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Vernellia R. Randall
Professor of Law
The University of Dayton





Robert Westley

excerpted from:  MANY BILLIONS GONE: IS IT TIME TO RECONSIDER THE CASE FOR BLACK REPARATIONS? , 40 Boston College Law Review 429-476 (1998) (citations omitted)

Editor's note: This article has over 170 footnotes. The footnotes have been edited out for presentation in this forum. I encourage you to see the original article for not only the scholarly documentation but the extensive explanations that Professor Westley  provided in his footnotes.


At the conclusion of his exhaustive examination of statistical indicia of Black socioeconomic disadvantage in relation to whites, the historian and political economist Manning Marable aptly observes that "[s]tatistics cannot relate the human face of economic misery." Buried in the jungle of statistical disparity are the life circumstances, impossible choices, and tedium of deprivation. As a democratic socialist, Manning takes aim in his book How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America at both the legacy of indifference to Black disadvantage fostered by the history of white racism and the exploitive dimensions of capitalist accumulation in which a substantial segment of the Black population is forced to serve as a symbolic index of the distance between working class whites and the abyss of absolute poverty. Hardcore poverty, poverty resistant to all attempts at amelioration, is thus indexically related to a segment of the Black population (and in some social imaginaries, all Blacks). In the sociological literature, this segment of the Black population is often isolated by the terms "underclass" or "ghettoclass" or "ghetto poor." Although there are substantial reasons to demarcate analytically class or economic distinctions within the Black population, the primary focus of the following analysis is the continuing existence of major disparities in the economic condition and life opportunities of Blacks and whites.

Just as there can be no doubt that such interracial disparities weigh most heavily upon the underclass, there can be no doubt that the persistence of those disparities is due in large measure to legally enforced exploitation of Blacks and socially widespread anti-Black racism. The achievements of Blacks who have prevailed against racist odds to improve their economic condition should not be minimized, but neither should the impact of the history and perdurance of racism on Black economic opportunity be trivialized. Despite well-publicized success cases like Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby, Michael Jordan, and others, Blacks as a group have not reached anything approaching economic equality or equality of opportunity with whites. Given the glacial and limited nature of economic reform, this is unsurprising. Because racism, in addition to its psychological aspects, is a structural feature of the U.S. political economy, it produces intergenerational effects.

Highlighting the intergenerational effects of structural racism in the United States political economy, Thomas Pettigrew notes that three useful generalizations can be made about the current situation of Black Americans. First, current statistics on Blacks, when compared to earlier data, show substantial improvement in Black living conditions. However, these same statistics pale when compared to current data on whites. Second, most of the "progress" of the past twenty years reflects the establishment of a solid, sizable, and skilled Black middle class which, crucially, is able to pass on its human capital to its children. Conversely, the most bleak statistics reflect the desperate situation of the unskilled Black poor or underclass. Third, modern forms of racism, to a greater extent than in the past, have become more subtle, indirect, procedural, and ostensibly nonracial. Pettigrew focuses on the analysis of traditional inequality factors, such as income, education, housing, employment patterns, and so forth, and how these factors operate in the context of the new racism. However, the burden of the reparations argument, for which material inequality may serve as a first predicate, is to show that current disparities in material resources are causally linked to unjust and unremedied actions in the past. Rather than merely highlighting intergenerational effects based on traditional inequality factors assumed to be causally linked to past racial discrimination against Blacks, the following discussion seeks to elucidate a key causal element in the maintenance of structural racism: the economic determinant of wealth.

The above observations form a set of concerns for reparations policy and political action this article attempts to address in the two sections below. Under the heading, "The Underclass Question: General Statistics and the Human Face of Misery," I will present some of the current data on Black disadvantage that leads me to conclude that equality between Black and white Americans, even those who are considered middle class, has not been achieved. At the same time, I argue that the neoconservative attack on the poor and the instrumentalization of the Black middle class in pursuit of conservative agendas fail to account for the structural and intergenerational dimensions of racial disadvantage and privilege. Under the heading, "The Racist Restatement," I will sketch the vocabulary and practices of the new racism that set the context in which reparations struggle must take place.

