Is the problem of American racism structural or personal? Is racism a significant problem in the United States? Are the problems of the black community in particular a reflection of systemic oppression, the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow? Or are they consequences of cultural challenges and poor decisions? These are all reasonable questions, which one should be able to articulate in public, without risk of cancellation. But these questions are poorly suited to helping us understand the historic impact of racism and the current systemic and cultural impacts on black America. The pivotal irony of American racism is that the white majority in the United States has become dramatically less racist over the same period of time in which the consequences of historic racism have become most pernicious to black Americans. The fact of racism in America is quickly disappearing, but the legacy of racism is on the rise. Those who would be intellectually honest must acknowledge the moral progress of Americans, while confronting this legacy anew.
There is a false binary that we must move beyond if we are to understand black America—or, indeed, any group. Progressives attribute the state of affairs in black life to the inequitable impact of legal, economic and other systems. Conservatives stress culture, personal responsibility and the fact that many young black men, in particular, choose to commit crimes, rather than marry, work and raise children. But there is an interplay between systems and culture in American life. If the cultural circumstances of black America are uniquely challenging, it is because uniquely challenging systemic obstacles have been placed in her path. We should not dismiss calls for personal responsibility. We should make them more effective by being honest about the challenges involved.
This complex problem began with slavery. But, while arguments linking the legacy of slavery to modern racial disparities by virtue of its influence on the development of American institutions (see the 1619 Project) can easily be made, these arguments butt up against the observations of those who note that the key problems facing black America today were less evident in times closer to slavery and more evident following the liberal reforms of the 1960s. These include problems such as out-of-wedlock births and crime rates.
The key to slavery’s impact on black America in our own time, is in its influence on cultural and psychological developments. Much has been made of the sadistic mental programming by slave owners of slaves: as illustrated in the infamous Willie Lynch letter, slaveowners systematically indoctrinated their slaves with a sense of fear and inferiority. But it is the simple fact that slaves were removed from their African homelands, cut off from the cultural resources of tradition, religion, economic strategy and self-knowledge in the first place, that is most relevant.
The conservative argument for cultural behavior as the driver of modern racial disparities has been given weight by the observation that, while slavery caused African-Americans to begin life after emancipation with many disadvantages, other groups who immigrated to this country overcame similar burdens and enjoy far greater general prosperity and success today.
Indeed, most immigrant groups confronted poverty. Some endured ethnic and racial prejudice and segregation. But Jewish, Asian, Latino and other immigrants to this country had the benefit of preserved cultural traditions and strategies for economic and educational success that proved to varying degrees resilient to the natural and artificial hardships of American life (hardships that were often not truly comparable to the scale of oppression endured by blacks). Alone among American ethnic groups, African-Americans lacked such cultural resources. As Afro-centric psychologist and scholar Na’im Akbar has observed, “Whereas people are able to operate in their own self-interest when they know and appreciate who they are, one of the things slavery robbed us of was the ability to understand who it is that we were.”
If conservatives are right to insist that culture is the edifice of success (which they are), it is incumbent upon conservatives to note that systems impact culture. In the case of black Americans, our culture was initially eliminated and then redefined by the system of slavery. That there is a relationship between institutions and the cultural development of the populations with whom they interact is beyond dispute.
The observation that black history in America began in this way is, however, only the first step towards the understanding of a larger convergence of forces. Black Americans, faced with the unique challenge of building a culture and sense of self from scratch, were hindered by the additional daunting obstacles of white supremacist terrorism, poverty, illiteracy and neglect. After ninety-five years of such trials, black Americans arrived at the advent of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s substantially poorer, less educated and less politically enfranchised than white Americans. But there was a black middle class, family formation was generally strong and generations of social activism and communal consolidation through religion, art and scholarship had produced a people unified and confident enough to launch a moral movement that would capture the imagination of the world and change the hearts and minds of much of the nation.
This is the pivotal part of our story. It is the moment when, for many Americans, the meaningful struggle of black America against racism came to an end.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s murder produced an outpouring of civil unrest across America unseen since the Civil War, not to be witnessed again until 2020, in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd. King and the other moral crusaders of the Nonviolent Civil Rights Movement transformed the narrative of race relations in America. An already increasingly sympathetic Hollywood pushed movies and television towards an embrace of multiculturalism. Integration of the educational system and affirmative action programs helped catalyze the rise of African-Americans and other minorities into university life and higher education, where diversity quickly became an intrinsic good. Black artists and athletes from Muhammad Ali in the 70s to Michael Jackson in the 80s and Michael Jordan in the 90s would achieve global popularity as transcendent symbols of American popular culture. Even the white Evangelical community in the South, under the spiritual leadership of figures such as Billy Graham, who pioneered integrated mass revivals in the 1960s, began to embrace a spirit of growing charity towards civil rights and cross-racial fellowship. Leader of the moral majority Reverend Jerry Falwell, once a hardline segregationist, repented of his prior views and developed a friendship with Reverend Jesse Jackson, his political polar opposite. People began to speak of a new South. America, it seemed, had changed.
It really had. That’s the tragedy.
I grew up in Culver City, California in the 1990s, the son of a white father and a black mother. My father is from Tennessee. His father respected black people and admired black culture, but did not favor interracial marriage. My grandfather initially resisted the idea of my father’s marriage. But he soon came to embrace my mother and his love of his grandchildren was palpable. Growing up, my brother and I experienced nothing but affection and acceptance in my grandfather’s home.
Attitudes changed. America was the better for it. And the tragedy of our American storyline was fully redeemed in 2008, with the election of America’s first black president amid a national euphoria that signaled the dawning realization that we had reached Dr. King’s promised land.
