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"IS RACISM PERMANENT? A Symposium (Part 2),"

by S. M. Miller November/December 1993 issue of Poverty & Race

The durability of racism is inescapable. The charge of its permanence is too scary; I don't like acting-and living with such little hope. "Bearing witness" is much more difficult stance than activities that emerges from the belief that our efforts will produce significant change. Can emotional hope and hard-headed analysis be reconciled?

Racism's durability does not imply fixity. Racism waxes and (somewhat) wanes; it plays out and through many stages and forms. Today, awareness of the great advances that were made on many fronts in the 60s and 70s is overwhelmed by evidence of the terrible poverty of black children, the internalized violence of many poor AfricanAmericans communities, and the political unwillingness to combat residential and job segregation, to invest in black children or to offer remedies other than prison for crime and violence.

Could racism's durability have been expected? (My focus is primarily on institutional racism, not racism as personal attitude). In any process of social reform to improve the circumstances of those at the bottom, the inevitable tendency is to cream, to deal with the better off of those who suffer poverty and discrimination. They are easier to deal with; the promises of "success" are greater and costs are limited; the route to their achievement requires at most only somewhat bending the rules rather than profoundly changing them; their success presumably encourages those left behind to move in the same way; and their advance is likely to dilute pressures for deeper changes. Individual mobility, frequently sponsored by some person or institution in the mainstream world, is the model: others should tread in the path that has been established for what might be called (updating W.E.B. DuBois) the talented quintile.

Ah, but what happens to those left behind? Are they in the same circumstances to advance as the talented quintile? Are openings still available to them or are educational and employment opportunities scaled to deal with only limited numbers? The non-cream cannot easily move ahead, for deeper changes are needed to make it possible for large numbers to improve their situations. That is expensive in terms of money and privilege. The result of the limited efforts is that African Americans have a much more varied economic situation than ever before. A quarter are doing quite well; another quarter are just getting by. But a half are doing very badly. That and residential segregation are major sources of the feeling of the ineradicability of racism. (The undermining by colleagues of successful blacks is another source.) Are we at the end of possibilities of improving the situation of those left behind? I don't think so. Some stress the need for structural changes: the opening of employment, housing and other opportunities; others are emphasizing that residents of unstable inner-city communities have to change their behavior. Personal change without structural change is likely to be overwhelmingly defeated, but structural change without behavioral change is likely to have limited appeal. Both are needed-in actuality, in concert.

Racism is durable, but we can move it into less pernicious forms-and even make some progress.

S. M. Miller is member of PRRAC’s Board of Directors.


S. M. Miller, a PRRAC Board member, is a Senior Fellow of the Commonwealth Institute in Cambridge, MA, and a Visiting Professor of Sociology at Boston College.


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