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Is Racism Actually in Decline?

Dusty Sklar
January 30, 2017

by Dusty Sklar

DESPITE THE RISE in white supremacist activity and the increased visibility of police violence against people of color, my impression is that non-whites are being accepted more and more by “mainstream” America as part of the fabric of our culture and economy. There are a number of signs pointing to that conclusion.

Compared to forty years ago, racism in America is today thought by most to be reprehensible -- particularly by young people, whose attitudes are often quite different from those of their elders. I believe that racism will continue to diminish, since our younger generation grew up in a far more multicultural environment, which leaves them more accepting of diversity. In his recent four-hour documentary series on PBS, Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates notes the contributions of African-Americans to popular culture: “No one can talk about American popular culture without thinking about black culture. The impact has been so grand and transcendent -- the way we talk, the slang we use, the music that we listen to . . . I wanted to remind people of how thoroughly integrated our culture is.”

The civil rights movement was instrumental in removing barriers to higher education, and affirmative action programs have certainly helped swell the ranks of black students matriculating on majority-white campuses. As of 1980, 8 percent of black Americans had graduated from college; by 2006, 19 percent had completed their bachelor’s degrees. Black college graduates have definitely affected the class structure of black America. They’ve also caused remarkable gains in black income among those privileged enough to avail themselves of a college education. Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson refers to that as “the most significant change” since the death of Martin Luther King, pointing out that, when adjusted for inflation to 2014 dollars, the percentage of African-Americans making at least $75,000 more than doubled from 1970 to 2014, to 21 percent. Those making $100,000 or more nearly quadrupled, to 13 percent.

According to a 1998 report by the Brookings Institute, the number of black college and university professors more than doubled between 1970 and 1990; the number of black physicians tripled; the number of black engineers nearly quadrupled; and the number of black attorneys increased more than sixfold. In 1940, reports Brookings, 60 percent of employed black women worked as domestic servants; by 1998, that number was down to 2.2 percent, while 60 percent held white-collar jobs. In 1958, 44 percent of whites said they would move if a black family became their next-door neighbor. In 1998, the figure was 1 percent. In 1964, the year the Civil Rights Act was passed, only 18 percent of whites claimed to have a black friend. That became 86 percent in 1998.

The Nielsen Report for September 2015 shows the median income of black households increasing by 3.5 percent from 2011 to 2013, growing more among African-American households than among white households, according to the U.S. census. The growth of black household income is expected to continue as more and more African-Americans avail themselves of more education. Their college enrollment rates jumped significantly in 2014 to 70.9 percent from 59.3 percent in 2013, whereas the enrollment rate for non-Hispanic whites went up 67.3 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A GENERAL SOCIAL SURVEY reveals that since the 1970s, support for public and political forms of discrimination have diminished significantly. While 31 percent of white Southerners favored segregated schools in 1972, so few people supported that view in 1985 that the question was entirely removed from the survey. In 1972, when whites were asked if they would vote for a black president assuming that he was qualified for the role and championed by the party with which they were affiliated, 25 percent nationally said they would not, and 48 percent of Southern whites said they would not. By 2010, only 6 percent of white Southerners declared that they would not vote for a black president.

Camille Charles, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, who has studied the General Social Survey, said that the average white person during the Jim Crow era explained his or her perception of blacks in terms of biological or genetic difference, but that view has all but vanished, she says, as the civil rights movement helped whites to understand inequalities as being based on cultural and historical factors.

Maria Krysan, a professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago, has studied racial attitudes and survey methods for thirty years. She, like Charles, pointed out the shift away from overtly racist attitudes. “In today’s contemporary race relations,” she says, “there’s pressure to appear not racist and embrace racial equality.”

One way that racism has been sublimated, however, emerges in feelings of grievance among whites. A study by Samuel Summers, a psychologist at Tufts University, with a nationwide sample of 208 blacks and 209 whites responding to a questionnaire about how much discrimination each group experienced from the 1950s onward, showed that whites rated anti-white racism as more prevalent than than anti-black bias by more than a full point on a ten-point scale. Eleven percent of whites said that whites are currently “very much” targets of discrimination. Only 2 percent of blacks surveyed agreed.

Nevertheless, one impact of Barack Obama’s presidency was to reduce white racial prejudice, even among conservatives, according to a study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center in November of 2012. Seth K. Goldman, the author of the study, called it the “Obama effect,” and claimed that it reduced prejudice at least five times faster than in the two previous decades. Obama himself feels that race relations have improved during his presidency. In an interview with George Stephanopoulos on January 8, 2017, he said that “greater awareness” of anti-black racism has led to greater harmony between blacks and whites.

The Obama years gave rise to a movement called Black Lives Matter, which began in 2013 on social media, to call attention to acts of violence and racism against African-Americans. Inspired by the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida and the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri after the police killing of Michael Brown, the movement helped bring America’s awareness to specific occasions of police brutality, which caused the Obama administration to start the Task Force on 21st Century Policing and helped vanquish prosecutors in Chicago and Cleveland who were hoping for reelection after failing to bring charges against police officers accused of using excessive force.

A Pew research study reveals that white people who are particularly supportive of Black Lives Matter are Democrats and those under 30. Reporting from Milwaukee, University of Wisconsin’s sociology professor, David Pate, claims that local Black Lives Matter activism has led to a more honest and constructive community dialogue. “We’ve had more open discussions,” he says. “We’ve had more attention to the issue of race, maybe not to the point where I would like it to be, but it’s much better than it has been.”

It’s important to celebrate the victories, while understanding that we still have a long way to go.

Dusty Sklar is a contributing writer to our magazine and the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles. Her most recent article for us was about the Alt-Right’s antisemitism.

Dusty Sklar is a contributing writer to our magazine and the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles.