Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Future of U.S. Race Relations: Are We Starting to Think Like Brazilians?

Karthika's post has engendered a lot of conversation about the future of race relations in the United States. What strikes me about the way that young people especially, but also society at large, are talking about race relations is an increasing denial that race really matters. People, and you really see this among students, simply don't believe that race is a major barrier to success in modern America. Their obvious point of evidence is the election of Barack Obama.

Certainly race is changing. The legal structures of racism have largely broken down. The more intractable issue of individual racial prejudice is also declining. We have made real progress as a society.

However, I worry that the Obama election may actually lead to less discussion of race in this country. For the most part, I and others I have talked to find that young people are generally reticent to talk about race. They love talking about gender and sexuality. They are by and large great on GLBT issues. But race makes them uncomfortable. It seems that they believe we are forcing this non-issue down their throats.

But of course race still matters in this country. A lot. The rise in people denying this seemingly obvious fact begs the question: Are we beginning to copy the Brazilian model of race? I really think the answer might be a qualified yes.

First, let me set out in very general terms the Brazilian racial paradigm. Naturally, my small school doesn't have any of the major books on race in Brazil in its library and it has been a few years since I've read the relevant literature that I hoped to review. So if I am missing any key points in this discussion, please let me know.

Basically, most Brazilians deny that racism exists in their society. They point to never having a system of legalized segregation, as opposed to the United States; the ability of individual people of African descent to rise to positions of power, and the interracial mixing of the population as reasons none of this matters. While all these points have merit, it serves to obscure the severe racial problems in Brazil that extend back to slavery. The darker you are, the higher the chance that you are poor, live in a favela, experience police brutality, have limited opportunities for education, economic advancement, and access to health care.

Brazilians think about race in a very different way than Americans. The United States has long been defined by the "one drop" rule, where even people of only 1/8 African descent were legally defined as slaves. That Barack Obama is defined as black in our society is a sign of how powerful these ideas remain. The man is 50% black and 50% white, but he is black to most of us. In Brazil on the other hand, your behavior, social class, and way of carrying yourself, as well as your skin color, define your whiteness. Thus, you might see a very dark skinned individual, clearly of almost all African descent, refer to themself as "white," an assertion that would be accepted by much of society. Rather than focus on a blood quantum, it is behavior that matters.

Of course, all the positive attributes a person can have are considered "white." Skin tone, wealth, education, employment, neighborhood of residence, marrying a light skinned person, etc. Thus, all the negative attributes are "black." Living in a favela, gang membership, begging, unemployment, poverty, etc. Moreover, as people have pointed out in comments to Karthika's post, Brazilians will throw around racial epithets left and right, all the time denying that they are in fact epithets or negative in any way.

Essentially, Brazil is a society with massive racial problems and a total unwillingness to admit that any of those problems have anything to do with race at all.

Now, the United States is obviously a different nation, with a distinct history and race relations. Certainly there are a lot of Americans who are confronting race all the time, i.e., the African-American community. We have a long history of dealing with race fairly directly, whether that be through slavery, lynching, or fighting racism. But I really think that is changing. The promotion of Martin Luther King as the great American national hero with little black children and little white children playing together as the key construction of his dream has made a big difference over the last 30 years. Today, you have white kids throughout the nation who have grown up with black kids. They did play with them. They are friends with them today. They date and marry them. Because those old racial taboos have fallen, because their sanitized understanding of King's dream has been fulfilled, and because we have elected a black man to the highest office in the land, haven't we entered a post-racial society? Those old demons of race belong to the dustbin of history, just like Al Sharpton, Bull Connor, Jesse Helms, and Martin Luther King. What's particularly remarkable is that I've even heard this kind of talk from children of mixed-race relationships.

Here's the problem and here's what I think could ultimately lead us down a Brazilian path of racial denial in the face of massive racial inequality. Americans, both young and old, are largely unwilling to deal with issues of class seriously. We are still the descendants of Horatio Alger. Ragged Dick pulled himself up by his bootstraps and made himself a leading member of Gilded Age society. Barack Obama had a peripatetic childhood without a lot of inherent advantages and he grew up to become president. Why can't everyone be Ragged Barack? If they try hard enough, they can make it too. Like in Brazil, this can now happen on a case by case basis. This is particularly true because of the huge growth in the black middle and upper class since 1970. Today, lots of African-American children have significant advantages that the poor do not. Latinos also share in some of these advantages, though that is incredibly complicated and has a lot to do with ancestral nationality, time in America, where you grew up, and what social class your parents or grandparents were in before they came to the U.S.

But also like in Brazil, the poor in America are disproportionally people of color. There are an almost endless number of structural barriers to the poor reaching financial and political success--bad schools, lack of health care, parents having the ability to spend time with their kids, exposure to drug abuse at home, police brutality, and perhaps most importantly, a general sense of hopelessness and lack of expectations that life can get better. This isn't all that much different in the hills of West Virginia, the ghettos of Detroit, the reservations of South Dakota or the fields of California. But there is one important exception. Those white Appalachian kids are going to be accepted into a wealthy white society with greater ease than Latinos from the Rio Grande Valley, Pueblo Indians from New Mexico, or African-Americans from Compton. The ability to overcome class is greater if you are white.

When you combine the significant class biases and barriers that are already exacerbated by racism with the racial stereotypes and expectations that still inhabit the souls of too many Americans, you can see the incredible difficulty of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. To give one of hundreds of possible examples, tomorrow my class is reading Gregg Mitman's excellent history of allergies, Breathing Space: How Allergies Shape Our Lives and Landscapes. One chapter is dedicated to the asthma epidemic in inner cities. Mitman shows how racism and structural inequality combines with terrible housing conditions to create conditions that lead to high rates of asthma among inner city children, again largely children of color. Dilapidated public housing provides perfect cockroach habitat, a frequent cause of allergies. For decades, allergists ignored inner-city neighborhoods in their research. The pharmaceutical industry has little interest in getting drugs to poor families and the for-profit medical system does not serve these children well. Thus, they get sick at higher rates, miss more school, and fall behind. This is on top of the already significant disadvantages they have when competing with privileged white kids (or privileged black kids for that matter) for college, jobs, and career advancement.

Until this inequitable public housing is taken care, we do not live in a post-racial society. Until racial discrepancies in asthma rates are eliminated, we do not live in a post-racial society. And until hundreds if not thousands of other racial and class differences are resolved, we do not live in a post-racial society. I believe the post-racial myth to be one of the most threatening ideologies we face as a nation today. That I see it so prominently in young people is alarming. Moving to a Brazilian race system of individual advancement masking overwhelming signs of racial inequality combined with an unwillingness to discuss race would be a disaster. Certainly it would happen differently here than in Brazil, but any move in that direction is not healthy. I see it as my duty as a teacher of U.S. history to point out the severe problems with this idea and to give students an understanding of our racial past and present that demonstrates the intractability of structural racism that continues to shape our lives today.