WITH john a. powell
john a. powell is director of the Institute for
the Study of Race and Ethnicity in the Americas at Ohio State
University and the Gregory H. Williams Chair in Civil Rights and
Civil Liberties in the Moritz College of Law. He is a nationally
recognized scholar on race, poverty, and regional equity.
What are your own early experiences of race?
I was born in 1947, so I watched
Detroit go from a vibrant city to starting to empty out. I watched
my mother and father struggling to hold the family together and
trying to get housing, and I remember the frustration. And then
watching the city starting to die, and literally watching the
complexion of the city change. I remember moving to an integrated
neighborhood that within a few years became an all-black neighborhood.
also remember being bussed to school, and fighting on the playground
because the white kids didn't want us there. I have all these
memories. At first they were just experiences, and I didn't quite
know how to make sense of them, and didn't necessarily think of
them in racial terms, but as I got older and reflected on them,
I began to understand.
One of my most poignant memories - I
have three older brothers - we all went to the same high school,
and they were all excluded from sports, from college prep courses,
and from the social activity of the school. I'm a lot younger
than my brothers, so when I went to the school I decided - I didn't
use these words then - but I decided to crack the color line.
decided I was going to go to be in college prep and play sports,
and it was a fight. The school was about 50 percent black, and
50 percent white at Southeastern High School in Detroit. I had
the facility to test well, so I tested well before I went to high
school, and I said I wanted to go in for college prep. I had good
grades and high test scores, and they said, "No, you do not belong.
This is not appropriate." I had to bring my parents up to school
in order to get into college prep, and even though the school
was 50 percent black, for most of my high school, I was the only
African American male in almost all of my classes, and literally
had teachers say in class, "Do any of the colored kids want to
wash my car after school?"
I graduated valedictorian, number
one in my class, and our school was sort of a feeder school to
elite schools: Harvard, Yale, Michigan. I had a hard time getting
teachers to write me recommendations for the top schools. They
thought those schools were above me. They thought I should go
to some of the local schools, to Wayne State or Eastern Michigan
State, but certainly not to the elite schools.
So, there were
just a number of experiences that as I reflect back on and sort
of start to understand in deeper terms, I think had a huge impact
on my life.
How is race socially constructed?
If you think
about the United States in the 1700s and 1800s, who was black
or not was a matter of state definition. You could be black in
one state, cross the state line and you're no longer black. Some
states said if you look black, you're black. Some states said
if you have one-quarter black blood, you're black. Some states
said if you had one-sixteenth black blood, you're black. Some
states said if you have one drop of black blood you're black,
so if it was simply a biological fact you couldn't have all these
different ways of thinking about race.
Since race is constructed,
it's constructed differently in different places and in different
times. For example, in the Dominican Republic, children with the
same biological parents can be of a different race. That's not
possible in the United States, but there a light-skinned child
of the same biological parents can be white, and a dark-skinned
child with the same biological parents can be black. You have
a similar situation in Brazil. Again, it just shows how the way
different countries and different people do race changes.
this curious thing about the way we've defined race in the U.S.,
where a white woman can have a black child, but a black woman
can't have a white child. Obviously that's a social construction;
it doesn't make any sense biologically. Throughout U.S. history,
the way we've talked about race has shifted over time.
important thing about race is understanding not just a categorization.
It's about where you are in the social strata - how you're categorized
has tremendous social significance.
If race is socially constructed, why can't we just get rid
of the concept?
Race may be socially
constructed, but it's not individually constructed. Individuals
have some impact on how they're viewed, but we don't get to define
our own racial identity. In the United States, race has been so
important in terms of constructing identity that to be an American,
early on, really meant to be white. It had religious connotations;
it had class connotations; it had connotations of where you could
live, who you could marry, where you could be buried, how you
The mistake that we often make now, as we talk
increasingly about race being socially constructed, is that some
people think because it's socially constructed it's not real,
and that an individual can choose his or her own race.
decide today not to be black, because the world will insist that
I am black, and there are institutions and arrangements that define
me that way. I can't decide not to be black and go in New York
and hail a cab. The first cab drivers driving by are not inside
my own psychology. So, the construction of race is extremely important,
but it's not individually constructed; it's socially constructed,
and that has material implications and consequences.
How do institutions construct race?
