Every day since a white policeman shot Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African American, in Ferguson, Missouri, thousands of people have protested against police brutality. At the same time, the surrounding public debate has shown that Whites and Blacks have totally different perceptions of the role racism still plays in U.S. society. In a country that celebrated the election of its first Black President only a few years ago, why is this the case?
At first sight, the answer seems obvious: Thanks to the Civil Rights Movement, segregation laws were abolished half a century ago. There has been a subsequent rise of a Black middle class. And today, African Americans are no longer “invisible,” as Ralph Ellison famously put it, but—at least in sports, politics, entertainment, etc.—quite visible. So what’s the problem?
First and foremost, the problem is that, in the eyes of the white majority, racism no longer exists. In particular since the election of President Obama, most Whites have come to believe that they live in a “post-racial” society. Historically there may have been racism, the argument goes, but since the highest representative of the country is now an African American, racism no longer plays any relevant role.
A closer look, however, shows a totally different picture: Despite the progress that has been made, social inequality between Whites and Blacks has not been reduced. To the contrary, the data clearly show that inequality persists—despite Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Jay Z and Beyoncé.
Today, as fifty years ago, the average income of Black households is still only three fifths that of white households, while the average value of white households is twenty times higher than that of Blacks. Black unemployment is twice as high as white unemployment, and the offical poverty rate for Blacks is three times as high as for Whites. Segregation laws have been abolished, but informal segregation persists in neighborhoods and schools. With respect to the incarceration rate, inequality has actually risen. Back in the day, it used to be five times higher for Black than for white men; today it’s six and a half times.
In light of these facts, the vision of living in a “post-racial” society proves to be a myth—a myth that results in a self-exculpation of whites that makes it possible to ignore or even deny the enduring discrimination and exploitation of African Americans.
Clearly, the discrepancies have not been reduced, but rather consolidated. However, in public discourse they have often been explained as a result of the supposedly “deficient behavior” of African Americans. Not racism, but a “culture of poverty” is said to be the root cause of poverty—thereby blaming the marginalized for their own marginalization.
A sober look, however, demonstrates that the roots go much deeper. In a recent article in “The Atlantic,” Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us of the historic-systemic dimension of inequality, which goes back to the arrival of the first Africans to the English colony of Virginia in the year 1619. Coates points to the dispossession of Black people, which has historically always been backed by politics and civil society as well as protected by the police—from slavery to Jim Crow to today’s informal discrimination, for instance in the credit system. His much-debated conclusion: If the United States wants to overcome structural racism, it has to pay reparations to African Americans.
One thing is clear: As long as there is no fundamental change, the divide between Whites and Blacks will persist at all levels of society—even under a Black President, who has proven to be neither capable of reducing inequality nor of preventing the murder of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and so many others.