This chapter examines the obfuscating language and (mis)uses of the race relations paradigm. Its fatal flaw is that it reduces racism to a natural antipathy between groups on the basis of difference. In doing so, it obscures the role that racism plays as an instrument of domination and exploitation, as well as the role that powerful institutions, including the state itself, play in the production and reproduction of systems of racial domination. Instead of the antiquated language of "race relations," a more definitive nomenclature is "racial oppression," which captures the nature, magnitude, and sources of racism, and advances the struggle for racial equality.
In On Revolution Hannah Arendt warns against assuming that the revolutionary process ends "when liberation is achieved and the turmoil and the violence come to an end." On the contrary, revolution invariably begets counterrevolution, as the defeated faction silently mobilizes the forces of reaction. The civil rights revolution is a case in point. It reached a high point with the passage of Civil Rights Acts in 1964 and 1965, but instead of moving forward, it witnessed a chipping away of hard-won gains. Academic discourses also gradually reverted to a proliferation of victim-blaming discourses that were in favor prior to the heyday of the Civil Rights Revolution.
The above metaphor conveys the relentless crusade that pounded one nail after another into the coffin of the civil rights revolution. This chapter identifies the plethora of factors that undercut the gains of the civil rights movement. The decline was also accelerated by the rise of neoliberalism. This included downsizing of the public sector, accelerated gentrification, privatized schooling, soaring mass incarceration, a recrudescence of voter suppression, and the dismantling of affirmative action by jurists nurtured by the Federalist Society. The end result was the evisceration of the hard-won gains of the civil rights revolution.
The Civil Rights Revolution came to a triumphant climax with the passage of the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Acts, and President Johnson was scheduled to deliver a commencement address at Howard University on June 6, 1965. Richard Goodwin, Johnson's speechwriter, was tasked to write the speech. Under suspicious circumstances, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was added as a second speechwriter. Moynihan abruptly shifted the focus of the speech to his forthcoming report, "The Negro Family," which placed blame on deficiencies and disorganization among Blacks themselves.
Nathan Glazer emerged as the earliest and most influential critic of affirmative action. More than anyone else, he developed the intellectual discourse and legitimated the popular backlash against affirmative action. Though motivated less by racial animus than by group interests, Glazer railed against affirmative action for using a group classification to extend preferences to underrepresented minorities. Decades later, when the damage was done, Glazer shifted his position and in 2002 signed an amicus brief defending the Michigan University's admission policy.
The term "culture of poverty" was coined by Oscar Lewis, an anthropologist. Its principal tenet was that when people live in deep poverty over an extended period, poverty takes on a life of its own and children are unable to take advantage of opportunities even when they arise. Critics on the left objected that this amounted to "a blaming of the victim." Others held that poverty research had been stymied by critics and it was time to resurrect the noble intentions of Lewis's culture of poverty.
The term "blaming the victim" entered the sociological lexicon in 1971, thanks to William Ryan, a sociologist. In The Cult of True Victimhood, Alyson Cole shows that victim-blaming discourses commonly focus on poor African Americans and trace their putative pathologies to the "heritage of slavery." As liberal support for the civil rights struggle waned, race scholars shifted responsibility and blame for the current struggles of African Americans by affixing responsibility and blame on the distant past. This rhetorical ploy shifted responsibility away from powerful institutions that are complicit in the production and reproduction of racism and placed it on the doorstep of Blacks themselves.
Social science has long bathed in self-congratulation for repudiating scientific racism—the various doctrines that traced racial hierarchy to the genes. In its place, sociologists spun another theory that held that certain groups are endowed with superior cultural systems that account for their relative success, essentially substituting culture for genes. The way out of this conundrum is to identify the institutions and power structures that engender the production and reproduction of inequality.
This chapter explores parallels between Booker T. Washington's educational project at Tuskegee in the 1880s and Geoffrey Canada's educational project at the Harlem Children's Zone 100 years later. Both sought to use education as a mechanism for racial uplift, both depended upon the largess of wealthy philanthropists, and in their respective ways, both glossed over the extent that education is a false panacea for the deep racism and structural inequalities that are a blot on American democracy.
This chapter sheds light on three myths of ethnic success: (1) the Jewish Horatio Alger story; (2) the model minority myth: Asian Americans as "proxy Jews"; and (3) the myth of "acting white."
In their 2014 best-seller,The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, law professors at Yale University, tackle the question of why certain groups are overrepresented in the pantheon of success. They postulate that these groups are endowed with "the triple package": a superiority complex, a sense of insecurity, and impulse control. However, they proffer no evidence to show that these exemplars of ethnic success—Jewish Nobel Prize–winners, Mormon business magnates, Cuban exiles, and Indian and Chinese super-achievers—actually possess "the triple package." Like elites throughout history, Chua and Rubenfeld's exemplars enshroud their success in prevailing cultural tropes, whether in the Talmud, Confucianism, Mormonism, or the scourge of white supremacy. The common thread that runs through these success myths is that they provide spurious legitimacy for social class hierarchy.
"What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander." This 17th-century proverb was the basis of the Fourteenth Amendment, which stipulated that every person is entitled to "the equal protection of the law." This chapter examines three cases where the goose-gander rule lapses into a false equivalency: (1) Blacks do not contend that their lives are worth more than other lives, only that Blacks are disproportionately victims of police brutality. (2) After the tragic death in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, President Trump insisted that "both sides" were responsible, failing to distinguish between the perpetrators and the victims of violence. (3) Martin Luther King is often cited for holding that people should not be judged by the color of their skin; however, he also held that, as an oppressed minority, Blacks are deserving of affirmative action for centuries of exclusion in jobs and education.
A new construct recently entered the sociological lexicon: "concentrated poverty." Its core argument is that when poverty reaches high levels of density, it takes on a life of its own, exacerbating "neighborhood effects," engendering crime and delinquency, and proliferating blight.
This play on words conveys the seismic transformation in public understanding and attitudes following the police murder of George Floyd, along with a rash of other unarmed Blacks whose lives were ruthlessly snuffed out by police. Pundits and protesters have speculated on whether or not the eruption of protest marks the beginning of a national reckoning on racial injustices and inequalities.
Herbert Spencer was the most influential source of 19th century sociology. His pet theory that "savage" and "semicivilized" people represented a lower stage of biological evolution was the crucible in which sociology was born, and the founders of American sociology at the University of Chicago used Spencer to buttress their own racist and imperialistic doctrines.
Blacks made progress in the post–civil rights era. However, as Malcolm X famously remarked: "You don't stick a knife in a man's back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you are making progress."
The concept of "systematic racism" was foundational in the 19th century research of Karl Marx, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Oliver Cox. This terminology fell into disuse with the advent of "racial individualism" in the 1940s, though systemic racism has since been resuscitated by leaders of the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Affirmative action is essentially a remedy for "occupational apartheid": the exclusion of whole groups from entire job sectors, for all of American history. This needs to be underscored because so much of affirmative action discourse lapses into facile reductionism.
Donald Trump did not stumble on the stage of history by accident. According to David Neiwert, "These dark forces had been building for years, waiting for the right kind of figure—charismatic, rich, fearlessly bombastic—to come along and put them into play. . . . What really stood out was Trump's open, unapologetic expression of bigotry toward Latinos and other minorities."