#70 – The Causes of Discrimination


Blog #70 – The Causes of Discrimination

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To a large extent the limits of the new Affirmatively Advancing Fair Housing Rule are connected with a weaknesses in the underlying assumptions being made in both of them, specifically, in the implicit causative role assigned to the legacy of slavery as an explanation for why discrimination exists today, to the neglect of addressing the fact that current actors and current interests and current structures maintained in use in fact need to be dealt with if the problem of discrimination is to be solved.

A detour to examine the causes of discrimination is briefly necessary. It involves examining two different emphases in explaining current discrimination — The Legacy of the Past, and the Actors in the Present. Which is adopted makes a real political difference.

The United States is hardly a post-racial society. Certainly black residents don’t think it is; a growing number in recent years, even before the spate of police shootings miscarriages of criminal justice. An increasing number of black Americans regard race relations as one of the most pressing problems facing the country. [1] And much rhetoric has been expended on bemoaning racial prejudice, with frequent references to the lasting legacy of slavery, and the direct reminders of that legacy, as in the controversies about the states flying the Confederate flag by state agencies on state buildings or land. Barack Obama’s election, seen by many hopefully as a turning point, has not turned out to be that; if anything, it has hardened some pre-existing lines of political division. There has been a lot of response focused on the legacy of slavery concept, with real victories on the flag issue, and explicit condemnation of racial and minority stereotyping, as in the condemnation of Donald Trump’s blunt expression of his views. And this aspect of the problem, call it historical, ideological, psychological, remains important – look at the votes Trump garners in even in blue states. But optimism is not so clearly warranted and more analysis of cause as well as effect is required

There is indeed a legacy of slavery, and it does have to be dealt with. But focusing on its historical impact is misleading if it does not deal with the contemporary patterns of discrimination[2] and exploitation that use that inescapable legacy as explanations for contemporary wrongs, present discrimination. An eloquent Opinion piece by Isabel Wilkerson in the New York Times expresses a deep-felt hope:

“The day after the flag went down in South Carolina, an editorial in The Richmond Times-Dispatch made the stunning declaration that it was finally time for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and that Virginia should take the lead. “Accounting has not occurred,” the paper wrote, “the half remains untold.” This is precisely what history demands and what this moment requires. Perhaps a new reconstruction could truly take hold and inspire the rest of the country if it sprang from the region that resisted it in the first place.”[3]

Present discrimination is not simply the consequence of that the legacy but it also helps explain its survival. Ignoring or minimizing the present conditions of discrimination leads to exactly the wrong conclusions, reverses cause and effect.

In the debate around public policy dealing with race, the failure of full analysis of causes and results comes about in two ways: 1) Minimizing the extent of the problem, and 2) assigning responsibility for present conditions to the legacy of slavery. There is of course some truth in both points: important aspects of discrimination have been of diminishing impact, particularly since the New Deal days of the 1930’s, anti-discrimination legislation after World War II, and the 60’s. Certainly the legacy of slavery has enduring consequences. Both neither point is the end of the matter. In fact, both may be, if unintentionally, distractions from getting at real causes and framing really effective responsive policies.

On the first point, minimizing the extent of discrimination suggests that things are indeed progressing very well, present policies are already effective, we need no different or more radical governmental policies, one needs to find the sources of what problems remain elsewhere than in the absence of current policies to eliminate racist practices. The conservative Manhattan Institute, in a much publicized study,[4] speaks of the “end of segregation,” and its author is cited as saying:

but the best way to do so is by expanding and improving educational opportunities for poor people of color and “by helping families and investing in kids at an early opportunity and instilling a love of education in them while they’re young. I don’t think that switching them to a different neighborhood is going to accomplish that.”[5]

A classic blaming the victim argument: if only black kids would have “a love of education,” everything would be all right. That their apparent lack of a “love of education” has something to do with the schools to which they are required to go, whose segregated attendance was a primary mover in the whole civil rights movement, is not relevant, and whose continued attendance at segregated schools, segregated today by neighborhood schools in themselves based on segregated neighborhoods, is somehow not the problem. It is the children’s lack of love of education, not the segregation of their neighborhoods, the underfunding of the schools in those neighborhoods, the conditions of life at homes in those neighborhoods, the restricted opportunities children from those neighborhoods face when (if) they graduate from those neighborhoods, which need to be addressed. Changing their neighborhoods can be accomplished by moving them to other neighborhoods, or changing the neighborhoods where ty are, but racial segregation today is a major blockage to any such efforts. And the Fair Housing Act,[6] and the new regulations calling for Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (hereafter AFFH)[7]are precisely what is needed, and much, much more. See below.

On the second point, focusing on the legacy of slavery, is often coupled with an unbalanced celebrating of the positive reactions to Ferguson and the Charlestown church shootings, to the significance of the confederate flag removals, HUD’s Affirmatively Fostering Fair Housing Regulations, and similar public responses. But seeing these responses as a turning point, has, intended or not, a similar result to minimizing the extent of actual discrimination in today’s society. The argument here is not so much that which comes from minimizing current discrimination that leads to blaming the victim and his or her mentality (“no love of learning) for what remains, but blame the legacy of slavery and the discriminators’ lack of understanding, or our own lack of understanding, for what discrimination continues to exist. It easily takes changes in discourse for changes in actions and policies.

