In the wake of tragedies like the recent police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager in a working-class suburb of St. Louis, the nation is often called upon to reflect on racial discrimination. But debate over the issue usually focuses narrowly on how racism spurs injustices while overlooking how it is also a major source of division. Yet, these two issues are inextricably intertwined. The profound division of American society along racial lines is part of a vicious circle exacerbating a host of social problems, from excessive use of force by the police to mass incarceration and wealth inequality.
While the stereotypical criminal is African-American or Hispanic, people commonly overlook the fact that numerous US prisoners are white. Around 34 percent of state and federal prisoners are white. Further, 43 percent of the people on death row are white. That is not an insignificant share. The prison population actually provides part of the picture only since discrimination is present at each stage of the legal process. Even though blacks are disproportionately perpetrators and victims of crime, they are more likely than whites to be arrested, charged, convicted, and harshly sentenced for the same offenses, as Michelle Alexander describes in her masterful book, The New Jim Crow.
The misconception that crime is fundamentally a “black problem” or “minority problem” does not merely help explain the racial profiling that often drives excessive use of force by the police, as may have been the case in Michael Brown’s death, which remains under investigation. This misconception has also profoundly undermined criminal justice reform by persuading certain citizens that harsh punishments are solely a problem faced by minorities. From that angle, the solution to mass incarceration can seem for minorities to “go fix their communities” instead of reforming the penal system by making sentencing laws more humane.
America has the highest incarceration rate worldwide due to the routine infliction of draconian punishments. Over 2.2 million people live behind bars in “the land of the free.” America is also the sole Western democracy to retain the death penalty, as well as one of the countries that execute the most people along with authoritarian regimes like China, North Korea, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. The death penalty is increasingly recognized as a violation of international human rights standards and has been abolished in law or practice by over two-thirds of all countries.
While racial discrimination is undoubtedly a driving factor behind the exceptional harshness of the US penal system, less attention has been devoted to how racial and ethnic divisions have hindered reform. A non-negligible share of US prisoners are white, yet the stereotypical inmate is black or Hispanic. This makes it difficult for certain citizens to identify or empathize with prisoners, who are “otherized” as minorities only.
Before serving as a defense lawyer for indigent New Yorkers, I spent a summer volunteering at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, an outstanding non-profit organization at the forefront of numerous legal battles in the Deep South. In addition to minorities, many of the people my colleagues and I assisted were destitute whites facing the death penalty or horrendous conditions of incarceration in overcrowded jails. While draconian punishments have had a devastating toll on minority communities, the predicament of white prisoners is sometimes eclipsed.
Because major systemic reforms typically require broad support, it may be difficult for America to abandon mass incarceration until fewer citizens assume that the problem almost only concerns minorities. Psychological research by Rebecca Hetey and Jennifer Eberhardt of Stanford indicates that the more whites perceive prisoners as racial minorities, the more they support harsh punishments. Their study suggests that focusing narrowly on racial disparities in the penal system might be counter-productive.
By the same token, racial divisions have played a key role in undermining socio-economic solidarity in America. Multiple pundits and politicians have notably equated the Affordable Care Act with assistance to minorities even though scores of its beneficiaries are white. Rush Limbaugh illustratively labeled “Obamacare” as “a civil rights bill” and “reparations” for slavery. More recently, Congressman Mo Brooks called Obama’s agenda “a war on whites.”
A sizeable segment of Americans, especially conservative Republicans, tend to conflate public assistance as a whole with assistance for minorities. But around 42 percent of low-income families are white, whereas 30 percent are Hispanic and 22 percent are black. Minorities thus receive disproportional government assistance, although a large number of whites face economic hardship too.
In particular, stereotypes about black welfare recipients have profoundly shaped the public debate over wealth inequality, as exemplified by the declarations of several 2012 Republican presidential candidates. Newt Gingrich accused Obama of putting shiftless blacks on food stamps, which not only mischaracterized the nature of the program since many of its recipients work, but also the fact that white recipients outnumbered black ones. Rick Santorum similarly equated African-Americans with welfare cheats by stressing “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.” Mitt Romney echoed the same idea when falsely claiming that Obama wanted to “gut welfare reform” by ending work requirements. In reality, people “on welfare” have never exceeded 5 percent of the US population and they now comprise around 2 percent. Besides, blacks constitute a minority of welfare recipients. In fact, Romney’s own grandfather used to receive “relief” assistance, the former name for “welfare.”
While racial minorities are disproportionately harmed by wealth inequality, framing the question exclusively in racial terms overlooks how the sharpest wealth gap is not between whites and minorities or even between the rich and poor. Rather, the main gap is now between the richest of the rich and all other Americans. Over the past three decades, the bulk of all national income growth has gone to the richest 10 percent citizens, especially the top 1 percent. Meanwhile, the inflation-adjusted income of middle-class and poor Americans has decreased or stagnated.
But for racial and ethnic divisions, Americans would be more inclined to embrace a broad range of egalitarian reforms, from reducing wealth inequality to instituting universal health care or abandoning mass incarceration. For instance, a study by Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser, and Bruce Sacerdote shows that states with large African-American populations have less generous poverty relief programs than other states. There is a strong correlation between racial homogeneity and support for wealth redistribution.
The United States have historically had a far more diverse population than other Western nations, which is among the reasons behind the limited socio-economic solidarity in American society. America is the only Western country without a genuine universal health care system. It additionally has the worst score of any Western nation on the GINI index – a statistical measure of income inequality.
A longstanding theme in American history, from the days of slavery to modern times, has been how poor blacks have commonly been pitted against poor whites, which has hindered socio-economic solidarity. This division remains, although it also increasingly exists along middle-class lines as African-Americans and other minorities have gradually attained a higher economic status.
Perhaps one of the solutions to the problem is framing the challenge to racial discrimination as part of the broader need for social equality and human rights for all people. That was the message of Martin Luther King, under whose leadership the civil rights movement evolved into a movement calling for economic rights for poor Americans of all backgrounds, whether white, black, Hispanic, Asian or Native-American. This led King to fall in disfavor with some of his supporters, who felt he went too far by calling for socio-economic equality and human rights for all. Nearly half a century following King’s assassination, the nation still confronts stark injustices and divisions. Michael Brown’s tragic death and the subsequent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, are symptoms of a vicious circle with far-reaching effects.