A. The Underclass Question: General Statistics and the Human Face of Misery

In his highly acclaimed monograph, political science professor Andrew Hacker notes that in the minds of most white Americans, "the mere presence of [B]lack people is associated with a high incidence of crime, residential deterioration, and lower educational attainment." Even though most whites are willing to acknowledge that these characterizations do not apply to all Blacks, most whites prefer not to have to worry about distinguishing Blacks who would make good neighbors from those who would not. Housing segregation and educational disadvantage, therefore, remain dismally high.

Pettigrew, for instance, reports that the modest housing gains of Blacks do not begin to achieve parity with white housing. A "nationwide pattern of residential apartheid," continues to be the rule rather than the exception. Thus, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, urban Blacks were residentially segregated from their fellow Americans far more intensively than any other urban ethnic or racial group. Moreover, the improvements seen in the Black housing stock are primarily attributable to the ability of the expanding Black middle class to buy older houses left behind by suburban-bound whites. Thus the Black middle class, as well as the Black working class, have been victimized by this massive discriminatory pattern in housing.

The white American perception of Blacks as a "bad risk" was openly reflected in federal governmental housing policy until 1948 when the Supreme Court struck down judicial enforcement of one of the most blatant tools of racial discrimination in housing, the restrictive covenant. As Chief Justice Vinson explained, restrictive covenants were private agreements among home owners which have as their purpose the exclusion of persons of designated race or color from the ownership or occupancy of real property. Although the Court only considered judicial participation in the enforcement of such agreements to be illegal, as a consequence of the Court's decision, the Federal Housing Authority discontinued its open policy of subsidizing mortgages on real estate subject to racially restrictive covenants in 1950. But by then, thousands of Black families had already missed out on millions of dollars in wealth through equity accumulation, while whites benefitted handsomely from discriminatory federal housing subsidies.

The practice of government-enforced and private "redlining" in the home mortgage industry continued after 1950 through less blatant means than the restrictive covenant, leading to the current urbanization and ghettoization of Blacks, and the suburbanization and relative economic privileging of whites. Based on discrimination in home mortgage approval rates, the projected number of creditworthy Black home buyers, and the median white housing-appreciation rate, it is estimated that the current generation of Blacks will lose about $82 billion in equity due to institutional discrimination. All things being equal, the next generation of Black homeowners will lose $93 billion.

As the cardinal means of middle class wealth accumulation, this missed opportunity for home equity due to private and governmental racial discrimination is devastating to the Black community. Wealth, although related to income, has a different meaning. Wealth is "the total extent, at a given moment, of an individual's accumulated assets and access to resources, and it refers to the net value of assets (e.g., ownership of stocks, money in thebank, real estate, business ownership, etc.) less debt held at one time." Income, on the other hand, refers to the flow of dollars over a set period of time. Just as substantial income, over time, may produce wealth, substantial wealth produces income and all the advantages in life that make up material well-being. Crucially, for the current situation of the Black community, wealth disparities between Blacks and whites are both cumulative and vast. It is a gap that earned income alone cannot close, and a gap that fundamentally supports structural distinctions of status between the white middle class and the Black middle class.

As Oliver and Shapiro argue, middle class status "rests on the twin pillars of income and wealth." Without either one or the other, that status can be quickly eroded or simply crumble. On average, Blacks who hold white collar jobs have $0 net financial assets compared to their white counterparts who on average hold $11,952 in net financial assets. Black middle class status, as such figures indicate, is based almost entirely on income, not assets or wealth. Thus, the Black middle class can at best be described as fragile.

Structural advantages accrue to a wealth-based white middle class over an income-based Black middle class. Whether poor or "middle class," Black families live without assets, and compared to white families, Black families are disproportionately dependent on the labor market to maintain status. In real life terms, this means that Blacks could survive an economic crisis, such as loss of a job, for a relatively short time. Thus one structural advantage that accrues to a wealth-based white middle class over an income-based Black middle class is relative independence within and security from a fluctuating labor market. Another advantage of wealth over income is the possibility to reproduce middle class status intergenerationally through gift or inheritance. The overall advantage of wealth to income is in the ability both to meet current needs and to plan concurrently for future needs.

