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Opinion

Stop playing the race card

Hyped-up charges of bias distract from the real work of correcting racial inequalities.

By Richard T. Ford / March 6, 2008



Stanford, Calif.

Racial scandals are a regular and predictable part of American life. Actor Danny Glover can't hail a cab in Harlem – but is it simple prejudice or a more complicated reluctance of cabbies to stop in dangerous neighborhoods? Oprah Winfrey is turned away from a chic Paris boutique – but was it racism or had the store just closed for the day? Rapper Jay-Z feels dissed when the maker of his favorite bubbly gave the impression he'd rather not have his champagne associated with the hip-hop lifestyle – but was the reason race or the controversial hip-hop image?

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Each of these incidents made headlines and sparked off a conflagration of controversy, despite the relatively minor nature of the injuries and the ambiguity of the underlying bigotry involved.

But there are no headlines for the young man living on the south side of Chicago who doesn't know anyone with a steady job and is more likely to see the inside of a prison cell than a college classroom. And there is no blog buzz about the girl living in Detroit who attends schools almost as segregated as those of Jim Crow-era Alabama. As we obsess over dramatic but ultimately trivial race scandals, the most severe racial inequities go unnoticed and unaddressed.

Good news, bad news

Race relations in America today is a story with equal parts good news and bad news. The bad news is that racial segregation, poverty, unemployment, and crime are actually worse for the most disadvantaged African-Americans than they were during the Jim Crow era. But that doesn't mean that racism is worse than it was 40 years ago.

In fact, the good news is that racial prejudice is on a steep decline. Today, racism is taboo and most people do more than try to hide it – they want to overcome it. That doesn't mean they always succeed: Racial stereotypes still poison race relations and vicious bigotry surfaces even in the minds of basically decent people. Old-school bigots of the Bull Connor ilk still rattle sabers. And extremist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Neo-Nazis still find converts. But they are extremists, far outside the mainstream. We haven't overcome racism yet, but each new generation is less prejudiced than the last.

So what accounts for the bad news? Today's racial inequities are largely the result of America's racist past and the stubborn effects of poverty and isolation. Decades of discrimination have produced dramatically segregated neighborhoods. The black middle class took advantage of civil rights reforms and moved away from inner cities, but they left a poorer and more isolated underclass behind.

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