Tag: Martin Luther King Jr.

About Structural Racism

This morning my friend Tom asked me on Messenger if I could help him get educated on Structural Racism, preferably with quantitative data. The easiest way to explore the concept is with a blog post.

First, some thoughts about prejudice and discrimination. Nearly 70 years ago, sociologist Robert K. Merton wrote that we need to distinguish between racial attitudes and racialized behaviors. He cast this distinction in a useful two by two table. People who were prejudiced and discriminate based on that prejudice he called Bigots (RKM didn’t go for catchy titles). People who were not prejudiced and never discriminated he called Liberals. It’s the two cross cells that are especially interesting. There are people who are prejudiced but don’t act on it: Timid Bigots. Finally, there are people who aren’t at all prejudiced but find themselves discriminating on the basis of race. He called these Reluctant Discriminators.

As an individualist culture, we seem mostly concerned with the Bigot or Timid Bigot categories. We expect people to be respected regardless of their race. (The backlash against being “politically correct” illustrates how we have not moved out of the Timid Bigot category). Reactions to protestors complaining about “racist cops” suggest that we believe the law enforcement officials are just doing their jobs and that we shouldn’t attribute motive to them (although the reports of racist social media posts show up more often than we would like). We should encourage people to rethink their past prejudices and to rise above stereotypes, but that won’t get us where we need to go as a society.

It is the Reluctant Discriminator category we need to be paying attention to in light of the past two weeks. It draws our attention away from individually oriented attitudes or behaviors and causes us to ask where the impetus to discriminate comes from if not personal animus. This is the essence of Structural Racism and why it’s so hard for people to get their head around.

In short, Structural Racism means that the inequalities we see present in society today are imbedded in multiple social structures that perpetuate over time. The outcomes black and latinx people experience are at least partially shaped by those very structures. That’s not to say those outcomes are guaranteed but there are certain probabilities that attach.

Consider this data from the National Center for Children in Poverty. In a longitudinal examination of children who spent half of their childhood (birth to 15) in poverty, they explored the percentage still in poverty at 20, 25, and 35. For white children in poverty, 11% were in poverty at 20 and 25 but only 5% by 30 and 4% were by 35. For black children, 19% were in poverty at 20, 30% at 25, 19% at 30, and 20% at 35. These differences aren’t based upon individual attitudes but upon one’s location in the economic structure and the avenues to success available.

These structural differences are not new. One need go no farther than the Constitution of the United States to see that blacks were officially designated as 3/5 of a person. There is a lot of good literature on the ways in which that kind of inequality requires an ideology of superiority (read Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise) but the ideology follows the structure.

Or consider the sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr. As much as we like to quote the “judged by the content of their character” line, King was very much aware of the nature of structural advantages given to whites that were denied to blacks. The first two-thirds of the Dream speech is about how America had failed to live up to its promises. In his Washington Cathedral sermon in March of 1968, he said the following:

In 1863 the Negro was told that he was free as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation being signed by Abraham Lincoln. But he was not given any land to make that freedom meaningful. It was something like keeping a person in prison for a number of years and suddenly discovering that that person is not guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. And you just go up to him and say, “Now you are free,” but you don’t give him any bus fare to get to town. You don’t give him any money to get some clothes to put on his back or to get on his feet again in life.

Every court of jurisprudence would rise up against this, and yet this is the very thing that our nation did to the black man. It simply said, “You’re free,” and it left him there penniless, illiterate, not knowing what to do. And the irony of it all is that at the same time the nation failed to do anything for the black man, though an act of Congress was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest. Which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor.

But not only did it give the land, it built land-grant colleges to teach them how to farm. Not only that, it provided county agents to further their expertise in farming; not only that, as the years unfolded it provided low interest rates so that they could mechanize their farms. And to this day thousands of these very persons are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies every years not to farm. And these are so often the very people who tell Negroes that they must lift themselves by their own bootstraps. It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.

