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In a June 9 New York Times column, economist Paul Krugman tells us that “Mr. Obama’s nomination wouldn’t have been possible 20 years ago. It’s possible today only because racial division, which has driven U.S. politics rightward for more than four decades, has lost much of its sting.” He attributes this to Bill Clinton, “who ended welfare as we know it,” and to the force of “political correctness,” which has made overt racism (as in the infamous Willie Horton ad) politically unacceptable. He devotes the remainder of his column to the proposition that, unlike racism, sexism is alive and well and now a deeper problem.
Professor Krugman’s column shows both a profound ignorance of his country and a deep disingenuousness. My wife and I have been traveling around the United States for the past seven years, and in discussions with people in every part of the nation, we have heard numerous unsolicited racist remarks. In Johnstown and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in Portland, Oregon, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in Miami Beach, in Flagstaff, Arizona, in Estes Park, Colorado, to name just a few of the places we’ve been and lived, we’ve heard references to “niggers,” “those people,” the “white team” (this in reference to the Celtics of Larry Bird), “Indian [American] kids get all the breaks.” And didn’t the good professor read about all those nooses that have appeared, even on college campuses, home to the young folks for whom race apparently doesn’t matter anymore.
Krugman seems to think that racism is only about black people. More about this below, but what about American Indians, Hispanics, “illegal aliens.” Lou Dobbs spews out racism every single night on CNN. My suggestion to Krugman is to get out and about a bit more.
Krugman is an economist and well-trained in empirical analysis. Given the data available, he might have asked some questions that would have tempered his optimism about race. He might have asked why more than one million black men and women are in our jails and prisons, about the same number as whites, though the black share of the population is less than one-sixth that of whites, and despite the fact that blacks are no more likely to commit crimes than whites. He might have asked why it is more likely that a black person of college age is in prison than in college. He might have wondered why there are no economic indicators showing a black (or Hispanic or American Indian) advantage.
Black median income, whether for families or individuals, is less than for whites. Black wages are lower. Black poverty rates are higher, by wide margins. Black unemployment rates are typically double white rates. And as Krugman must surely know, all of these indicators show differences between blacks and whites even after variables that might influence them are held constant. For example, on average, black workers with the same education, the same experience, working in the same industry, and living in the same region of the country as whites still earn less money.
Krugman might have pondered the data on wealth, where differences by race are startling. Consider these numbers (taken from The State of Working America, 2006/2007):
* Mean wealth (household assets minus liabilities) in 2004
Black: $101,400 White: $534,000 Black/White: 19.0%
*Median wealth in 2004
Black: $11, 800 White: $118,300 Black/White: 10.0%
*Mean financial wealth in 2004 (liquid and semi-liquid assets such as cash, trusts, retirement, pensions, stocks, etc)
Black: $61,500 White: $402,500 Black/White: 15.0%
*Median financial wealth in 2004
Black: $300 White: $36,100 Black/White: 1.0%
*Households with zero or negative net wealth in 2004
Black: 29.4% White: 13.0% Black/White: 230.0%
*Home ownership rates in 2005
Black: 48.2% White: 72.7%
If it isn’t racism that accounts for these differences, then what is it? And I haven’t even mentioned lower life expectancies and poorer health care, schools, housing, you name it.
It is a remarkable thing to someone like me, the son of factory workers from a rust belt town in Western Pennsylvania, where racism was and still is palpable, that Barack Obama might become our president. But maybe the reason will be not that racism isn’t still one of the country’s major divides, but because Obama has gone out of his way to let whites know he won’t put much effort into reversing the appalling socioeconomic disparities between blacks and whites.
MICHAEL YATES is Associate Editor of Monthly Review magazine and author most recently of Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate: an Economist’s Travelogue and editor of More Unequal: Aspects of Class in the United States, both Monthly Review Press.