My Turn: Stark reminders that racism persists
June 12 was Loving Day.
What’s that? The day that, in 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the decision in Loving v. Virginia, finding the State of Virginia’s law criminalizing interracial marriage to be in violation of the Constitution.
In the words of Chief Justice Earl Warren, “To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the state’s citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discrimination.”
On the evidence, the court concluded that the race-based provisions in the anti-miscegenation statute must be “measures designed to maintain White Supremacy.” If only racism, here and abroad, had breathed its final breath that day.
In Sindiso’s home country of South Africa, for example, the criminal statute against interracial marriage was not repealed until 1985. And, to our regret, our own experience as a recognizably interracial couple in both the United States and South Africa suggests racism’s ongoing potency.
New Hampshire residents were confronted with this reality last month.
When Bob Copeland resigned his post as Wolfeboro police commissioner, many in the state breathed a collective sigh of relief. Copeland’s vicious condemnation of President Obama had sparked a firestorm of media attention, threats of a boycott by well-heeled vacationers, and calls from local residents and town officials for his resignation.
To Copeland’s fellow commissioner, Ron Goodgame, the hard-won resignation marked the end of an unfortunate saga for a town that is purportedly at peace with racial difference.
“Within a couple of weeks, I think the hate element will dissipate and go away, and I think there will be a healing,” Goodgame said in an interview with the Concord Monitor. “I think it’s going to happen on its own.”
But do fading headlines “on their own” spell healing and reconciliation? If experience and demographics are anything to go by, the answer is likely no.
Experience teaches that racism cannot easily be overcome in a place of ethnic homogeneity. It requires human contact where people of different races interact as equals and differences are acknowledged but not valorized. Even in the age of Obama, such interactions are uncommon. Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education mandated racial desegregation of America’s public schools, there are still scant few places where white, black and brown Americans meaningfully interact.
A Harvard University report found that merely one in seven white students attend multiracial schools at which three or more racial groups are represented. This racial segregation in schools firmly correlates with class and residential segregation.
In nine out of 10 highly segregated schools attended by black and Latino children, half or more of the student population is economically disadvantaged. These schools also show lower performance in terms of test scores, teachers’ experience levels and fewer AP course options. The inverse is also true – integrated schools perform better on these and other key indicators, such as aspirational hopes and integrated lives.
We applaud the stand that the Wolfeboro residents took against then-commissioner Copeland and we, of course, do not want to make any excuses for his racist remarks. Yet, his words come out of a demographic context that does not naturally lend itself to mutual understanding across the color line. According to the 2012 Census, 3.5 percent of the Wolfeboro population is nonwhite. Just 5 (0.5 percent) of Wolfeboro’s 2,838 residents are black.
Wolfeboro is not alone.
For Dan, who was raised in another small New Hampshire town with an exclusively white population, the opportunity to speak face-to-face with a black person did not present until he left home at age 18 to serve as an AmeriCorps volunteer with City Year Washington, D.C.
For Sindiso, who was raised in South Africa’s largest city of Johannesburg, where racial segregation was brutally enforced, both socially and economically, under a system called apartheid (literally, ‘separateness’), opportunities for genuine human interaction between members of different racial groups were similarly scarce.
It was getting to interact as equals on merit scholarships in graduate school in the United Kingdom that made it possible for us to truly contemplate a future with one another. As Dan has previously observed, it’s one thing to tolerate a group of people who you believe, at a deeply subconscious level, to be inferior. That’s just being decent. But it’s quite another thing to see such people as equals and to ask a member of that group to be your wife, the mother of your children.
When it comes to the U.S. as a country, however, physical separation and economic or class inequality are not the only obstacles to effectively overcoming racism. Contrary to the Loving v. Virginia case we celebrate this month, the current Supreme Court majority has not acted to uphold racially discriminatory policies and practices. In fact, the court has all but banned public officials, school districts and colleges from taking race into account in enrollments (and voting registration).
Part of this trend can be attributed to the current Supreme Court majority’s failing to appreciate that racism does not always take the most obvious forms – a la slavery and Jim Crow. The court’s majority also subscribes to a faulty notion that treating people differently is always unjust and has made a premature and uncompromising commitment to an ideal of “color blindness.”
Chief Justice John Roberts is now famed for writing, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
We, like Justice Sonya Sotomayor, would disagree. As she wrote in a recent judgment, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.”
In post-apartheid South African constitutional discourse, this is called (fair) differentiation, which corrects socioeconomic and politico-legal imbalances created by past injustice, as opposed to (unfair) discrimination, which is capricious, ungrounded and unjustifiable.
Disregarding race in our discussions and laws as a society will not stop “the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: ‘I do not belong here’ ” of which Justice Sotomayor wrote – which Justice Roberts summarily dismissed.
Copeland’s comment on President Obama handily demonstrates just how insidious those corrosive and historically rooted social ideas about black people’s inadequacy and ineptitude are, even in the present.
Disregarding race – or being purportedly “color blind” – will also not improve the chances of children of color escaping the poverty trap into which they are disproportionately born, generation upon generation. In fact, empirical evidence suggests that the state of racial inequality is worsening under this misguided “color blind” ideal.
It is a problem rather than a victory then when, as found in a recent MTV survey, 68 percent of all millennials subscribe to the view that “focusing on race prevents society from becoming colorblind.” This demographic’s mass subscription to the “color blind” ideal is, no doubt, largely because only 37 percent of them (30 percent of white relative to 46 percent of minority youths) were raised in families that talk about race. This while 65 percent of minority millennials say that white people have more opportunities, and myriad studies confirm this.
Yet, still, 58 percent of all millennials believe that racism will become less of an issue as they age. We doubt that such socio-political progress can soon be made when so many Americans paradoxically recognize that racial inequality exists but insist that race itself is to be ignored.
On the facts, in reality, the millennials’ views are radically off the mark. So, we would argue, is Copeland’s fellow commissioner Goodgame’s well-meaning expectation (or, really, wish) that racism and its consequences in Wolfeboro will dissipate “on its own.” Their widely shared approach to racism is not a sign of a “post-racial” society (a questionable aspiration in itself) but of a society in persistent denial of a challenging state of affairs.
(Sindiso Mnisi Weeks – @SindisoMW on Twitter – is resident scholar at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, where she does research and policy work on the relationship between law and society. Daniel Weeks – @DemocracyDan on Twitter – is a fellow at the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard and works on poverty and democracy issues in Manchester. They live in Nashua and maintain a blog on racial and social justice at sindisoanddan.org.)