Early on, who could serve on a
jury in the United States? The courts ruled that blacks and Indians
could not serve on the jury. So, you had an institutional practice,
and it didn't depend on individual identity. Someone labeled someone
else as black or white, and then institutions created certain
responses to that.
A lot of people don't realize that one of
the reasons we have an electoral college and one of the ways it
was set up was to protect slave states. It gave slave states more
voting power; it counted slaves as three-fifths of a person. We
forget that slavery is not something that just impacted the South,
it impacted the whole country. Also, slavery was limited to blacks,
so it became very important how you were categorized. And the
presumption in this country for many years was that blacks were
not free, even if you lived in a non-slave state. Certain rights
were associated with certain people, and the institutions reflected
Many of the structures and institutions we have
in place today have come out of this racial history, and they
continue to subordinate blacks and protect the privilege of whites.
What are the stories about race we tell now?
I think there are a
number of stories. I think one is individuality, that we're all
individuals. I think another is a culture of poverty. People are
uncomfortable now with the biological explanation for racial difference,
so now people talk about the culture of black people to explain
why those people don't do well.
There's also the language of
personal responsibility, which suggests really that there's no
institutional and structural responsibility. There's no collective
responsibility. If you're not doing well, it's not because of
anything that we in society have done. It's not because of our
history, our legacy of Jim Crow, segregation, exploitation and
subordination; it's all personal. So it all gets translated into,
"We're not responsible."
I think another really powerful story
that has been prevalent in the United States since the mid-1970s,
is white innocence. If you go back and read the Bakke case - which
was a court case about affirmative action - Bakke started off
as a case about blacks being excluded from schools, about the
subordination and discrimination of blacks. By the time the case
ended, it was about innocent whites, so the whole language now
about doing anything to address inequality in this country always
runs up against the question - what about innocent whites?
ask my students sometimes, how did those whites become innocent?
If we mean innocent in the sense that they didn't deliberately
and intentionally participate in the subordination of blacks and
other peoples, maybe they're innocent. But if we mean innocent
in the sense that they haven't received any of the spoils of a
racialized system, then no American is innocent.
the major story line now on race. Yes, racism is a problem, but
the victims of racism are these innocent whites.
How is whiteness socially constructed?
I think that's a very important question,
and a very interesting question. Basically the idea of whiteness
is who is included? Who's part of the family? And it has material
consequences. And how that's done changes over time. At one point,
we had explicit laws that said whites are on top, and blacks are
on the bottom. There was a huge social distance between blacks
After World War II, we moved to informal exclusion
of blacks, and that was partly because of the tension around World
War II. We formally ended Jim Crow, which created that social
distance. Now what we do is we create spatial distance. So geography,
the segregation of blacks and whites in terms of neighborhoods,
in terms of cities and suburbs, took on the primary function of
maintaining that distance.
There are no explicit laws now that
say blacks can't live in a certain neighborhood, which was true
at the turn of the century in Baltimore and other cities. We actually
had cities passing laws saying blacks and whites could not live
on the same block, or saying that blacks could not hold jobs over
whites. Today, we have many of the same practices without the
explicit language, and those practices are largely inscribed in
geography. And so, geography does the work of Jim Crow laws.
people are confused as to why, after 50 years of civil rights,
are our schools still segregated? Why is our housing market still
segregated? Why are our jobs still segregated? And again, a lot
of this is a function of how we've created urbanized space in
the United States.
How does geography do the work of Jim Crow laws?
In the 1940s and 1950s the whole country was living in
central cities or in rural areas. Suburbs as we know them hadn't
come into existence. There was a tremendous demand for housing
at the end of World War II, and the federal government stepped
into the breach, and stepped into the role of addressing the demand
for housing, as it also stepped into the role of addressing the
demand for civil rights and inclusion by blacks.
the suburbs it was explicit that the suburbs were for whites only.
You had a couple of things happening at the same time: You had
the end of the war. You had blacks coming to the North and to
urban areas in record numbers. You had demands for civil rights,
and you had the federal government essentially paying white people
to leave the central city and to live in this new space - a white
space - called the suburbs.
