More Than Just Race

When it was announced that Obama would receive an honorary degree and give the graduation speech at Notre Dame, some heated discourse ensued. I was asked early on by someone, “Why is your university so racist?” I was a little taken aback by this question. The backlash from the Catholic Church did not surprise me and I was ready to defend my university against the accusation that we were no longer a Catholic university. But the accusation that my university was racist made me mad, which was frustrating because I didn’t have any defense readily available besides anecdotal evidence from my experiences there.

I guess I could have rooted around in admission stats and looked at minority representation on the board, but stats may not make any difference to many asking the question. It got me thinking, what would constitute a racist university?

Early on in this book, Wilson describes racism as such:

At its core, racism is an ideology of racial domination with two key features: (1) beliefs that one race is either biologically or culturally inferior to another and (2) the use of such beliefs to rationalize or prescribe the way that the “inferior” race should be treated in this society, as well as to explain its social position as a group and its collective accomplishments.

That’s quite a hurdle put up by Wilson. To be a racist, it’s not enough to just think that one race is inferior to another, but you have to take the next step and act on that belief by either taking some action to exclude that “inferior” race from some aspect of society or use that belief to explain the “inferior” race’s position in society.

I don’t feel that Notre Dame complies with any part of this definition. It’s not a racist university and I hold out as examples Father Hesburgh standing hand-in-hand with Martin Luther King and Father Jenkins defying much negative sentiment to confer an honorary degree on Obama.

I’m not going to drag this out much more because I think it will water down Wilson’s point. Wilson probably would agree that Notre Dame is not a racist university, but I think his bigger point starts out with the point that there are certain “structural forces” that don’t reflect any explicit racial bias but continue to contribute to racial inequality. He says these subtle, structural forces need to be considered, along with explicit racism and certain cultural factors, when explaining racial inequality. Here is how Wilson starts to frame it:

Conservatives tend to emphasize cultural factors, while liberals pay more attention to structural conditions, with most of the attention devoted to racialist structural factors such as discrimination and segregation. I hope in this discussion, however, to encourage the development of a framework for understanding the formation and maintenance of racial inequality and racial group outcomes that integrates cultural factors with two types of structural forces: those that directly reflect explicit racial bias and those that do not.

And a little further on, he expands on this to set the table for his main point, which links structural issues and cultural issues to explain racial inequality today:

If social scientists are to effectively and comprehensively explain the experiences and social outcomes of inner-city residents to the larger public, they must consider not only how explicit racial structural forces directly contribute to inequality and concentrated poverty, but also how political actions and impersonal economic forces indirectly affect life in the inner city. Also important are the effects of national racial beliefs and cultural constraints that have emerged from years of racial isolation and chronic economic subordination.

This gets heavier as Wilson digs into the social science of it, but it never gets too scientific so I never lost focus. At times it reads like a dissertation rather than a book, but this is a good thing because it’s complicated stuff, so Wilson’s structured format, previews, and reviews  are helpful to keep it all straight. I hope I can do Wilson’s views justice; I apologize in advance for errors, omissions, and gross summarizing.

To reiterate, he says that racial inequality and the discussion thereof should focus on three things in varying degrees:

  1. Explicit/direct structural forces (exclusionary laws, racial profiling, segregation, discriminatory practices)
  2. Political/economic/impersonal structural forces (declining federal support for inner cities, globalization, transportation trends, shifts to the service economy, elimination of low-skilled labor in certain industries)
  3. Cultural forces (as Wilson puts it, “shared outlooks and modes of behavior”)

Wilson explores these further by devoting a chapter to three specific areas where the debate about racial inequality is the hottest: “changes in the inner-city ghetto, the predicament of low-skilled black males, and the weakening of the black family.” He looks at each through the lens of all three forces and sites countless studies and papers, all with the goal of giving us a new framework to think about racial inequality.

What did I learn? What was most enlightening?

Well, I have a new appreciation for how racially segregated Chicago was, how it continues today, and how it will probably continue for a long time. Take for instance this item about how something as innocuous as an expressway can have long and lasting effects on racial inequality:

In any case, the freeways had a devastating impact on the neighborhoods of black Americans. These developments not only spurred relocation from the cities to the suburbs among better-off residents, but the freeways themselves “created barriers between the sections of the cities, walling off poor and minority neighborhoods from central business districts.”(4) For instance, a number of studies revealed how Richard J. Daley, the former mayor of Chicago, used the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 to route expressways through impoverished African American neighborhoods, resulting in even greater segregation and isolation. (5) A lasting legacy of that policy is the fourteen-lane Dan Ryan Expressway, which created a barrier between black and white neighborhoods. (6)

Stuff like this can’t be undone. They are undoing “the projects” (high-rise buildings clustered together to house lower income families) here in Chicago, which are another legacy of the first Mayor Daley, but the structural effects of them won’t be rectified for a long time.

Also, I have a new appreciation for Obama’s view on race. Wilson references Obama’s March 18, 2008 race speech with great reverence. Obama is clear in that speech about how important it is to keep addressing structural forces with investment, enforcement, and education. But Wilson especially likes the speech because of Obama’s melding of structural and cultural factors, Wilson says:

… Obama did not restrict his speech to addressing structural inequities; he also focused on problematic cultural and behavioral responses to these inequities, including a cycle of violence among black men and a “legacy of defeat” that has been passed on to future generations. And he urged those in the African American community to take full responsibility for their lives by demanding more from their fathers, and by spending more time with their children “reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.”

It’s this all-encompassing frame that Wilson likes. We can’t fix one aspect of the problem and expect everything to be alright. We have to fix it all and we all have to pitch in.

And finally, this book ties in nicely with my recent exploration of politics, of the disparity between the haves and the have-nots in this country, and the political issues wrapped up in this growing disparity. I think I need to take a break from these heavy topics.

My stint  started with The Given Day, was supplemented by Conscience of a Liberal, vetted and tested a little by Liberty and Tyranny, and even put in a different light by Netherland. Now I need to step away from the books and just think because so many problems, solutions, and differing views are running through my head that I can’t get them organized. Many aspects of liberal vs conservative, Democrat vs Republican, construct vs interpretation, and Statist vs Federalist are all wrapped in the issue of income equality. My mostly quantitative, linear brain is having trouble assimilating.

So friends, when I start postulating out loud, just know that I really don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m just trying to figure it all out.

Well, where does this leave me on the question of whether my university is racist or not, whether it’s losing its Catholic identity or not, or whether it even matters? I really don’t care, actually. When religion is introduced into politics, you can’t reach any common ground and probably can’t even sway the opinions of moderates. Some laypeople in the Catholic Church feel that if a one were to prepare a list of issues to be considered when deciding who to vote for, preserving life in the womb should be more important than achieving racial (and income) equality. Others in the church feel differently. I figure that at least half of Catholics rank at least one issue higher than preserving life in the womb (I think around 53% of Catholics voted for Obama).

The argument will go on for friggin’ ever. One thing is for sure, we all need to pay attention.