built into the hiring practices of many of America’s businesses—a discrimination that perpetuates the disad- vantaged position of African Americans.
Political Discrimination Without political power, it is difficult for those who experience discrimination to diminish it. Until recent decades, African Americans have been almost completely disenfranchised, with little or no political power. Today, even with the historic election of an African American for president, blacks’ participation in the political arena is not proportionate to their numbers because of the long-established pattern of exclusion. Several historical facts explain the low level of political participation in the black community today:
- PriortotheCivilWar,blacksheldtherighttovoteorholdofficeinonlyfive states (all northern with very small black populations).
- In the nineteenth century, blacks voted and held office in significant num- bers only during the brief period of radical Reconstruction following the Civil War.
- In the 1870s, congressional commitment to Reconstruction had waned; and when the presidential election of 1876 became deadlocked in the Electoral Col- lege and was thrown into Congress, Republicans abandoned the principles of Reconstruction in order to “buy” southern votes. The result was that blacks were systematically excluded from the polls, with almost complete disenfran- chisement in the South by 1895 (Kousser, 1974; Williamson, 1984:224–84).
- Through a variety of tactics—from poll taxes through “literacy tests” to threats of violence—blacks living in the South remained politically excluded from the 1890s until well into the 1960s (Daniel, 1973). Urban blacks who lived in the North and South had somewhat more voting power, but a broad array of tactics kept many African Americans disen- franchised and diminished the power of those who participated in local and national elections.
Thus, the relative lack of black political power is largely a result of the long history of intended and deliberate political exclusion, especially in the South. The patterns of political discrimination have continued well into this century with strategies such as the poll tax, the “literacy test,” and the “Constitution test,” which were dif- ferentially enforced for African Americans and poor whites. When these measures were declared illegal, administrative obstruction—long lines, much paperwork, elaborate documentation of residence, and so forth—effectively prevented most African Americans from registering to vote. Underlying these obstructions was the uently implemented threat of white violence visited on the homes of those blacks who sought to register to vote or who actually voted.
It was not until the mid-1960s that many of these exclusionary tactics were declared unconstitutional. With the Voting Rights Act of 1965, political partici- pation among blacks increased. However, the removal of these roadblocks and a growing political consciousness among African Americans caused discrimi- natory political strategies to shift from denying the vote to diluting the impact of black voting power by gerrymandering congressional districts in order to “break up” the ghetto as a voting bloc and spread its votes among two or more districts where whites outnumbered the now-divided African American vote.
In the decades following the civil rights movement and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, African Americans have made significant political gains, especially at the state and local levels (Jaynes and Williams, 1989:208–9; Turner and Payne, 2002; Welch, 1990). Although black voter participation still lags behind that of whites, the elimination of most barriers to black electoral participation has led to signifi- cant changes. For example, approximately 300 mayors are African American; many of the largest cities in the United States are governed by black mayors. Many city, county, and state legislators, municipal judges, constables, and sheriffs, and some standing and select committee chairs in Congress are black. Yet, even with this kind of political representation, African Americans still constitute consider- ably less than 2 percent of all elected offices and officials in the United States (Joint Center for Political Studies, 1977, 1996; Turner and Payne, 2002). Moreover, at the national level, where important policy decisions affecting blacks will be made, African Americans are not proportionately represented: Less than 10 percent of Congress is black; and aside from some high-profile cabinet members there are very few African Americans in top-level positions in the executive branch of gov- ernment (Pohlmann, 1990; Turner and Payne, 2002; White, 1985).
Even in areas where African Americans have made real gains—political influence and control of large cities—they have come at a time when political and economic power has shifted to the suburbs and, because of the fiscal problems of most large cities, to state and federal government. Black political control of the large cities really means that black officials must deal with the financial, educational, and social problems that were created by past discrimination and that caused many whites to move to the suburbs. “Control” over cities marked by poverty, gangs, deteriorating schools, high levels of crime, deficit budgets, slums, empty industrial buildings, and expensive social services is not likely to improve the political power base of African Americans. City politics does not greatly in- fluence national politics, which is where most important political decisions affecting the welfare of African Americans are ultimately made.
