THE PUBLIC EYE: Racism: What’s the Problem?

By Bob Burnett
Friday May 23, 2014 - 04:49:00 PM

The past few weeks have seen the anniversaries of the US Civil Rights Act and the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in “Brown v. Board of Education.” We’ve also had a media frenzy over the dreadful remarks of Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team. For a brief period, there was a national discussion of racism. But now, for most Americans, it’s over. Why can’t we acknowledge racism continues to be a major national problem, a cancer that threatens the heart of our democracy? Why can’t we do something about it? 

As a white liberal, who lived through the civil-rights era, I expected more progress by 2014. I expected America to be integrated socially and economically. I expected deeper equality. 

There has been progress. Sports and entertainment are much different than they were in 1964. And of course, we have a black President. Nonetheless, in many areas of the United States, the plight of the average black family has not improved. There are 39 million African Americans in the US (12.6 percent), but only 6 CEOs of Fortune 500 corporations. Meanwhile, black males are far more likely to end up in prison (30 percent) than are their white brothers (9 percent). 

The persistence and malignancy of racism can be explained by three factors: 

The first is economic inequality. More than a decade ago, I had lunch with a friend, a retired University of California at Berkeley professor who had been charged by (then) Chancellor Tien with funding the University’s affirmative action program. My friend observed, “The people I talk to are sympathetic, but they’re unwilling to give money. They see a divide opening up between the rich and poor and they want to hold onto their money and take of their family.” 

The economic changes wrought by the Reagan era have impacted all working Americans, but they have been particularly harmful to African-Americans. Over the past twenty years, the average wealth of African-Americans families has diminished. MSNBC reporter Ned Resnikoff noted, “[In 1967] median household income was 43% higher for white, non-Hispanic households than for black households... By 2011, median white household income was 72% higher than median black household income.” 

The second explanation for the persistence of racism is our national morality. Beginning with the Reagan administration, conservative ideology was guided malignant notions that helping the rich get richer would inevitably help everyone else; i.e., greed was good. Conservatives swallowed Ayn Rand’s Objectivism: “The concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” Today’s conservatives believe that if you are disadvantaged – poor, sick, elderly, or just down on your luck – you should suck it up because it only takes willpower to become triumphant. 

Over the past 30 years, the American ethos changed from “we’re in this together” to “what’s in it for me.” 

The third explanation for the persistence of racism is lack of focus. Speaking on the anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, former President Jimmy Carter observed about the civil-rights movement, "We're pretty much dormant now. We accept self-congratulations about the wonderful 50th anniversary — which is wonderful — but we feel like Lyndon Johnson did it and we don't have to do anything anymore.” 

Meanwhile racism continues to be an active cancer in American society. As social critic, Jie-Song Zhang observed the elements of racism are all around us. 

[We build for-profit prisons and] target Black and Latino men from low-income communities to fill these prisons… [We] come up with special laws in largely Black and Latino communities to make it harder for them to vote, because they don't vote for the things that serve our interests… [We] pass laws that ultimately work so Black people can be shot in the name of self-defense, and make it easy for the shooters to be acquitted.
Activist Dr. Maya Rockeymoore reported, “African American households are beyond broke, owning only six cents for every dollar of wealth owned by the typical white household and possessing an average liquid wealth of only $200.” 


Donald Sterling was only one example of white racism. It’s all over the Fox News Network. In March, 2012 Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan made racist comments on a conservative radio program. And on and on. 

Writing in the Atlantic, researcher Robert P. Jones discussed a recent study of racial attitudes. Using sophisticated techniques, a poll found that 31 percent of white respondents admitted, “The idea of America where most people are not white bothers me.” 

There’s a lot of talk about the new populism. We should start with moral assertions: We’re in this together. I am my brother’s keeper and my sister’s keeper. No one is free until everyone in free. Every American, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at