Speaking Of America

In the US, an old race problem in new clothes

"Is the American Civil War still not over?"

This was the headline on a Chinese news website last week, reacting to the debate over the Confederate flag in the United States, in the wake of the racially motivated shooting of nine people in a historic black church.

A little extreme, but it does capture aptly sentiments raised by recent events in the US - a sense that race relations here are firmly stuck in the past.

President Barack Obama said as much after the shootings, even invoking a word that has become taboo: "Racism, we are not cured of it. And it's not just a matter of it not being polite to say 'nigger' in public. That's not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It's not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don't, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior."

But is the race problem here as bad as it appears and why does it seem like so little progress has been made in centuries?


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

While inequality underlying the recent racial tensions is present in varying degrees between white Americans and all minority groups, it is the black community that bears the deepest scars.

By almost any measure of well-being - employment, income, education, health, criminal justice - being black in America does seem to continue to be a significant disadvantage.

The perceived inequality in the criminal justice system has grabbed the most attention recently.

Last year, the deaths of two unarmed black men - Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York - at the hands of white police officers sparked riots and nationwide protests against racially discriminatory practices by law enforcement.

In those two cases, the police officers responsible were not indicted by a grand jury.

Then in April this year, the issue exploded again when 25-year-old Freddie Gray fell into a coma and subsequently died after being transported in a police vehicle in Baltimore.

Protests that started after Mr Gray's funeral turned violent - police cars and a pharmacy were set on fire - ultimately leading to a state of emergency and a curfew being declared in the city.

The protests have died down but there is little to suggest it will significantly impact the lopsidedness of criminal justice statistics. There are, after all, great disparities at every step of the process.

A black person is more likely to get pulled over at a traffic stop, more likely to get arrested, more likely convicted and less likely to get picked for a jury.

A 2013 report submitted to the UN Human Rights Committee by an NGO known as The Sentencing Project found that, although only about 12 per cent of the US population is black, black Americans constituted 30 per cent of people arrested for property offences and 38 per cent of those arrested for violent offences. And while black youth account for 16 per cent of children, they account for 28 per cent of juvenile arrests.

The difference cannot be fully accounted by the fact that black people are over-represented in lower socio-economic classes - and are thus committing crimes at a higher rate.

For instance, in one study on a highway in New Jersey, The Sentencing Project found that though minorities made up 15 per cent of drivers, they accounted for 42 per cent of stops and 73 per cent of arrests, even though drivers of the different races were violating traffic laws at similar rates.

"The police practice of targeting minority drivers has become so widespread that many black communities have begun referring to the phenomenon as "DWB" or 'driving while black'," it concluded.

And it doesn't end there.

Black students are three times more likely to get suspended than white children; the jobless rate for blacks is double that for whites; and the median net worth of white households is US$110,500 (S$149,500), almost 18 times that of black households.

Or as economist Thomas Piketty put it, the level of inequality in the United States among workers is "probably higher than in any other society at any time in the past, anywhere in the world".

There are hundreds of more similarly discouraging statistics that show a deep gulf between the races in the US.

It all stands in stark contrast to professed attitudes about race. Even the most cynical observer would not suggest that attitudes remain what they were during the era of Jim Crow laws, where segregation was justified on a widespread belief in the superiority of the Caucasian race. In the decades since the 1960s, when Jim Crow laws were finally rejected, there has been an undeniable shift in stated racial attitudes.

The US General Social Survey - which has been studying social trends since 1972 - found, for example, that support for segregated schools has dropped to a level so low as to be negligible. While 31 per cent of white Southerners in the US supported segregation in 1972, the number who felt the same in 1985 was so low that the question was removed from the survey.

Similarly, while 25 per cent of white Southerners said in 1972 they would not vote for a black president even if he was qualified for the job and endorsed by their party, just 6 per cent felt the same in 2010.

So the question is: Why?

Why does so much race-based inequality continue to exist in a country where so many seem to believe discrimination is a thing of the past? And why is it there is so much apparent institutional racism in a country that has voted in a black president?