Not only are middle class Black families more fragile, precarious and marginal than the white middle class due to a lack of wealth, Oliver and Shapiro also demonstrate that poverty among Blacks and whites often means very different things. Poverty-level whites control nearly as many mean net financial assets as the highest-earning Blacks. The importance of this disparity among the Black and white poor would not be revealed by an analysis that focused entirely on income. The importance of this disparity is that it shows that even those at equivalent income levels can have vastly different life prospects, depending on their access to wealth resources. With no assets to rely on, and earning barely enough to survive, an edge of desperation is added to the plight of the Black poor. These disparities are important because they highlight the cumulative effects of societal and government-sponsored racial discrimination.

When we consider the living conditions and life prospects of the Black underclass, we confront a population that is able neither to meet its current needs without public assistance (or private charity) nor to plan effectively for future needs. To many neoconservative critics, the disparity between the Black middle class and the underclass is explicable in terms of the culture of poverty thesis. According to the culture of poverty thesis, poor Blacks are responsible for their own immiseration due to their cultural pathology and lack of values. Black middle class success is juxtaposed to Black underclass failure to acquire the skills and discipline necessary to move ahead. And yet, the neoconservative attack on the poor and the instrumentalization of the Black middle class in pursuit of conservative agendas fail to account for the structural and intergenerational dimensions of racial disadvantage and privilege.

Ignoring the structural and intergenerational dimensions of racial advantage and disadvantage, neoconservatives push the idea that racial inequality has little (or nothing) to do with racism, but lots to do with bad individual choices and inappropriate cultural values (or no values at all). Furthermore, neoconservatives assert that government policies aimed at providing subsistence for the poor, such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, contribute to their demoralization, and for that reason should end. Neoconservatives subscribe to a reform framework that focuses on elimination of poor subsistence support by the government, including the minimum wage, and promotion of self-help.

There are at least three problems with self-help that bear mention in the context of developing solutions to racial inequality. First, there is no assurance that self-help will ever bring about substantive equality between Blacks and whites. Given the scope and extent of current inequality, Blacks generally, and the underclass particularly, may be permanently economically subordinate to and dependent upon whites. Second, even if self-help achieved equality, again, the current disparities are so great that generations would endure unjust deprivations. By contrast, taking account of the structural and intergenerational dimensions of racial advantage and disadvantage implies a reform framework that does not simply blame the victims of societal discrimination and overtly racist government policies. Third, and most importantly, self-help provides no redress for unjust expropriations and denials of equal opportunity. Where the implementation of racist policies has a substantial and continuing impact on the ability of a social group to achieve equality, as they clearly do in the case of Black Americans, reparations is a just remedy.

For Pettigrew, statistics on the state of Black Americans do not augur the "declining significance of race," but the growing significance of the interaction between class and race in American race relations. One feature of this interaction is that because the new Black middle class has typically gained its status through employment in predominantly white institutions, many whites, especially those of higher status, now meet and come to know members of the Black middle class. But Black poverty remains largely out of the intellectual and experiential purview of the vast majority of whites. Pettigrew writes: The fact that whites know the [B]lack "success cases" but not the [B]lack poor undoubtedly contributes to the widespread current belief among whites that racial discrimination is now minimal and "...the chances for [B]lacks to get ahead have improved greatly..." (citation omitted). Both at the individual and institutional levels, racism is typically far more subtle, indirect, and ostensibly nonracial now than it was in 1964 ....

B. The Racist Restatement

In developing a vocabulary to characterize the new racism, Pettigrew isolates the following six features based on his social scientific research: (1) rejection of gross stereotypes and blatant discrimination; (2) normative compliance without internalization of new behavioral norms of racial acceptance; (3) emotional ambivalence toward [B]lack people that stems from early childhood socialization and a sense that [B]lacks are currently violating traditional American values; (4) indirect 'micro-aggressions' against [B]lacks which are expressed in avoidance of face-to-face interaction with [B]lacks and opposition to racial change for ostensibly nonracial reasons; (5) a sense of subjective threat from racial change, and (6) individualistic conceptions of how opportunity and social stratification operate in American society.

