Race Since The 80s

Matt Cooper has a really interesting post at TPMDC, on the difficulty of explaining to people who weren’t around (or old enough) at the time just how different, and more troubled, race relations were like in the 80s and early 90s. He asks: “Why is America’s racial atmosphere less poisonous than it was then?” And he offers a few answers: the drop in black crime and teen pregnancy, the disappearance of issues like school busing,the mainstreaming of hip-hop, Bill Clinton’s ease with African-Americans and Bush’s cabinet picks. Josh Marshall adds: “American mass culture found a more useful scary other: Arabs and Muslims. That’s a key thing that isn’t pretty but I think is also true.”

Since I seem to be around the same age as Cooper, I thought I’d offer a few more possibilities, which I’ve put below the fold.

First, whatever welfare reform’s impact on poverty, I think it’s hard to overstate the political effects of removing welfare from the list of perennial campaign issues. Despite the fact that the majority of welfare recipients were white, debates about welfare always seemed to devolve into debates about such topics as whether inner-city blacks actually deserved to be helped at all, whether welfare perpetuated social pathologies in black communities, and other topics guaranteed to reinforce any suspicion anyone might have had that there was something wrong with a whole lot of black people, something that people in Washington seemed to think meant that we (and the subtext of these debates was “we”) should fork over large sums of money to “them.” I think that the simple fact that we are not talking about this all the time has helped a lot (though the fact that we are not talking much about poverty either is a very serious problem.)

Second, I think that people, most especially white people, often imagined that the legacy of racism would be much easier to correct than it actually was — as though as soon as legal obstacles to, say, voting were removed, everything would be OK, if not immediately then in a few years. They had, in other words, an unreasonable view of how long it takes to undo centuries of institutionalized injustice. By the mid-eighties, a lot of those legal obstacles had been removed — but the problems hadn’t all gone away! I think that the simple fact that time passes has helped here: the early eighties through mid-nineties were, I think, the time at which the discrepancy between people’s unreasonable expectations and actual progress was likely to be sharpest. Since then, that progress has continued, and so the discrepancy has gotten smaller.

More importantly, though, I think a lot of the credit has to go to affirmative action. Affirmative action obviously created political problems of its own. But the idea, I always thought, was that while it would obviously preferable not to have been racist in the first place, affirmative action was necessary in order to ensure that more than a few African-Americans (and others less relevant to this post) had the opportunity their talents should have entitled them to to get the jobs, training, and so forth that they needed to advance into the middle and professional classes. And this, it seemed to me, was important not only for fairness and equality of opportunity, but because the simple fact of its being normal for blacks to be in jobs and colleges and the like would help immeasurably.

America is still much, much too segregated. But it is much less so than it was when I was growing up. — In what follows, I’m going to talk primarily about people in relatively privileged settings, because that’s what I know best. I believe that similar points can be made more generally, but for now I’ll stick to what I know.

When I was in high school, Boston was in the midst of its busing crisis, which means that its public schools were only then being desegregated, under court order and in the face of violent resistance. I cannot recall any black (or Hispanic, or Asian) students at the (private) school I went to for grades 1-6; there were a handful at the school I spent grades 7-12 in, but not many. When I was in college, there were very few minority students, and many of those I knew felt somewhat besieged and unsure of their welcome. This changed dramatically during the 80s and 90s: when I started teaching, the ethnic composition of my classes was vastly different than it had been when I was a student, and it is even more different today. The same is true in a lot of professions.

This matters enormously, not just for the obvious reasons of basic fairness and justice, but because it means that many more whites are familiar with blacks than they used to be. — Conservatives often point out the various idiotic things that people say and do in the name of not being racist. I think they’re right about some of the idiocy — the 70s and 80s, in particular, had a lot of earnest white people walking up to unsuspecting African Americans and saying things like: Hey, brother, I’m down with your struggle. They’re also right about some of the idiotic excesses of political correctness: my personal favorite example was a brouhaha about a poster that some student group had put up advertising an event that involved (iirc) “a lazy afternoon relaxing and eating burritos”, which supposedly implied that Mexicans were lazy. The late 80s and early 90s were full of that stuff.

Where I differed with conservatives who made those arguments was that I thought: well, this is what happens when people come to realize that there is something very wrong with their habitual ways of thinking about, and behaving towards, people they often don’t really know at all, and try to figure out how to change their ways. It’s especially likely in the case of racism, in which a lot of problems are likely to involve unconscious habits of mind and behavior. (You might think you’re not a racist, but wouldn’t a racist think that too?)

In situations like that, people say and do stupid things. They second-guess their own motives, and they don’t always get it right. They try to establish their anti-racist cred by constituting themselves as the Official Racism Police. They are in no position to distinguish blacks who have discovered the delightful possibilities of being able to make white people feel guilty about almost anything, and have decided to explore them, from blacks with genuine and serious complaints about their conduct. This is all to be expected. But it in no way implies that the attempt is not worth making, or that if we proceed with good will, we won’t eventually do better.

If you’re white, and you believe that racism is wrong and that you should try to avoid it, and you don’t know a lot of black people, I thought, then a certain amount of idiocy is in your future. It just is. And a whole lot of white people of my acquaintance really didn’t know a lot of blacks. That was, of course, part of the problem. But the solution to it was not, I thought, to sneer at the whole effort. It was to do your best, observe carefully, think hard, be generous, and accept the fact that you just were going to do a number of things that would, in retrospect, make you absolutely cringe. The idiocy was temporary, and born of ignorance. With time, I thought, it would fade to normal human levels of awkwardness and cluelessness.

I also thought — and here I’m on shakier ground — that many of the African-Americans I knew were also working out issues of their own about what it meant to be black in a world in which blacks were not forced into opposition to mainstream culture. There they were, attending schools that had, in recent memory, been all-white, accepting jobs that had not previously been open to blacks, becoming investment bankers and such. What was that about? What, under these novel circumstances, counted as the normal sort of getting along, and what counted as being co-opted? Was there some amount of assimilation into, say, the dominant social norms at one’s law firm at which one crossed over from collegiality into a serious betrayal of one’s identity? What did it mean to be a successful black doctor living in the Connecticut suburbs, and how did you do that without selling out or forgetting who you were?

There were people who did this effortlessly and with enormous grace, but I think there were also, and understandably, people who flailed around a bit before figuring it out. I also think that the combination of such flailing and the white cluelessness I described earlier was worse than the sum of its parts.

The general point, though, is: I think that things are very, very different now. A white kid who’s now twenty would not have gone to a grade school with no black kids, as I did. She might have gone to a college where people of different ethnicities tended to eat at different tables, but the simple fact that the number of non-whites is vastly higher than it was would have to make interaction a lot more common, and thus no big deal. And black kids who go to Ivy league schools, or end up in investment banks, have many more role models to look to, and so have less need to invent ways of being who they are in those worlds entirely from scratch

This was always, to me, one of the main points of affirmative action: that all this stuff would just become much more normal, and, slowly but surely, we’d find our way out of the idiotic flailing phase of race relations and into something less awkward and fraught.

I think this has a lot to do with the thaw that Matt Cooper talks about, and it’s a wonderful thing. We’re not nearly there yet, but I think we’re much closer than we were when I was young.

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