The structure of that is still what
we're living with today. So much of the work of Jim Crow laws
was maintaining social distance between blacks and whites - it
was not necessarily physical distance before the turn of the century,
especially in the South. But that social distance became reinscribed
as spatial distance between blacks and whites as a result of the
housing policies after World War II. Now whites lived in the suburbs,
and blacks and racialized others lived in the city. Social differences
became redefined through these fragmented, racialized, metropolitan
How did the government create spatial distance?
of all, in the 1930s, in order to buy a home, you had to put between
20 and 30, sometimes 50% down to buy a home, and you had to pay
off the loan in five years. In the 1930s, this was the middle
of the Depression, and consumers were losing more homes than they
were buying. The federal government stepped in, and created the
first serious national program around housing. So it started making
money available, and then later it insured private investments.
in this regulation - this was the Home Owners Loan Corporation
and the Federal Housing Administration - the government basically
said that it preferred neighborhoods that were racially homogeneous
and newly constructed.
The cities were already built. So where
do you get new construction? It means you have to leave the city.
Where it says racially homogenous, it didn't really mean racially
homogeneous; it really meant white, and it described neighborhoods
that were black as a nuisance, in the same way that pig pens and
stables were. So money was divested from the central city, which
were old neighborhoods and where blacks were more likely to live,
and suburbs were created.
Up until then suburbs had been largely
the homes of the well-to-do. All of a sudden, it became cheaper
to buy a home in the suburbs than to rent a place in the city.
But this venture for acquiring a home was only available to whites.
So it redefined the racial geographic space in the United States
in a fundamental way, so suburbs became associated with whiteness
and cities became associated with people of color.
purse was put behind this game at the very time that blacks were
making demands for inclusion and to end the Jim Crow laws.
little government funding was given to people of color. In fact,
there are a number of cases where whites who wanted to get FHA
loans were told by the federal government, the only way they could
do it was if they put racially restricted covenants in their deeds.
How did the federal government help individual homeowners?
the FHA and the federal government did was to tell lenders that
if you will lend to buyers, we will guarantee 90 percent of the
loan, so people only had to put 10 percent down. The government
would buy loans from lenders, so one bank wouldn't have to carry
the loans for thirty years or five years. It helped stabilize
the banking industry.
After World War II when veterans started
coming back to the United States, 16 million of them, they lowered
the rate to 3 percent down or even nothing down. It made the buying
of a house for the first time accessible to most Americans.
made the whole industry accessible to middle class Americans,
but only middle class white Americans, because only white Americans
could get the high rating and the best rates, based on the government
appraisal system. So this housing boom that took off after the
war was something that was largely for white Americans, and not
black Americans, or to some extent even Jews.
What's the significance of Levittowns?
Levittown is like the equivalent of the T Model
Ford. It made housing available to working class America. It made
it cheaper to buy than to rent, and it gave people a chance to
get out of the city into the suburbs. And it happened at the time
when there was a tremendous pent up housing need, because we were
just coming out of World War II.
But it's also very racialized.
Levittown required restricted covenants in its deeds. He was explicit.
He was not going to rent to blacks, he was not going to sell to
blacks. He'd grown up in Brooklyn, where blacks had moved in,
and he didn't want to live around blacks, and didn't want his
business to be about blacks. And so, until 1960 82,000 people
lived in Levittown, supported strongly by public money - which
meant not just white people's money, but black people's money
- and there wasn't a single black person living in Levittown.
How did creating suburbs drain resources out of the central
the 1950s something like 80 percent of the building that was happening
across the country was happening in the suburbs, so all of our
national resources were going out of the central city to support
white folks moving out into the suburbs. Now, some of those white
folks moving out of the central city were happy to live among
black people, but the federal government and certainly Levitt
refused that. They said, no this will be a white space. In fact,
Levitt evicted some white people who wanted to attract and open
up housing to people of color.
So this fundamental framework
was established - not just of having white suburbs and concentrating
minorities in the central city, but also depopulating and depleting
resources for the central city and creating this division between
the suburbs and the city. And, I would say, redefining whiteness
in a particular way. A good neighborhood became a white neighborhood.
interesting thing about Levittown is the uniformity of housing.
Because it's mass-produced, all the houses looked exactly alike,
and it was actually heavily regulated what you could do in terms
of your house. You had to get approval from Levitt.
