Is Racism Worse Now Than in the '80s?

Published May 23, 2006

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Racism and sexism may be deepening despite decades of measures aimed at cleansing them from society. This conclusion is suggested by the ugly and unrelenting public backlash that surrounds the Duke Lacrosse case in which a black female was allegedly raped by three white males.

If racism and sexism are deepening, I believe it is because of and not despite the measures now being taken.

Racism shares many political characteristics with sexism, and the two are usually addressed in a similar manner; almost identical laws and policies seek to eliminate or otherwise control both.

Consider racism. For purposes of this article, it means judging a person by his or her racial identity rather than individual merit. Few people would argue that racism is worse today than in the 1950s when Jim Crow laws stained society.

These state and local laws were mostly enforced in the South and bordering states between 1876 and 1964; they prohibited or restricted blacks from accessing public facilities like public schools.

But is racial tension today better than in the 1980s?

By the mid-'80s, Jim Crow laws had been dead for two decades -- a full generation. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson set a new social course called The Great Society. The plan was to eliminate poverty and racism through an integrated and sweeping program of reform that ranged from education to agriculture, from health to 'urban problems.' Policies such as affirmative action arose from these reforms; discrimination against minorities or women in the marketplace gradually became illegal.

Mid-'80s culture had also been redefined by social movements such as civil rights and feminism.

And yet, 20 years and another generation later, racism now seems as bad or worse than in the '80s.

I believe it is worse and that the measures intended to remedy racism are a major cause of the deterioration. Decades ago, the issue of race needed shaking to its root. On a cultural level, any honest re-examination would have resulted in improvement. On a legal level, removing Jim Crow laws and all other references to race within the legal system was necessary.

But instead of removing references to race, many laws and policies used race as a filter to define the treatment an individual would receive not only by government but also in non-governmental arenas, such as employment.

The institutionalization of racial bias occurred on both a federal and local level.

The official "Definitions of Racism" offered by the Seattle Public Schools offers an example of the latter; it defines the approach to racism teachers in that system should adopt. The core definition of racism is, "The systematic subordination of members of targeted racial groups who have relatively little social power in the United States (Blacks, Latino/as, Native Americans, and Asians), by the members of the agent racial group who have relatively more social power (Whites). The subordination is supported by the actions of individuals, cultural norms and values, and the institutional structures and practices of society."

By this definition, it is impossible to commit an act of racism against a white person. Also, the definition converts racism from an act into a pattern of attitudes; ideas and not actions become the target of control.

Sub-categories of racism are also defined. 'Cultural Racism' is, in part, "[t]hose aspects of society that overtly and covertly attribute value and normality to white people and Whiteness…Examples of these norms include defining white skin tones as nude or flesh colored, having a future time orientation, emphasizing individualism as opposed to a more collective ideology…"

'Active Racism' includes advocating "protection of 'the rights' of members of the agent group [whites]."

By these definitions, standing up for individual rights such as freedom of speech, especially if the individual is white, is racist. Individualism becomes the new racism.

The Seattle school policy is one instance of inserting racial bias into institutions, most notably the education and legal systems. Such bias engenders a sense of entitlement within included races and a dangerous resentment within the excluded ones. Such policies create racial tension.

What is the solution?

I believe that most social problems arise from violence or other violations of individual rights. By treating all individuals as equal under laws that protect their person and property, social problems shrink. By punishing or rewarding people according to their conduct and not their racial identity, racism shrinks.

If a white man rapes a black woman, it is not wrong because the perpetrator is white and the victim is black. Reverse the races and the act is still wrong because rape is an [italic]act[italic] of violence. You do not control and are not responsible for your racial identity but you are absolutely accountable for your conduct.

Racism has no easy answer. But a necessary prerequisite is to dead-letter all laws and policies that express racial preference and replace them with ones that connect consequences to conduct rather than to race.

On a more personal level, stop apologizing for being white or any racial group identified on a government checklist. Apologize only for your actions; they are all you control. Your actions are who you are.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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