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  Joe R. Feagin, Kevin E. Early
and Karyn D. McKinney

excerpted from: Joe R. Feagin, Kevin E. Early and Karyn D. McKinney, The Many Costs of Discrimination: the Case of Middle-class African Americans , 34 Indiana Law Review 1313-1360, 1357-1360 (2001)(186 Footnotes)

Some literature suggests a "declining significance of race," and an increasing importance of class, in regard to the situation of African Americans nationally. Other more recent research goes further to assert the "end of racism" in U.S. society today. Our research flatly contradicts both the assertion that racial discrimination is being replaced by class discrimination, and that racism has been substantially or entirely eradicated. While both class and racial characteristics have been shown to interact and cause health problems for African Americans, our interviews with relatively affluent African Americans demonstrate that racism alone is enough to create serious health problems for them. A racialized society exists because discrimination is practiced, rewarded, or ignored within important social settings such as historically white workplaces. Our data and that of other recent studies undertaken by the authors and other scholars indicate that discrimination by white Americans targeting African Americans is still commonplace in a variety of arenas, including government and corporate workplaces.

Much research on racial relations focuses on the attitudes of those who discriminate rather than on the suffering inflictedon the targets of discrimination. A fleshed-out perspective on discrimination directs us to pay attention to particular social settings and to the consequences of racial discrimination in such settings. Recurring discrimination in workplaces and elsewhere wastes human beings and human capital and seriously restricts and marginalizes its victims, destroying the possibility of completely normal lives. This discrimination is so dehumanizing that in discussing it some black workers even make reference to the "slave-master mentality" of discriminating whites and to "feeling like a slave" in white workplaces. By marginalizing and dehumanizing black workers, whites cause them and their loved ones much damage, pain, and suffering. According to the accounts of the respondents, the damage takes many forms. The negative impact of racial animosity and discrimination includes a sense of threat at work, lowered self- esteem, rage at mistreatment, depression, the development of defensive tactics, a reduction in desire for normal interaction at work, and other psychological problems.

Our respondents understood that the often high level of racialized stress in workplaces has generated or aggravated their physical health problems. Most recognize the threat discrimination brings to their health, and most try hard to fight it and its consequences. Not surprisingly in the light of the data from the focus groups, a growing public health literature indicates that there are wide disparities in the physical health of white Americans and African Americans, as well as in the application and use of medical services. A full understanding of the physical and psychological suffering of black Americans at the hands of white Americans necessitates a close look at the character and impact of the discriminatory workplaces as they are experienced by workers. Sentient human beings react seriously, in their minds and bodies, to mistreatment and discrimination. The recurring and dehumanizing discrimination creates, among other things, marginalization, impotent despair, and rage over persisting injustice.

Our data show that the costs of racial animosity and discrimination extend beyond the individual to families and communities. Social scientists have written much over the last few decades about problems in black families and communities. This discussion often focuses on the so-called "broken" or "disorganized" black families, with the responsibility for these conditions commonly placed on African Americans for not maintaining their families and communities and for not adhering to certain values. In contrast, more structural and contextualized accounts of these family and community problems fault the U.S. economy for its failure to provide enough job training or jobs. Yet, to our knowledge, nowhere in the social science literature is there a serious discussion of the points made by the focus group participants about the direct and harsh impact of racial animosity and discrimination on their families, voluntary associations, and communities. The long era of racial discrimination has often reduced the energy available to African Americans to build stronger and better families and communities. While many have managed to build strong families and communities in spite of discrimination, they have done this by exerting super-human efforts that take toll in their personal health or on the ability to maximize contributions to the larger society. These focus group accounts suggest that the total cost of racial animosity and discrimination is much higher than most social science, legal, and journalistic commentaries have heretofore recognized.

African Americans remain central to the costly system of racial oppression in the United States, and they have long been among the strongest carriers of the ideals of liberty and social justice. In spite of the weight of racial oppression, most have been creative and successful in their lives and communities, and most have regularly pressed the society in the direction of greater liberty and justice. Indeed, their sense of social justice has perhaps the greatest potential for stimulating further movement by this society in the direction of its egalitarian and democratic ideals. African Americans have developed large-scale social movements twice in U.S. history, and smaller-scale movements many other times. Significantly, most African Americans have not retreated to a debilitating pessimism but have slowly pressed onward. Today, they join religious, civic, and civil rights organizations working to eradicate systemic racism, to get civil rights laws enforced, and to secure better living conditions for Americans of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. There are lessons here for all Americans concerned with eliminating systemic racism in the United States.

Today, the state and federal court systems face many challenges, not the least of which is the fact that the U.S. population is rapidly becoming less white and European and much more Asian, Latino, African, and Native American in its composition. In spite of these changes over the last few decades, however, the overwhelming majority of district attorneys, judges, and court administrators are still white. This means major and increasing problems for the court system. As the mostly white judges look across the bench at growing numbers of defendants of color, their understanding of those they face, and their ability to mete out justice, are likely to be affected by the heritage of white racism that is imbedded not only in the court systems but in all major institutions. These understandings (or lack of understanding) sometimes result in court decisions, such as the Etter decision by a California court, that do not view black workers' representations of pain and suffering from recurring racial insults as severe. In that case, racist epithets such as "Buckwheat," "Jemima," and the like were not seen as "sufficiently severe or pervasive" to warrant a judicial remedy. Yet, as we have shown, racists epithets and incidents can be veryserious, painful, and damaging to their African American targets. The hurling of even a few racist words can be a very hostile and discriminatory act, and that can in turn generate much pain, especially since even one such act can trigger memories of accumulated experiences with racism by those so targeted.

In the Etter case, a white judge called on a jury to assess if the reported antiblack conduct would be considered severe by a "reasonable person of the Plaintiff's race." However, judging from the data in our focus groups and in studies of whites we have cited, the pain and suffering most African Americans endure because of continuing racism are likely not known to or understood by most whites, be they white jurors or other white Americans. How then can whites presume to answer the judge's critical question?

As we see it, such questions can be most meaningfully and reliably answered when there are larger, or representative, numbers of African Americans in the state and federal court systems. If we are to achieve the dream of a truly just society, we must greatly expand the input into our justice systems by African Americans and other Americans of color - at all levels, from policing, to prosecution, to administration, to courts, and to prisons. It is past time for the U.S. justice system to become much more democratic, multiracial, and multivoiced in its management and everyday operation. And it is past time for the pain, suffering, and anger that African Americans and other Americans of color confront because of widespread discrimination to be truly heard in the justice system.

 
 
 
 
 

 
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