PRRAC Poverty & Race Research Action Council
Home About PRRAC Current Projects Publications Newsletters Resources Contact Us Support PRRAC Join Our Email List

"Needed: More Focus on Whiteness,"

by john a. powell January/February 2005 issue of Poverty & Race

Alexander Polikoff has written an important and timely challenge to America. He challenges us to deal with white racism toward blacks by adopting a nationwide mobility program. This program would be modeled after the famous Gautreaux program. This program came out of possibly the most important anti-discrimination housing lawsuit in United States history. Polikoff was the lead attorney in the case and is still involved with implementation of the suit. Among other things, the suit allowed for low-income blacks in the Chicago area to move to areas where there were few blacks and low poverty. While some have questioned the success of those black families who moved, the program is generally considered one of the most successful in addressing the deprivation associated with concentrated poverty and black confinement in areas of low opportunity.

Polikoff has been at the center of attempts to address racial injustice for almost four decades. He is a brilliant and courageous spirit whom the country has benefited from. He is also a good friend. His article should be looked at with seriousness and care. He warns us that the failure to address the issue of racial inequality and injustice is not only wrong but, citing Toqueville, that this failure could eventually destroy America. Polikoff finds the current racial arrangements partially responsible for loss of the New Deal. He cites exploitation of black fear by the Republican Party and their pandering to Southern prejudice in developing coded racial policies to enliven white fear and prejudice and to punish blacks while becoming a majority party. Dixiecrats are now solid Republicans. While other non-white groups experience discrimination, Polikoff argues that none have experienced the persistence and antipathy that blacks have from whites.

Many will find Polikoff’s piece off-putting. He anticipates and attempts to answer some of his would-be critics. For example, he asserts that the ghettoization of blacks cannot be understood or addressed in race-neutral terms, citing the very different experience of poor whites in their housing, neighborhood and school lives. He also raises and rejects the position that black isolation is overstated because of the existence of the black middle class or the claim that this issue can be addressed through neighborhood revitalization instead of a Gautreaux mobility program.

Polikoff is to be commended for putting race — particularly anti-black racism — on the table when many liberals and progressives are at best confused about the continued significance of racism and too often flirting with the reductionist position that racism can be explain by class. Polikoff begins to suggest a new racial alignment that makes some sense out of today’s racism. Three things are worth noting. First, it is the isolation of poor blacks that is the policy of our new racism. Second, coded racism, referred to as the Southern strategy, is working – liberals have not found an effective response. And third, as this last election demonstrated, it is not just “the economy, stupid.” We are complex beings with multiple values, not just economic beings. We understand this when multi-billionaire George Soros supports Kerry instead of Bush for President, but we often forget this when trying to understand why poor and working-class Southern whites might support Bush by a large margin. If white anti-black prejudice is not just economic, then what else is at play and how should we think of it?

This last question takes me to Polikoff’s article. Alex acknowledges that white anti-black feeling causes whites to adopt policies to isolate blacks from whites and then use this isolation and the conditions it engenders to justify anti-black feeling. But this “vicious circle” is not just a psychological error on the part of whites. It is more fundamental in the understanding of our being and our institutional arrangements. We have moved away from publicly accepting explicit racism towards accepting and promoting racial arrangements such as black ghettos and the protection of white space and white racial hoarding that limit the life options and meaning for poor blacks but also generally for all nonwhites. The present arrangement has ushered in a new white status and privilege without the articulated stigma of being a racist. How is it that there has been a substantial improvement in white racial attitudes while there has been an intensification of poor black ghettoization?

This question helps us see some of the limitations of Alex’s suggestion. There is too little focus on whiteness and the inherent way it has been constructed and maintained. This is not just white attitudes but also white status, space and meaning. On the one hand, Alex states that it is white attitudes, anti-black hostility, that caused our current national policy of black confinement. Then he wishes to address white fear by limiting the number of blacks who will be allowed into any given white community. And these poor blacks will be certified before they move in. When stated like this, it might suggest that this plan is completely flawed. It is not. But it is limited and needs to be reframed. Certainly there is dyfunctionality that comes out of concentrated poverty. But this is not the only aspect of our society that is dysfunctional. We must also understand and begin to address the dysfunctional spaces and practices that created the confinement in the first place. Are we confident that whites — collectively, functionally — have changed so they can now accept blacks not engaged in destructive behavior? And what of white behavior, attitudes and space? Will whites insist on dominating space and meaning? Anthony Downs explains this insistence in terms of middle-class domination, not just of poor blacks but also middle-class blacks. This need for dominance is one of the explanations for white flight as the nonwhite other “invades.” The need for white domination cannot be adequately explained by class.

Maybe it is just too hard to think pragmatically about addressing white fear, white space or white hoarding. Maybe to talk about such things is what Gerald Torres calls a conversation-ending strategy. Whites may not allow it. These are difficult issues, but it does things that are beyond Polikoff’s project. As Dubois and others have recognized, the race(ism) problem in the United States is largely the white problem. Certainly, racial arrangements and racism have changed. But even in its more gentle, non-signifying expression, white and anti-black policies dominate with a nod and a wink. I do not believe this can be addressed by just focusing on the manifestation of this new racial arrangement, Nor can we fix it by just focusing on the manifestation of it, black ghettos.

I have some concerns, but I strongly support Polikoff’s project, with some changes. I would expand and reframe Alex’s project in term of opportunity, race and space. I have written about this in “Opportunity-Based Housing” (123 J. of Affordable Housing and Community Development Law 2 - 2003). I would also continue to think about dysfunctional practices, but I would not limit the discussion to the black poor. And, as Toni Morrison has suggested, I would look more carefully at how racism marks whites, but I would try to do it in a way that leaves the conversation open.
john a. powell (powell.355@OSU. edu), a PRRAC board member, is Director of the Kirwan Inst. for the Study of Race & Ethnicity & holder of the Williams Chair in Civil Rights & Civil Liberties at the Moritz School of Law, Ohio State Univ. o

john a. powell , a PRRAC board member, is Director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity & holder of the Williams Chair in Civil Rights & Civil Liberties at the Moritz School of Law, Ohio State University.

Join Our Email List
Search for:             
Join Our Email List