African American candidates are almost always elected in locations where they are the majority—with only a few exceptions. Significant numbers of white Americans tend not to vote for black candidates, and so African Americans usu- ally have power only where there is an overwhelming black constituency. Thus, while significant gains in political power are evident, African Americans remain underrepresented in the political system, a system that often fails to address their problems and needs.
Educational Discrimination before and Immediately after the Civil War
By the dawn of the Civil War, all southern states had enacted compulsory igno- rance laws for slaves. These laws, which some slaveholders chose to violate, prohibited whites from teaching slaves to read, write, and calculate. Moreover, clandestine schools for slaves operated everywhere in the South, and many freed slaves received education in segregated public facilities (Turner, Singleton, and Musick, 1984). In some states, such as North Carolina, literacy among blacks was as high as 43 percent, but in the Deep South literacy was probably no more than 10 percent.
In the North, educational opportunities were much better for African Americans in the decades before the Civil War. Religious groups, some munici- palities, and a number of philanthropists created educational opportunities for blacks. Yet these opportunities were not universally available. At the higher- education level, the first black university—Lincoln University in Pennsylvania— opened its doors to a few students. In 1833, Oberlin College became the first mainstream college to admit African Americans in significant numbers.
After the Civil War, the establishment of free public schools in both the North and South was initiated (Cash, 1941:3–102). Yet, much of the education of African Americans occurred in private schools sponsored by religious societies
registered in school (Weinberg, 1977:45–54). But during the 1880s, the tide turned against black education. Public funding at the local level slowed consid- erably, although African Americans were required to pay taxes for all schools, both white and black. In some southern states, government spending on African American schools became voluntary. Between 1870 and 1905, the sixteen southern states in which 90 percent of all African Americans lived spent one-fourth as much on black schools as they spent on white schools. Most of these black schools were vocational, providing literacy and teaching the rudi- ments of a trade.
By the dawn of the twentieth century, literacy among African Americans had increased to as much as 40 percent (Turner, Singleton, and Musick, 1984), but still, a system of dual education was firmly in place. This system of separate and decidedly unequal schools became more pronounced as blacks began to move to urban centers in the North and South.
Educational Discrimination in the Twentieth Century In the urban areas of the North and South, school attendance and literacy increased, but in a segre- gated school system. In this system, the South spent two to three times as much on white students as on black students, assuring that the latter would receive an inferior education (Bullock, 1967). Moreover, despite gains in literacy within this unequal system, illiteracy among African Americans was six times that among whites, and as late as 1969, it was still four times that of whites. It was not until 1975 that black enrollment in schools reached parity with white enrollment (Turner, Singleton, and Musick, 1984:123). But the quality of education for African Americans was consistently inferior for the simple reason that schools were segregated. Between 1920 and 1940, the pattern of segregated schools spread throughout the United States. In the South, state legislators, local politi- cal figures, school boards, and courts all worked to create a segregated educa- tional system; in the North, housing discrimination and threats of white violence produced residential segregation, which led to separate school systems.
As this dual system was established, blacks and their white supporters began to raise questions (Kluger, 1975). In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League began to push not only for African American voting rights but also for equality in education. This effort culminated in the NAACP’s successful appeal in 1954 before the Supreme Court stating that separate schools are unequal and, therefore, are in contradiction to the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka). In rendering this landmark decision, how- ever, the Supreme Court did not set a timetable for its implementation. Hence, local school boards dragged their feet, citing complexities and the need for addi- tional time. Indeed, local officials routinely ignored court orders for desegrega- tion. During the 1960s, however, black and white activism increased and led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which strengthened the federal govern- ment’s hand in forcing the states to comply with desegregation orders; and hence, under the threat of withholding federal funds and military coercion, the states in- creased school integration, especially in the South.
A series of court decisions in the 1970s reinforced the push for school integra- tion. In 1971 (Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education), the Supreme Court ruled that busing was an appropriate tool for achieving integration; in 1973 (Keyes v. Denver School District No. 1), the Court ruled that evidence of govern- ment actions to maintain segregation, such as site selection for schools or manip- ulation of attendance zones, was sufficient to require desegregation using busing and other means. Yet, in another series of decisions in the 1970s, the Court rejected the regionalization strategy, which would require suburban districts to be part of the desegregation effort in large cities. This latter set of decisions, coupled with white protests and violence over busing, has made the desegregation of the inner city a difficult process. And so, in the 2000s, over half of all black students contin- ued to attend schools in which minority students are the majority of the students enrolled (National Center for Education Statistics, 2007).
