Tag: Michelle Alexander

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.

On Maintaining Ideological Purity: Thomas Sowell, Ferguson, Baltimore, and McKinney

SowellI used to have a lot of respect for Thomas Sowell. I didn’t agree with him but I felt he was consistent with the framework of his economic argument.

My social media feed has been directing me to articles Sowell wrote for the National Review Online that speak to the unrest in Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere over the past ten months. When I carefully read those articles, I don’t see argument based on conservative economic principles. What I see is distortion and misrepresentation of the circumstances on the ground in service of a dominant ideology.

It seems that maintaining ideological purity in the face of difficult social situations requires cherry picking and reinterpreting circumstances. This saddens me for two reasons: it fails to advance needed conversations as a society and it shows what extreme partisanship does to academics.

The positions Sowell espouses are supported by some isolated statistics which gives them the air of academic strength. But they are far too careless with details, as just a little research would show.

Consider the article titled The “Disparate Impact” Racket written in March after the Department of Justice released their reports on Ferguson.  The first report showed that there was no evidence that Michael Brown had been shot in the back or had his hands raised when shot. While that report didn’t “clear” Darren Wilson, it did show that original eyewitness testimony had been wrong (and there has been interesting commentary from social psychologists why this happens in bystander testimony). If you know a little about criminal justice, this isn’t surprising.

Why, then, is it necessary to ascribe negative motives to what is essentially a cognition problem? Sowell writes:

The bottom line is that all this hard evidence, and more, shows what a complete lie was behind all the stories of Michael Brown’s being shot in the back or while raising his hands in surrender. Yet that lie was repeated, and dramatized in demonstrations and riots, from coast to coast, as well as in the media and even in the halls of Congress.

Sowell’s choice of the word LIE acribes something duplicitous in those concerned with the shooting. It also detracts the reader’s attention from the tragedy of the shooting to the “hands up don’t shoot” claim. As if finding that the latter was false means that the former is as well.

The second report from the Department of Justice was about the actions of the Ferguson authorities in terms of “disparate intent” — the ways that traffic stops and minor arrests were a source of the frustrations underlying the protests in Ferguson.

Like many other uses of “disparate impact” statistics, the Justice Department’s evidence against the Ferguson police department consists of numbers showing that the percentage of people stopped by police or fined in court who are black is larger than the percentage of blacks in the local population.

The implicit assumption is that without “discriminatory intent,” these statistics would reflect the percentages of people in the population. But no matter how plausible that outcome might seem on the surface, it is seldom found in real life, and those who use this standard are seldom, if ever, asked to produce hard evidence that it is factually correct, as distinct from politically correct.

The DOJ report focused on the ways in which Ferguson used traffic stops, warrants, and fines to operate the city budget. This relied disproportionately on those who had the most difficulty making it to court, paying fines, keeping their car up to date on license and inspections. Sowell’s use of air quotes around disparate impact serves to minimize and even ridicule the claims.

While on the road this weekend, we listened to a Ferguson town hall meeting hosted by NPR’s Michel Martin two weeks after the Brown shooting.  It was clear from the comments and questions that three issues were central to the audience: disparate impact, leaving Brown’s body on the ground for 4.5 hours, and why the mayor didn’t take responsibility for the escalation from law enforcement (which, he claimed, was not from Ferguson officers).

I don’t expect Sowell to adopt an anti-Ferguson demeanor or start attaching #blacklivesmatter to every tweet. But I think it is reasonable to expect him to deal with the substance of the issues in Ferguson and not dismiss them. You can still make your claims about cultural impact without denying structural factors.

In this post-Baltimore piece last month titled The Inconvenient Truth About Ghetto Communities Social Breakdown, Sowell begins in the same place he was two month earlier:

Among the many painful ironies in the current racial turmoil is that communities scattered across the country were disrupted by riots and looting because of the demonstrable lie that Michael Brown was shot in the back by a white policeman in Missouri — but there was not nearly as much turmoil created by the demonstrable fact that a fleeing black man was shot dead by a white policeman in South Carolina.

