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The Long Shadow of Race

This is an excerpt from Associate Editor Michael D. Yates’s new book, Cheap Motels and a Hotplate: An Economist’s Travelogue, available from Monthly Review Press. Readers should ask their local bookshop for the book or order it directly by phoning 1-800-670-9499 or 1-212-691-2555.

I have always lived in the long shadow of race. Johnstown, Pittsburgh, Portland, Miami Beach, in every city racist remarks and racist actions were commonplace. You didn’t have to look for them; they were hard to escape. And on our road trips, no matter where we went or for how few days, it was not at all unusual for a white person to offer a racist comment. It is almost as if there is an understanding among whites that they are all fellow conspirators in the race war.

In Johnstown, daily racism—in bars, at the college where I taught, even in union halls—was a fact of life. A colleague complained in the faculty dining room that he didn’t know why his daughter had to pay for work done at the university’s dental school clinic when all those “niggers” got it for free. In the college gym, students told me they cheered for the Boston Celtics because they were the “white team.” A man in a bowling alley threatened to assault me because I said that Michael Jordan was a great basketball player. In a union class, I got a complaint on the student evaluation forms: too many blacks in the class. There was one.

Black people call the Steel City “Pittsburgh South.” In our first home there, in an apartment building complex, the college kids got drunk on weekends and hurled racial epithets at passersby from their balconies. When we moved to another part of town, an old neighborhood woman warned us to keep our curtains closed. She said that black people looked in windows trying to spot something to steal.

I have already commented on the racism of Portland. In Miami Beach, during our six-week stay in 2002, while we were talking to the Cuban-American manager of a realty office, she began to berate the city’s Haitian immigrants as dirty criminals. She automatically assumed that I would have no sympathy for these wretched souls who, desperately poor to start with, have been denied asylum, put in detention centers, forced to take the worst jobs, and subjected to vicious racial discrimination.

I got a haircut in a small shop in a mall along Santa Fe’s Cerillos Road. I struck up a conversation with the white woman cutting my hair. She was a single mother with a teenage son, and beginning to plan for his college education. Out of the blue she said she was angry that the local schools were biased in favor of Hispanics and Indians. They got all the breaks. This astounded me. We had been reading about—and seen—the dismal conditions faced by the city’s people of color. They were poor; they lived in substandard housing; they did the worst jobs; their neighborhoods were ravaged by drugs and alcohol. Many went hungry. The whole history of New Mexico and its capital city was awash in racism and violence against nonwhites. Yet here was a woman who had no hesitance to tell a stranger that the oppressors were really the victims.

In Flagstaff, Arizona, we went to a party organized by a progressive organization called the Friends of Flagstaff. Over its potluck dinner, we met a woman from Boston. She decried the lack of diversity in Flagstaff, saying without irony that she wished it was more like Boston, with its many ethnic restaurants. What was remarkable was her seeming unawareness that Flagstaff is a diverse city, with large Hispanic and Indian populations—Indians comprise nearly 20 percent of all residents. They must be invisible to her.

Again in Flagstaff, we were enjoying the exhibits in the Museum of Northern Arizona. We ended our visit with a stop at the museum’s bookstore. We were admiring the Indian-made works of art for sale when an Indian artist came in and showed the manager some of his jewelry and asked if the museum was interested in buying his pieces. Apparently the craftsmanship was good, but the Indian had been drinking and was known to the manager. The manager and his assistant treated this man as if he were a pathetic drunk unworthy of their time. He kept lowering his price, giving up whatever pride he had to these white people with money. A few minutes later, he was dismissed. After he left, the two museum staffers mocked him. The assistant, not realizing her ignorance, said that perhaps it was time for the Indian to join AAA. We left the museum with heavy hearts. It was as if the history of white oppression of Indians had been reenacted in microcosm before our eyes.

