The first federal government document to mention “racism”

The Kerner Commission Report of 1968 is notable for a number of reasons. But, I had never heard this claim before:

Did the report change anything?

“I think so,” he said. “Using the word racism was important. That was the first time it had ever been in any government document. Black kids internalize this discrimination they’re feeling: ‘Maybe there’s something wrong with me.’ It was really essential to say you’re not crazy.”

I do not know whether this claim is entirely true. On the face of it, this sounds like the federal government was resistant to using a word that could easily describe decades and centuries of experiences.

But, on the hand, perhaps racism was not a commonly used term. A quick search of Google Ngram suggests the use of racism picked up steam in the 1960s:


Still, even if it was relatively ahead of its time, every time I see the Kerner Commission Report I’m reminded of the applicability of its conclusions for the last fifty years.

More evidence of a racist North: disparities in incarceration rates by race existed in late 1800s

There is a disparity across racial groups in incarceration rates in the United States today. But this is not a recent phenomenon: a recently published sociological study argues this dates back to the late 1800s.

Since 1970, the percentage of Americans in prison has skyrocketed; the incarceration rate is especially pronounced among blacks. Though it’s often assumed that the racial disparity came along with the surge in incarceration, a recent study by a sociologist at Harvard suggests that the disparity originated earlier, with the emigration of blacks from the South. Not only was the racial disparity in incarceration higher in the North to begin with, but it rose sharply in the North after 1880, even while dropping sharply in the South after 1900. What exacerbated the racial disparity in the North was the fact that blacks were competing with lower-class immigrants from Europe, many of whom—particularly the Irish—had come to dominate law enforcement and were looking for any excuse to arrest blacks. In a sense, the Irish—who, ironically, had gotten a reputation as troublemakers when they first immigrated—traded places with blacks. “As the incarceration rate of Irish immigrants and their children in Great Migration states declined from 245 to 158 people per 100,000 between 1880 and 1950, the nonwhite incarceration rate leapt from 203 to 594.”

Muller, C., “Northward Migration and the Rise of Racial Disparity in American Incarceration, 1880–1950,” American Journal of Sociology (September 2012).

This is more evidence that the North has had a long history of issues over race after the Civil War. The typical narrative often doesn’t allow for this; the story often goes that the South was the racist and discriminatory part of the country and the Jim Crow laws prove this. But the North may not have been much better. In addition to these differences in incarceration rates, there is evidence of:

1. Increasing levels of residential segregation between whites and blacks emerging in many Northern cities in the early 1900s. As the Great Migration picked up, blacks were pushed to live in black areas, not in white neighborhoods. For example, the thousands upon thousands of blacks who entered the city were forced into the Black Belt. See the book American Apartheid, among other research.

2. Many smaller Northern communities had “sundown laws” that did not allow blacks to stay in the community after dark. While blacks had unprecedented residential mobility in the two decades after the Civil War, these new sundown rules pushed blacks back into major cities. See the book Sundown Towns.

Sociologist to journalists: “Racism: Not Isolated Incidents but Systemic”

After several recent incidences in East Haven, Connecticut, a sociologist explains why racism is a systemic issue, not a matter of a few racist individuals:

As a sociology professor whose specialties include the study of racism, I am sometimes asked to explain what is happening following such a flurry of racist incidents. That question is based on the faulty assumptions that what is happening now is something new and that what occurred is no more than a disturbing accumulation of isolated incidents of racial bigotry committed by a few Neanderthals who didn’t get the memo that in today’s colorblind America we have moved past all that.

Social structures, racist, or otherwise, don’t just disappear or grow old and die. Consequently, when I get that “what is happening now?” query from the press, I feel like yawning as I mutter, “There you go again.” Lately I have advised reporters to connect the dots. I challenge them to, for once, abandon racism-evasive language such as “race” or “the race issue” and to call the thing what it is, racism, which is by its nature always systemic.

So far, to my knowledge, no reporter has taken my advice. Instead they tend to write stories that, if they even acknowledge a pattern of racist incidents, seem to attribute it to the bad economy, the coming of a full moon or perhaps some foul-smelling concoction that was secretly slipped into our drinking water. Then they go away for another few months; and when still more overtly racist stuff happens, they email again to ask me to explain, once more, what is happening, now.

Unfortunately that type of news reporting supports the dominant response to racism by European Americans — the militant denial of its existence or significance. A very successful racism denial tactic is to conveniently confuse the racial, bigoted attitudes and behaviors of some person of color with systemic racism as a way of suggesting that white racism is no more of a problem than is so-called black racism. On other occasions a person of color may be accused of being a racist for simply bringing up the issue of racism.

This is a message needed for more than just journalists.

