Monday, July 26, 2010

Shirley Sherrod Walked into a Live Minefield: Conservative Myths About Race and Racism in America

The Shirley Sherrod affair made me think a lot about some powerful myths – historical and contemporary – about race and racism in America.

What has been abundantly clear to me about the whole sordid Sherrod affair is just how deeply ingrained in the American psyche is the conservative narrative about race and racism in America.

During the last several decades, books and articles written by conservative writers – many of them housed in conservative think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Manhattan Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the Hoover Institute at Stanford, University – have defined much of our racial discourse.

Some of their books have become best-sellers. There is not enough space to list them all, but two of the most well-known and successful books are:

What is striking about both of these books is that they promote some of the oldest and most familiar racist myths, including the idea that black people are violent, intellectually inferior, lazy, and prone to dependency on welfare and other government handouts.

As an example, in his 700 page book, The End of Racism, D'Souza unloaded this zinger, which managed to offend several black conservatives enough that they resigned from the American Enterprise Institute in protest of its promotion of the book:

Most African American scholars simply refuse to acknowledge the pathology of violence in the black underclass, apparently convinced that black criminals as well as their targets are both victims: the real culprit is societal racism. Activists recommend federal jobs programs and recruitment into the private sector. Yet it seems unrealistic, bordering on the surreal, to imagine underclass blacks with their gold chains, limping walk, obscene language, and arsenal of weapons doing nine-to-five jobs at Procter and Gamble or the State Department.

While social science surveys suggest that most whites no longer hold these crude racists views, the success of the Bell Curve and The End of Racism should give us all a reason to question the validity of the survey data about racial attitudes.

A number of black writers have done their part to promote conservative myths about race and racism:

These black authors often couch their arguments in language about morality, self-help, and personal discipline. Ignoring or minimizing the brutal impact of structural forces that shape options and opportunities for a significant number of blacks trapped in ghetto neighborhoods, a particularly striking theme that runs throughout their books is the idea that the problems faced by the black poor and working class stem primarily from their lack of personal responsibility.

It should come as no surprise that many of these black authors – as do many conservatives in general – promote the myth that most whites are color-blind and pay little or no attention to race. According to this myth, the only people paying attention to race today are civil rights activists, white liberals, and a few radicals in the academy.

The Sherrod affair brought to the surface one of the newest myths being perpetuated by conservatives, that in the post-civil rights era, white people have become the main, if not the sole, victims of racial discrimination.

For decades, conservatives (see, for example, Frederick R. Lynch: Invisible Victims: White Males and the Crisis of Affirmative Action) have been arguing that, so-called, preferential treatment for blacks and other people of color, causes racial unrest, and unfairly limits white's access to jobs and educational opportunities.

Shirley Sherrod unwittingly and unintentionally stepped into that minefield when she gave her NAACP address. Because white victimhood has become such a dominant theme in the racial discourse of today, even being adopted by centrist and progressives, it should not have come as a surprise that so many people fell into the trap cast by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart and Fox News.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Jobless Recovery for the Unskilled and Less Educated

For the last several months, the Obama Administration has been talking a lot about "a jobless economic recovery." The Administration points to statistics showing that the unemployment rate has dropped to about 9.5 percent, down from a peak of 10.1 percent last October, to justify its policies to stimulate the economy.

For the millions of Americans who are unemployed, underemployed, or have abandoned the job market out of frustration, however, the talk out of Washington about "a jobless economic recovery" is utter nonsense.

In particular, for the long-term unemployed, talk of a jobless recovery must sound like a cruel joke. Let's get real. The proportion of the work force that has been out of work for more than six months is an astonishing 4.4 percent.

The more than 46 percent of the unemployed out of work for more than 6 months is twice the previous post-war high set in 1983. Although the long-term unemployment rate was obviously higher during the Great Depression, the figure has never approached this level since the government started collecting data in 1948.

It should come as no surprise that the Great Recession has hit unskilled workers and workers of color the hardest. For example, not only are blacks more likely to have lost their job, those who are not laid off have been more likely to see their pay and hours cut. According to data from June, the black unemployment rate (15.4 percent) is nearly twice as high as the white unemployment rate (8.6 percent).

(That black people, drinking from the Obama elixir, remain upbeat about the economy and think that a recovery is around the corner, despite being hit the hardest by the economic downturn is a topic for a future post).

Because of the boom-bust cycles of capitalism, most economists predict – though it may take years – the U.S. economy will recover from the Great Recession.

Unfortunately, due to structural changes in the U.S. economy that began decades ago, for the millions of unskilled and less educated workers who have lost their jobs during the Great Recession, this economic recovery will likely be a jobless one.

It has been noted in both scholarly and popular literature, that by the early 1970s, the American capitalist system was undergoing profound structural changes. Most significantly, the decades-long trend of manufacturing industries moving out of central cities and into the suburbs or rural areas of the south was intensifying.

The economy was also shifting from goods-producing to service-producing industries. One consequence of this shift has been the increasing polarization of the labor market into low-wage and high-wage sectors.

Generally speaking, the service sector covers a wide range of jobs that provide services for individuals, businesses and government. People working in the service industries have jobs ranging from selling real estate and providing financial services to people working in a store or restaurant.

Workers toiling away in the low end of the service sector – i.e., workers with little training and limited skills – are often forced to scrape by on minimum wages from a part-time job, for example, at a restaurant. (It should be noted that the struggles of low-skilled workers are compounded by the fact that many of the jobs they hold do not provide adequate health insurance or retirement benefits.)

Jobs at the high end of the service sector (e.g., doctors, lawyers, university professors, accountants, bookkeepers, bank tellers) compared to jobs at the low end (e.g., cashiers, waitresses) require years of education, specialized training, or college credentials, and most importantly, pay much higher wages.

Coupled with technological innovations in the manufacturing process, low skilled, poorly educated, technologically untrained workers have become increasingly obsolete.

Workers in the low-end sector of the economy have been hit the hardest during the Great Recession.

As the U.S. capitalist system continues to evolve, one devastating effect of the Great Recession is that it has accelerated the disappearance of the sorts of jobs that low-skilled workers depend on to support themselves and their families.

An obvious reason for the disappearance of low-skilled jobs and the increasing immiseration of the poor is globalization. Because of the hyper-mobility of capital, there is decreased demand for less-skilled workers. Many corporations have chosen to move low-skilled jobs out the country – taking advantage of U.S. tax laws that reward relocating production facilities abroad, and a nonunionized workforce and lax environmental regulations in developing and underdeveloped countries.

As a result, America's less-skilled workers fortunate enough to have a job once the economy picks up must compete with workers from underdeveloped or developing nations, which drive down wages in the U.S.

Given the bifurcation of the U.S. economy into high-end and low-end sectors, we may no longer be able to expect an expanding economy or even near-full employment to raise people out of poverty. For today's less-skilled workers toiling away in low-end service sector jobs, even full-time employment does not guarantee an escape from poverty. The implications of this are frightening.