As Biden prepares to take office and America reels from Capitol riots, Black and white still define the nation
For many Americans who watched the violence engulf the U.S. Capitol last week, the treatment of the rioters came down to a matter of Black and white.
Law enforcement officers responded slowly, and in some cases passively, as a largely white crowd that supported President Donald Trump trashed the seat of Congress in a fit of violence that led to five deaths.
The images loomed in stark contrast to last year's Black Lives Matter demonstrations, when mostly peaceful protesters decrying the constant killings of African Americans by police were frequently met with rubber bullets, tear gas and a significant show of force by law enforcement.
"No one can tell me that if that had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesting yesterday, they wouldn’t have been treated very, very differently than the mob of thugs that stormed the Capitol," President-elect Joe Biden said, addressing the nation a day after last week's riot.
Racism is the Achilles heel of the United States, and the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer; the death of Breonna Taylor who was shot in her apartment by Louisville Metro police officers; and a pandemic that is having a disproportionate impact on people of color, has vividly illustrated the vast economic and social inequalities woven into the American system.
Race, particularly the hardened notions around Black and white identity, is not rooted in biology. Rather, scholars say, this stratification that has riven virtually every aspect of American life was a social construct that allowed an elite few to hoard wealth and power, justified the subjugation of those being exploited, and created a color divide that prevented the working class from uniting.
“Research shows that the racial wealth gap wasn’t created because of something that individuals or families of color did wrong,'' says Kilolo Kijakazi, an Institute Fellow with the Urban Institute, a think tank focused on economic and social policy. "It is driven by these structural barriers … policies, programs and institutional practices that facilitate the creation of wealth for white families while creating barriers to wealth accumulation by or stripping wealth from families of color.''
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, those long-standing racial and economic disparities are putting African Americans at greater risk of losing their jobs, their businesses, their homes, and their lives.
As a result of the downturn caused by the health crisis, 9.9% of African Americans were out of work in December, in contrast to 6% of whites, 9.3% of Latinos and 5.9% of Asians.
African American entrepreneurs, long denied equal access to credit and capital, struggled to access the federal paycheck protection loans that kept some businesses afloat during the early months of the pandemic.
“Black- and brown-owned small businesses had less access to that relief,'' Biden said on Jan. 8 when announcing his economic and jobs team. He added that one-third of Black-owned small businesses, as well as one-fifth of those owned by Latinos and more than one-quarter of Native American-owned businesses had less than a month of cash in reserve to handle expenses without more relief.
And the median wages paid to Black workers, whether they lack a high school diploma or have a graduate degree, are less than whites at every level of education, according to Kijakazi, citing analysis by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. That makes it harder to save and build a financial cushion to fall back on during hard times.
"Black people are striving for the American dream, but they’re simply not getting the return on their investment,'' says Andre Perry, a Brookings fellow who is the author of “Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities."
"We’re working," Perry adds. "We're going to school. We're buying homes. But predatory lending, job discrimination ... and racism is throttling economic mobility.’’
Black and white: The beginnings
Human beings, whether they're from Senegal or Syria, Australia or the United States, share 99.9% of the same DNA, and most of the differences represented by that fraction of a percent “have no biologic relevance,’’ says Lawrence Brody, director of the Division of Genomics and Society at the National Human Genome Research Institute.
But in the past few hundred years, the development of the concept of race, and the assigning of status according to such distinctions, became a way to serve the self-interests of those who had, and wanted to maintain, power.
“Clearly, in modern times, it was just an excuse for domination,’’ Brody says.
Anti-racism scholar Ibram X. Kendi traces the start of documented anti-Black racist ideas to "The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea.'' The work, published in 1453, sought to justify exclusive trading in enslaved African captives by Portugal's Prince Henry as an endeavor to expose them to Christianity rather than as a way for him to build wealth.
The author, Gomes Eanes de Zurara, essentially created the idea of "multi-ethnic Blackness that is inferior in the minds of racist thinkers," Kendi said in an email. The captives had varying skin tones and represented several different peoples, but Zurara deemed them a single group that was lesser and in need of salvation.
So, Kendi says, racist notions became a way to justify the exploitation of African peoples.
A similar scenario would play out two centuries later across the Atlantic, where wealthy British colonists would protect their power by creating a society that granted and denied opportunities, protections and basic rights along color lines. But those divisions, ultimately codified by law, were carved out over time.
Though terms like "Negroe,' and "Indian'' were used during the early 17th century, the first time a law uses the word "white'' to refer to a category of people in the English-speaking colonies that became the U.S. appears to have occurred in April 1691, according to Terrance MacMullan, professor of philosophy at Eastern Washington University and author of "Habits of Whiteness: A Pragmatist Reconstruction," citing research by the historian Theodore Allen.
The law, passed by the colonial Virginia legislature known as the House of Burgesses, threatened banishment for any free white man or woman who married "a negroe, mulatto, or Indian man or woman bond or free,'' and essentially outlawed English women having sex with any man who was not white.
But disparate treatment for those who would be defined as white, and those who were deemed Black, had begun decades before.
In 1640, John Punch, an African man, ran off with two other servants, a Dutchman and a Scotsman. When the three men were caught, they were punished quite differently.
While the two Europeans with white skin had to fulfill their period of indentured servitude and then spend another three years as servants to the colony, Punch, a Black man, was sentenced to bondage for the rest of his life.
"They do the same thing, commit the same offense ... but the 'negro' will be in perpetual servitude,'' says Deena Hayes-Greene, co-founder of the Racial Equity Institute in Greensboro, North Carolina. "That’s beginning to create this wedge.''