Were people of color completely left out of the housing market?
completely left out of the housing market, but the housing market
they were exposed to was largely public housing. Public housing,
first of all, was built almost exclusively - with a few exceptions
- in the central city. And after World War II, we started building
larger and larger public housing projects, which are called "vertical
All of a sudden you're concentrating large numbers
of poor people of color in one place, and then in the '50s and
'60s, there's also this idea of clearing out places where blacks
had lived before. Some people called it urban renewal, other people
called it urban removal - we removed whole neighborhoods and sometimes
these neighborhoods were very vibrant. We'd run a freeway through
the middle of it, and they would build these giant erections in
the central city.
This is a time when, also, the country was
going through the beginning of "de-industrialization," where jobs
were moving out of the central cities. So we're isolating people
away from the tax base, from good schools, and from jobs, and
really building ghettos for black people.
Now, this was a federal
program, but it was administered through local control, so each
community had complete control over whether or not to build public
housing, and how to build public housing. And it's not surprising
that many of the suburbs - in fact, most - said no, we do not
want any public housing. We do not want those people out here.
And the federal government said fine. Even though we're the
federal government, even though we have the right to exercise
control over the federal purse, we will do it in a completely
fragmented way that will give each community a veto over who can
live there. And that's still the way we operate the federal housing
What were the consequences of this new housing policy?
of the consequences of creating these new home ownerships for
millions of white Americans while redlining black America was
to create wealth in a racialized way.
You had a dual housing
market - one white, one black - one housing market with a lot
of demand; another housing market with very little demand. My
family, like a lot of families, was in Detroit, struggling to
buy a house, and Detroit was a very tight housing market. There
was no housing to be had. Eventually, my parents bought a house,
but they bought a house in the city. They couldn't get money to
refinance that house.
My father still lives in the house that
I grew up in. That house today, a five-bedroom house, is worth
about $20,000. That same house bought in the suburbs would be
worth today about $320,000.
So whites moving to the suburb were
being subsidized in an accumulation of wealth, while blacks were
being divested. As a result, there's a huge wealth differential
between blacks and whites in this country that's largely associated
with housing. The majority of Americans have their wealth in housing,
and because the housing stock was so incredibly racialized, it
created tremendous wealth in the white population and very little
wealth in the black population.
How does wealth translate into life opportunities?
It's hard to overstate how important wealth
is. We live in a capitalist society. Often, we focus on income
or how much money somebody makes, but really the thing that buys
opportunity is wealth. If you make $100,000, and you have $120,000
worth of debts a year you're in trouble. So, you really have to
look at disposable income or wealth.
It's not just individual
wealth; it's also collective wealth. If you live in a community
where the whole community is poor or strapped for money, it can't
buy the amenities; it can't make the kind of difference. Traditionally,
blacks have been located where there's high need and very few
resources, while whites have often been located where there are
low needs and high resources. Given a choice, most people would
prefer to live in a place where there are higher resources and
fewer needs. That choice simply has not been available to blacks.
you live also determines what kind of school your children are
going to go to, whether you're going to be close to transportation,
and whether you're going to live next to a toxic dump site or
not. There was also a recent article in the New York Times about
heart attacks - it showed that where you live, what kind of community
you live in, has a tremendous correlation with whether or not
you have a heart attack.
So, the way space is arranged actually
impacts our health and opportunities in fundamental ways, and
wealth is one of the best indicators of that.
Don't people self-segregate by choice?
Hundreds of polls have shown that most black Americans prefer
to live in integrated neighborhoods. Yet blacks have been consistently,
since the turn of the century, the most segregated population
in American history. The reality is that housing choices for African
Americans are incredibly frustrated by the whole system - whether
it's not being able to get adequate financing, steering, or existing
In 1970 there was a crack in this. In 1968 we passed the Fair
Housing laws, and since 1970 black have been suburbanizing at
a faster rate than any other population in the country, and especially
middle class blacks.
But what you see happening is really the same phenomenon over
and over again. Blacks will move to a suburb and after you get
to a certain number, whites start leaving in droves. And when
they leave, they don't just go anywhere; for the most part they
go to new white enclaves. So, it's not a matter of choice, certainly
not on the part of blacks.
But we've all seen communities decline after
minorities move in. How do you explain that phenomenon?
One of the things about understanding racism is to understand
it has a material reality. We're giving these story lines around
those realities, so we have to sort of think about both the story
line and the material reality. An example of that is housing value.
