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"Racism and Multicultural Democracy"

September/October 1993 issue of Poverty & Race

by Manning Marable

What is racism? How does the system of racial discrimination that people of color experience today differ from the type of discrimination that existed in the period of Jim Crow, or legal racial segregation? How is the rich ,spectrum of cultural groups affected by practices of discrimination within Amer-ica's so-called "democratic society" today? What parallels can be drawn between sexism, racism and other types of intolerance, such as anti-Semitism, anti-Arabism, homophobia and handi-capism? What kinds of national and international strategies are needed for a multicultural democracy in the whole of American society and throughout the Western world? And finally, what do we need to do to not just see beyond our differences, but to realize our common-alities and deepen one another's efforts to seize our full freedom and transform the nature of society?

Let's begin with point one: Racism is the system of ignorance, exploitation and power used to oppress African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Pacific Americans, Native Americans and other people on the basis of ethnicity, culture, mannerisms and color. Point two: When we try to articulate an agenda of multi-cultural democracy, we run immediately into the stumbling block of stereotypes- - the device at the heart of every form of racism today. Stereotypes are at work when people are not viewed as indi-viduals with unique cultural and social backgrounds, with different religious traditions and ethnic identities, but as two-dimensional characters bred from the preconceived attitudes, half-truths, ignorance and fear of closed minds. When seen through a stereotype, a person isn't viewed as a bona fide human being, but as an object onto which myths and half-truths are projected.

There are many ways that we see stereotypes degrade people, but perhaps the most insidious way is the manner in which stereotypes deny people their own history. In a racist society like our own, people of color are not viewed as having their own history or culture. Everything must conform to the so-called standards of white bourgeois society. Nothing gen-erated by people of color is accepted as historically original, dynamic or creative. This even applies to the way in which people of color are miseducated about their own history. Indeed, the most insidious element of stereotypes is how people who are oppressed themselves begin to lose touch with their own tradi-tions of history, community, love, cele-bration, struggle and change...

In the 1980s we saw a proliferation of racist violence, most disturbingly on college campuses. Why the upsurgence of racism? Why was it occurring in the 1980s and why does this disease continue to spread into the 1990s? How is it complicit with other systemic crises that we now face within the political, eco-nomic and social structures of our society?

First we need to be clear about how we recognize racism. Racism is never acci-dental within a social structure or insti-tution. It is the systemic exploitation of people of color in the process of pro-duction and labor, the attempt to subor-dinate our cultural, social, educational and political life. The key concepts here are subordinate and systemic. The dy-namics of racism attempt to inflict a sub-ordinate position for people of color-, Latinos, Native Americans, Arabs, Asians, African Americans and other people of color within the society...

Racism in the 1990s means lower pay for equal work. It means a process that sustains inequality within the income structure of this country. Institutional racism in America's economic system today means that the rhetoric of equal opportunity in the marketplace remains, in effect, a hoax for most people of color. Between 1973 and 1986 the real average earnings for black males between the ages of 20 and 29 actually fell 50 percent.

Pushing Drugs

What else intensifies racism and in-equality in the 1990s? Drugs. We are witnessing the complete disintegration of America's inner cities, the home of mil-lions of Latinos and blacks. We see the daily destructive impact of gang violence inside our neighborhoods and commun-ities, which is directly attributable to the fact that for 20 years the federal govern-ment has done little to address the crisis of drugs inside the ghetto and the inns, city. . . For people of color, crack addiction has become part of the new urban slavery, a method of disrupting lives and regulating masses of young people who would otherwise be demand-ing jobs, adequate health care, better schools and control of their own communities. Is it accidental that this in-sidious cancer has been unleashed within the very poorest urban neighborhoods, and that the police concentrate on petty street dealers rather than those who actually control and profit from the drug traffic? How is it possible that thousands and thousands of pounds of illegal drugs can be transported throughout the coun-try, in airplanes, trucks and automobiles, to hundreds of central distribution centers with thousands of employees, given the ultra high-tech surveillance and intelli-gence capacity of law enforcement of-ficers? How, unless crack presented a systemic form of social control? ...

