New York Times and Race: a Possible Breakthrough?

The New York Times is to be congratulated. In its editorial, The Architecture of Segregation, it has discovered racial/minority discrimination in the US. That is a major feat. It requires clear eyes, an open mind, etc., not noticeable attributes, except perhaps in national-security reporting, of the paper. Yet, because the topic veers dangerously close to asking about the nature of capitalism and whether it systemically (i.e., purposely and purposefully) degrades its people, a preliminary discussion—before reviewing the editorial—is, I think, in order. We seldom view America specifically in terms of capitalism, let alone capitalist development in its mature (aka, senile) form.

Race had always been an integral feature of American capitalism, of course the two centuries of slavery, which from the earliest moment added a feudalistic structural dimension to capitalism in America that nullified the growth of laissez-faire and historically contributed to corporatism in post-slavery times—the conjoining, in ways large and small, of race and the stabilization of the consolidation of wealth. Even by the late 19th century, race effectively kept the lower classes divided, which has become an ingrained ideological principle to this day. But race also has had more far-reaching application. It has become code for a particular mental-set of great utility.

I refer to ethnocentrism and xenophobia, legitimating factors in distinguishing Americans as superior to other peoples and affording their right to a unilateral course of world dominance. Race validates inequality, at home and acting abroad. To eradicate racism is a dangerous step, given US capitalism’s historical-psychological associations with racism as the cutting edge of a proto-fascistic tendency or inclination, dangerous except when selected members of the racial group can be groomed to serve—however condescending and skillful the effort—the interests of the dominant socioeconomic tier of power. Enter Barack Obama, the ideal servant of power; not Stepin Fetchit, but one who melds smoothly in Pentagon and Wall Street circles, willingly able to preside over war, intervention, covert action, regime change, and, conveniently directed against persons of color, as a means of demonstrating loyalty to America over race-identity, drone assassination. As Sartre said of the anti-Semite, if there were no Jews the anti-Semite would have to invent them, so in America, among ruling groups, if there were no Obama they would have to invent him, so well does he fulfill the the function of comprador for US elites.

Race has been turned in on itself through selective recruitment, widening still further the gulf between blacks and the white majority. This would never have worked had Dr. King not been assassinated, for his Poor People’s Campaign was on to the whole historical travesty including the underlying role of economics in keeping blacks a subordinate class. The New York Times doesn’t get its hands dirtied by entering the realm of generic exploitation; “all the news that’s fit to print” stops at the water’s edge of capitalism. (When I said above, national-security matters, I meant surveillance, NSA, Snowden revelations, not militarism and America’s war/intervention record.) What it does now, yes, to its credit, is to recognize the self-replenishing springs of poverty, attaches that social dynamic to race, and sees race as code for the inclusion of Hispanics as well. The Architecture of Segregation is aptly titled. What we won’t find is the Architecture of Imperialism, which bears a close relation to the other topic. I say, “breakthrough,” then, so as not to be discouraging. The insights from the editorial could be expanded into other areas, corporatism, militarism, as well as the structuring of discrimination as a key to America’s class system.

Non-enforcement of integration, The Times points out that HUD was created fifty years ago and the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968, has been the rule, so that “the interlinked scourges of housing discrimination and racial segregation in America is far from finished.” If anything, the situation, it correctly notes, has deteriorated: “Economic isolation is actually growing worse across the country, as more and more minority families find themselves trapped in high-poverty neighborhoods without decent housing, schools or jobs, and with few avenues of escape.” We tend not to think of housing as the critical factor, yet when neighborhood-formation is factored in, with the panoply of public services integral to it, whatever is substandard–“housing, schools or jobs”—has cumulative effect. Here The Times partly acknowledges systemic issues, if not capitalism, then at least current policy: “This did not happen by accident. It is a direct consequence of federal, state and local housing policies that encourage—indeed, subsidize—racial and economic segregation.”

Despite recent favorable Court decisions, the editorial states that “there will be no fundamental change without the dismantling of policies that isolate the poor,” and adds, “[a]s things stand now, federally subsidized housing for low-income citizens, which seems on its face to be a good thing, is disproportionately built in poor areas offering no work, underperforming schools and limited opportunity.” Zoning becomes critical; newer suburbs, “benefit[ing] from infrastructure built with public subsidies,” have laws which “prevent poor, moderate-income and minority families from moving in.” The prosperity of the ‘90s, higher wages, lower unemployment, was thought to have broken the cycle, but “the number of people living in high-poverty slums, where 40 percent or more of the residents live below the poverty level, has nearly doubled since 2000.” And with that, “poverty has become more concentrated” among blacks and Hispanics (1 in 4, 1 in 6, in these neighborhoods, as compared with 1 in 13 among whites).

The Times quotes Walter Mondale, former vice president and co-sponsor of the Housing Act, who spoke last week at a HUD conference: “’When high-income black families cannot qualify for a prime loan and are steered away from white suburbs, the goals of the Fair Housing Act are not fulfilled. When the federal and state governments will pay to build new suburban highways, streets, sewers, schools and parks, but then allow these communities to exclude affordable housing and nonwhite citizens, the goals of the Fair Housing Act are not fulfilled. When we build most new subsidized housing in poor black or Latino neighborhoods, the goals of the Fair Housing Act are not fulfilled.” The selective process which fuels capitalism through channeling allocations to favor the already wealthy (and largely white) tends to raise economic causation into a racial factor, indeed, the perpetuation of a racial framework while losing sight of its foundations. Monopoly capital + race makes for a heady brew. When all is said and done, I hope to see, but know I never shall, an NYT editorial entitled, “The Architecture of Fascism.”

My New York Times Comment to the Editorial, same date, follows:

Thank you NYT for puncturing America’s complacent surface to apprehend what occurs underneath, a violently skewed favoritism to upper social groups which favors discrimination and widens the stratification gap. I’m tired of hearing about the 1 % (itself misleadingly suggesting a ruling class of three million, when the figure is closer to ooo1%), the editorial shedding more light on reality than the political slogans.

What emerges from the editorial is not only substandard conditions but also across-the-board diminishment of opportunity: poorer schools, healthful surroundings, public services, so that the gap cannot help but widen. Is this intentional? I say, yes; racism is alive and well, making a steady comeback since the death of Dr. King.

Moreover, current evidence of widespread ethnocentrism and xenophobia, as in the strong anti-immigrant sentiment, bodes poorly for genuine reform. Your editorial was therefore that much more needed, as a wake-up call to the non-observance of laws already on the books, to the decades’-long trend in the allocation of taxpayer dollars, and of course the hardening of sentiment away from compassion or even the recognition of human suffering.

Poverty is incompatible with democracy. By reinforcing poverty, democracy is further denied. What perhaps NYT should add, as a practical matter, is to excoriate current levels of defense spending, as robbing the nation of a vital social safety net as well as true livability for its people.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at