One explanation from academics studying race relations is that no one can agree on what the problem is.

If racism is simply defined by overt measures of whether different races can share a water fountain, then the problem does seem to have been solved. But it's another story if you focus on whether all races are treated equally by the police. And it is clear, white and black Americans do not have a consensus on that definition.

In fact, while black Americans believe institutional racism to be a major problem, white Americans regard discrimination as basically over. Again, polls offer some insight into the disparity.

A Pew survey in the wake of the Ferguson shooting found that only 44 per cent of white Americans thought the incident raised important issues about race, compared with an overwhelming 80 per cent of blacks.

A separate study by Harvard's Professor Michael Norton actually found that whites consider anti-white discrimination a bigger problem than bias against blacks.

And on this measure, experts suggest that the election of President Obama made matters worse, not better - affirming an ill-informed belief that the country had entered a post-racial era.

But how do people reconcile the idea that racism is over with the multitude of statistics showing that to be far from the truth?

Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva describes the situation as "colour-blind racism".

In his book Racism Without Racists, he writes: "Whereas Jim Crow racism explained blacks' social standing as the result of their biological and moral inferiority, colour-blind racism avoids such facile arguments. Instead, whites rationalise minorities' contemporary status as a product of market dynamics, naturally occurring phenomena and blacks' imputed cultural limitations."

In other words: White Americans think a large part of the problem lies with minority communities themselves rather than within the institutions - society is now equal and if blacks simply pull themselves up from their bootstraps, they will succeed.

The upshot of that, Professor Bonilla-Silva argues, is a white- washing of modern racial practices. There may be no more blatant segregation policies when it comes to housing, but the same segregation is being achieved through more subtle means - not showing black and white home buyers the same houses, quoting one group higher rents or giving certain groups stricter mortgages.

But what then is one to make of the happy headlines, the numerous little victories the black community can claim, starting with the election of the first black president?

Indeed, during the past two weeks, several states have moved to remove the display of the Confederate flag and retailers have stopped stocking items that carry that symbol.

On Wednesday, South Carolina's House of Representatives voted to remove the flag from the state building compound.

Dr Calvin Warren, an assistant professor of American studies at George Washington University, suggests that in the place of real progress, the US has settled on largely symbolic ones - like removing flags or making certain words taboo.

"The election of President Obama was symbolic. In terms of symbolism, there is progress. But how has that election translated into any type of rectification of inequality for black people?

"It hasn't. In fact, in many cases it has become worse. More black people have become incarcerated, more black people are being shot by the police... Things are getting worse for black people in terms of day-to-day living. Black people still have the highest rate of unemployment. So the election is deceptively progressive," he said. "We are really invested in symbolic progress because it does not change the infrastructure of power."

Pessimism is pervasive. No one spoken to for this column could even suggest what actual progress would look like, let alone how it might be achieved.

And in this scenario, the United States is not much different from any other multicultural society that faces race issues.

The deep scar of slavery might have made the problem more entrenched, but the features of it are not so different.

CNN anchor Fareed Zakaria recently penned an op-ed piece suggesting that the US might learn a little from Singapore on how to deal with racial integration. And while I agree that proactive policies to encourage integration will help, there will come a point where no further progress can be made through sheer force of law. One cannot simply ban racism nor solve it by just having "honest conversation" about it.

Laws will ultimately not be enough to prevent a prejudiced police officer from stopping a black man and using unnecessary force because he felt threatened.

That's why most say they care little if a presidential candidate addresses the issue head on or not. For all the talk about race in the 2016 presidential election, those polls will not move the needle.

My takeaway from the US situation is this simple thought:

For countries that are thus lucky enough not to have the United States' dark racial past or who currently enjoy a less fractious race relationship, the American story is a reminder of how important it is to preserve it.

America's problems show that when it comes to race relations, what is broken is not easily fixed.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 10, 2015, with the headline 'In the US, an old race problem in new clothes'. Print Edition | Subscribe