The struggle that we have now is not simply against the system. It's against the kind of insidious violence and oppressive behavior that people of color carry out against each other. What I'm talking about is the convergence between the utility of a certain type of commodity- - addictive narcotics - and economic and social problems that are confronting the system. That is, the redundancy, the unemployment of millions of people of color, young women and men, living in our urban centers. The criminal justice system represents one type of social control. Crack and addictive narcotics represent another type. If you're doing organizing within the black community, it becomes impossible to get people and families to come out to your community center when there are crack houses all around the building. It becomes impos-sible to continue political organizing when people are afraid for their own lives. This is the new manifestation of racism in which we see a form of social control existing in our communities, the destruction of social institutions, and the erosion of people's ability to fight again the forms of domination that continu-ously try to oppress them.

Women's Freedom

How do we locate the connections between racism and sexism? There are many direct parallels, in both theory and practice, between these two systems of domination. A good working definition of sexism is the subordination of women's social, cultural, political and educational rights as human beings, and the unequal distribution of power and resources be-tween women and men based on gender. Sexism is a subsocial dynamic, like racism, in that the dynamic is used to subordinate one part of the population to another.

How does sexism function in the economic system? Women experience it through the lack of pay equity-the absence of equal pay for comparable work performed by women versus men on the job. Sexism exists in the stratifi-cation of the vocational hierarchy by gender, which keeps women dispropor-tionately at the bottom. The upper levels of the corporations are dominated by white wealthy males, as is the ownership of productive forces and property largely that of white males. Women consequently have less income mobility, and frequently are defined as "homemakers," a vocation for which there is absolutely no financial compensation, despite 60 to 80 hours of work per week.

Sexism within cultural and social in-stitutions means the domination of males in decision-making positions. Males con-trol the majority of newspapers, the film industry, radio and television. Sexist stereotypes of both males and females are thus perpetuated through the dominant cultural institutions, advertising and broadcast media.

In political institutions, sexism trans-lates into an unequal voice and influence within the government. The overwhelm-ing majority of seats in the Congress, state legislatures, courts and city councils are controlled by white men. The United States has one of the lowest percentages of women represented within its national legislature among Western democratic societies.

And finally, like racism, the wire that knots sexist mechanisms together, which perpetuates women's inequality within the fabric of the social institution, is violence. Rape, spouse abuse and sexual harassment on the job are all essential to the perpetuation of a sexist society. For the sexist, violence is the necessary and logical part of an unequal, exploitive re-lationship... Rape and sexual harass-ment are therefore not accidental to the structure of gender relations within a sexist order. This is why progressives must first target the issue of violence against women, in the struggle for human equality and a nonsexist environment. This is why we must fight for women's rights to control their own bodies...

Sexism and racism combine with class exploitation to produce a three-edged mode of oppression for women of color. Economically, African American, Latina and Native American women are far below white women in terms of income, job security and job mobility. The median income of a black woman who is also a single parent with children is below $10,000 annually. Thirty-six percent of all black people live below the federal government's poverty line. And more than 75% of that number are black women and their children.

Black and Latina women own virtually no sizeable property; they head no major corporations; they only rarely are the heads of colleges and universities; they possess no massive real estate holdings; they are not on the Supreme Court; few are in the federal court system; they are barely represented in Congress; and they represent tiny minorities in state legislatures or in the leadership of both major parties. Only a fractional percentage of the attorneys and those involved in the criminal justice system are African American women. It is women of color, not white women, who are overwhelmingly those who are harassed by police, arrested without cause and who are the chief victims of all types of crimes.

Sexism and racism are not perpetuated biologically like a disease or drug addiction; both behaviors are learned within a social framework and have absolutely no ground in hereditary biology. They are perpetuated by stereotypes, myths and irrational fears that are rooted in false sense of superiority. Both sexism and racism involve acts of systemic coercionjob discrimination, legal domina-tion and political under-representation. And both sexism and racism may culmi-nate in acts of physical violence...