But, unseen by most Americans, as if on a split screen playing to only one corner of the theater, a different storyline was unfolding.
The story splits in 1968, but some relevant facts precede that date. Changes in immigration policy granted economic opportunities to millions of people from Latin America, who would greatly enrich American cultural life. But this came at the economic expense of black communities that had once dominated the agricultural and service economies, where they were quickly displaced. At the same time, manufacturing jobs, a major source of employment for many African-Americans (particularly in urban centers), had begun to be shipped overseas. This decline would only increase into the 70s and beyond.
By 1968, economic opportunities for blacks in key sectors and communities were contracting quickly. The great society programs and the expansion of welfare successfully combated hunger in impoverished communities across America, including in black communities. But this did not replace lost jobs, and, the fact that the criteria for qualification favored single parents produced a counter-incentive against marriage in the black community—a systemic problem that Martin Luther King, Jr. strongly criticized.
Conservatives tacitly admit to the relationship between flawed institutional structures and cultural formation when they criticize the social engineering of the welfare state and big liberal programs. But this history goes deeper.
The murder of not only Dr. King but black leaders from Malcolm X to Fred Hampton and Medgar Evers across the decade, and the flight of many of the more successful and educated African-Americans away from traditionally black communities into integrated neighborhoods and suburbs, created a leadership void and dissolved the social unity built up by the civil rights movement in the late 50s and early 60s. This void was filled on the local level in part by gangs that were the descendents of black organizations whose original purpose was to protect communities from hostile police forces. This was particularly true in urban America, where, by 1970, most African-Americans resided—the majority of them outside the South, where the defeat of Jim Crow had less tangible meaning. Dr. King was America’s foremost black leader—but the cause he led was rooted in and focused largely on the South.
In these environments where unemployment was high and fixed incomes were available but social mobility was not, with their leadership drained, morale low and political gains still largely symbolic, fewer people lived in stable family formations and less organized groups of—or inspired by—former political militants held sway. This left these communities more vulnerable to drugs like first heroin and then crack cocaine. Gangs suddenly became the distributors of a product, with a demoralized consumer base before them and a wider nation surrounding them, celebrating its moral victory over segregation and oblivious to the new problems boiling beneath the surface—just as oblivious as we Americans had been in the aftermath of Reconstruction, one hundred years before.
Drugs fueled addiction and dependency, were subsidized by public assistance and overseen by former would-be political militants become—or displaced by—militarized gangsters. The Crips and later the Bloods took shape. Between drug related deaths and gang related violence, the scale of the human loss in the black community between the early 70s and the early 90s, was beyond imagining. And this produced a law enforcement response that was massive, militarized and often corrupt. Many local police departments, realizing that huge sums of cash were being moved on urban streets, were seized by officers willing to tolerate a certain level of violence and drug distribution so long as they could confiscate a percentage of the profits.
The collisions between cops and gangs were brutal. The war on drugs led to mass incarceration. And, in the midst of all this, the psychological and cultural formation of a new generation of African-Americans was underway: characterized by outcries of bitterness and pain, but also by militancy and by a new political assertiveness that had begun to throw off the pacifist shackles of non-violence. It was a culture that produced the gritty and raw comedic stylings of Richard Pryor, the menacing intensity of Mike Tyson and eventually the rising, norm-destroying musical genre of gangster rap, as groups like NWA turned out anthems like Straight Outta Compton and Fuck the Police.
Richard Pryor, Mike Tyson and Ice Cube are celebrities whom Americans from many walks of life have come to love. But it is no coincidence that each of them challenged the gentler social assumptions of civility that Dr. King, Bill Cosby, Sam Cooke and even Muhammad Ali came of age abiding by. As the 70s and 80s progressed, black disillusionment with the politics of non-violence was often accompanied by a larger American disillusionment with our political institutions, following on the heels of the Vietnam War and Watergate, which reset the tone of social activism after the more poetic idealism of the 1960s.
For many Americans, the Reagan administration of the 80s restored a sense of optimism, stability and prosperity. But these were the high watermark years of carnage in black America. While economic growth rose and the Berlin Wall teetered, rising incarceration rates would eventually make the United States the most relentless jailer of her own people in the entire world. Even as income and employment rose for those black Americans who were part of the workforce, these trends concealed the reality of the many statistically invisible blacks, removed from the labor market by institutionalization and death.
This is the story that most Americans do not know—including black Americans not unlike myself. I have had the privilege of having been raised in a cocoon of social acceptance, in a multicultural, middle class community. The apocalypse of the LA. riots of 1992, when I was five years old, is only a faint memory to me. But fifteen miles away from me, in Watts, Los Angeles, the woman I would later marry remembers living out those days, as a four-year-old, in the heart of a war zone. The crime, violence and police misconduct she saw over the course of her life made the death of George Floyd and the ensuing outrage seem not exceptional to her, but familiar.
Many black stories are like mine, full of opportunity, in an uplifting culture that vindicates the legacy of the civil rights movement and all those who believed and continue to believe in the greatness of American ideals. I have hardly known racism in my life. But many African-Americans have lived through stories far closer to my wife’s experiences, in an urban culture produced by historical forces and systemic entrapments made all the more insidious by their outward invisibility.
Most Americans do not know this fuller version of the black story. Most do not know the degree to which the structural realities that followed the Civil Rights Movement set the stage for our racial despair. The death of George Floyd alone could not precipitate the outrage that we currently see. Perhaps it would not even be justified by the statistics of police homicides of unarmed black men alone—except that it symbolizes a larger system of injustice that leaves many feeling the opposite of free.
The American people, by and large, are not racist. But the legacy of racism, broadly speaking, defines this moment. Let us meet it with empathy and truth.