Almost every person that I know, especially every white person
I know, has a story about having grown up in an area that was
very nice, and then blacks moved in and the housing value going
down. So the story that gets told around that is when blacks move
in, housing values go down. That's confirmed by lived experience,
and it gets retold over and over, so virtually every white person
knows this story.
What I want to suggest is that that story is true, but not for
the reasons that the story suggests. It's not that blacks move
in that causes the housing values to go down, it's that whites
leave. Instead of focusing on the white flight, they focus on
the black entrance.
But when whites leave, because blacks only represent about 4
percent of any housing market, it means you have a housing market
in which 96 percent of the market isn't interested, and that causes
values to plummet immediately. But it's the white flight that's
causing housing values to plummet, not blacks moving in.
Now, there have been a few communities, including Oak Park, outside
of Chicago, where they watched this phenomena of blacks starting
to move in. Oak Park is a liberal community that fought for the
civil rights movement. In the late '60s, when blacks started to
move in, the residents said, you know what, this is all the equity
we have. This is all the wealth that we have. I'm concerned that
housing values are going to go down. I know that same story. But
it's not because we're afraid of living next to black people,
we just don't want to lose our wealth.
So what the city did was insure the value of the houses - up
to 85 percent of market value - so whites wouldn't feel forced
to leave. That was about 35-40 years ago. They haven't paid one
casualty and it remains a very vibrant, integrated community,
because whites didn't flee.
So that's the phenomenon - that white flight is actually a self-fulfilling
prophecy. By leaving a neighborhood and refusing to stay where
blacks are, that causes housing values to go down, rather than
the black presence itself.
Aren't whites the most segregated group?
White communities are certainly the most isolated. But there's
different ways of thinking about segregation. When you think about
segregation just as separation, yes, whites are the most segregated.
But when you think of segregation as what one community imposes
on another, then in that sense whites are not really segregated.
They live in enclaves. Blacks are not imposing that on them.
But the black housing experience and to a lesser extent the Latino
housing experience is something that's imposed by whites. It's
public policy being used to control and regulate minority space,
and at the same time the same policies and regulations are used
to enhance white space.
So, there's a difference. There's a lack of symmetry that's important
to keep in mind. Because when whites are all by themselves, they're
taking all the resources with them. They're taking all the amenities
with them. But when blacks are by themselves, they can't get loans,
they don't have a decent tax base, there are no jobs, and because
they don't have a decent tax base, services are underfunded, and
all that becomes associated with black space.
People will say, "I remember when Newark was a working city,
and now that black people live there, it doesn't function." Well,
they don't realize that the whole structure of the city has been
eroded, and no matter who was there with that structure, you couldn't
make it function.
What are some difficulties in addressing inequality?
In this country we have an ambivalence
about wanting to hold on to an ideal - the notion of equality
- but not in such a way that it fundamentally changes white privilege.
A lot of the ways that we've thought about race, and certainly
the way we think about it now, is that the country is basically
fine. So whites can say, "I'm for integrated schools, but I don't
want my children going to integrated schools. I'm for the idea
of integrated schools. I like that idea, but I don't like the
So you get this sort of ambivalent response - we'll
embrace the idea, but we will not embrace the reality. At the
same time, the government, if you will, is responding to a lot
of conflicting demands. But what's important in part, is that,
as a response to these matters in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s,
some of this stuff is explicit.
Now it's sort of hard to believe
that the federal government nationalized and introduced red lining,
that it divested funds from the central city, and reinvested in
the suburbs. This wasn't simply whites acting out their prejudice;
this was the government essentially telling people how to behave,
and it created this whole structure that we're still living with.
a funny way, it wasn't just giving something to whites - it was
constructing whiteness. In the past white had meant being a citizen
and being a Christian; it now meant living in the suburbs, and
this essentially didn't change in terms of practice until almost
Should whites be held accountable for what was done in the
lot of white people say, well, you know, I don't want to hear
about slavery - you know, I had nothing to do with that, and my
parents came much later. They don't realize that even for them
to be able to come was part of the racialized system, but the
fact that they could come to the United States was already a benefit
of being white, because if you're Chinese or if you're black,
you couldn't come.
You don't even have to be aware of it to
receive the benefit. And the thing that's really slick about whiteness,
if you will, is that most of the benefits can be obtained without
ever doing anything personally. Take the suburbs, for example.