Again, to represent issues in Baltimore as riots and not protests (followed by vandalism) is to mis-tell the story. And it’s not clear how the Brown shooting was related or that everything was about the act of shooting. The issues remain about ongoing structural discrimination.

But Sowell recasts the concerns about ongoing structural discrimination as a “legacy of slavery”:

The “legacy of slavery” argument is not just an excuse for inexcusable behavior in the ghettos. In a larger sense, it is an evasion of responsibility for the disastrous consequences of the prevailing social vision of our times, and the political policies based on that vision, over the past half century.

Anyone who is serious about evidence need only compare black communities as they evolved in the first 100 years after slavery with black communities as they evolved in the first 50 years after the explosive growth of the welfare state, beginning in the 1960s.

To sustain this argument, we need to ignore all of the post-Baltimore stories that focused on covenant agreements in 1910 up to subprime loans in 2005. The structural discrimination concern isn’t about feeling bad over slavery but about ongoing issues in the fabric of society itself. We need to ignore the data suggesting that blacks paid $16,000 more than whites for equivalent mortgages during the housing crisis.

We must also ignore the work of Michelle Alexander and Heather Thompson, who have been demonstrating the structural contributions to our heavily incarcerated society that limits job prospects, damages family structures, and impacts our politics. On the road trip I listened to a speech Michelle gave summarizing The New Jim Crow. I also listened to a lecture from Heather Thompson on how incarceration impacts voting practice. (Shocking finding: incarcerated inmates are counted in the census figures and impact district lines based on where they are incarcerated while they are barred from voting in the place where they actually live.)

Furthermore, to blame the welfare state as an alternative to institutional racism requires a standard slight of hand move: that racism existed in past days but the welfare state was expected to fix this.

I don’t know why this is a standard conservative pundit move. As a sociologist, I expect that the injustices within the society will get written into the bureaucratic rules of our institutional structures. Therefore, the structural inequality evidenced in housing and criminal justice will also be evident in welfare and food stamp policies. A more robust vision of the forces we’re up against is necessary if we are to make progress.

This month, in a piece titled The Steep Cost of Politicians Scapegoating the Police Sowell offers up a defense of law enforcement:

Baltimore is now paying the price for irresponsible words and actions, not only by young thugs in the streets, but also by its mayor and the state prosecutor, both of whom threw the police to the wolves, in order to curry favor with local voters.

He argues that black leaders, including the justice department, have been drumming up angst. The result, he claims, is “anti-police mob rampages from coast to coast that the media sanitize as ‘protests’.”

He goes on to argue that the Department of Justice “presume the police to be guilty…even after grand juries have gone over all the facts and acquitted the police.” First of all, he must be talking about Ferguson because there was a grand jury indictment in both Baltimore and South Carolina. Second, grand juries don’t acquit — they decide not to charge. It’s an important distinction.

This isn’t nitpicking. It’s central to the argument. An academic, even writing in partisan press, has a responsibility for nuance and care in looking at the complexities involved. Public figures should play a role in illumining the key questions before us as a society.

Unless they are being partisan figures first and foremost. I can agree with Sowell on this point, one he’d do well to revisit:

Racial demagoguery gains votes for politicians, money for race-hustling lawyers, and a combination of money, power, and notoriety for armies of professional activists, ideologues, and shakedown artists.

In light of yesterday’s events in McKinney, Texas, we simply can’t afford such one-sided refusal to deal with real issues confronting us in racially contested society. It’s possible to argue that this “wasn’t about race” but only if you can ignore the sight of the police having African-American kids sit on the grass and be treated as suspects while everyone else milled around. To focus on the alleged wrongdoing of some does not excuse the behavior that followed — which brings us back to the source of the protest and media outrage.

To be fair, I haven’t seen Sowell write anything yet about McKinney. But I’m not optimistic.

It’s not about “the lie” that someone intentionally did something.  It’s about the ways the aftermath illustrated that something is clearly wrong. Demagoguery only makes things worse.