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September 15, 2003

New book challenges conservatives’ call for color-blind society

Whitewashing Race attributes gap to legacy of policies that favor whites, not personal prejudice or blacks’ failures

By Jennifer McNulty

Ward Connerly’s latest race-related ballot initiative, Proposition 54 on California’s Oct. 7 ballot, would prohibit the state from gathering racial information about students and employees. Connerly says his “Racial Privacy Initiative” is the next step toward achieving a colorblind society.

Balderdash, say the authors of the new book Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society.

“Proposition 54 is another attempt to whitewash the fact that our society is built upon unequal access to social and economic advantage,” said coauthor Michael K. Brown, professor of politics at UC Santa Cruz. “The color of one’s skin still determines success or failure, poverty or affluence, illness or health, prison or college.”

Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society takes a new look at the role of race in U.S. society, showing the cumulative effects of inequality on blacks and the long-term positive effects of institutional discrimination on whites.

The authors provide a compelling analysis of the institutional roots of racial disparity in the United States, and they discuss the ways to transform these institutions in today’s post-affirmative action era.

Called “an empirically grounded assault on the vast body of colorblind orthodoxy” by Lani Guinier, Whitewashing Race is the culmination of two years’ work by a team of highly respected sociologists, political scientists, economists, criminologists, and legal scholars who challenged the claim made by Connerly and others that the United States has “solved its race problem.”

Brown and David Wellman, professor of community studies at UCSC, were lead authors on the text, which was coauthored by Martin Carnoy, professor of education and economics at Stanford University; Elliott Currie, a research associate at UC Berkeley; Troy Duster, professor of sociology at UC Berkeley; David B. Oppenheimer, associate dean for academic affairs and professor of law at Golden Gate University; and Marjorie M. Shultz, professor of law at UC Berkeley.

By any measure--health, education, wealth, employment--black Americans lag far behind whites, the authors found:

• The black infant mortality rate remains twice as high as the white rate, and black age-adjusted mortality rates in 1995 were 1.61 times that of whites. Private nursing homes continue to be racially segregated, and nonwhites are almost twice as likely as whites to be admitted to a nursing home sanctioned by state officials for serious deficiencies in care and facilities.

• African Americans are the most residentially segregated group in the United States and are far less likely to own a home; when they do get a mortgage, they receive far less favorable terms than comparable whites.

• The ratio of black to white income is 62 percent, but the ratio of black to white median net worth is just 8 percent.

With its focus on institutional processes, Whitewashing Race shows, among other things, how the real estate and mortgage lending industries sustain segregated housing markets and discriminate against would-be black homeowners, and how a large number of small decisions by police produce widespread discrimination in the criminal justice system. “Racial inequality is both generated and sustained by routine organizational rules and practices that on the surface appear to have nothing to do with race,” said Brown.

The authors write that whites have gained--or accumulated--opportunities, while blacks and other racial groups have lost opportunities, suffering from disaccumulation of the benefits of economic opportunity.

“It’s like a long-term investment,” said Wellman. “If you set aside $40 a month and earn 5 percent interest, your investment will more than double in 25 years. Conversely, if you owe the IRS a few hundred dollars but don’t pay the debt for a decade, you can find yourself owing several thousand dollars. Both advantages and disadvantages compound over time.” Indeed, today’s large gap in median net worth between blacks and whites is due largely to the discrepancy in the value of the equity in their respective homes, a gap that has compounded over time, said Wellman.

Racial accumulation and disaccumulation occur in education, health care, and social and cultural opportunities, such as meeting “the right people” at Harvard, added Brown. In the criminal justice system, black juveniles “accumulate” incarceration at rates that far exceed whites.

These interlocking patterns of racialized accumulation and disaccumulation date back to 1641, when the right to own property, goods, and services was first restricted by race and gender. “Since the inception of the United States, wealth and institutional support have been invested on the white side of the color line and disinvested on the black side,” said Wellman.

The result is what the authors call “durable racial inequality,” the disparities that persist despite legislation and the changes in personal attitudes brought about by the civil rights movement. These institutional barriers to racial equality are overlooked in today’s discussion of race, which revolves around the widespread belief that blacks themselves are responsible for their lower status.

“Many white Americans believe blacks have failed to take advantage of the opportunities created by the civil rights revolution,” said Brown. “They reject policies like affirmative action because they are unaware of the ways in which their own lives have been enhanced by a legacy of unequal advantage. We need to change the scope of the debate to show the system of power and exclusion that benefits whites and disempowers black and Latino communities.”

Instead of affirmative action, the authors propose a combination of public-sector spending and institutional change to root out racial inequality:

• The government must increase public investment in schools, jobs, and critical services in inner-city communities to reverse the legacy of disaccumulation.

• Wealth redistribution programs similar to the retraining programs that made World War II veterans upwardly mobile should focus on funding minority education and business startups.

• Universal access to health care, coupled with an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, housing subsidies, and an unemployment system that reflects the reality of today’s labor market, would provide key social and economic benefits that supplement earned income.

In addition, antidiscrimination laws must be strengthened and augmented; diversity in higher education must be promoted; and many routine practices in the criminal justice system must be revisited.


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