If you live in the suburbs, growing suburbs, you're going to get
a huge economic windfall. You're going to accumulate wealth. Whereas,
if you live in the city, the same investment, the same household,
you're not going to get that.
That's part of being white. The
benefit of suburban living is to be able to accumulate wealth;
associated with that, of course, is that you live in an area where
you accumulate wealth, and your kids can go to a school that's
And so there are a whole set of assumptions that
flow from being white, just like there are a whole set of benefits
that flow from being male - you know, being a man doesn't mean
that you have antipathy toward women, but if society is patriarchal,
which a lot of people say it is, it means that the way resources
are distributed in society benefits men.
In that sense, men
are not innocent, even though they may not personally have antipathy
toward women. In the same way, in that sense, whites are not innocent.
They're given the spoils of a racist system, even if they're not
How is whiteness invisible?
of whiteness means that one doesn't have to notice that one is
white. A wonderful example of this is the recent controversy over
network television shows, which generally have nearly all-white
casts. When asked, the producers and directors said, we didn't
notice that there were no people of color involved. It was absent
from our eyes.
Similarly, when one goes to any place of privilege
- whether it's Harvard or Stanford, an investment bank, or Wall
Street - most of the time people will not notice that all the
people, or the vast majority, are white. If they're not white,
they do notice. So, whiteness doesn't call attention in a way.
It becomes the norm. Those are just people.
the newspaper you'll notice the same assumption: they'll say,
so and so did such and such. No description in terms of race.
But so and so, a black man, or this other person, a Latino woman
- that person has to be described. They're not just a person.
So there are people, and then there are black people. There
are people and there are Latino people. And people - just people,
just folks - turn out to be white, but we don't notice it. We
don't read it. And that's how society responds.
You know, in
one of her early snips Supreme Court Justice O'Connor made the
observation that, of course, this is a white country. So, if this
is a white country, what does it mean if you're not white? What
is your place? And who gets to decide? Who gets to give meaning?
answer is essentially white people. White people sort of explain
other people. You know, we have white people writing about black
people; white people writing about Native Americans - not Native
Americans having their own voice.
But that's starting to change.
And whites are starting to be racialized for the first time. They're
starting to experience a racial identity, because the sort of
normalcy of whiteness is being called into question. There's nothing
normal about it. It's constructed just like every other racial
When do whites notice race?
White people have the
luxury of not having to think about race. I don't believe many
black people have that luxury. That is a benefit of being white,
of being part of the dominant group. Just like men don't have
to think about gender. The system works for you, and you don't
have to think about it.
So they live in white space and then
they don't have to think about it. But when that space is interrupted
or challenged, they notice it. When a black or a Latino or sometimes
an Asian crosses a border line, whites notice it, often in violent
On a day-to-day basis if whites are in white spaces, they
don't have to think about it, but when they notice all of a sudden
I'm in a black space or the blacks are in white space - they notice
it very strongly. So I think that there are very clear radars
out there, sort of policing space, if you will. Most whites, if
their kids come home and say, "You know what, Mom? I'm marrying
a black woman," they would notice it.
That question of how
whites think about race - first of all, they don't think about
it in terms of themselves; they think about race as something
that belongs to somebody else. The blacks have race; maybe Latinos
have race; maybe Asians have race. But they're just white. They're
just people. That's part of being white.
Just think of when
John Kennedy ran for President. There was a huge discussion in
the Presidential debate: can a Catholic be President? All of a
sudden we noticed the boundary. We never said, can a Protestant
So those boundaries get policed, and many of
the fights, many of the struggles around race, are struggles around
the boundaries. As long as each group stays comfortably in their
space, there's no struggle. It doesn't mean there's equality.
It doesn't mean there's justice, but there's just no struggle.
The boundaries are where we see those struggles occur.
the things is that the boundary is also spatial, so when people
from the "city" start coming to the "suburbs," all of a sudden
that boundary becomes contested. Frankly many whites, if they
can't control those boundaries, they'll move and redefine the
boundaries and borders, and again try to create enclaves.
of the fastest growing housing trends in California, for example,
is the gated community. Well, that's a clear exercise in boundaries.
We can't depend on the municipal government to keep those people
out; we'll build a moat around our community, and we'll make sure
that they stay out.
Why should a white person be concerned about their advantages?
