Why does racism persist?
One of the genuine accomplishments of 2015 was bringing the persistent presence of anti-black, anti-Hispanic, anti-woman emotions and attitudes into the open where it is there for everyone to see. Another encouraging fact is that many whites, and many men have taken to the streets to demonstrate their opposition to racism and sexism.
But do we understand what the problem is? Why are racism and sexism apparently ineradicable? We have seen significant changes. We have a black president. We have many eminent African-Americans in positions of authority. We have made changes that will allow the American Society to benefit from the work of many extremely talented women and persons of color.
But the bulk of all persons of color and women are still second-rate citizens in different respects--with respect to their earnings, with respect to the positions they are allowed to fill. Young black men are the predominant victims of police shootings. They are disproportionately unemployed, incarcerated, or under supervision of the criminal system.
Why does that not change?
The most common answer is that many Americans are prejudiced. They hold negative beliefs about persons of color or about women. These are beliefs which are demonstrably false but that does not affect the many people still adhering to those beliefs. In other words, to put this very bluntly, we believe that a large proportion of the American citizenry are not very intelligent and wildly irrational. Facts do not impress them. But their beliefs are highly emotional, motivated by fear, by distrust of strangers, by uncritical echoing of the beliefs of their neighbors.
While that may be true in some cases and in some situations, it is not the complete explanation. It is important to see that the economic system--capitalism--which many of us are so proud of for producing clever electronic devices at prices that many people can afford, is at the same time consistently encouraging racist and sexist distinctions and divisions.
Our economic system is unable to create full employment except under abnormal conditions such as a World War. What is more, unemployment is in the interest of employers for when jobs are scarce, workers are willing to work for less because it is better to have a poorly paying job than no job at all. A significant number of the unemployed are people of color--people widely believed to be lazy, to be unskilled and unemployable. This racist mythology conceals the failure of capitalism to create jobs.
At the same time, racist distinctions allow employers to pay people of color less than whites. Women in many locations earn significantly less than men. Women of color, earn significantly less than white women. Men of color, if they work at all, get the worst jobs.
Racist and sexist distinctions are in the interest of the business owners. This does not imply that the owners of enterprises approve of the murder of young black men or the many brutalities of racism and sexism. They do not approve of family violence, especially if it ends in murder. But they are sufficiently interested in racist and sexist distinctions that they are willing to support various police organizations. So far there seem to be no business organizations dedicated to combat racism and sexism.
Today many big city police departments appear to be at war with Black communities, aided and abetted by the criminal justice systems, the public prosecutors, and grand juries. But it is useful to remember that as long as workers have organized to better their condition at work, the police, as well as the state militias, the National Guard, have been deployed to suppress workers’ efforts to organize themselves. The history of American Labor records many bloody attacks on labor by police and the state militias.
The motto of police is often ” To Protect and to Serve.” Considering the history of Labor it is clear that it is the interest of the big employers, the capitalists, that determines who is to be protected and who is to be served. It has always been the employers, the rich, the economically powerful men in any given community.
What was true then, is true today.
The lesson is clear: Our society is corroded by racist and sexist prejudice. Anti-racist and anti-sexist training for police and criminal justice personel may well open the eyes of some and may, in doing that, be useful. But the scourges of racism and sexism will not disappear as long as the groups with greatest power in the society--the banks, Wall Street, business enterprises large or small--derive tangible profit from race and gender denigration.