There goes the neighborhood – Old joke (or not).
The 1960s and 1970s: Three-fourths of the one million persons displaced from their homes by the Interstate Highway Program were black. A fifth of all African American housing in the nation was destroyed for highways. The government was reducing the housing stock for blacks at the same time it was expanding it for whites. In fact, since the highway program made “white flight” easier, we can even say that white middle-class housing access – affirmative action – was made possible because of the destruction of housing for African American and Latino communities. Tim Wise writes:
The so-called ghetto was created and not accidentally. It was designed as a virtual holding pen—a concentration camp were we to insist upon honest language—within which impoverished persons of color would be contained. It was created by generations of housing discrimination, which limited where its residents could live. It was created by decade after decade of white riots against black people whenever they would move into white neighborhoods. It was created by deindustrialization and the flight of good-paying manufacturing jobs overseas.
White flight remains a reality to this day, as a recent study points out:
White flight eventually becomes more likely in middle-class neighborhoods when the presence of Hispanics and Asians exceeds 25 percent and 21 percent, respectively…This continuing trend has a number of consequences for an increasingly multicultural America, none of them positive…(as racial segregation has been) a key predictor of reduced life chances, across health, academic, and economic outcomes.
As the federal government finally acknowledged the elephant in the living room – the farcical “separate but equal” – and mandated desegregation in the schools, Southern leaders (soon to be uniformly Republican) faced the fear of race-mixing and solved the dilemma with a stroke of malevolent genius. If they couldn’t prevent black children from entering the best public schools, they could simply transfer their own children to private schools, de-fund the public ones, which were now primarily black and brown, and find ways to subsidize the private ones with public money. The Southern Education Foundation reports:
From the mid-1960s to 1980, as public schools in the Deep South began to slowly desegregate through federal court orders, private school enrollment increased by more than 200,000 students across the region – with about two-thirds of that growth occurring in six states…What was once the South’s 11 percent share of the nation’s private school enrollment had reached 24 percent in 1980…The eleven Southern states of the old Confederacy enrolled between 675,000 and 750,000 white students in the early 1980s, and it is estimated that 65 to 75 percent of these students attended schools in which 90 percent or more of the student body was white.
Northerners have long criticized this situation in the South – and their hypocricy seems to be matched only their apparent ignorance. The anger of working class whites whose wages were stagnating and who perceived that blacks were getting ahead of them would eventually elect con men like Reagan, the Bushes and Trump. But, following the popularity of George Wallace, it erupted in Northern cities such as Boston, which produced one of the most iconic images of the 20th century:
Now, the American school system (especially in Northern cities) is nearly as segregated as it was in 1960, with predictable implications for funding, testing, dropout rates, college placement and job preparation. Eighty percent of Latino students and 74% of black students attend schools that are majority nonwhite. The percentage of black students attending majority white schools has been in decline since 1988, and it is now at its lowest point in almost half a century. In 2003, 1/6 of all black students were educated in “apartheid schools” – schools in which students of color make up 99% of the population The achievement gap between minority and white students continues to widen. Minority high schoolers are performing at academic levels equal to or below those of three decades ago.
1985-present: The War on Drugs has disenfranchised over six million people, two million of whom are black. This simple fact has utterly determined the course of recent history.
Let me say that again: This simple fact has utterly determined the course of history.
The more African Americans a state contains, the more likely it is to ban felons from voting. The average state disenfranchises 2.4% of its voting-age population but 8.4% of blacks. In fourteen states, the share of blacks stripped of the vote exceeds 10%, and in five states it exceeds twenty percent. While 75% of whites register, only 60% of blacks can. In any given Senate, over a dozen Republican senators owe their election to these laws.
Had felons been allowed to vote in 2000, Al Gore’s popular vote margin would have doubled to a million. If Florida had allowed just ex-felons to vote, he still would have carried the state by 30,000 votes and with it the presidency. Would Gore have invaded Iraq and Afghanistan? Would we all have had to endure a bogus war on terror that has cost trillions of dollars and killed several million people? Would the Supreme Court be on the verge of banning abortion? Would the government be leading the world in a race toward a petrochemically induced climate disaster? We can’t answer these questions, but we should continue to ask them.
