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?
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.
Today's ghettos aren't just poor and racially segregated – they're cut off from the prosperous mainstream of American life. These are places where joblessness is the norm, crime is rampant, and decent people have to hustle in the gray-market economy to survive. Teens living in these neighborhoods have no role models to teach them how to navigate the work-a-day world.
As a result, even the diligent and talented have a hard time finding regular work. Many turn to crime and find themselves saddled with the stigma of a criminal record, making it that much harder to earn an honest living. That can lead to a vicious cycle of poverty, isolation, and dysfunctional socialization.
Many civil rights activists, perhaps understandably, seize on any opportunity to draw needed attention to persistent racial inequality. But this can lead some to insist, wrongly, that racism is as bad today as ever and to exaggerate the significance of visible but trivial or ambiguous incidents.
For instance, although there's no doubt that there are some racist cab drivers, the primary reason black folks consistently find it hard to hail a cab in New York – and we do – isn't bigoted cabbies: it's that many cabbies use race as a proxy for a dangerous ghetto neighborhood.
That's unfortunate, but it's not exactly racism: Even some civil rights advocates leave their cars in midtown when going north of 120th street for fear of parking in a rough neighborhood. The real injustice here is that so many blacks have to live in neighborhoods that reasonable and decent people are afraid to enter.
In fact, there's no evidence that Mr. Bush is a bigot. The better explanation for post-Katrina racial inequity is that residential segregation and poverty left blacks in New Orleans in the low-lying areas worst hit by the flooding and without the resources to leave town in time. Add to that the widespread neglect of national infrastructure and you have all of the makings of the post-Katrina nightmare. To insist that the president is a racist distracts attention from these real and correctable problems.
Worse yet, some people willingly piggyback on real racial injustices in order to gain a selfish advantage in cases where racism isn't at work at all. The suggestion that O.J. Simpson was the victim of a police conspiracy is the most obvious example. During the 1980s and 1990s, the Los Angeles Police Department did indeed harass poor blacks in South Central L.A., but that rough treatment didn't extend to rich black celebrities such as O.J. Simpson, who played the race card to beat the rap for a crime he almost certainly committed.
People who make accusations of racism that don't fit the facts wind up hurting the cause of racial justice. Playing the race card breeds suspicion of all claims of bias – valid as well as phony. And the people who are unfairly accused may harden their hearts and dig in their heels.
When naked prejudice really is at work, dialogue is pointless and condemnation is appropriate. But many of today's racial injustices demand compromise, discussion, and cooperation; a misplaced accusation of bigotry ends the potential for civil conversation and breeds defensiveness and resentment.
Of course, solutions will entail more than talking. We'll need to be open to bold solutions and daring experiments as well as older, now abandoned policies. And we'll need to be willing to send some cows that are sacred to both conservatives and liberals to the slaughterhouse.
Creating jobs, integrating schools
To overcome the problems of inner-city poverty and the culture of joblessness, we must bring steady work to the ghetto. That might mean public employment, which could give some ghetto residents a first experience with a full-time job and help repair the nation's crumbling infrastructure, just as the New Deal's Work Projects Administration did. (Suppose the federal government had hired poor New Orleaneans to fix the city's levees before Katrina hit?)
It would also require a no-excuses attitude toward antisocial behavior and quality-of-life crimes to protect that infrastructure; and an emphasis on a good work ethic so that public works don't become the "make work" social program its critics have long condemned.
Making good on Brown v. Board of Education's promise will require school districts to actively pursue integration when making school assignments, even at the expense of neighborhood-based enrollment.
Tragically, the Supreme Court moved in exactly the wrong direction last year when it held that the Constitution forbids school districts from taking such reasonable steps to promote integration. We should also be willing to expand successful charter-school programs, provided they encourage integration; and experiment with vouchers so poor parents can leave failing schools.
The challenge for the civil rights movement in the 21st century will be to foster a constructive discussion of the real but often mundane racial inequities that confront many people every day – without being distracted by dramatic but trivial scandals. Let's forget about Don Imus's offensive remark about the Rutgers' women's basketball team and start talking about segregation in New Jersey cities such as Newark and Camden. The challenge will be to talk about and confront the bad news of stubborn racial inequality while acknowledging and capitalizing on the good news that most people really aren't inveterate bigots. Let's quit looking for a bigot to paste to the dartboard and get to work on fixing the levees.