For whites, there are a number of advantages
to having a racial system. It certainly benefits them. But it
also hurts whites. For example, most whites are socialized to
believe that to come to the city is a dangerous thing. I think
that to have to cut yourself off from humanity, and have to, in
essence, police another part of humanity, puts both - I hate this
term - puts both the master and the servant into a very particular
relationship, in some ways a very dehumanizing relationship. So
we're not equal and it may be better to be the master than the
slave, but it would be better to be neither.
Like I said earlier,
I do believe that whites have ambivalent attitudes. I believe
that most whites would like for us to move toward a more just
society, a more equal society.
White attitudes are changing
all the time. If you look at 1950s attitudes towards integration
versus today - the majority of whites today say they'd prefer
to live in an integrated neighborhood and send their kids to integrated
schools. What they mean by that is a different question, but also
the world and demographics of the country are changing, and to
live in a white enclave is not to live in the world. And I think,
you know, it has a certain deadness to it; it has a certain spiritual
corruption to it.
I think that most people - white, black,
Latino, and otherwise - would like to see something different.
We just don't know how to do it, and we've been so entrenched
in the way things are. It's hard to imagine the world being different.
How do our stories about race reinforce inequality?
One way of thinking
about the construction of race is to think about, What does race
mean? If it doesn't mean biology, if it doesn't mean genes, what
does it mean? And largely it means status. It means privilege.
It means the ability to make meaning of things.
We all know
about good neighborhoods, right? Well, good neighborhood is a
euphemism; it's code for a white neighborhood. So we use neighborhoods
and we use boundaries to construct what's associated with whiteness.
Ultimately, it's not just the distribution of a benefit to whites;
it's also the distribution of identity to whites, and neighborhoods
or geographical space with all the benefits and detriments flowing
from them. It's very racially coded in the United States.
tremendous inequity in our society. You go to schools, even schools
that are quote unquote integrated or desegregated and you see
the students in college prep and AP courses are generally white.
You go down to the basement where they're doing remedial courses,
and those are the students of color. What do you do with that?
In a sense we need help. We're given a story line to help make
sense of it - basically an explanation that make us comfortable
with it. And the explanation has to put the blame on those who
are in the basement, put the blame on those who are homeless.
They're homeless because of some defect or some failing of
their own, some moral or bad decisions. It has nothing to do with
you and has nothing to do with the way we've ordered society.
Because if it does have something to do with you and the way we
order society, what's called for then is examining, restructuring
society, and that is what we're not willing to do.
story lines help us make sense of a world where's there's tremendous
inequality, tremendous disparities, yet we still want to hold
on to the idea of equal opportunity and fairness. How do we do
that? Well, these stories help us do that.
Now, it's clear to
me that they way we do race will change in the next 20 years.
I'm not sure how it's going to change, but it's going to change.
What we're watching is a new racial making - how we will construct
the racial identity of Latinos in this country, and what will
happen, also, to the racial paradigm in this country. It's clearly
under some pressure to change, and change usually happens based
If Latinos are excluded from all of the benefits
associated with whiteness, they will not be white. If they're
included in those benefits, they will be white. It's not - we
can't look at their skin color or even their heritage to say if
they're white or not; we have to see how these institutions respond
to them or not. If they don't respond to them, if they remain
non-citizens or provisional citizens like blacks have been, they
will not be white.
Wouldn't it be better not to call attention to race?
The story line about these difficulties is basically
to try to transcend race in a personal way - the color-blind myth,
the everybody's an individual myth.
Some people say that to
talk about race is to talk about racism, about white supremacy.
In a way, if there's a disease, it's not necessarily dependent
upon your recognizing it for it to flourish. If in fact, as I
argue, racism and white supremacy are embedded in institutional
structures of society, not seeing it is no great service, because
it will reproduce itself unless it's disrupted.
We tend to
conflate racism with prejudice, so if a person doesn't want to
own any prejudice, which I think is great, it doesn't mean you're
dealing with racism - you know, the fact that certain populations
get loans from banks, and the other populations don't. The fact
that we live in space that's racially coded and coded in terms
of opportunity is powerful. That's not changed by simply saying,
"I'm not going to see it."
In fact, in order to address it
you have to see it. You have to notice the difference in order
to address it.