In 2020 we also have to acknowledge the ongoing voter suppression, gerrymandering and computer fraud in over twenty states, all of which have contributed to Republican control of Congress, the Presidency and the Supreme Court.
And these conditions existed before the Court disemboweled the Voting Rights Act in 2013. After that decision, the 2016 election became the first in fifty years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. Again: it’s absolutely certain that without that Court decision, there would be no Trump presidency.
And while we’re at it, let’s take note of another fact: These numbers do not include Americans residing in Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands, all of whom are considered U.S. nationals, who are allowed to vote in primaries (did you know that Michael Bloomberg won his only Democratic delegates in American Samoa’s primary?). But since they are not considered citizens, they cannot vote in general elections. This is an aggregate population of nearly four million people – nearly all of them people of color. Imagine the results if they could vote for President and compare that to the privileges retained by the white supremacist governments from the Carolinas to Arkansas.
Those numbers are dwarfed by an even larger group, those citizens who for all reasons are ineligible to vote, including most prisoners as well as college students on campuses not in their home districts. The adult population is 245 million, and 220 million are eligible to vote (about half of whom actually do). This results in a staggering number: some fifteen to twenty million American adults – at least half of them people of color – are not permitted to vote.
Of course, due to the effort and sacrifices of the Civil Rights movement, most of the older patterns have disappeared, at least legally. But the long-term consequences of 275 years of discrimination remain as a cruel reality. Due to home equity inflation and resulting family inheritance, as well as the exclusion from Social Security and unequal access to capital, an average black family still has one eleventh of the wealth of a white family, even when they make the same income.
As I write in Chapters Six and Ten of my book, a striking aspect of our de-mythologized world is our literalization of the ancient myths of the sacrifice of the children. And one of the prices America pays for its obsession with innocence is the perpetuation of a particularly ironic form of generational cruelty.
It bears repeating that people over 75 years of age, widely celebrated as the “greatest generation,” themselves formerly the recipients of massive government welfare support, are now the demographic most resistant to the extension of those supports to young people and people of color.
Since 1996 nine states have banned affirmative action: California, Texas (subsequently reversed), Washington, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Arizona, New Hampshire, and Oklahoma. These bans have led to a 23% drop in the chance of college admission for minority students, compared with a 1% drop in other states, relative to non-minority students.
2008: Long-term patterns of government and private sector discrimination and outright fraud came to a head in the subprime mortgage crisis. During the period preceding the housing boom, 6.2% of whites with good credit scores received high-interest mortgages but 21.4% of blacks with similar scores received these same loans. It turned out that several of the major banks had been purposely giving people of color subprime mortgages, including borrowers who would have qualified for prime loans.
The worst of the lot, Wells Fargo had provided a cash incentive for loan officers to aggressively market subprime mortgages in minority neighborhoods. Women of color were the most likely to receive subprime loans while white men were the least likely.
The results were predictable. Black homeowners were disproportionately affected by the foreclosure crisis, with more than 240,000 blacks losing homes they had owned. Black homeowners in the D.C. region were 20% more likely to lose their homes than whites with similar incomes and lifestyles. From 2005 to 2009, the net worth of black households declined by 53% while the net worth of white households declined by 16%.
Both conscious and unconscious biases remain, leading to findings that job-seekers with black-sounding names are 50% less likely to get a callback than those with white-sounding names, as proof that affirmative action is not obsolete.
In 2020 racial profiling remains a major factor. Police stop and search black and Latino drivers on the basis of less evidence than used in stopping white drivers, who are searched less often even though they are more likely to be found with illegal items. The resultant fines, arrests, legal fees and time spent in court mean that people of color have even less disposable income relative to whites. In New York City alone, the stop-and-frisk program made over 100,000 stops per year between 2003 and 2013, with 686,000 stops at its height in 2011. Ninety percent of those stopped in 2017 were African-American or Latino. Even as recently as 2016, the NYPD made over 12,000 stops.
