This past Sunday, to commemorate the anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott—a long-planned assault on segregation in the city initiated by Rosa Parks’ civil disobedience—the RNC wrote a tweet: “Today we remember Rosa Parks’ bold stand in ending racism.”
The reaction was swift as hundreds of Twitter users piled on the RNC with the hashtag #RacismEndedWhen, created by user @FeministaJones, mocking the idea that racism is anywhere close to over. Eventually, the RNC clarified, writing that the “[p]revious tweet should have read ‘Today we remember Rosa Parks’ bold stand and her role in fighting to end racism.’"
Still, this advances the idea that racism is a relic of the past. It isn’t. And over the last few days, there have been several stories that re-affirm the extent to which racial bias—and anti-black racism in particular—are real things that happen to real people.
To wit, just a few hours after the RNC’s ill-considered tweet, a news station in Rochester, New York noted the arrest and detainment of three African American students, who were waiting for a school bus to take them to a basketball game when police asked them to leave. They refused. “We tried to tell them that we were waiting for the bus,” said Wan’Tauhjs Weathers, one of the teenagers, to WHEC. “We weren’t catching a city bus, we were catching a yellow bus. He didn’t care. He arrested us anyways.” And, to be clear, this was even after the coach arrived to explain the situation.
It would be easy to look for reasons to blame the students, but the police report doesn’t cite bad language or disorderly conduct. Their only “crime” was standing while black.
With that said, one instance doesn’t prove anything, which is why it’s also worth noting a recent incident in Houston, Texas, where police arrested two African American dancers, both men. They hadn’t committed a crime, and weren’t in a suspicious area. But they were escorting a 13-year-old white girl to an event, which was cause enough for police to react. “They just pulled us out of the car and put our hands behind our backs like we were criminals,” said Emmanuel Hurd to news station KHOU.
The two dancers explained that the girl was their student, and Hurd offered to show officers a notarized letter stating that they had “full guardianship” while they were in the state. But police didn’t budge. They brought the two men to the station and took the girl into Child Protective Services.
Now, you could say that police were just reacting to the presence of a young girl with two adult men, and that race had nothing to do with their decision to make an arrest. However, given the fact of implicit bias, entrenched notions of inherent black criminality, and the long-standing discomfort with relationships between black men and white women, it’s hard to credibly argue that race was irrelevant.
Indeed, while I understand the decision to stop any two adult men traveling with a young girl, I have a hard time believing that—when presented with evidence of guardianship— police would have arrested two white men traveling with a white student.
These aren’t isolated instances, an afternoon with Google will show more than you can read. But why does it matter? Many of us who write about race and racism tend to focus on structural issues, from persistent segregation and educational disparities, to mass incarceration and the long-standing “wealth gap” between black and white families. It only takes a cursory look at socio-economic statistics to see the reality of our racial hierarchy, where—broadly speaking—whites are at the top and blacks are on the bottom.
However, it’s also important not to lose sight of how these things play out on an individual level. Yes, the overt bigotry of Bull Connor and George Wallace is a thing of the past, and most Americans see “racist” as a grave accusation of moral failure. But racial bias (and anti-black racism) still exists, individuals still act on it, and it still works to worsen inequality.
The mere fact of blackness, for example, continues to have a measurable effect on one’s ability to get a job. In one study, researchers sent 5,000 resumes to “help-wanted” ads in the Chicago area. Each applicant was similar in every way but one: Some of the names were stereotypically “white,” and some of the names were stereotypically “black.” Not only were “white-sounding” names “50 percent more likely to get called for an initial interview,” but better credentials weren’t enough to overcome the gap.
Likewise, as ProPublica’s Nikole Hannah-Jones has uncovered in a wide-ranging series on housing and racial inequality, overt discrimination in housing is still a problem. According to research conducted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Urban Institute, black renters—compared to their whitecounterparts—learned about 11 percent fewer rental units, and black homebuyers were shown about a fifth fewer homes. In just the last few days, investigations have found widespread housing discrimination in Dallas, and lending discrimination in the Bay Area of California.
And this is all on top of the huge national disparities in arrests and incarcerations. Who goes to jail is only somewhat related to who commits crimes—it’s also a function of policing and prosecution. Two adjacent communities could have identical rates of drug use and theft, but if one community has a heavy police presence—and the other doesn’t—arrest statistics will show a heavy slant in one direction.
This, for instance, is what we see with marijuana usage. Blacks smoke pot at a similar rate to whites, with only small elevations over the last ten years. But the African American arrest rate for marijuana possession is three times the one for whites. Black communities show higher violent crime rates, but that has nothing to do with their blackness—the vast majority of African Americans are law abiding citizens—and everything to do with hyper-segregation and generational poverty.
Individual discrimination has a broad impact. Police suspicion of young black men goes a long way towards explaining high arrest rates and flawed policies like “stop and frisk.” Not being able to get a good mortgage rate on account of your race makes it harder to live in better neighborhoods with better schools, which reinforces disparities in education and income.
The simple fact is that racism—both personal, institutional, and structural—remains a force in American life. It impacts the lives of everyone, whites included, and shapes the broad material circumstances of minorities in countless negative ways. Yes, there are many—many—ways in which we’ve made progress, and we should celebrate them. But just because we don’t face the racism of the past doesn’t mean we’ve solved the problem. We haven’t.