In Estes Park, people smugly said about a group of shabby riverside shacks not far from our cabin, “Oh, that’s where the Mexicans live.” The local peace group didn’t bother to solicit support from local Mexicans because “They probably wouldn’t be interested. They have to work too hard and wouldn’t have time.” We were talking to a jewelry store owner who, after remarking on how much safer (often a code word for “whiter”) Estes Park was than his former home in Memphis, Tennessee, said that the Estes Park crime report was pretty small and those arrested always had names you couldn’t pronounce. (Those damned Mexicans again.) In the laundromat we met a woman from the Bayview section of Brooklyn, and she said that she had moved here because you couldn’t recognize her Brooklyn neighborhood anymore. She told us, without I think realizing how racist she sounded, that there were so many Arabs there now that locals call it “Bay Root.” “Get it?,” she said, “Bay Root.”

There are numerous inconvenient facts that racists are unwilling to confront. The following data compare mainly blacks and whites. This is because these are the most readily available and the ones I know best. Comparisons between whites and other minorities such as Hispanics or Indians would show the same trends.

More than one million black men and women are in our jails and prisons, about the same number as whites, though the black share of the population is less than one-sixth that of whites. It is more likely that a black person of college age is in prison than in college. There are no economic indicators showing a black (or Hispanic or American Indian) advantage. Black median income, whether for families or individuals, is less than for whites, as is wealth. Black wages are lower. Black poverty rates are higher, by wide margins. Black unemployment rates are typically double white rates. All of these indicators show differences between blacks and whites even after variables that might influence them are held constant. For example, on average, black workers with the same education, the same experience, working in the same industry, and living in the same region of the country as whites still earn less money.

These racial inequalities can be simply explained. A common argument made by whites is that, since more than 150 years have passed since the end of slavery, there has been more than enough time for blacks to catch up with whites economically. However, recent economic research shows the flaw in such arguments. Economists have shown that economic advantages carry over from generation to generation and disadvantages do the same. As economist Austan Goolsbee put it, “The recent evidence shows quite clearly that in today’s economy starting at the bottom is a recipe for being underpaid for a long time to come” (New York Times, May 25, 2006). Across generations, we find:

Although Americans still think of their land as a place of exceptional opportunity—in contrast to class-bound Europe—the evidence suggests otherwise. And scholars have, over the past decade, come to see America as a less mobile society than they once believed. As recently as the later 1980s, economists argued that not much advantage passed from parent to child, perhaps as little as 20 percent. By that measure, a rich man’s grandchild would have barely any edge over a poor man’s grandchild….But over the last 10 years, better data and more number crunching have led economists and sociologists to a new consensus: The escalators of mobility move much more slowly. A substantial body of research finds that at least 45 percent of parents’ advantage in income is passed along to their children, and perhaps as much as 60 percent. With the higher estimate, it’s not only how much money your parents have that matters—even your great-great-grandfather’s wealth might give you a noticeable edge today. (Wall Street Journal, May 13, 2005)

Imagine my own great-great-grandfather and suppose he had been a black slave in Mississippi. He would have been denied education, had his family destroyed, been worked nearly to death, suffered severe privation during the Civil War, and been considered less than human. Then in 1865 he would have been “freed,” to fend for himself and whatever family he had. No job, no land, no schools, no nothing. For twelve short years, he might have had some protection provided by the federal government against the murderous rage of white Southerners. But in 1877 even that ended, and afterward he would have been confronted with the full force of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan. What chance would his children have had? How likely would they have been to catch up with their white overlords? Isn’t zero the most likely probability? His grandchildren might have migrated north, but again with no wealth and not much schooling. His great-grandchildren would have lived through the Great Depression. How much property would they have been likely to accumulate? Finally, through the heroic struggle of my ancestors and my own generation, I would have seen the victories of the civil rights movement, the desegregation of the schools, the end of lynchings, and the opening up of a few decent jobs. I might have been an auto worker in Detroit for a dozen years, but then in the 1970s everything would have come crashing down again.

Too many whites, and a few blacks, cannot confront such facts and analysis. They’d rather comfort themselves with the notion that what lies behind these data is social pathology. When a local black minister wrote that black people in New Orleans were themselves responsible for the misery inflicted by Hurricane Katrina, Denver’s talk show hosts had a field day. They said that he was heroic for having the courage to say such a thing, and they hoped for the day when a white politician like President Bush could say the same.