What are some other characteristics of the new racism that we are now encountering? What we see in general is a duplicitous pattern that argues that African Americans and other people of color are moving forward while their actual material conditions are being pushed back. Look at America's education system. The number of doctoral degrees being granted to blacks, for example, is falling. ...The Reagan administration initiated budget cuts in education, replacing government grants with loans, and deliberately escalated unemployment for low-income people, making it difficult to afford tuition at professional schools... By 1987, there were nearly 100,000 fewer black Americans enrolled in college than there were ten years before. We're seeing the vision of equality moving away from us.... And since the population base for blacks of college age (18 to 26 years) had increased significantly during these years, the decline was actually far greater than it appeared when considered as a percent-age of that population group. By contrast, white college enrollment between 1976 and 1986 increased by nearly one million students...

We can think about the problem of educational under-development at the collegiate level if we backtrack the pro-gress of young people of color from kindergarten through to their senior year in college. According to the California Post-secondary Education Commission Director's Report, only 50% of the state's 1988 black kindergarten class will grad-uate from high school...

The basic pattern of elitism and racism in colleges conforms to the dynamics of Third World colonialism. At nearly all white academic institutions, the power relationship between whites as a group and people of color is unequal. Authority is invested in the hands of a core of largely white male administrators, bureaucrats and influential senior faculty. The board of trustees or regents is dominated by white, conservative, affluent males. Despite the presence of academic courses on minorities, the vast majority of white students take few or no classes that explore the heritage or cul-tures of non-Western peoples or domestic minorities. Most courses in the humanities and social sciences focus narrowly on topics or issues from the Western capitalist experience and minimize the centrality and importance of non-Western perspectives. Finally, the university or college divorces itself from the pressing concerns, problems and debates that relate to blacks, Hispanics or even white working-class people. Given this structure and guiding philosophy, it shouldn't surprise us that many talented nonwhite students fail to achieve in such a hostile environment.

The Color of Our Prisons

Over 2.2 million black people are arrested every year in the United States; one-half million blacks are currently incarcerated in a federal or state prison or a penal institution.... Most black male prisoners were unemployed at the time of their arrests; the others averaged less than $8,000 annual income during the year before they were jailed. And about 45% of the over 2,200 people currently awaiting execution are African Americans. As Lennox S. Hinds, former National Director of the National Conference of Black Lawyers, has stated, "someone black and poor tried for stealing a few hundred dollars has a 90% likelihood of being convicted of robbery with a sentence averaging between 94 and 138 months. A white business executive who embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars has only a 20% likelihood of conviction with a sentence averaging about 20 to 48 months." Justice is not color blind when black people are the accused...

Toward a Multicultural Democracy

So what do we need in this country? How do we begin to redefine the nature of democracy? Not as a thing, but as a process. Democracy is a dynamic concept. African Americans 25 years ago did not have the right to eat in many res-taurants, we couldn't sit down in the front seats of buses or planes, we couldn't vote in the South, we weren't allowed to use public toilets or drink from water fountains marked "For Whites Only." All of that changed through struggle, commitment and an understanding that democracy is not something that you do once every four years when you vote. It's something that you live every single day.

What can we do to create a more pluralistic, democratic society in America? Before the end of this decade, the majority of California's total population will consist of people of color.... And not long after the midpoint of the next century, no later than 2056, we will live in a country in which people of color will be the numerical majority. Over the next 50 years there will be a transition from a white majority society to a society that is far more pluralistic and diverse, where multilingualism is increasingly the norm, where different cultures, different spiritualities and different philosophies are a beautiful mosaic of human exchange and interaction. This is the emerging multicultural majority.

People of color are radically redefining the nature of democracy. We assert that democratic government is empty and meaningless without active social justice and cultural diversity. Multicultural political democracy means that the country was not built by and for only or group-Western Europeans; that of country does not have only one language - English; or only one religion - Christianity; or only one economic philosophy-corporate capitalism. Multicultural democracy means that the leadership within our society should reflect the richness, colors and diversity expressed in the lives of all of our people Multicultural democracy demands new types of power-sharing and the reallocation of resources necessary to create economic and social development for those who have been systematically excluded and denied. Multicultural democracy enables all women and men to achieve full self-determination, which may include territorial and geographic restructuring, if that is the desire of an indigenous group, community or of pressed nation. Native Americans can no longer be denied their legitimate claim of sovereignty as an oppressed nation, and we must fight for their right to self-determination as a central principle of democracy.

