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The color line of the 21st century

The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the grand jury decision not to indict the police officer who killed him raises troubling questions about race, policing and criminal justice in America. One wonders about a majority white grand jury in a majority African-American community. Or why the prosecutor failed to secure an indictment when rarely do grand juries not indict. Or what steps the U.S. Justice Department will take next. But the Michael Brown story and the reaction to the verdict points to how racially divided America remains.

W.E.B. DuBois’ 1903 “The Soul of Black Folk” declared “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” Forty years later, sociologist Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 “The American Dilemma” echoed that theme, contending that African-Americans were largely excluded from the promise of American democracy because of Jim Crow and racial segregation. Rosa Parks sitting at the front of the bus, the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education, Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington, and the civil rights legislation of the 1960s supposedly ended this exclusion, with the 2008 election of Barack Obama proving we had entered a post-racial world. Sadly, race, especially as it intersects with class, remains as salient and divisive an issue as ever.

According to an April 2013 Pew Research Center report titled “A Rise in Wealth for the Wealthy; Declines for the Lower 93%,” since the crash of 2008 the “mean net worth of households in the upper 7% of the wealth distribution rose by an estimated 28%, while the mean net worth of households in the lower 93% dropped by 4%.” The richest have recovered nicely from the Great Recession, the rest of us have not done so well. Moreover, the income gap has a racial component. A recent Census Bureau report stated that in 2012 the median household income for whites was $57,009, for Hispanics it was $39,005 and for blacks it was $33,321.

The wealth disparities across race were even worse. A recent policy brief from Brandeis University’s Institute on Assets and Social Policy found that over the last 25 years, the wealth gap between African-Americans and whites tripled from $85,000 in 1984 to $236,500 in 2009. For the few African-Americans and whites at the same income level, the latter had wealth at least three if not more times that of the former.

Repeatedly, the evidence suggests that we remain as racially divided today as we were 60 years ago when the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision supposedly desegregated America’s schools and launched a civil right revolution. Books such as “American Apartheid” by Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton and “Poverty and Place: Ghettos, Barrios, and the American City” by Paul Jargowsky document the racial segregation of contemporary America, and Andrew Hacker’s “Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal” describe the contrasting social worlds of America. Blacks and whites go to different schools, live in distinct neighborhoods, consume different pop culture, and simply perceive the world in contrasting ways.

Closer to home, it was 20 years ago while I was working with john powell at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Race and Poverty that we documented Minneapolis as one of the three most racially segregated cities in America. In the ‘90s one survey pointed to the fact that approximately 40 percent of Minnesotans had never met an African-American in person. Minnesota today has some of the worst racial disparities when it comes to school, health care, and arrest and incarceration.

“Minnesota nice” has a racial growl.

The economic and social forces that divide America have long been known to politically allocate power. In my “Election Law and Democratic Theory,” I discuss how political scientists since the 1950s in books such as “The American Voter” by Angus Campbell, “The New American Voter” by Warren Miller and Merrill Shanks, “The American Voter Revisited” by Michael Lewis-Beck, and “The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy” by Kay Lehman Schlozman document over the last 50 years the class and racial bias affecting voting in our political system. Today we no longer have grandfather clauses, literacy tests and poll taxes to keep people of color from voting. We instead use voter ID laws, long waiting lines at polls, and felon disenfranchisement to do that.

Race influences how people think about police. Suburban whites see police and are comforted by their presence. African-Americans see a police officer and either anticipate being stopped because of profiling or they simply flee fearing harassment. Policing in America has racial roots. Prior to the Civil War, only a few American cities had police. After the Civil War, policing grew along several fronts. There were the Pinkertons, who were created as private police to bust unions. In the South, police departments emerged to maintain order against the freed slaves. Reaction to the urban riots of the 1960s led to President Lyndon Johnson signing into law the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. The act created the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, which made grants to local governments to develop and purchase military-type resources to suppress the riots. The money facilitated the development of SWAT and other heavily armored police forces which had developed in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and other cities to counteract so-called black insurgency.

President Richard Nixon’s declaration of the war on drugs and its re-emphasis by Ronald Reagan further enhanced the militarization of the police. It did so in its rhetoric — the war metaphor — sanctioning that a military style response was needed to address drugs. But the war against drugs also had a racial overtone: The urban riots of the 1960s and drug use were often associated with blacks. Punishment differentials between drugs such as crack and powder cocaine punished racial minorities more heavily than whites, and American prisons and jails incarcerate far more people of color than whites for drugs.

Few people today talk openly of race as a political force. Yet phrases such as welfare, crime, good schools, and even reference to Ebola or immigration are often code words for race. Opposition to Obama is as much racial as it is partisan.

The only surprise now is the degree of attention Michael Brown’s killing and the reaction to it have received. There are hundreds, if not more, Michael Browns, and the question now is what America will learn from this latest tragedy.

David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University in St. Paul.

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