In the period between 1920 and 1960, most black students in the South attended black colleges. In the 1950s, however, forced desegregation of state universities in the South began; today, there is little evidence of discrimination in admissions to public universities in either the South or North. At private col- leges and universities, the picture is more complicated. A combination of sin- cere efforts to comply with affirmative action and fear of losing federal funds has led most private colleges and universities, especially those heavily involved in government-funded research, to recruit and assist members of minority groups, especially African Americans. For some institutions less dependent on federal monies, both explicit and covert discrimination in admittance proce- dures continues. Yet efforts by colleges and universities to recruit and assist African Americans have not succeeded in stemming the decrease in African American enrollment, particularly among males (Cuyjet, 2006; Maxwell, 2004).
African Americans have endured a long history of exclusion from the edu- cational system; even today they are overrepresented in poor, minority-filled schools. While the data are inconclusive, some findings show that blacks who attend integrated schools are more likely to graduate, attend college, and live in integrated neighborhoods (Feagin, 1989:242). Thus, to the degree that African Americans continue to cluster in the inner city, they are more likely to attend segregated schools and less likely to attend college. In addition, housing segre- gation remains an important cause of discrimination in education.
As part of the general debate on school vouchers, proponents of using gov- ernment money to finance private schools often point to the desire of minority populations, particularly African Americans, to have options besides the public schools. This sentiment is understandable because the public schools in ghetto neighborhoods are notoriously bad, in just about every sense: state of repair of the buildings, equipment and books, teacher qualifications, crowding of class- rooms, drugs, and danger. Yet if school vouchers were allowed, it is not clear that African Americans would be better off. If there were good private schools in their neighborhoods, such a program might work. Otherwise, it would be difficult for poor families to transport their children to private schools. More- over, once public school monies go to private schools as vouchers, the already underfinanced public schools would decline even further, giving those who
cannot attend private schools an even worse public school environment. True, in a voucher program, public schools could receive vouchers, but these would not be sufficient to maintain old and decaying facilities, nor would they be suf- ficient to improve the quality of the curriculum and, at the same time, maintain security. Thus, vouchers are unlikely to help the very poor improve their level of access to quality education.
Housing Discrimination One’s place of residence determines access to other valued resources—jobs, schools, public facilities, health care, and social ser- vices. When African Americans experience discrimination in housing, they become isolated from the mainstream and are, in effect, excluded from other social arenas, even if there is no intent to discriminate in these arenas. Housing discrimination has confined many African Americans to inner cities at a time when jobs have moved to the suburbs and transportation systems to the suburbs have decayed. Housing discrimination thus works against African Americans not only in their efforts to find work but also in their capacity to gain access to decent schools, public facilities, and services.
The first black migrants to northern cities were forced—not only by their meager resources but also by threats of white violence and discriminatory land- lord policies—into the decaying cores of the cities. While the wartime industries of World War I provided many jobs, and while the geographical concentration of cities allowed easy access from the ghetto to work, a pattern of African American residential isolation in urban areas had been initiated. This pattern was often formalized in communities by restrictive covenants that forbade integrated neighborhoods. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, when economic opportunities vanished in the North and elsewhere, black migration to the cities waned. During this period the federal government enacted highly discriminatory legislation that forged the current profile of urban America.
The most significant piece of legislation was the federal act creating the Federal Housing Authority and the FHA mortgage loan guarantee program, which subsidized home mortgages for whites. In the post–World War II period, the FHA and the related Veterans Administration (VA) mortgage guarantee programs stimulated the rapid flight of white Americans from the cities to the sub- urbs. African Americans were prevented from joining this flight because of dis- criminatory administrative rules of law that stated that neighborhoods of “mixed races” could not be subsidized by the government. From 1950 to 1962, the year when President Kennedy finally issued an executive order to the contrary, the practice of providing FHA and VA loan guarantees primarily to white neighbor- hoods continued. Even after 1962, FHA policy was “ineffectively integrationist.”