I wonder if journalists are any better on this issue than average Americans. On the whole, Americans often privilege individualistic situations to social problems, race or otherwise. White Americans, in particular, would prefer to act like race doesn’t matter and claim that we should move on. I’ve noted before that the reverse should be true: Americans should have to show that race isn’t involved in social situations instead of suggesting it doesn’t matter until there is incontrovertible proof otherwise.

Having to “prove” racism versus assuming that it is a common feature of American life

In defending some comments she made regarding white liberals and their support for President Obama, Melissa Harris-Perry looks at three common objections to conversations about race in the United States: “prove it,” “I have black friends,” and “who made you an expert?” While these are all familiar responses, the first one is a particularly sociological point that raises questions about how we view society and how this plays out in court:

The first is a common strategy of asking any person of color who identifies a racist practice or pattern to “prove” that racism is indeed the causal factor. This is typically demanded by those who are certain of their own purity of racial motivation. The implication is if one cannot produce irrefutable evidence of clear, blatant and intentional bias, then racism must be banned as a possibility. But this is both silly as an intellectual claim and dangerous as a policy standard.

In a nation with the racial history of the United States I am baffled by the idea that non-racism would be the presumption and that it is racial bias which must be proved beyond reasonable doubt. More than 100 years of philosophical, psychological and sociological research that begins, at least, with the work of W.E.B. Du Bois has mapped the deeply entrenched realities of racial bias on the American consciousness. If anything, racial bias, not racial innocence is the better presumption when approaching American political decision-making. Just fifty years ago, nearly all white Democrats in the US South shifted parties rather than continuing to affiliate with the party of civil rights. No one can prove that this decision was made on the basis of racial bias, but the historical trend is so clear as to require mental gymnastics to imagine this was a choice not motivated by race.

Progressives and liberals should be particularly careful when they demand proof of intentionality rather than evidence of disparate impact in conversations about racism. Recall that initially the 1964 Civil Rights Act made “disparate impact” a sufficient evidentiary claim for racial bias. In other words, a plaintiff did not need to prove that anyone was harboring racial animus in their hearts, they just needed to show that the effects of a supposedly race neutral policy actually had a discernible, disparate impact on people of color. The doctrine of disparate impact helped to clear many discriminatory housing and employment policies off the books.

Michelle Alexander brilliantly demonstrates in The New Jim Crow, the pernicious effect of the Supreme Court moving away from disparate impact as a standard to forcing plaintiffs to demonstrate racist intention. This new standard has encouraged the explosive growth of incarceration of African-Americans, turning a blind eye to disparate impact while it demands “proof” of racial bias.

I believe we must be careful and judicious in our conversations about racism. But I also believe that those who demand proof of interpersonal intention to create a racist outcome are missing the point about how racism works. Racism is not exclusively about hooded Klansmen; it is also about the structures of bias and culture of privilege that infect the left as well.

I like how Harris-Perry flips this objection: looking at the broad sweep of American history, from its days of more overt racism to more covert racism today, why don’t we assume that racism plays a role in everyday life in this society? Can we really assume, as many seem to do, that the issues with race ended at some point, either in the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s or in the election of minority politicians or the ending of segregationist society in the South? With plenty of indicators of racial disparity today, from online comments from young adults to incarceration rates to homeownership to wealth to residential segregation, perhaps we should we see racism as a default feature of American society until proven otherwise.

Harris-Perry hints at one reason why it is difficult for Americans to see the effects of racism: the court system moving to the burden of proof shifting to “proving” “racist intention.” Without the proverbial smoking gun, it then becomes more difficult to develop arguments just from data and patterns, even if they are overwhelming. While the recent court case involving gender discrimination at Walmart and sociologists siding with the prosecution isn’t about race, it illustrates some of these principles. The data suggests discrimination may have taken place as more women did not receive promotions or pay raises. But without “proof” that this was a deliberate Walmart policy meant to harm women, the numbers may not be enough. The same holds true with race: “statistical discrimination,” stereotypes about large groups of people, may be okay because no individual or corporation can be held directly responsible for the outcome.

Majority of young adults “see online slurs as just joking”

A recent survey of teenagers and young adults suggests that they are more tolerant of offensive or pejorative terms in the online realm:

Jaded by the Internet free-for-all, teens and 20-somethings shrug off offensive words and name-calling that would probably appall their parents, teachers or bosses. And an Associated Press-MTV poll shows they don’t worry much about whether the things they tap into their cellphones and laptops could reach a wider audience and get them into trouble.

Seventy-one percent say people are more likely to use slurs online or in text messages than in person, and only about half say they are likely to ask someone using such language online to stop…

But young people who use racist or sexist language are probably offending more people than they realize, even in their own age range. The poll of 14- to 24-year-olds shows a significant minority are upset by some pejoratives, especially when they identify with the group being targeted…

But they mostly write off the slurs as jokes or attempts to act cool. Fifty-seven percent say “trying to be funny” is a big reason people use discriminatory language online. About half that many say a big reason is that people “really hold hateful feelings about the group.”…

It’s OK to use discriminatory language within their own circle of friends, 54 percent of young people say, because “I know we don’t mean it.” But if the question is put in a wider context, they lean the other way, saying 51-46 that such language is always wrong.