A similar argument is made in Mehrsa Baradaran in her The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap. She traces the attempts to build community banks in predominantly black inner city neighborhoods and the limitations that were placed on those banking entities. In short, they were limited to being little more than savings and loans where people deposited savings from earnings. At the same time, the federal government was significantly subsidizing white commercial banks to offer mortgage loans to the white middle class rapidly moving to the suburbs. Even if black families could work around the redlining that limited their ability to buy a house, their mortgage would be run through a white bank and the subsequent profits from those investments would leave their community. Black families were significantly limited in their ability to build capital and were considerably more vulnerable to disruption than their white counterparts. In 1963, the average white family had wealth (including home and retirement assets) $120K more that of the average black family (140K to 20K). In 2016, that gap had increased to nearly $800K.

We can consider the same issues in relation to criminal justice. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow argues that mass incarceration is a direct reaction to changes brought by the civil rights movement. Even without endorsing all of Alexander’s argument, we can see structural racism at work. Laws were passed that disproportionately impacted black neighborhoods (crack cocaine, marijuana possession) and politicians railed against fictitious Thugs in the streets (“superpredators”, “black out game”). Police departments deployed their personnel to poorer neighborhoods where they would arrest wrongdoers which would then show them as high crime areas: reinforcing the deployments, creating disincentives for businesses, increasing insurance rates. Differential criminal justice processes result in problems like cash bail. For those with resources, they pay their bail and are released on their own recognizance. For those without — disproportionately black and latinx — they sit in the county jail for a year or more awaiting their trial date. This removes them from jobs and family and helps create a presumption of guilt (they’re in jail, aren’t they?). It’s no surprise that some of those folks will plead guilty to a lesser charge — even if not guilty — to be able to return to some semblance of normality at some point.

(I plan to have more to say about criminal justice reform, especially as it relates to the “Defund the Police” proposals later this week.)

The same patterns can occur in family and schooling. Five years ago, I wrote a series of posts using the NCAA tournament (remember those?) as a metaphor. My argument (which you can read here, here, and here) was that the same schools tend to get the top eight seeds in the tournament over time. Those structural advantages allows them better recruits, more donor money, more television which lead to more recruits, etc. That doesn’t mean that the small school with a 16-seed will never win just that the odds are tremendously against it. Family and Schooling inequities get passed along with those with resources getting more and those without falling further behind. There will be stars that beat the odds but the probabilities remain daunting.

The patterns I’ve been describing aren’t new. We’ve known about them for decades but, until now, haven’t been willing to address the concerns in any way. On Last Week Tonight this past Sunday, John Oliver shared a quote from Dr. Kenneth Clark. Dr. Clark and his wife were the social scientists whose testimony was so influential in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. The quote came from testimony Dr. Clark had given to Congress following the urban riots in 1967 and 1968 that were analyzed in the Kerner Commission Report. In his testimony, Clark said this:

I read that report … of the 1919 riot in Chicago, and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’35, the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’43, the report of the McCone Commission on the Watts riot…. I must again in candor say to you members of this Commission – it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland – with the same moving picture re-shown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.


Why should this time be different? Maybe we’ve begun to grasp that there are large issues of inequality that need attention that go far beyond concerns about Bad Apples. What we need now is for a lot of Reluctant Discriminators to push back on the discriminatory structures in which they are imbedded.

It’s a small symbolic step, but when the Navy and Nascar ban the Confederate flag and Lady Antebellum becomes simply Lady A, then maybe, just maybe, we’re beginning to see things with fresh eyes.

Easy for Me to Dream: Fifty years after MLK’s speech


If you’ve been distracted by Miley-gate and rumors of war, it’s possible (but  unlikely) that you missed the fact that tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the Washington Mall as part of the Poor People’s March on Washington.

It’s a remarkable speech. You can take a moment and read the full text from the national archives. There are a few things I notice when I read it. First, the speech is only 5 1/2 pages long but is full of significant content. Second, the phrase “I have a dream” doesn’t appear until near the bottom of page four. He opens that section with the hope that “one day this nation…will live out the true meaning of its creed, that all men are created equal“. He speaks of the table of brotherhood, And, of course, he has that beautiful line about his children being “judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” From there on, he’s streaming toward the finish — My Country Tis of Thee, Let Freedom Ring, the Mountains of Georgia and Tennessee and Mississippi. and the big finish with all of God’s Children singing Free at Last.

As a nation, we like those last two pages. They remind us of a dream we all share. It fits with the kind of colorblindness that Stephen Colbert looks for (he doesn’t see color but thinks he’s white). It’s a dream that Glenn Beck likes. It’s a dream that I can embrace (although I have to guiltily admit that far too often I don’t look for content of character soon enough!).

