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"IS RACISM PERMANENT? A Symposium,"

by Paul Ong November/December 1993 issue of Poverty & Race

I think the term "permanent racism" is unacceptable, not because I disagree with the assertion that racial inequality is a persistent feature of U.S. society, but because the choice of words makes racial injustice appear immutable and the goal f meaningful progressive social change appear unachievable. My reading of U.S. history, and an understanding of my family's past, tell me that this implied pessimism is unwarranted.

We as a society have come a long way from the days when one of my great granduncles and my grandfathers were prohibited from raising their children in this country because of their race, thus forcing them to commute over the Pacific Ocean to see their families once every few years. My maternal grandfather had the courage to attempt to bring his wife and children to Boston, but federal officials promptly deported him for his effort, thus ending a journey to the United States that had started in Mexico and with an illegal crossing of the Rio Grande River with the help of an African American, whose name unfortunately has been lost to our family. My parents immigrated using false documents, and we the children told outsiders that a family friend who had provided the papers was our father. I still recall the nights my mother cried during the early 1960s when the U.S. government went after the "illegals" in Chinatown(s). Their problems were not limited to the fear of being expelled. My father was deeply disap-pointed when he could not buy a simple home in a moderate-income neighborhood because he was not white. Urban decay and later urban renewal were destroying our Chinatown and the surrounding minority neighborhood in Sacramento. One of the few areas where my parents could relocate was "tipping" from white to black-that neighborhood became our home for most of my childhood.

This family history, which is also U.S. History, tells me that progress is possible, thus enabling me to find purpose in my anti-racism work. Despite the persistence of racial discrimination, each successive generation encountered a less formidable form of racism, and this progress was made possible by reforms won by earlier activists. I see my work not in terms of changing the world today or tomorrow, but as part of a multigenerational struggle. My expectations are tempered by this sense of history and by the understanding that one must fight mightily for small gains. I am not, however, so naive to believe that change is simply linear and that racism can be eliminated. There are tremendous institutional forces and economic interests that maintain and reproduce racial inequality. I accept that we will suffer minor and major setbacks.

One final note. As I implied above, I believe that the nature of racial injustice changes from one historical period to another. Our generation faces a racism that is incredibly complex in a racially pluralistic urban setting such as Los Angeles. The confounding effects of ethnicity and disparate class standing have made it exceedingly difficult to formulate effective strategies. One major challenge is to develop a more precise understanding of what we are fighting.

Paul Ong , a member of PRRAC Social Science Advisory Board, is Associate Professor of Urban Planning at UCLA.
 

Notes:

We asked a sample of PRRAC Board members, Social Science Advisory Board members and grantees to submit short essays, to respond to the position put forth by Derrick Bell, Richard Delgado, Charles Washington, John Calmore and others, in various forms, and buttressed by Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton's recent research on "American apartheid"- "that racism is a permanent, non-eradicable feature of American life, and to provide some, personal insight into what keeps them going in their anti-racism work, given the depressing, and probably deteriorating, state of race relations in the United States.

Due to limited space, we are publishing only a portion of the essays we requested; a second set will appear in the Jan.-Feb. P&R, and we invite other readers to submit their own takes on these two critical, related questions. Essays by the following people appear in this issue: John Brittain, Bernardine Dohm, Daniel Levitas, Paul Ong and john powell.


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