"IS RACISM PERMANENT? A Symposium,"by john a. powell November/December 1993 issue of Poverty & Race
There is a growing sense within the minority community that the condition of African Americans has not improved and, worse still, that it will not get any better. An increasing number of minority thinkers voice this sentiment. Indeed one scholar, whom I greatly respect, has not only stated that racism is a permanent fixture on the American landscape, but that equality itself does not produce real change, and instead causes despair. While these sentiments are understandable, especially given the declining living conditions of African Americans, they are wrong and dangerous.
Regardless of the difficulty in defining that racial baseline and comparing the African-American circumstance during two different periods of time, one would have to ignore history to assert that the conditions and status of blacks in America have not improved since slavery. This should not be our central focus, though. The more important point we must consider is to what extent we can reasonably expect to affect the future living conditions of blacks and what role equality will play in realizing that change.
Racial subordination and racial hostility still pervade American society. Yet many people, including powerful members of the courts and the political structure, suggest that racial equality has already been achieved. How is it that society can look at the condition of blacks, some seeing racial equality, others seeing racial inequality? One reason is that many people are not aware of the racial disparity. If they see disparity at all, they see economic disparity that just happens to disproportionately affect blacks.
Another reason hinges on the way we think about equality. Many people believe that inequality is determined by formal laws and intentional individual practices. The removal of explicit racial barriers during the Civil Rights era, such as laws prohibiting blacks from living in certain neighborhoods or going to certain schools, engendered a belief that the vast majority of racial inequality had been corrected because of the advance in the level of formal equality. However, while some blacks clearly benefited from this change, a substantial number did not. Indeed, most blacks continued to go to segregated schools and live in segregated neighborhoods. This was not by choice.
This phenomenon calls into question the role of equality and equality rhetoric in changing or maintaining the racial status quo. Conditions in many of the de facto apartheid schools and segregated neighborhoods are as bad, if not worse, than the conditions before the Civil Rights movement. But it is not equality per se we need to move beyond; rather, it is the pursuit of formal equality we should put aside. We must still focus on real equality by concentrating on the underlying conditions and causes of racial disparity. The goal of the Civil Rights movement was not simply to repeal racist laws but to end actual racial subordination. Clearly, removing racist laws was not part of the effort. It is the struggle for actual equality, substantive equality, that remains.
Certainly, the African-American condition has improved since slavery. This is little cause to celebrate, though. The struggle for the majority of African Americans remains to be fought. The problem is not simply equality, and certainly not substantive equality, but the more subtle, structural barriers that continue to maintain racial disparity. It is the condition of African Americans and racism that causes despair. It is that removal that must be our goal. Equality is not just an empty ideal; it is a social and human imperative. It must be part of us and part of our future. Will this struggle be won? Who knows? This future is not something to be discovered; it is to be made.
john a. powell is Secretary of PRRAC's Board, is on the faculty of the University of Minnesota Law School, where he directs the Institute on Race & Poverty (415 Law Ctr., 229 19th Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN 55455. 612/625-5529, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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