Pettigrew explains that compliance in the racial context means that whites follow the new norms only when they are under the surveillance of authoritative others who can reward and punish. Internalization means that whites have adopted the new norms as their own personal standard of behavior and will follow them without surveillance. He notes that Black Americans, too, must learn the new norms. This process often entails unlearning past lessons and overcoming suspicions.

Exemplifying the new forms of anti-Black racism, Pettigrew points to the fact that about 90% of white Americans believe Black and white children should attend "the same schools," and that 95% favor equal job opportunity. However, in 1978 only 24% believed the federal government should "see to it that white and [B]lack children go to the same school." Furthermore, this percentage declined from 43% in 1966. "Likewise, in 1975 only 34% agreed that the federal government should 'see to it that the [B]lacks get fair treatment in jobs,' a percentage that remained constant from 1964." So while an overwhelming majority of whites may currently oppose blatant discrimination, it is likewise the case that they oppose concrete remedies to discrimination. Few would perceive this apparent contradiction as "racist." This perception informs Pettigrew's conclusion that whites experience deep emotional ambivalence toward Black people, while at the same time rejecting gross stereotypes. Whites have a sense of subjective threat from racial change that is inconsistent with the new norms of racial acceptance. Whether, as Pettigrew asserts, the ambivalence of whites toward Blacks is entirely shaped by an individualist conception of opportunity in America, this factor is of notable importance.

Pettigrew's research reveals that (1) spatial discrimination, (2) cumulative discrimination, and (3) situational discrimination are three (often interrelated) ways in which indirect and ostensibly nonracial racial discrimination operates. An example of cumulative discrimination is racially different access to mortgages. Unsurprisingly, spatial segregation results in Black voter dilution through annexations, redistricting, or the like. It produces housing discrimination through decentralization of governmental services or resource distributions as laundered through private preferences in housing and rental markets. Situational discrimination refers to those pervasive and largely unconscious (to the perpetrator, at least) circumstances where white "microaggressions" against Blacks come into play. Pettigrew describes this phenomenon as "triple jeopardy." In face-to-face interracial situations within predominantly white institutional settings, Blacks often encounter three interrelated hardships that make their inclusion difficult. First, Blacks must face the intransigence of racist stereotypes imposed by whites that limit their ability to perform. Second, Blacks experience the stress of occupying solo roles. And finally, Blacks must endure the opprobrium associated with being a token of affirmative action.

The importance of Pettigrew's research consists not merely in development of a framework and a vocabulary by which to examine the modern expression of anti-Black prejudice. Racism in America has frequently been characterized as a "sickness." To the extent that this view of racism is correct, Pettigrew's research pathologizes perspectives which would otherwise be regarded as purely political--e.g., the dominance of individualism in American political and social life--or purely personal--e.g., the choice of school, profession, or neighborhood. Less frequently in modern discourse, racism is considered to be an intellectual position based on the belief in the inherent superiority of whites. This alternative view, however, is racism's history. Pettigrew reveals that such a view remains racism's practice.

The pervasiveness of white supremacist structures cannot be limited to the social spheres examined by Pettigrew. They inhabit our literature and the canons of literary interpretation; they inhabit our speech; they inhabit popular culture, from films and television, to music, dance and fashion; they determine classroom curricula throughout the educational system; they influence the friends we make, the restaurants we choose to eat in, the places we shop; they establish national priorities and the means employed to resolve social problems; often, they define what it means to be a problem. White supremacist structures insinuate their presence into the most intimate encounters among people, especially sexual ones; they inform critical standards in art and philosophy, legal standards in politics, educational standards in school and professional standards in employment.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to expose indexically the many blatant and recondite ways racism has entered the lives of Americans. This much is clear: structures of white supremacy have asserted hegemony over numerous aspects of social, political and personal life in the United States. This is the reality that lies behind the statistics. Racism, as the practice of white supremacy, cannot be circumscribed by the petty injustices that individuals commit against individuals. Racism is a group practice. The theory of that practice is the viability of the race idea, and the anomalous belief that group harms may be legally remedied solely through redress to individuals. To show just how anomalous the belief is that individual redress can adequately remedy group injuries, we should consider three historical moments of group oppression after each of which an attempt was made to compensate serious harms to groups: the Japanese Internment, the Jewish Holocaust and Black Reconstruction.

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