Gar Alperovitz | May 15, 2017

Why must the United States confront its long history of systemic racism?

In a country as diverse as the United States, a short entry cannot do justice to the complex racial history of our nation—from Japanese internment during World War II to the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Mexican-Americans during the Great Depression.1 Therefore, the following is a necessarily partial and incomplete discussion. Nevertheless, the facts should be stated plainly. The United States was, in many ways, founded on white supremacy—from the three-fifths clause of the Constitution that counted people of color as less than fully human, to the Naturalization Act of 1790 that permitted only “free whites” to become citizens, to the theft of Native American land. Many are familiar, of course, with the long and repugnant history of slavery, yet far fewer acknowledge its role in our country’s economic development or the ways in which racially disparate social policy right up to the present has shaped our current economic realities. In 1860, cotton accounted for 60 percent of US exports.2 That same year, “slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together,” according to Yale historian David W. Blight.3  As Sven Beckert, the author of Empire of Cotton, has written, “we cannot know if the cotton industry was the only possible way into the modern industrial world, but we do know that it was the path to global capitalism. We do not know if Europe and North America could have grown rich without slavery, but we do know that industrial capitalism…in fact emerged from the violent caldron of slavery, colonialism, and the expropriation of land.”4

If our nation’s origins and economic foundations are built on systemic injustice, how do we move forward without settling into despair, willful ignorance, or historical amnesia?

Nor is injustice confined to the distant past. During the modern era, the policies that built the middle class of the twentieth century—Social Security, the GI Bill, Federal Housing Administration policy—directly advantaged white families in their design and/or implementation, while excluding communities of color.5 For instance, between 1934 and 1962, the “Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration financed more than $120 billion worth of new housing,” according to UC Santa Barbara Professor George Lipsitz, “… but less than 2 percent of this real estate was available to nonwhite families.”6  Social Security, meanwhile, initially excluded about 65 percent of the black labor force nationally through occupational requirements, and over 70 percent in the South. Given that the present standard of living so many currently enjoy is based on specific past harms—from slavery to FHA redlining—what would constitute a just response?

The disparate impact of these past policies can be seen in the existing racial wealth gap. Today, the family of a white high school dropout has more wealth, on average, than that of a black college graduate.7  A 2015 study by Demos and the Institute for Assets and Social Policy found that the median white household had more than 15 times the wealth of the median Black household and more than 13 times the wealth of the median Latino/Latina household.8  As Dalton Conley, author of Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America, has stated, the racial wealth gap is, “not explained by other factors like education, earnings rates or savings rates. It is really the legacy of racial inequality from generations past. No other measure captures the legacy—the cumulative disadvantage of race for minorities or cumulative advantage of race for whites—than net worth or wealth.”9

This “past” history is exacerbated by contemporary forms of systemic racism, as the almost weekly procession of black lives extinguished at the hands of the police have demonstrated. Between 2010 to 2012, ProPublica found that young black men were 21 times more likely to be shot by the police than young white men.10 

In terms of employment, real-world experiments have shown individuals with white names to receive 50 percent more callbacks for job interviews.11 

Other studies have shown white applicants with criminal records to receive job offers at the same rate as black applications with clean records.12 Suggestive of the slow violence of poverty and discrimination, as of 2014, the U.S Department of Health and Human Services reports that white individuals live on average 3.4 years longer than black individuals.13  These systemic examples demonstrate that while interpersonal forms of racism and implicit bias are certainly important, changing hearts and minds is not enough.

How would the Pluralist Commonwealth begin to promote racial equality?

To begin with, racial justice requires acknowledging the many ways that the past is woven into to the present. Facing our nation’s history squarely entails seeing the racial wealth gap as a testament to our nation’s moral failings. But merely acknowledging this history does not undo its harm. Even if equality of opportunity could somehow be granted to all immediately, the racial wealth gap would likely perpetuate itself—as advantage and disadvantage are passed down intergenerationally. In fact, the Institute for Policy Studies has calculated that if recent trends continue, it would take black families 228 years to achieve the wealth that white families held as of 2013.14 For the average Latino or Latina family, it would take 84 years.15 Therefore, if future generations are to ever enjoy an equal starting point, material reparations of some kind are a necessity. Efforts to establish symbolic and cultural restitution through monuments, school curricula, and other means are also important.