Multicultural democracy articulates vision of society that is feminist... The patterns of subordination and exploitation of women of color - including job discrimination rooted in gender, race and class, rape and sexual abuse, forced sterilizations, harassment and abuse within the criminal justice system, housing discrimination against single mothers with children, the absence of pay equity for comparable work, political under-representation and legal disfranchisement - combine to perpetuate subordinate status for women within society. No progressive struggles have ever been won for people of color throughout history without the courage contributions, sacrifices and leadership of women. No political agenda of emancipation is possible unless one begins with the central principle of empowerment and full liberation for all women, at every level of organization and society. Men must learn from the experiences and insights of women if we are to liberate ourselves from the political, cul-tural and ideological restraints that deny us our rights as Americans and free human beings.

What else is multicultural democracy? Multicultural democracy includes a powerful economic vision that is centered on the needs of human beings. We each need to go out into the community and begin hammering out an economic vision of empowerment that grass roots people can grasp and under-stand and use. We need to break the media monologues that talk at us through the TV and begin talking with one another in the terms of our practical life experiences.

What kinds of questions should we raise? Is it right for a government to spend billions and billions for bailing out fat cats who profited from the savings and loan scam while millions of jobless Americans stand in unemployment lines desperate for work? Is it fair that billions of our dollars are allocated for the Pentagon's permanent war economy to obliterate the lives of millions of poor people from Panama to Iraq to Grenada to Vietnam, while two million Americans sleep in the streets and 37 million Amer-icans lack any form of medical coverage? ... Is it a democracy that we have when we have the right to vote but no right to a job? Is it a democracy when people of color have the freedom to starve, the freedom to live in housing without ade-quate heating facilities, the freedom to attend substandard schools? Democracy without social justice, without human rights, without human dignity is no democracy at all.

We can unite by pooling our resources and energies around progressive projects designed to promote greater awareness and protest among national communities of people of color... We could initiate "Freedom Schools," liberation academies that identify and nurture young women and men with an interest in community-based struggles - a curriculum that teaches young people about their own protest leaders, which reinforces their identification with our collective cultures of resistance, and which deepens our solidarity by celebrating rather than stifling our cultural differences. The new majority must build progressive research institutes, bridging the distance between activists, community organizers and progressive intellectuals who provide the policies and theoretical tools useful in the empowerment of grassroots constituencies and national communities.

Finally, we must infuse our definition of politics with a common sense of ethics and spirituality that challenges the structures of oppression, power and privilege within the dominant social order. Part of the historic strength of the Black Freedom Movement were the deep connections between political objectives and ethical prerogatives. This connection gave the rhetoric of Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson and Fannie Lou Hamer a clear vision of the moral ground that was simultaneously particular and universal. It spoke to the uplifting of African Americans, but its humanistic imperative continues to reach far further.

Multicultural democracy must perceive itself in this historic tradition, as a critical project that transforms the larger society. We must place humanity at the center of our politics. It is not sufficient that we assert what we are against; we must affirm what we are for. It is not sufficient that we declare what we want to overturn, but what we are seeking to rebuild, in the sense of restoring humanity and humanistic values to a system that is materialistic, destructive to the environment and abusive to fellow human beings. We need to enact policies that say that the people who actually produce society's wealth should control how it is used.

The moral bankruptcy of contemporary American society is found, in part, in the vast chasm that separates the conditions of material well being, affluence, power and privilege of a small elite from the whole spectrum of America's communities. The evil in our world is politically and socially engineered, and its products are poverty, homelessness, illiteracy, political subservience, race discrimination and gender discrimination. The old saying from the sixties - we either are part of the solution or part the problem - is simultaneously moral, cultural, economic and political... We cannot be disinterested observers as the physical and spiritual beings of millions of people are collectively crushed.

Can we believe in certain inalienable rights that go beyond Jefferson's terminology of "life, liberty, and the pursuit happiness"? What about the inalienable right not to go hungry in a land agricultural abundance? The right to decent housing? The human right to free public medical care for all? The human right to an adequate income in one's old age? ...

If we can achieve such a democracy, we can believe in the vision of dynamic democracy in which all human beings, women and men, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, come to terms with each other, we can perhaps begin achieve Martin Luther King, Jr.'s vision when he said, ?We shall overcome.?

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