Racial (In)Equality in the U.S.
Aside from my Netflix marathons, there are only a handful of network television shows that I make time to actually watch. And the new Fox prime time show Empire is one of them. Like so many great shows, it includes moments of fantasy, joy, and struggle that oftentimes mirror very real social issues that are on the forefront of their viewers’ minds.
For instance, the season two premiere opened with a #FreeLucious concert that paid homage to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and highlighted the overrepresented numbers of African-American men in our prison systems and their mistreatment by police. The imagery (particularly that of Cookie Lyon in a Gorilla suit and caged) and discourse used within that opening scene speaks to broader national issues. As highlighted by Gene Demby at NPR, however, these narratives are not common within prime time television.
This divide in the types of stories that people prefer to watch is reflected in our own national understandings of American culture, history, government, and judicial systems, for instance.
A recent article from NPR highlights the ways that White and Black-Americans differ on issues of race relations in the U.S. The article draws on data collected for the PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll that corresponds with PBS NewsHour’s town hall meeting “After Charleston” special, moderated by Gwen Ifill. The poll showed that within the U.S., African Americans and Whites view race relations as worsening over the past year. Given the recent police shootings and hate crimes against African Americans, we may be in agreement with this assessment. At the same time, however, the poll also shows that Blacks and Whites disagree – both locally and nationally – on issues of economic equality and social justice.
Some of these findings include:
- 48% of Whites think race-relations have not changed locally and believe this to be a good thing, while 74% of African-Americans also believe that race relations have not changed locally and believe this is a bad thing.
- 52% of Whites agree that African-Americans and Whites have equal access to jobs; 72% of African-Americans disagree.
- 52% of Whites agree that both groups have equal access to achieve a middle-class lifestyle; 60% of Blacks disagree.
- 50% of White respondents agree that there is currently equal justice under the Law while 87% of African-Americans disagree.
- The #BlackLivesMatter movement focuses on “real issues of racial discrimination”: 59% of Whites think it distracts from those issues, and 65% of African-Americans agree that it highlights those issues.
These numbers are similar to a 2013 study conducted by the Pew Research Center on racial equality.
How is it that residents of the same country can have such disparate views on national issues? We know that much of this stems from the varied social realities that communities of color experience as compared to their white peers.
Does this mean that poor white individuals and families don’t struggle? Or that police officers don’t discriminate (based on class) against poor white men? Or that poor white men and women don’t have ready access to quality education or healthcare? Of course not.
We do, however, live in a system that privileges white bodies and whiteness. This does not negate the very real personal struggles that individuals encounter. But it does mean that non-white peoples experience systems of oppression that operate beyond an individual level.
For instance, drawing from U.S. 2010 Census data, we know that people of color are overrepresented in prisons and are more likely to have experiences with the criminal justice system than white individuals.
One might take a “culture of poverty” or a “ghetto culture” stance and argue that Black and Latin@ culture are the driving forces behind the destruction of both communities and peoples of color. These types of arguments ignore the ways that communities of color (particularly Black, Latin@, and Native-American) are actively excluded from housing, credit, jobs, education, healthcare, voting, and other important resources.
According to a study by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, Black, Latin@, and Native-American children are suspended and expelled at higher rates than white children. They also receive less advanced academic training and courses, and are more likely to attend schools with first-year teachers.
Sociologist Devah Pager shows that the presence of a criminal record is much more restrictive for Blacks than Whites. In her study, Pager hired a group of young college men to apply for entry-level jobs. She made sure to find men who had similar physical characteristics and interpersonal styles. Although these were college students, the men posed as solely being high-school educated with little work experience.
For the study, Pager sent the men in pairs (two white and two black) to apply for entry-level positions. Their resumes and job applications were identical, yet in each pair one of the men would indicate that he had a drug felony conviction and spent time in prison. Among her major findings, she found that Black men with no criminal records were less likely to be hired than a White man with a criminal conviction.
In addition, a study by the Economic Policy Institute shows that austerity policies and governmental shutdowns in the United States have disproportionately affected women and African Americans. This is largely because governmental agencies are more likely to hire women and African Americans than the private sector.
Culture plays a major role in framing our values, beliefs, and traditions. As the above studies show, however, culture alone does not account for the vast inequities within the U.S.
Given these numbers, how is it that White Americans differ in their opinion on racial equality from Black Americans and Latin@s?
This partly flows from white racial segregation. The Atlantic article, “Self-Segregation: Why It’s So Hard for Whites to Understand Ferguson,” notes that for the most part, White Americans live and play in spaces that have few social problems, and mostly interact with other White people. As the article mentions, 75% of Whites navigate spaces that a fully (100%) white.
Conversely, African-Americans and Latin@s navigate social spaces that exhibit higher levels of social problems and tend to interact with a more heterogeneous group of individuals: 65% of Blacks interact only with other Blacks, and 45% of Latin@s only interact with other Latin@s. This social, cultural, and physical segregation along with dominant stereotypes of communities and individuals of color, can negatively influence how White Americans both view and understand racial issues within the U.S.
As a nation, we have built systems that overwhelmingly disenfranchise communities of color, women, and the poor. These policies, structures, and history continue to frame national issues such as racial equity. The way we understand and perpetuate these histories, policies, and structures is framed by where we live, who we interact with, and the images that we see.
Why do you think these perceptions vary so widely? Do shows like the enormously popular Empire have the ability transform perceptions or highlight national issues?