Racism Today

Racism Today

Contrary to the opinions of many Whites, we are not living in a postracial society. Racial disparity between Whites and peoples of Color exists in every institution across society. Here we give brief examples of how racism plays out within a few social institutions.

Health. According to the UN ranking of the standard of living of the

world’s nations (the Human Development Index or HDI), Indigenous people in Canada and the United States have a lower HDI score when compared to the general population (Mikkonen & Raphael, 2010):

STOP: While they may be difficult to see and thus are often denied, racial disparities and their effects on overall quality of life have been extensively documented by a wide range of agencies, including: federal (such as Statistics Canada, U.S. Census Bureau, United Nations), university (such as UCLA Civil Rights Project,


Metropolis Project), and nonprofit (such as Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Canadian Anti-Racism Education and Research Society, NAACP, Anti-Defamation League).

U.S. general population HDI: ranks 7th internationally Canadian general population HDI: ranks 8th internationally U.S. American Indian/Alaska Native population HDI: ranks 31st internationally Canadian Aboriginal population HDI: ranks 33rd internationally

In 2015 the average life expectancy for a U.S. citizen was 79.3 years, and for a Canadian citizen was 82.2 years, which are both higher than the average global life expectancy of 71.4 (WHO, 2016). While Canada overall ranks 13 of 38 OECD nations, the U.S. ranks 26 of 38 nations for life expectancy (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2015).

At birth, the life expectancy in the United States is as follows (Arias, Heron, & Xu, 2012):

White males—76.7 Black males—72.3 White females—81.4 Black females—78.4

Economy. In the United States in 2014, the median household income

was $53,657 (DeNavas-Walt & Proctor, 2015), broken down as:

Black household—$35,398 Hispanic (any race) household—$42,491 White (not Hispanic) household—$60,256 Asian household—$74,297

The 2014 poverty rate in the United States was 14.8% (46.7 million people in poverty). The 2014 rate was 2.3% higher than the 2007 rate (DeNavas-Walt & Proctor, 2015). By race:

Non-Hispanic Whites—10.1% Asians—12% Hispanics—23.6% Blacks—26.2%

Racialized Canadians are at greater risk of living in poverty. The 2006 Canada Census (the last stats available) show the overall poverty rate in Canada was 11% but 22% for racialized persons, and 9% for non-


racialized persons (Government of Canada, 2013). For every dollar earned by a non-racialized man, a racialized woman in

Canada will earn 55.6 cents (Block & Galabuzi, 2011).

Criminal justice. When broken down by race and gender, incarceration rates in the United States are as follows (Mauer & King, 2007; Sakala, 2014):

White (non-Hispanic) men: 64% of U.S. population, 39% of incarcerated population—450 per 100,000 Hispanic men: 16% of U.S. population, 19% of incarcerated population—831 per 100,000 Black men: 13% of U.S. population, 40% of incarcerated population —2,306 per 100,000

In Canada, the 2014 federal incarceration rate was 54 per 100,000 (Statistics Canada, 2015a). Aboriginal people account for a disproportionate percentage of the prison population. They make up approximate 3% of the national adult population, Adult Aboriginal people made up 26% of correctional admissions with Aboriginal females accounting for a higher proportion of female admissions (36%) than Aboriginal males for male admissions (25%) (Statistics Canada, 2015a). This gap is more pronounced for Aboriginal youth, who accounted for 41% of corrections admissions while representing 7% of the youth population. Aboriginal girls accounted for 53% of female youth admitted to corrections, where Aboriginal male youth accounted for 38% of males admitted (Statistics Canada, 2015b).

These disparities are an important reminder about the role of theory in explaining data. Readers may recall from the discussion in Chapter 2 that theory is the way we make sense of what we see. Reflect for a moment on how you explain racial disparities. This is an important exercise because our explanations reveal our meaning-making frameworks and thus are a great entry point into deeper racial self-knowledge. We can explain these statistics with cultural deficit theory (in other words, there is something wrong with the culture of communities of Color that results in these disparities). However, cultural deficit theory blames peoples of Color for their struggles within a racist society while obscuring larger structural barriers. Cultural deficit theory also exempts dominant culture from the need to play any role in the eradication of racism.

If we consider historical, institutional, and cultural racism, the explanation looks very different. Many incarcerated peoples of Color have


attended under-funded and deteriorating schools, have had poor access to health care, have historically been denied mortgages and other wealth- building programs, and have received inequitable treatment in every other major institution that would have given them and their children an equal starting point in life (Alexander, 2010). These are examples of institutional racism, not a personal lack of responsibility or a cultural flaw.

