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Back | Project: Racism and Public Policy

Abstract of Paper by Manning Marable

  • Project from: 2000 to 2001

Structural Racism and US Democracy: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives on the Civil Rights Movement

The central difficulty in uprooting racism in US society is that structural racism predated the construction of national identity and the establishment of the state. US citizenship since 1790 was strictly defined by determining whether one belonged to the ‘racialized other’ group, or did not. Successive waves of immigrants from Western Europe quickly learned that identification with ‘whiteness,’ and isolation from American Indians and blacks, was the gateway to upward mobility.

Slavery existed in the United States from 1619 until 1865, and was followed by nearly one century of legal racial segregation, the US version of apartheid. In the Dred Scott decision of 1857, the United States Supreme Court defined blacks as ‘beings of an inferior order and altogether unfit to associate with the white race…and so far inferior that they have no rights which the white man was bound to respect’. Blacks were first legally defined as private property; and after slavery was abolished, they were subordinated through political means. These included political disenfranchisement, the inability to run for public office, racial segregation in hotels, schools, hospitals and all public buildings, and widespread lynching. These policies and brutal practices created powerful social, cultural and psychological barriers between racial groups.

To escape the racial segregation and political terror of the US south, millions of African-Americans migrated to the northern states between 1910 and 1960. The proportion of blacks living in urban areas rose from 23 per cent to over 75 per cent. Blacks again encountered racial segregation in the north, but of a somewhat milder variety. Blacks were usually permitted to vote, serve on juries, run for public office, and have access to public accommodation. Nevertheless, a strict pattern of residential segregation, and the racial exclusion of blacks from many unions and from better-paying jobs, perpetuated a their marginalized status. Ghettoes—Harlem, Chicago’s South Side, North Philadelphia—became highly concentrated urban areas of blacks, defined by widespread poverty, joblessness, inferior schools and poor housing.

The Civil Rights Movement of 1954–1966 successfully challenged the legality of Jim Crow segregation in the US court system, and then built a mass protest movement utilizing Gandhian techniques of passive resistance, that finally overthrew the system. America’s racial hierarchy was reformed but not fundamentally transformed. The liabilities of urban apartheid remained.

The 1970s and 1980s witnessed a number of new trends in the US black community, both positive and negative. The number of black elected officials rose from 100 in 1965 to over 10,000 30 years later. There were 200,000 African-Americans enrolled in universities in 1960; by 1980 this number had soared to 1,100,000. Yet racial reforms like affirmative action and state-sponsored economic ‘set-asides’ were largely dismantled. The number of blacks, Hispanics and poor white people in US prisons rose sharply, from 500,000 in 1980 to 1,000,000 in 1990. Job training programmes and educational scholarships designed to uplift minorities were mostly eliminated.

Today, more than 2 million Americans, the majority of whom are black and Hispanic, reside in US prisons. In over 10 states, US citizens convicted of felony crimes are prohibited from voting for the remainder of their lives, even after they have been released from prison. About 4.3 million Americans, of whom 1.7 million are black, have lost the right to vote. Blacks statistically constitute only 14 per cent of all illegal drug users, but they make up 35 per cent of all drug arrests, 55 per cent of all drug convictions, and 75 per cent of all Americans imprisoned or jailed for drug crimes. The United States is currently building more than 1,000 new prison cells every week. One third of the entire population of black males in their twenties are either imprisoned, on probation, on parole or awaiting trial. An entire generation of young black and Hispanic people is being destroyed.

The black freedom movement has responded to these crises through strategies involving electoral mobilization, civil disobedience and public protests, legal challenges in US courts, and campaigns to defend affirmative action. Civil rights organizations, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, have focused on voter education and the registration of several million new black voters. Labour unions have concentrated on ‘organizing the unorganized’, recruiting the poorest and most oppressed workers, many of whom are racial minorities.

The political context for liberal racial reforms in the United States is severely limited by powerful political and economic factors: globalization and the destruction of millions of industrial and manufacturing jobs in US cities; the triumph of neoliberal, repressive social policies within both major parties; and the absence of a mass, democratic oppositional force to challenge conservative and racist public policies. The possibilities for fundamental change reside with the capacity of racial minorities, workers and the poor to transcend racial, ethnic, religious and class divisions, as well as differences based on language, to find a common programme of social and economic development.