It’s a good dream. It’s an aspiration for us as a society. That’s why 45% of Americans polled think we’ve made “a lot” of progress toward racial equality. Of course, that same polling shows that 32% of black respondents think the same. Perhaps even more telling is to look at the percentage saying that we’ve made only a little progress. Just over 1 in 10 whites report little progress but over 1 in 4 blacks say the same.

It’s not hard to understand that discrepancy when we look at the first four pages of MLK’s speech. He opens with the recognition that 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, “the Negro lives in an island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity“. The nation’s promises, he said, had been given as a promissory note that came back marked “insufficient funds” — an image much too familiar to his listeners. In the middle of page 2, he suggests that “this is the time to make real the promises of democracy“. It is not enough, if mobility involves moving from  “a smaller ghetto to a larger one“. At the top of page 4, he offers a critique that is prophetic in light of changing voting laws: “We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and the Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.

The blog By Their Strange Fruit had a brilliant post Sunday pointing out that too many of the statistics King looked at in 1963 we could find today. The black unemployment rate still runs about twice the white unemployment rate. The black infant mortality rate is twice that of the white rate. Add to that data, the differences in incarceration rates and crime victimization rates, and the difference is still stark 50 years later. Right before he gets to his dream of a better future, MLK speaks to people jailed, beaten, and what he calls “creative suffering”.

it is because of all these injustices that the Dream has such power. Take away the suffering and the Dream becomes a vague hope.

I can make this more personal. I don’t get the first four pages of the speech. I haven’t suffered systemic injustice. I don’t know persecution. I’ve made my share of mistakes in life (like flunking out of college after my freshman year) but that wasn’t a deal breaker. Because i was a white middle class kid with lots of options, getting back to school and eventually earning a PhD was not just possible but likely.

My world makes it hard to celebrate the Dream speech. This was make clear by a remarkable piece on The Daily Show about Race in America. Jessica Williams (who is black) did a focus group with a group of white New Yorkers. Samantha Bee (who is white) interviewed a similar group of blacks. While both interviewers made great light of their situation, the contrast between the two groups was amazing. The vast majority of the black group had been stopped by authorities on the streets of New York. There was one woman in Jessica’s group who thought she’d been frisked — by the TSA. Like those folks talking to Jessica, my life can make me think that life is fair and based on hard work and good intentions.

At the rhetorical turning point of the speech, King recognizes the white citizens on the mall and encouraged his listeners that our freedoms are intricately tied up in each other’s freedom. This sounds like the Kingdom of God to me.

As long as I want to think about some happy time in the future without dealing with the reality of now, nothing much is accomplished. I can dream of sweetness and light and be cut off from the realities that others face. But my true calling is to identify with those for whom life is not fair. I have to enter into the suffering of others to really understand my place in the world. I have to see their fortunes increase, even if mine suffer some, to see the Kingdom Come.

In short, I can’t start my celebration of Dr King’s speech two-thirds of the way through and think I got it. I have to enter into the sufferings of the first four pages and work toward their resolution if I’m ever hoping to “join in that old Negro spiritual and sing Free at Last“.

A Single Shade of Grey: Thinking about Race

The seven days since the George Zimmerman verdict have been characterized by frequent discussions of criminal justice and race. Surprisingly, some of the most analytical pieces I’ve read this week showed up on Facebook. Thanks to friends Chris Attaway, Geoffrey Mason-Gordon, and T.C. Moore for not only trying to explore a complicated issue while keeping their friends who prefer simple answers. All three forced me to clarify some of my own sociological perspectives. I’m using this space to attempt to coordinate those various thoughts.

The title of today’s post comes from comments made by Dr. Reece J. McGee, distinguished professor of sociology and Master Teacher at Purdue. I had the pure joy of being Reece’s TA for four semesters. Reece’s Intro to Sociology class had about 600 students per section, but it was still a warm and engaging space. Every semester, he would make the startling claim that he could solve the problem of racism is two generations. Simply adopt a policy that said that you could marry whomever you wanted, but if you wanted to have children you had to marry someone of another race. In two generations, he argued, the gene-pool would be so confused that race wouldn’t have the same explanatory power it currently has.