From the annoying to the most critical: police in the U.S. kill over a thousand people per year. Black males are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than whites. For black women, the rate is 1.4 times more likely. It is still true that every 28 hours, an African-American or Latino is shot dead by a police officer, a security guard or a self-appointed vigilante. Eighty percent of the victims are unarmed.
Here is the ultimate in affirmative action for whites: long-term evidence that their lives are worth more to the state than the lives of people of color. “Policing in this country” writes Salim Muwakkil, “has always had the dual purpose of maintaining social order and enforcing the racial hierarchy.” For my thoughts on the massive inequalities in sentencing and prison populations, read here and here.
The final indignity is that most of this vast accumulation of affirmative action for white people is not common knowledge, either in the news media, in politics or at any level of the educational system, including universities. This means that whites have been given free rein to wallow in their ignorance, and thus in their unacknowledged privilege. It means that, most whites have been able to live out their lives completely unaware of the long term, institutional factors that have kept people of color down – and themselves up. James Baldwin’s word said it fifty years ago:
…this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it…but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.
In American theological terms, this means that large numbers of whites are still able to perceive their own relatively happy status as deserved, and the impoverished conditions of millions of black people as their own fault. And when whites feel that they are falling backwards in the rat race, the politicians have provided them with a ready-to-order scapegoat: affirmative action – “discrimination” in favor of those same undeserving, lazy minorities. And the growing realization that whites themselves will be actual minorities (as they are already are in California) soon is a source of terror.
It means that a majority of white people are privileged to believe that they are more often the victims of racism than black people.
Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss – The Who
I first posted this essay in 2015, finishing with these words:
This has been a brief outline of our history of affirmative action for whites. Keep it in mind the next time some fool starts to rant about how minorities get all the breaks. You need to know the facts, and you need to know how they express the myth of American Innocence.
I had already suggested – correctly, I believe – that major power brokers had assigned Barack Obama the task of shoring up holes in the myth of American Innocence. Still, it was a time when I (and probably you) still labored under the misconception that learning the facts about our history and the themes of our mythic narratives would naturally lead people to more progressive politics, and that the power brokers would respond. How naïve I was.
In the spring of 2020 we’ve since had five more years of evidence that logic and reason will not penetrate the hard shell of denial. What I didn’t fully understand when I published my book in 2010 is that the sum total of racist, misogynist, nationalist, materialist, celebrity-worshipping – and for millions, religious – beliefs that fill the regions of the conservative mind compose a solid but extremely fragile identity that has been built up over many generations. Calling any one of its assumptions into question is to open up the possibility that the entire edifice will collapse. We are talking about identity.
The question “Who am I?” is not really meant to get an answer. The question “Who am I?” is meant to dissolve the questioner. – Ramana Maharshi
And now, in the time of plague, in a time when circumstances are offering everyone yet another initiatory moment, it’s clear that the response to the questioning of one’s identity is a terror so deep that most of us will follow any old white con man, one of whom promises to put the sheets back over our eyes, and the other who promises a return to “normalcy.”
And who can blame the Republican faithful for being skeptical about Medicare for all, real tax reform or the dangers of the coronavirus when, as Caitlin Johnstone writes, they’ve been subject to
…mainstream outlets who’ve sold the public lies about war after war, election after election, status quo-supporting narrative after status quo-supporting narrative?
And who can blame the Democratic faithful for absorbing the Russiagate narrative and the “CIA is our friend” narrative and the “defend Israel at all costs” narrative and the “electability” narrative when they’ve been subject for decades to that same media discourse? Looking in from outside the myth of American Innocence, now I can see that the only fundamental difference between reactionaries and conventional liberals is that the first group is angrier and the second is more naïve.
Still, as a mythologist, my work is to offer up historical fact, put it into the context of mythological truth, and use that truth to try to imagine ways to approach a new history of the future. We are better than who we think we are. May this plague finally open our eyes to what true progressives (and now, Bernie Sanders) have been arguing for well over a century – We’re all in this together. May it be so.
Questioner: How should we treat others?
Ramana Maharshi: There are no others.