The Virginia colony's wealthy planters became focused on keeping laborers from uniting and the "Virginia Slave Codes" of 1705 were pivotal and onerous. They created white slave patrols, criminalized marriage between whites and people who were Black or of mixed heritage, and expanded the rights of those who owned enslaved people, including giving them permission to kill those workers without consequence.
"These poor white people who had been seeing themselves similarly oppressed with indigenous people and kidnapped and enslaved Black people are now aligned with land-owning whites,'' Hayes-Greene says. "The message was, 'You’re not going to get what we get, but you'll get more than them. You can police them, you can oversee them, you can harm them in any way, and you’ll be acquitted.'"
In 1790, after the United States had become a nation, whiteness officially became a requirement to vote, own land and to have other rights when the country's first rule of naturalization declared that only "a free white person'' could be a citizen.
Those early laws had long-ranging ramifications.
“One of the continual questions about American politics is why Americans across what we call race lines don’t make common cause according to class,'' says Nell Irvin Painter, author of "The History of White People.'' "And a lot of that is because of the really gut-level impossibilities for poor white people and working-class whites to see themselves together with poor and working-class nonwhite people.’’
The economic disadvantages Black people face began most glaringly when those who were enslaved were denied the ability to profit from their own work, Kijakazi says.
“For Black families, these policies began with human trafficking and bondage of people of African descent to build wealth for white people, while denying Black people wealth from their own labor," she says.
Long after the Civil War, the ability of Black Americans to build and hold on to wealth continued to be hindered, whether it was discrimination that blocked them from getting more than menial jobs, the destruction of Black businesses and homes by white mobs in cities like Tulsa, Oklahoma, or restrictive covenants and redlining that prevented Black buyers from moving to white areas or getting loans to buy and build in neighborhoods of color.
Many whites, however, do not believe discrimination has been an impediment to Black Americans getting ahead, according to a USA TODAY analysis of a Pew Research Center survey from early 2019. Among those earning between $30,000 to $74,999 a year, 33% of whites believed racial bias was a significant reason African Americans might have a harder time progressing than whites, compared with 79% of Black Americans who felt that way.
The wedge of race has made it more difficult to enact economic policies that could broadly benefit Americans, regardless of background, particularly those who are lower income or part of the working and middle class, scholars and social justice experts say.
"It’s a part of the American ethos,'' says Bishop William Barber II, co-chairman of the Poor Peoples Campaign, regarding the use of race to divide people who he says should otherwise be allies.
President Lyndon Johnson, a Texan who shepherded the most significant civil rights legislation of the past century, spoke of this dichotomy as well. According to a 1988 article in The Washington Post written by journalist and former Johnson staff member Bill Moyers, Johnson told him that, "If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you."
Activists and scholars note that working-class Americans broadly agree on policies that could lead to greater economic equity.
David Madland, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress, says his research found working-class Americans, regardless of race, backed progressive economic policies and when given the opportunity to vote directly on ballot initiatives, supported changes like raising the minimum wage.
"But the working class do not often get a direct say on economic issues,'' Madland says. "Most often they are choosing between candidates .... Some candidates seek to divide the working class along racial lines, often to avoid having to deal with the common economic issues that the working class of all races deal with.''
An emphasis on those issues however could erase those divisions.
"Race can be a wedge,'' Madland says. "But a focus on progressive economic policies can help unify the working class.”
Unity in place of division
Cross-racial alliances have existed throughout U.S. history, from the abolitionists who fought to end slavery, through the early days of the labor movement, and up to the recent protests against police brutality and systemic racism that filled the nation's streets.
Ann Beeson, the former CEO of Every Texan, an Austin, Texas-based social justice advocacy group, says that while some politicians have resorted to racist dog whistles to argue against the Affordable Care Act, both white Texans and people of color have been united in demanding health care access.
"There is no question that the conservative political resistance to Medicaid expansion in the South is rooted in racism," Beeson said. But "It's important to distinguish between politicians and the grassroots ... because there is broad support from both people of color and rural and other white Americans in actually pushing for Medicaid expansion.''
Multiracial coalitions are also working to boost wages and secure job protections and benefits for the working class.
The labor movement has embodied both alliances and division. Black and white workers in the South drew together during the Reconstruction period that followed the end of the Civil War, but were purposely divided when laws were passed to reinforce white supremacy, says Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union.
"Even without government intervention or politicians influence, parts of the labor movement excluded workers of color from joining. That's why I think this is a moment for our union and the rest of the labor movement to embrace the fight for racial justice and to integrate into it how we bargain on behalf of workers.''
One recent union victory involved an agreement with Swedish Health Services, a health system with multiple hospitals in Washington State. Workers bargained together and got management to agree to stand with nurses of color if a patient says they'd prefer a white nurse instead, the SEIU says.
The Poor Peoples Campaign has focused on mobilizing poor people of all backgrounds, "organizing ... from Alabama to Appalachia,'' Bishop Barber says. He says that when campaign workers have told white coal miners in Kentucky, for instance, that the same politicians who are supporting voter suppression laws have also voted against legislation that would raise wages, or allow them to unionize, "invariably, in room after room, people see we’re being played against each other.’’
In June, he says, a virtual "Moral March on Washington'' was attended by over 3 million people “of every race, creed and color.’’
That is meaningful, he says.
"If Black and white people get together,'' Barber says, "it’s a new day.’’
Contributing: Jayme Fraser