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Black males and the ‘punishing reach of racism’

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Photograph of a young black boy with the american flag projected onto his face

The issue of structural racism in U.S. society has finally gotten serious coverage in the pages of the New York Times. This development is probably due to many factors, but one is surely the pervasiveness of racial injustice. Another likely motivation for the coverage is the rise of Trump and Trumpism, which has thrust issues of race into the forefront of the political discourse. It’s about time. And it’s about time for the left to seize the opportunity to push this discussion as far as it can go and also act accordingly.

According to the New York Times article, Black boys from rich families are the targets of a malicious stereotype and a persistent demonization that severely impacts their life chances and their earning capacity.  This is the implication of an extensive study conducted recently by researchers at Stanford, Harvard and the Census Bureau.

The study results show that Black men who grew up in wealthy families earn significantly less than white men from similar backgrounds and are more likely to become poor as adults than they are to become wealthy. The study also found that black girls in similar circumstances do not suffer the same fate.  The researchers tell us that black males and females experience racism in different ways and the income and wealth of black women lag behind those of white women, though not nearly as dramatically.

The gaps in wealth and income between whites and blacks has been a perennial problem but this is the first study of its kind that tracks over 20 million black, white, Asian, Latino and American Indian children from well-to-do families into adulthood.

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The researchers lay the blame for the far-reaching disparity directly at the doorstep of anti-black racism aimed at black boys and men. They concluded that black males are subjected to the stereotype of black criminality and are susceptible to employment discrimination, racial profiling, arrest and incarceration, just like their less well-off brethren.

Status even in the 1% does not protect a black male from being perceived as “the other”, the undesirable element in society, the criminal. Class privilege stops at the color line.

These findings tell the story of how pervasive and pernicious racial bias and structural racism is in U.S. society.  They put into perspective the age-old debate on the left—Is it class or it is race that is the salient dividing line in US politics? Certainly, the issue of class divisions is relevant to an analysis and strategy to win social change.  But, as this and many other studies show, and the experience of 40 million black people prove, racism shackles the life chances of African Americans and most people of color, regardless of class position. And white privilege, racist ideology and implicit biases erode working class unity and cross-class solidarity.

The findings have practical implications for the current situation in the U.S. when a white supremacist mass movement has consolidated itself, an authoritarian racist occupies the White House, and a compliant Republic Party controls both houses of Congress. A broad cross-class, cross-racial alliance anchored in the black community and other communities of color that challenges racial inequality can be the engine of a broad offensive in the electoral arena and in the streets of cities across the country.

The 2018 mid-term election is a critical test of the strength of the left and progressive movements. We would do well to learn the lessons of the 1984 and 1988 Jesse Jackson presidential campaigns and the Rainbow Coalition experience. The progressive black-led insurgency inside and outside of the Democratic Party championed a racial justice, immigrant rights, pro-peace, pro-LGBTQ, pro-union, pro-women’s equality platform that propelled millions of Americans to the ballot box and into the streets. This motion was not sustained for various reason, including the relative weakness and disunity in the U.S. left. Nevertheless, it provides vital lessons about the potency of a racial justice-centered strategy for inspiring millions of people and the potential for realigning current U.S. politics.

The special Senatorial election in redder-than-red Alabama points us in a direction that can help us understand the key elements in building a broad anti-Trump coalition. The turnout for Democrat Doug Jones in the black community, especially among black women, surpassed the turnout in Obama’s 2008 presidential bid. And white suburban women joined black voters in rejecting racism, misogyny and Trumpism.

The overriding imperative is to build broad alliances to defeat Trumpism. White suburban voters need to be part of the anti-Trump coalition but the anchor has to be those who have borne the brunt of a racialized attack on poor and working class communities. That is where the future for serious change lies. Tapping the latent energy of communities of color will be the best path to winning elections against the right in 2018 and 2020. The left has a vital role to play in making it happen.

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