Black Lives Matter and the police brutality have captured national attention, yet the significance of race and white privilege is unchanged throughout America. Ethnic diversity, multiculturalism, etc., are simply words that reflect changing population shifts in the nation’s urban centers, especially. However, the central characteristic of race relations remains interaction without inclusion.
The leaders of the civil rights/desegregation movement in the 1960s inspired and mobilized millions with one overarching demand—“freedom”, which meant the elimination of all social, political, legal and economic barriers that forced African Americans into a subordinate status.
Implicit in the demand for desegregation, i.e.,” integration”, were several assumptions: Desegregation would increase opportunities for Blacks in business, government and society overall; desegregated educational institutions would promote greater racial harmony and understanding, especially between young people from different ethnic communities, which in turn would promote residential integration; affirmative action policies would gradually increase the number of African Americans, Latinos and other people of color in administrative and managerial positions.
It was assumed that as African Americans escaped the ghetto, racial tensions and bigotry would decline significantly and as Blacks were more thoroughly integrated into the economic system, the basis for racial confrontation would diminish. This thesis was fundamentally flawed in several respects. First, desegregation did not benefit the Black community uniformly. Black professionals and those who attended college and technical schools were the principal beneficiaries. For the unemployed, the poor, and those without marketable skills or resources and for those whose lives were circumscribed by illiteracy, disease and desperation, “race” was still central to their continuing marginal existence.
Legal desegregation contributed to the popular illusion that the basis for racial discrimination no longer existed. The legal abolition of racially separate residential districts, hotels, schools, etc., convinced many white Americans that the “Negro question” had been resolved and that the passage of anti-discrimination legislation had eliminated all basic impediments to socio-economic and cultural advancement of African Americans.
As some Black leaders continued to speak out against social injustices, or pointed to the continuing economic disparity between Blacks and whites, their complaints were dismissed as outmoded, self-serving rhetoric. By raising the issue of racism, many whites claimed Blacks themselves were racist-an impossibility in America.
It can be argued that the American civil rights leadership and the African American political establishment found themselves in a quandary of their own making. Their failure to develop a body of politics representing a qualitative extension of the civil rights movement was, and still is, directly linked to the paucity of their values, outlook and effectiveness.
One school of thought suggests the weakness of largely self-serving, middle-class African American leadership was its inability to distinguish between ethnicity and race and failing to apply both terms to the realities of capitalism and white privilege. To this group, African Americans were both an ethnic group—or more precisely, a national minority—and a racial group. African American ethnicity is derived from the cultural synthesis of African heritage and experiences with American society.
W.E.B. DuBois observed over a century ago that Black Americans are both African and American, “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” “This central duality is at the core of African American consciousness, forming the fundamental matrix in expressions of African American music, art, language patterns, folklore, religious rituals, belief systems, the structure of families and other cultural manifestations and social institutions.” In short, Blackness is the cultural context in the expression and affirmation of a set of traditional values, beliefs, rituals and social patterns rather than physical appearance or social class.
Race is a totally different dynamic, rooted in the structure of exploitation, power and privilege. “Race” is also an artificial social construct deliberately imposed on Africans and other subordinated groups at the outset of the expansion of European capitalism into the western hemisphere. The “racial” consciousness and discourse of the West was forged on slave ships carrying human cargos into the Caribbean and the Americas. The search for agricultural commodities and profits from the extreme exploitation of Black people who were deemed less than human gave birth to the notion of racial inequality.
In the United States, race is frequently defined as a group of people who have certain physical and/or biological traits, particularly phenotype (skin color), body structure and facial features. But race has no scientific validity as a meaningful biological or genetic concept. Its meaning shifts according to the power relations between “racial” groups. For instance, in apartheid South Africa, Japanese were considered “white,” whereas, Chinese were classified as “colored.” In Brazil, a person of color could be “white,” “mulatto,” or “black,” depending on the individual’s vocation, income, family connections and level of education.
Even in rigidly segregated societies such as the American South before the modern civil rights movement, race was frequently situational—a function, not just a physical appearance, but also of the explicit or implied power relations that connected the individual of color to local or external constituencies. Therefore, in segregated cities such as Washington, DC, Arab and African diplomats and other foreign representatives were often permitted to stay in “whites only” hotels which were strictly off limits to local Blacks. African Americans who owned property or who were well-respected professionals, university professors or ministers were occasionally granted social privileges extended solely to whites.
The claim that America is a post racial society is bogus and only serves to perpetuate white privilege and racial inequality.