Industry and commerce began to follow the white population to the sub- urbs, and eventually, as assembly-line production with its need for large tracts of land came to dominate sectors of the economy, industry began to pull resi- dents out of the cities. As industry and workers moved out of the city, com- merce and service industries followed. Some African Americans were able to commute to these jobs, but as mass transit services began to deteriorate in the post–World War II period, commuting became difficult. At the same time, as the
tax base that financed city schools diminished, schools with heavy concentra- tions of black students languished for lack of financial resources. Furthermore, large suburban communities began to exert enormous political power in metro- politan and statewide government. Thus, urban–suburban segregation, largely created by FHA law, has profoundly limited African Americans’ access to jobs, quality schools, and political power.
To cope with the consequences of this segregation, other federal laws have been enacted, but they have not eliminated slum conditions, and, more impor- tant, some have exacerbated patterns of segregation. One of the key legislative acts of the New Deal initiated public housing, which, by 1937, had acquired the social purpose of eliminating substandard housing. Unfortunately, changes in the law in the late 1930s turned administration of the public housing projects over to the cities, resulting in housing projects that were built in existing slum areas, which, in turn, perpetuated black confinement to the inner city. Urban re- newal in the decades since the 1950s has been another major attempt to revital- ize slum areas and to restore the decaying downtown commercial areas in order to attract middle-class suburbanites back to the city. The result of the program has been the destruction of slum housing, which forced the poor into public housing projects where few wished to live. Model cities programs, introduced in the 1950s through the 1960s, have not done much better because they did not attack the basic problem—urban–suburban segregation
A crucial Supreme Court decision made even more difficult the breakdown of urban–suburban inequities. In 1973 the Court ruled that suburban communi- ties do have zoning control over patterns of land use in their communities. This ruling allowed local suburban governments to alter the zoning of land tracts to keep public housing and federally subsidized home-ownership programs for African Americans out of the suburbs.
Important civil rights legislation passed in the 1960s has been ineffective in counteracting discrimination because (1) it has often gone unenforced because the civil rights division of the Justice Department is understaffed, underfi- nanced, and overtly unsympathetic and (2) it has placed the burden of litigation on the individual against whom discrimination has occurred—a personally and financially arduous process. More important, this legislation does not address the fundamental need for a mass migration of African Americans to the suburbs (or a mass white migration to the cities). Of course, any such policy would en- counter resistance in local communities, which, under the 1973 Supreme Court ruling, can “zone out” government-sponsored housing for African Americans. One of the ironies of housing laws is that from the mid-1930s until the mid- 1960s, whites were given mortgage subsidies by the FHA and VA to move into the suburbs en masse, whereas current laws prevent a similar mass exodus of blacks. Moreover, current Supreme Court rulings prevent the implementation of massive federal programs to integrate the suburbs. Thus, suburban integration must happen slowly, on an individual-by-individual basis. These laws reinforce the discriminatory belief that the absence of African Americans from the sub- urbs is a result of their failure to avail themselves of “equal” educational and economic opportunities that would allow them to buy a house there.
throughout the period of suburbanization of whites and confinement of blacks to the cities, informal practices of redlining have persisted whereby resi- dents of integrated neighborhoods or residents of less affluent neighborhoods with large numbers of African Americans have difficulty securing home mort- gages. These practices are now so well documented that special enforcement of antiredlining laws now occurs, but because of the subtlety of the practice, it is often difficult to catch and prosecute the offenders. And even if one could assume that all redlining could be stopped, much of the damage has already been done: African Americans have been denied home ownership because banks would not lend them the money, while equivalently positioned whites have received mort- gages and have been able to enjoy the benefits of home ownership (Huskisson, 1988; Minerbrook, 1993; U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 1996).
