Opinion Columns & Blogs

December 6, 2013

Ezra Klein: Racism remains, despite what policymakers think

“Today we remember Rosa Parks’ bold stand and her role in ending racism,” tweeted the Republican National Committee’s official account on Sunday. Whoops.

“Today we remember Rosa Parks’ bold stand and her role in ending racism,” tweeted the Republican National Committee’s official account on Sunday. Whoops.

There’s a generous interpretation of this tweet: Rosa Parks’ bold stand played a role in the ongoing and perhaps endless project of ending racism. About four hours after the initial tweet went out, the RNC sent out a clarification to this effect.

To be clear about the problem: The original tweet conflates the end of statutory discrimination with the end of racism. It suggests that changing government policy changes all the attitudes that led to that policy, and all the social arrangements that were built around that policy. It’s a view often held by conservatives, which is odd, because it requires a tremendous belief in the government’s power to cleanly reshape whole societies.

Much government action remains, shall we say, racially uneven, even if the underlying law has become color-blind. Take marijuana policy. Statute makes no distinction between marijuana usage by blacks and whites. And usage among blacks and whites is very similar – but arrests are not.

Which is to say that making the law color-blind doesn’t necessarily make the law color-blind. So, why would we think it makes society color-blind? Or the economy color-blind?

The study “Are Emily and Brendan More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal?” was carried out by researchers Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, who sent more than 5,000 fake resumes in response to more than 1,300 “help wanted” ads in the Chicago area. The resumes were similar in every respect save one: the names of the job applicants. Bertrand and Mullainathan gave some applicants stereotypically Caucasian names (Emily Walsh) and some applicants stereotypically African-American names (Lakisha Washington). “The authors find that applicants with white-sounding names are 50 percent more likely to get called for an initial interview than applicants with African-American-sounding names.”

The belief that racism is over has a clear policy implication: Policy can go directly from being extremely racist to being completely color-blind. There doesn’t need to be an ongoing period in which policy compensates or otherwise helps the group that was previously being held back by policy.

The idea that racism is over – or even just that policy should be color-blind – has a clear winner: the group that benefited from the years of racism and that now doesn’t have to pay any compensatory costs.

Yes, people alive today benefit from much that happened in their great-grandparents’ time. Wealth is passed down through generations, and quite a lot of racist policy in the United States was designed to help white Americans amass wealth by stopping African-Americans from doing so or, in some cases, by directly taking the wealth of African-Americans. Today’s wealth gap is, in part, the legacy of the country’s past, and it has winners as well as losers.

It’s easy to correct a poorly worded tweet. It’s easy to say that racism isn’t over. It’s harder to face up to the policy implications of that. The question for the RNC – and, for that matter, the Democratic National Committee – is if the fight against racism is ongoing, how should policy reflect that?

When it gets down to that tangible level, this isn’t a conversation the Democratic Party is much more comfortable with than the Republican Party. The theory is that the legacy of racist policy can be met with color-blind policy that helps the poor. There’s not much evidence that theory is working.

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