"IS RACISM PERMANENT? A Symposium,"by John Brittain November/December 1993 issue of Poverty & Race
In his 1992 book Faces at the Bottom of the Well, Derrick Bell posited a provocative thesis:
Black people will never gain full equality in this country. Even those Herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than temporary `peaks of progress, short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance. This is a hard-to-accept fact that all history verifies. We must acknowledge it, not as a sign of submission, but as an act of ultimate defiance.
Other civil rights advocates have expressed similar views. Robert Carter, a veteran civil rights lawyer and later federal district court judge, once said that the pioneer civil rights leaders thought that racial segregation was the disease. Once the civil rights movement eliminated the segregation, the society would achieve racial equality for the African American people. Instead, the leaders discovered that the segregation was only the symptom, and White racism was the disease. Still further, Kenneth B. Clark, a brilliant psychologist who conducted the studies concerning the adverse impact of segregated education on the learning abilities of Black children, recently lamented (see his contribution in Race In America: The Struggle for Equality, Herbert Hill and James E. Jones, Jr., eds., 1993):
Reluctantly, I am forced to face the likely possibility that the United States will never rid itself of racism and reach true integration. I look back and shudder at how naive we all were in our belief in the steady progress racial minorities would make through programs of litigation and education, and while I very much hope for the emergence of a revived civil rights movement with innovative programs and educated leaders, I am forced to recognize that my life has, in fact, been a series of glorious defeats.
I agree with the thoughts of these civil rights activists about the "permanence of racism" in America. The conditions of White racism remain the same, but some of the underlying assumptions may have changed.
The traditional civil rights ideology was founded on the unstated assumption that human beings are equal in the eyes of God-the same; and that human nature unites us all in a common essences Together we will, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, reach the "promised land" of racial equality. The permanence of racism thesis attacks that "sameness" theory. Black feminists have stood up to say, "I am not the same as you and do not speak for me." This movement, dubbed anti-essentialism, suggests that no essence unites us as human beings. Rather, we are all individuals leading the attack with unique experiences that can neither be classed nor categorized. (For example, the Black lesbian faces a dilemma about which civil rights organizations to join. Should she join NOW, led by White women, or the NAACP led by Black men, or ACT-UP lead by gay and lesbian White people?) Anti-essen-tialists argue that unity must be built more by realistic connections, instead of relying on abstract and unreal notions of a common essence.
Similarly, the permanence of racism thesis criticizes the idea that most White people in America will grant Black people, equal rights. In fact, according to Be African Americans advanced socially, politically and economically when the particular principle appealed to White Americans' self-interest. This means that people of color cannot rely on the majority of White people for a shared commonality of all human beings for equal treatment.
The permanence of racism thesis exposes the idealist aspects that racial integration will lead to equality. Today, many commentators cite the failure of the civil rights movement in the past forty years to fully reach the promises and hopes of Brown v. Board of Education for racial integration and equality. While the goal that racial integration will lead to greater equality remains paramount, the reality of not achieving significant progress anytime soon more accurately reflects the nature of the struggle. To match racism's resolve of perpetuation, the anti-racist forces must unite with equal strength of resistance. In her recent book Possessing the Secret of Joy, Alice Walker says that for African American people, "Resistance is the secret of joy." The battle against the permanence of racism will never end. Therefore society must continue to study racism and devise new strategies to combat it.
I recall a personal experience when I was a civil rights lawyer in Mississippi involving an old Black woman in Sunflower County with a fighting spirit like Fannie Lou Hamer. We came out of the federal court house one day after the judge praised the Black people for challenging some obvious vestige of racial segregation, but he denied their request for relief on some seemingly unpersuasive legal technicality. I sought to comfort her with condolences about the case that the people had lost. She taught me a lesson based on the knowledge that she acquired in life rather than by formal schooling. I never forgot. When she insisted that they had won, I tried to correct her on the legality of the decision, but she interrupted. She said they won because the Black people had the White people in town very scared about the potential impact of a favorable decision for them. True, everyone knew the White people were extremely concerned about a major change in the political relations with Black people. I thought to myself, how could this Black lady think that they had won? Then she said, "Lawyer Brittain, I just lives to upset these White folks and today we upset them."
Hence, the permanence of racism theory means that this work will never end, only the battle fronts and tactics change.
John Brittain is a professor at the Univ. of Connecticut School of Law. Tegeler and Brittain have worked as part of the Shell legal team for more than 7 years. Other current members of the legal team include Marianne Lado and Dennis Parker of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Juan Figueroa and Sandra Del Valle of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund, Chris Hansen of the ACLU Foundation, and Connecticut attorneys Wes Horton, former CCLV legal director Martha Stone, and Wilfred Rodriquez, formerly with the Hispanic Advocacy Project of Neighborhood Legal Services.
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