STRATIFICATION OF AFRICAN AMERICANS
Affluent and Poor African Americans: The Widening Gap
As a result of legal, economic, political, educational, and housing discrimination, significant numbers of black Americans have been pushed to the bottom rungs of the stratification system. Indeed, African American families were the only ethnic group to see poverty rates increase in the first years of the new century (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2002b). They tend to have few resources, as was docu- mented at the outset of this chapter, and even fewer prospects for the future. Some African Americans have “made it” out of poverty and the lower socioeconomic stratum. Indeed, the percentage of black families that earn more than the national median family income—around $61,355 per year in 2007—has increased dramat- ically over the last decade. African Americans are thus divided by social class, and although many middle-class African Americans still encounter discrimination in public places, in jobs, in housing, and in education, they no longer live in poverty.
Many of those outside the middle class live in slums or, even worse, public housing projects in the inner city; they live in crime-ridden and dangerous neighborhoods; they send their children to inferior schools; they work—if they can find work—for low wages in jobs with little security, few benefits, and an uncertain future; they seek help from the welfare system, which erodes their self-respect and which, with new “reforms,” is even less helpful; and if they are women, they are often raising their children alone. Indeed, a majority of black children are now raised by single parents, most of whom are women living in poverty. Thus, the situation for poor blacks has been made worse by the dis- ruption to the family structure.
The African American Underclass: Myth or Reality?
Many white Americans are concerned—indeed, even fearful—of perceived trends in the urban minority population, especially urban African Americans: more ba- bies born out of wedlock; more unmarried women on welfare; more violent crime; more drug use and related crime; more school dropouts and illiteracy and more
unemployed males. Some believe that these social and economic ills are concen- trated in the “American underclass,” which is presumed to be mostly black (Auletta, 1982). Currently, debate rages in the media, public, and academia over what this underclass is, who belongs to it, how big it is, and how fast it is growing (Baca-Zinn, 1989; Fainstein, 1993). Definitions vary, but a reasonable one is the con- vergence of “a number of social ills including poverty, joblessness, crime, welfare dependency, fatherless families, and low levels of education or work-related skills” (Ricketts and Sawhill, 1988:316). Some sociologists are convinced that the black un- derclass represents a major problem in America (Wilson, 1987).
Documentation of this underclass among African Americans reveals, how- ever, a somewhat different picture (Jencks, 1991:28–102): The proportion of black single mothers collecting welfare has declined since 1974; violent crimes rates among blacks have declined; black dropout rates from schools declined in the 1980s; the gap in secondary school graduation rates has closed; and the per- centage of 17-year-olds with basic reading skills steadily rose in the 1980s. How- ever, some problems have grown worse: Joblessness for males has risen, and the number of babies born out of wedlock has increased to over 65 percent among African Americans, resulting in an increase in single mothers. These data, then, do not support the existence of an African American underclass. The minority of African Americans who do meet the criteria for membership in an underclass receive much publicity, and the much larger African American population is further stigmatized by their activities
Threats and Hostility toward African Americans
White hostility toward African Americans and the resulting discrimination has been fueled by a sense of threat. During slavery, many working-class whites, en- couraged by slaveholders, feared the release of large numbers of blacks into the labor market and society in general (thereby destroying the “southern way of life”). When northern industries used African Americans as strikebreakers in the first decades of the twentieth century, white workers feared the loss of their jobs. Today, many white Americans fear “black violence” (fostered by the riots of the 1960s and 1990s, the increase in gang activities, the high crime rates, and the perception of a growing “underclass”). Moreover, specific fears about the “costs” of welfare as well as the “taking” of jobs through affirmative action have added to white fears.
These fears have translated into negative stereotypes of African Americans as prone to crime and violence, as morally and sexually promiscuous, as unwilling to work, and as draining the white taxpayer through welfare dependency. In turn, these stereotypes have been used to justify informal discrimination, the dismantling or underfunding of programs to help the urban poor, negligence in enforcing laws or policies prohibiting discriminatory practices against black workers, and, most important, hesitancy in mounting a serious effort at job cre- ation for African Americans. The result is that African Americans’ share of valued resources has not increased appreciably over the last three decades, even as for- mal discrimination has been greatly mitigated. This fact is used to further the negative belief that African Americans have “not taken advantage of their equal
opportunities.” For example, most media portrayals of black youth revolve around gangs and criminal activity in an attempt to symbolize their purported unwillingness to “take advantage of opportunity” in U.S. society (Gomes and Williams, 1990; Lyman, 1990; Reed, 1993).