This would seem to corroborate ideas that anonymity online or comments sections free people up to say things that they wouldn’t say in real life. Perhaps this happens because there is no face-to-face interaction or it is harder to identify people or there are few repercussions. In the end, the sort of signs, verbal or non-verbal cues, that might stop people from saying these things near other people simply don’t exist online.

I would be interested to see more research about this “joking” and how young adults understand it. Humor can be one of the few areas in life where people can address controversial topics with lesser consequences. Of course, there are limits on what is acceptable but this can often vary by context, particularly in peer-driven settings like high school or college where being “cool” means everything. These young adults likely know this intuitively as they wouldn’t use the same terms around parents or adults. Are these young adults then more polite around authority figures and save it all up for online or are they more uncivil in general as some would argue?

For an important issue like racism, does this mean that many in the next generation think being or acting racist is okay as long as they are among friends but is not okay to exhibit in public settings? Is it okay to be racist as long as it is accompanied by a happy emoticon or a j/k?

Knowing that this is a common issue, what is the next step in cutting down on this offensive humor, like we are already seeing in many media sites’ comments sections? And who gets to do the policing – parents, schools, websites?

More blacks return to the south

In the Great Migration that covered much of the 20th century, millions of African-Americans moved to northern cities from the south in search of economic opportunities. With this influx, cities like Chicago were changed dramatically. But a new study suggests that this trend may now be working in reverse as blacks move from northern cities back to the south:

The economic downturn has propelled a striking demographic shift: black New Yorkers, including many who are young and college educated, are heading south.

About 17 percent of the African-Americans who moved to the South from other states in the past decade came from New York, far more than from any other state, according to census data. Of the 44,474 who left New York State in 2009, more than half, or 22,508, went to the South, according to a study conducted by the sociology department of Queens College for The New York Times.

The movement is not limited to New York. The percentage of blacks leaving big cities in the East and in the Midwest and heading to the South is now at the highest levels in decades, demographers say…

Some blacks say they are leaving not only to find jobs, but also because they have soured on race relations.

A few questions pop into my mind:

1. As the article suggests, this sounds like more of an exodus of the middle-class and above. How does this movement back south break down by income and education levels?

2. How exactly does racism and discrimination play into this? Is the situation in the South now preferable to what is happening in major Midwestern and Northwestern cities?

3. How surprising is this considering the population shifts in America over the last few decades to the South and the West?

The NBA, referees, Malcolm Gladwell, and race

Henry Abbott at Truehoop reexamines an issue that emerged a few years ago with a paper written by several economists: do NBA officials exhibit implicit race bias when calling fouls? Here is Abbott’s take on the findings and implications of the original study:

Basically, the more black referees on the court, the better the calls for black players. And the reverse is true for white players. The entire combined effect is fairly limited, around 4 percent, but the pattern is certainly there.

All of this means not all that much about NBA referees, other than that they’re human. The research was about human decision making in the workplace, and the referees were just a handy group to study.

And nothing about these findings do much to undermine the NBA’s position as one of the most successfully race-blind organizations on the planet.

Abbott writes that the NBA essentially lost the scientific battle as experts pored over the economists’ paper as well as the NBA’s study and found the NBA’s study to be lacking. (It is also interesting to note that the economists made all of their data available online, making it open for scrutiny from others.)

Malcolm Gladwell enters the picture because of his book Blink where he looks at how people make quick decisions. In instances where race matters, such as calling fouls or making a decision about whether a suspect is about to pull a gun, a person making a decision nearly instantaneously makes judgments based on knowledge or associations they make about different races. Abbott sums up this research on race and judgments (read more about it at the Project Implicit website):

The lesson Gladwell, Winfrey, Harvard researchers and others took from this was about environment: We may have reached a point where a lot of explicit racism (the kinds of things we’d associate with hate speech, the klan, segregation and the like) is largely behind us. But our brains are still bombarded with images of “bad” black people and “good” white ones, which affects our quick reactions to white and black faces.

More broadly, this lines up with sociological thinkers who have suggested that in recent decades, racism and discrimination has become less overt and more covert. But just because racism appears less present doesn’t mean that the problem has been solved or that we have entered into a color-blind world. Gladwell and others suggest that it is even built into our snap judgments.

As Abbott suggests, how the NBA responds to this remains to be seen. The initial response of strongly denying the economists’ research appears no longer tenable. For a league that aspires to become global (involving even more ethnicities and races) and also wants to gain a larger audience in America (fighting football and baseball as the big sports), recognizing that this issue exists and also demonstrating a willingness to work at reducing the effect may matter quite a bit.