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Let’s End James Crow, Esq.

Bill O'Reilly. (Photo: Justin Hoch / Flickr)

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Bill O'ReillyBill O’Reilly. (Photo: Justin Hoch / Flickr)The other night, Bill O’Reilly tried to explain the “real” problems facing the African-American community during an epic rant about race on The Factor.

You can watch a clip of his rant right here.

Bill is totally wrong. He is confusing race with poverty. It is poverty that drives all the social problems he just mentioned.

Let’s take a look at the facts. Right-wingers like Bill O’Reilly are always harping on the “plague of teen mothers” in the black community, so let’s start there.

Earlier this year, the Census Bureau did a study of unwed mothers in the United States and found that poverty, not race, was the single most important factor in determining who gets pregnant when they’re not married. Almost 70 percent of mothers who made less than $10,000 dollars a year were not married. That number fell dramatically as women got wealthier.

As the Census Bureau’s data shows, African-Americans do indeed have the highest out-of-wedlock pregnancy rate of any major American ethnic group. It’s around 70 percent. But when you compare that statistic side-by-side with data on racial poverty rates, both sets of statistics match up pretty closely. African-Americans and American Indians have the highest poverty rates, followed by Latinos, Pacific Islanders and Asians. The richest are whites. Even among whites the major thing that determines whether woman has a baby when she is not married is wealth. Again, it is poverty — not race — that is the most important influence on unmarried mothers.

But let’s look at the bigger picture. In the United States, wealth and race are inseparable. Since the settling of American over 400 years ago, our continent and country has been run by a white power structure. It still is today. According to the most recent study from the Urban Institute, black Americans have one dollar in wealth for every six dollars owned by white Americans. That gap has worsened during the Great Recession.

Being poor affects pretty much every aspect of a person’s life, from their access to birth-control to their ability to get healthcare and their ability to get a good education. These are facts, regardless of race. But it is especially true for African-Americans because of our centuries old racial caste system. They face systemic discrimination at all levels of society, from employment to education to housing. While slavery and Jim Crow may be of the past, as Joe Madison so brilliantly says, James Crow Esquire is alive and well today.

Racism pushes people into poverty and keeps them there, perpetuating the caste system. As a 2004 Harvard study pointed out, employers are more likely call back someone with a white sounding name like Alice than they are someone with an African-American sounding name like “Latisha.” To make matters worse, pundits like Bill O’Reilly make racism acceptable to white society by saying that African-American communities are plagued by “black-on-black crime,” even though a white person is just as likely to be killed by a fellow white person as a black person is to be killed by a fellow black person. This keeps the myth of rampant black criminality alive, encouraging white people to fear blacks, and perpetuating racism in business, education, and society in general.

Look at our criminal justice system. For those who grow up in impoverished communities, selling drugs is often the only source of stable income. This is true regardless of race. Just look at rural white America, which is plagued by a methamphetamine epidemic.

Although white Americans and black Americans use harmless drugs like marijuana at almost the exact same rate, blacks are arrested for possession much more frequently than whites are. In some states, marijuana possession or distribution can carry as much as a 20 year sentence.

The vast majority of American prisoners are African-Americans. This has a huge impact on the African-American community. A criminal record makes it harder to find a job, harder to access public housing, and in many states even makes it illegal to vote. Lengthy prison sentences also break up families, shattering that stability conservatives like O’Reilly are always talking about. When you combine this with discrimination in employment, housing, and education, you create a vicious cycle of poverty, where a racial underclass – like all oppressed groups – has to turn to petty crime to survive.

If Bill O’Reilly really cared about the black community, he’d want to do something about this. He’d want to end the racist War on Drugs and replace it with a new War on Poverty. In the 1960s, President Johnson decided to do something about America’s caste system and launched his most lasting legacy, the Great Society. As Joseph Califano noted in Washington Monthly a few years back, the Great Society blew up America’s racial caste system in areas like education. He writes, “In 1960, only 20 percent of blacks completed high school and only 3 percent finished college; in 1997, 75 percent completed high school and more than 13 percent earned college degrees.” Black life expectancy also jumped by 10 years from 1960 to 1997, in large part thanks to better access to healthcare programs. This all ended when Reagan came to Washington and gutted Johnson’s legacy.

In the end, the white-supremacist mythology pushed by race-baiters like Bill O’Reilly and Fox So-Called News is much worse for the African-American community than any “gangsta culture” could ever be. That’s because when Bill and his friends tell everyone that “black people are choosing the lives they have,” they hide the real thing keeping African-Americans down from the American people. And that thing is institutional, cultural, racism which keeps blacks in poverty. This keeps us divided and perpetuates the racial caste system that has been the shame of this country since its founding. The problem is poverty caused by racism, stupid, and the time do something about it is now.

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