It should be noted, in addition, as scholars like Patricia Hill Collins have stressed, that viewing social problems through only a gender, class, or racial lens is inherently limited, and fails to account for the ways in which systems of oppression are interwoven and mutually reinforcing. Therefore, while the present entry and others have introduced specific topics like race or GENDER in isolation for ease of explication, in theory and practice they cannot be divorced. Ignoring the intersectional nature of oppression has long been a fundamental weakness of progressive efforts.

What on-the-ground efforts can be seen working towards our future of collective liberation?

In recent years, the call for racial justice and reparations has issued from many quarters. On the streets, the Black Lives Matters movement has focused national attention on the devastating scale of police violence. Within academia, various proposals and historical research have been succulently summarized by Duke University’s William Darity, for example, who has calculated that present day decedents of slaves are entitled to approximately $400,000 each.16 In Congress, over the last two and a half decades, Representative John Conyers has reintroduced legislation, H.R. 40—the “Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act,”—whose purpose is self-explanatory.17

In 2016, the Movement for Black Lives, representing more than 50 organizations, has proposed a number of specific policies as part of a reparations framework. These include making higher education available to all and establishing a universal basic income with increased benefits accruing to people of color.18 The Black Youth Project 100 has also called for reparations and has explicitly called for passage of H.R. 40.19Finally, to take one example that dovetails directly with a Pluralist Commonwealth approach, the Southern Reparations Loan Fund—part of the Southern Grassroots Economies Project—has been established to promote worker cooperatives and community-owned and controlled wealth in the “most marginalized Southern communities” as part of a larger project of reparations.20 

If we can be courageous in envisioning a democratic and egalitarian alternative to capitalism, we need to be equally courageous in envisioning a world of racial justice and EQUALITY.21 As these diverse movements and proposals demonstrate, though white supremacy may have been with our nation since its origins, it need not remain part of our future.

See also:


Further reading

Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White: The Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005).

Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York, NY: Routledge, 2000).

Southern Reparations Loan Fund.

Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014).

Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014.

Principles of a Pluralist Commonwealth

Endnotes   [ + ]

1. Francisco Balderrama and Raymond Rodriguez, Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2006).
2. Sven Beckert, “Empire of Cotton,” The Atlantic, December 12, 2014, accessed November 10, 2016.
3. Quoted in Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014, accessed November 10, 2016.
4. Sven Beckert, “Slavery and Capitalism,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 12, 2014, accessed November 10, 2016.
5. Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White: The Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005).
6. George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2006), 6.
7.   Patricia Cohen, “Racial Wealth Gap Persists Despite Degree, Study Says,” The New York Times, August 16, 2015, accessed November 9, 2016.
8. Laura Sullivan, et al., The Racial Wealth Gap: Why Policy Matters (New York, NY: Demos and the Institute on Assets and Social Policy, 2015), 1, accessed November 10, 2016.
9. Public Broadcasting Service, “Interview with Dalton Conley: edited transcript,” RACE- The Power of an Illusion: Background Readings, accessed November 10, 2016.
10. Ryan Gabrielson et al., “Deadly Force, in Black and White,” ProPublica, October 10, 2014, accessed November 10, 2016.
11. Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 9873, accessed November 10, 2016.
12. Sendhil Mullainathan, “Racial Bias, Even When We Have Good Intentions,” The New York Times, January 3, 2015, accessed November 10, 2016.
13. National Center for Health Statistics, Health, United States, 2015: With Special Feature on Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities (Hyattsville, MD: US Department of Health and Human Services, May 2016), accessed November 10, 2016.
14. Dedrick Asante-Muhammed et al., The Ever-Growing Gap: Without Change, African-American and Latino Families Won’t Match White Wealth for Centuries (Washington,DC: Institute for Policy Studies, August 2016), 11, accessed November 10, 2016.
15. Dedrick Asante-Muhammed et al., The Ever-Growing Gap: Without Change, African-American and Latino Families Won’t Match White Wealth for Centuries (Washington,DC: Institute for Policy Studies, August 2016), 5, accessed November 10, 2016.
16. William Darity, Jr., “Forty Acres and a Mule in the 21st Century,” Social Science Quarterly 89 (2008): 662.
17. “H.R.40- Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act,” Congress.Gov, accessed November 10, 2016.
18. “Reparations,” The Movement for Black Lives, accessed November 10, 2016.
19. Black Youth Project 100, Agenda to Build Black Futures (Chicago, IL: BYP100, 2014), accessed November 10, 2016.
20. “About,” Southern Reparations Loan Fund, accessed November 10, 2016.
21. Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Bernie Sanders and the Liberal Imagination,” The Atlantic, January 24, 2016, accessed November 10, 2016.


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Gar Alperovitz | May 15, 2017