The way that we explain (or theorize) a problem determines how we respond to the problem. If we perceive the problem as one of a violent and criminal people, we might build more prisons and create more sophisticated mechanisms to monitor them. And in fact, although crime has actually decreased over the last 30 years, this is the view we have taken, and in response the United States has built more and more prisons and incarcerated more and more peoples of Color, so that the United States now has the highest number of people incarcerated in the world, and the vast majority of them are Black and Latino, a rate that is way out of proportion with their numbers in the wider population (Alexander, 2010). But if we perceive the problem as one of structural racism, we might change the way we fund schools, ensure that every family has affordable access to health care and social services, work to decrease racial profiling, and change the policies that allow wealth to be ever more concentrated into fewer hands.

Both Canada and the United States are nations that were built on the labor of peoples of Color: the labor of Indigenous peoples who were enslaved, served in military capacities, and helped early colonizers navigate the land; the labor of enslaved Africans who fueled high-value agricultural industries such as cotton, tobacco, sugar, and coffee; the labor of Chinese and Japanese workers who did the backbreaking work of building the railways that formed the major transportation portals for the early period of the nation state. All of this labor was given for very little if any financial remuneration, authority, or ownership of the national infrastructure and wealth that was built on it.

While we might acknowledge that these were unfair practices of the past, consider the division of labor along race lines in the United States and in Canada today. Who are the people picking the fruit we buy, cleaning our homes, hotels, and workplaces, providing at-home child care or elder care, and sewing the clothes that come to our local department and box store at remarkably cheap prices? Backbreaking, low-wage, low- reward work is still performed primarily by peoples of Color (Marable, Ness & Wilson, 2006; Schoenfish-Keita & Johnson, 2010; Sharma, 2002).

There have been some protections put in place to guard against the most blatant and intentional manifestations of racism from the past, but


racism still operates in new and modified ways. Colorblind racism is a cogent example of this adaptation. This is the belief that pretending that we don’t notice race will end (or has already ended) racism. This idea comes out of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. King’s speech symbolized a turning point in the adaptation of racism in dominant culture. Before the period leading up to his speech, many White people felt quite comfortable to admit to their racial prejudices and sense of racial superiority. But once the civil rights movement took root and civil rights legislation was passed, there was a significant change in mainstream culture; it was no longer as acceptable for White people to admit to racial prejudice.

White racism didn’t disappear, of course; Whites just became somewhat more careful in public space (Picca & Feagin, 2007). Seizing on one part of King’s speech—that one day he might be judged by the content of his character and not the color of his skin—dominant culture began promoting the idea of “colorblindness” as a remedy for racism. King’s speech was given at a march for economic justice—the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—and he was there to advocate for the elimination of poverty, but few people today know what his cause was fully about (Bonilla-Silva, 2006).

While colorblindness sounds good in theory, in practice it is highly problematic. We do see the race of other people, and that race has meaning for us. Everyone receives racist messages that circulate in society; they are all around us. While some of these messages are blatant (racist jokes, for example), we must understand that most of the messages we receive are subtler and are often invisible, especially to Whites. Drawing on what we discussed in Chapter 3 on socialization, we know that while we learn very early about race, much of what we learn is below the level of our conscious awareness (as with the iceberg) and colorblind ideology makes it difficult for us to address these unconscious beliefs. While the idea started out as a well-intended strategy for interrupting racism, in practice it has served to deny the reality of racism and thus hold it in place.

To get a sense of what might be below the surface of our conscious racial awareness, try the following thought experiment:

At what point in your life were you aware that people from racial groups other than your own existed (most peoples of Color recall a sense of “always having been” aware, while most White people recall being aware by at least age 5). If you were aware of the existence of people from racial groups other than your own, where did they live? If they did not live in your neighborhood, what kind of neighborhood did they live in? Were their neighborhoods considered “good” or “bad”? What images did you


associate with these other neighborhoods? What about sights and smells? What kind of activities did you think went on there? Where did your ideas come from? Were you encouraged to visit their neighborhoods? Or were you discouraged from visiting their neighborhoods? If you attended a school considered “good,” what made it good? Conversely, what made a school “bad”? Who went to “bad” schools? If the schools in your area were racially segregated, were their schools considered equal to, better, or worse than yours? Why didn’t you attend school together? If this is because you lived in different neighborhoods, why did you live in different neighborhoods? If you were told by your parents and teachers that “all people are equal regardless of the color of their skin,” yet you lived separately from people who had a different skin color, what message did that contradiction send? If you lived and went to school in racial segregation you had to make sense of this incongruity. In other words, what does it mean to say that all people are equal but live separately from them? Our lived separation is a more powerful message than our words of inclusion because the separation is manifested in action, while inclusion is not.

PERSPECTIVE CHECK: If some of these questions do not apply to the cultural context you grew up in, try the following: Adjust the questions to capture how you learned about racial difference, for example how you saw people from racial groups residing outside of your nation state or perhaps people from ethnic groups different from your own residing within your nation state. Use socioeconomic class to think through the questions, for example, how did class differences shape where you lived and how you learned your “place” in society? Consider the impact of Whiteness as a global phenomenon. What did you learn it meant to be White? What did you learn it meant to be a member of a racial group that is not White?

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Racism Today
Racism Today


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