Worldwide, women control less than 1 percent
of the wealth of the world. Now, many people probably don't see
that. Unless that's disrupted, women in the world will not have
equality. And it doesn't mean that a man who doesn't see that
carries personal animus; one of the problems is that we've psychological
- so we think if I fix my psychology I've dealt with it.
not a psychological thing. That's only a small part of it; it's
embedded in our structures, our institutional practice, and unless
we notice it in all those places, we can't really address it.
What would you say to someone specifically who says, "Why
should I care?"
Well, I mean, there are many things. For example, social
security - you know, we're sort of all worried if there's going
to be enough money for social security. I think of the social
security crisis as a race crisis, because what we have are a lot
of aging, white baby boomers who will retire in 15 years, and
they'll be dependent upon a black, brown, and Asian workforce
to support them. There's a relationship there. Basically, as a
country, we're going to say to young black workers, young Latino
workers, "Tax yourself at a very high rate, so that older white
people can be comfortable." It's not clear they're going to do
that, especially if, as a society, we haven't cared about them.
In addition, some people might say, well, I'll live in an enclave,
and I won't have anything to do with those angry black and Latino
workers, but then there's still the question, "Whose going to
turn our decaying bodies?" It's those same black and brown workers
in the health care industry who are going to be needed to care
for the aging whites.
We are all connected in fundamental ways.
Racism is not just about keeping someone a stranger. It's about
a set of relationships. Those relationships exist, and if they're
unhealthy, it means the whole society is unhealthy.
What can we do about these existing inequalities?
What we do matters,
and that's the good news. Unfortunately, right now, I don't think
we're doing very much - that's the bad news. But racial demographics
are changing, and we talk about that a lot. Unfortunately, though,
we talk about it as if racial categories and the way we do race
will stay exactly the same, except we'll add different numbers,
and it's clear to me that that's not going to be the case.
not going to be simply an increased number of blacks Latinos or
Asians in the population. One of the questions will be, what do
those terms mean? What does it mean to be black? What does it
mean to be Latino? What does it mean to be Asian?
I think the
real challenge is, are we willing to really notice race where
white supremacy reigns? We can try to change race a number of
ways. We can follow the Brazilian model and have many more categories,
with whites still the dominant group, and blacks still the subordinate
Or we can really disrupt race fundamentally, where
you can no longer predict access to power and wealth and privilege
and meaning, based on race. You can no longer predict spatial
meaning based on race. That to me would be much more interesting,
and that future is possible, but only if we're willing to first
notice it, and then try to make it happen.
Where do you see the most hope?
I see hope in the changing demographics, not
just in the United States, also in the world. I think globalization
will have a huge impact on how we think about and do race in the
world. We've always been interconnected, but I think there's going
to be some challenge to change those connections, and to use each
other, to rely on each other in interesting ways.
I see hope
in the change of personal attitudes, but also, as I suggested
earlier, sometimes that's unfortunately all we're willing to work
on, and we're not willing to look at the structural arrangements.
I don't think that most blacks, and probably most Latinos and
Asians buy the dominant story line in this country.
no matter how many ways you cut it, the tremendous disparity between
blacks and whites is a problem. You can say it's blacks fault,
it's a culture of poverty, it's the history of slavery - whatever
the reason, it's a problem that I think has to be addressed. And
some of that requires institutional change and institutional making.
think we have to be uncomfortable with the present racial arrangement.
Many of the stories that we tell now are really designed to make
us both comfortable and feel powerless. In a sense, I think we
have to be willing to be uncomfortable, willing to demand more
of ourselves and more of our country, and willing to make the
invisible visible; willing to make the structures that support
the system to be able to put them on the table, and engage in
real examination of those.
I think out of that comes the impetus,
the motivation to do something about it. And when we have a vision
that will take us there, then we have to be willing to look at
what's impeding that vision. This huge racial disparity - we have
to be uncomfortable about that.
We are already uncomfortable
in some ways, but the stories we're told, the stories that we
tell ourselves are designed to help us be comfortable, to disempower
us. "Oh, the poor will always be among us." "Oh, this is a matter
of choice." "Oh, this is a matter of cultural poverty." "Oh, they
just commit more crime." All of those are designed to really say,
"It's not my problem."
I think we have to reject that. We have
to be willing to sit with the discomfort, and to examine what
can we do to not be comfortable but to call the world to being
that we all want to live in.
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