I always loved the argument, but now I’m not as optimistic. It’s not just that people draw cues from skin color. It’s that they seem somehow insistent on seeing things in black and white. Taking an issue as complex and emotional as race and converting it to talking points is absurd. The arguments only work if you completely abstract them from real life or if you generalize from single egregious cases. We seem to have a national fascination with polarizing the argument.

It is true that society is moving in the direction Reece was describing, even without a formal policy. The Census department reported in May that the percentage of marriages that were interracial or interethnic grew from 7% to 10% during the first decade of the 21st century. The story goes on to report that the percentage of unmarried couples who are interracial/interethnic now constitute 18% of all unmarried couples. These are significant steps in moving us toward a post-racial society.

And yet.

And yet we’re reminded that we still live in a society where the children of those marriages will still be seen as racially identified. Barack Obama is the first president with African ancestry (as far as we know), but we don’t often talk about him as a mixed race president of Kansas stock who grew up in multicultural Hawaii. He’s the First Black President. One of the interesting side-stories in Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit book is his discovery that his mixed race great-grandfather had declared himself white when moving from Louisiana to Detroit.

In a social psychological sense, Obama IS black and Charlie’s ancestor IS white. The treatment they received within the broader society was based on their physical markers. It’s how Obama recounted being watched by department store security guards (or even, in this amazing piece, mistaken for the help!). It’s how Charlie’s ancestor avoided the significant mortgage covenants and apprenticeship barriers that allowed to raise his family in a home he built in middle-class Detroit.

In his remarks yesterday, Obama echoed Martin Luther King’s “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” line. I always tell my students that you have to take the “I Have a Dream” speech in its entirety. The first half of the speech outlines the injustice that social institutions had foisted on blacks and talks of how the promise of “all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights” had been sent back marked “insufficient funds“. Then the second half holds out The Dream. We don’t get to choose half the speech. It’s not some smorgasbord of picking up ideas we like. We mix the black and white perspective and come up with a single shade of grey.

What does grey mean in the Martin-Zimmerman situation? It means that Zimmerman’s perception of what Martin may have been up to was impacted by the meme of a young black man after hours. It means that Martin believed that fighting back was the  option he chose in light of a general pattern of racial profiling (it’s why he didn’t go quietly). It means that Zimmerman’s perception of threat was high even before the altercation began. It means that Martin could be an aggressor AND a victim at the same time.

Acknowledging Grey means that we embrace the complexity that surround race in America. Comments like “what about the murder rate in Chicago?” miss the point. Accusing people of outright bigotry is unfounded. But there are issues related to black on black violence and drug trafficking. Not all residents of the inner-city are connected to those issues, however. My Detroit area students attest to that. So do many of the people described in LeDuff’s Detroit. Not all people concerned about affirmative action are racists. Some simply hold a high view of equality as defined in the 14th amendment.

We must learn to see the complexity that is present all around us. This is somehow hard for cable news, being so committed to black and white, sound bite, 140 character answers. (The twitter feeds following the president’s remarks were indicative as were the op-ed pieces). That’s where I find the blogosphere helpful. I keep finding people who are asking hard questions while grappling with grey-ness.

Christena Cleveland’s reflections in Christianity Today does a wonderful job of affirming differing perceptions while calling on those who experience the privilege of structural advantage to find solidarity with those who lack that same privilege. It is an expression of the Kenosis principle in Philippians 2.

Jonathan Merritt wrote on Thursday that Christians have a special role to play. He ended with this:

Post-racial America is not yet a reality, but I believe it is possible. May we—both Americans in general and Christians specifically—redouble our efforts to work towards justice and reconciliation. While the pundits and politicians will continue to take advantage of this controversy, let’s instead have serious conversations about education, the criminal justice system, racial profiling, voting rights, and civil discourse. Let us press on toward the world we desire but have not yet achieved.

The story of race in America has chapters about structural barriers of the past that stretch their tentacles into the present. It has chapters about personal tragedy and bad choices. It has chapters about overcoming obstacles. It has chapters about criminal laws that treat inner-city drug use differently than suburban drug use. It has chapters about an economics that favors the suburbs over the cities. It has chapters about generations of dependency.

If you put all these chapters in a blender and turn in on, what comes out is grey. Our only way toward a post-racial society is to embrace that reality and then work as if we really believe Galatians 3:28: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

The Kingdom of God is decorated in hues of grey.