That the discourse has changed, and that more understanding all around is need, is certainly true and needs to be said, but one could easily draw very wrong conclusions from it. For instance, David R. Williams, a Harvard sociologist, is quoted in Isabelle Wilkerson’s piece, above,[8] as writing:

“We have to come to grips with the reality that this racism is so deeply embedded in our culture that it shapes how we see the world, it shapes our beliefs, our behavior, our actions toward members of other groups. We have to examine ourselves in a profound way.”

Who “we?”

The problem – and it’s an important one – is that there isn’t just one “we.” There are multiple “we’s,” and they are very different and often n conflict with each other. There are actually three “we’s,” and realizing that they are different is crucial if anything is to be changed. Certainly everyone has to come to grips with how deep racism lies in us, but its manifestation is very different in different “we’s”, their resulting behavior is very different, and it has to be very differently addressed. It was Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “Morality cannot be legislated but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.”

The “we” that is written about in the Williams quote is not the heartless, not those who deliberately and intentionally discriminate, but those with hearts who do not do enough to implement what their hearts know they should be doing.[9]

Ignoring who holds what beliefs, whose behavior it is that must be changed, and assuming “we” are all in the same boat, denies the fact that not all of us have the same interests in ending discrimination, that there are those that are victimized by racism and those that benefit from it. This ignores the necessity of some redistribution of power and wealth if racism is to be ended. It leads to conclusions like the Manhattan Institute’s that the answer is instilling a love f education in black kids. That is pure blaming the victim, and at best may help some of the poor but ignores the need for redistribution that would affect the rich as well as poor.

In broad terms, three different categories of actors can be distinguished, whose beliefs and actions need to be addressed to defeat discrimination.

 The thoughtless. Perhaps the large majority of individuals, subject to all the influences of the world around them and the country’s history and prevalent prejudices, conditioned by prevailing stereotypes , and thus reflecting prejudicial beliefs and largely acting on them, but without reflection, without thought about the impact on others, on minorities, acting essentially reflectively. Many, perhaps of good will, simply not realizing the confederate flag is painful to so many of their fellow citizens, are not struck by the fact that their proud tradition of valor and Southern culture is a painful tradition of slavery and despair for others.

For them, David Williams’ advice is appropriate, and needs to be affirmatively supported with funding, research, policies across the board of government and private actors. They should read Go Set a Watchman and support taking down the confederate flag.

 The perpetrators. At the other end of the spectrum, there are those would directly benefit from discrimination, for whom talk of culture or historical legacy is simply an ideological legitimation for what they do. When Donald Trump attacks immigrants as rapists, he is consciously appealing to a prejudiced segment of the voters in the quest for votes to sustain his own ambitions. When real estate developers build gated communities, they are directly profiting from the concerns of potential buyers about the dangers of racial and class mixing. When employers pay minority workers less than white workers, give them the most menial jobs, they are not only profiting directly by the discriminatory treatment, but using it to keep white workers from complaining too much because they are still treated better than those others of a different color. The discrimination in the criminal justice system which imposes harsher treatment on African-Americans than on whites contributes to the maintenance of a law and order which controls the militant protest of the worst off of the 99% and their potential disruption of the ordinary course of profitable business, for the benefit of the 1%

These are the perpetrators of discrimination, the actors who directly benefit from the gap between whites and blacks. Williams’ advice is directly against their own interests, and will not be followed. Their conduct directly produces the adverse disparate impact that parts of the law are being targeted to remedy. It is their behavior, motivated at least as much by their self-interest as their beliefs, that needs to be controlled by law. And public policy and the law must deliberately take into account the impact of their behavior in all of its actions.

 The unwitting collaborators. The unpleasant truth is that the majority of white people in the United States benefit indirectly discrimination. Prices at Walmart are lower because it pays its workers less, and prejudice dampens their protests and their breadth of their appeal. If the combination of poverty and discrimination leads to a criminal response, peace loving citizens benefit from a police force that keeps them secure. If teachers do not have to struggle with the difficulties of likely very differently prepared youngsters in integrated classes, their jobs are easier and their students and their parents happier. If neighborhoods are segregated, and if infrastructure, education, public services, parks community facilities and parks, sanitation, are all worse in minority neighborhoods than in exclusionary wealthier ones, white taxpayers achieve a savings through the disparate public expenditures in what are typically white and black districts.

But, although the beneficiaries of these disparities, of this discrimination are indeed collaborators in the discrimination, they in a sense have little reasonable alternative. They collaborate unwittingly. If the system works in such a way that white schools are better than black schools, reasonable persons will send their children to white schools. And shop at Walmart. And report criminal behavior to the police. And seek higher rather than lower paying jobs, interesting work over routine menial labor. They are, in a sense, trapped in a system that provides real benefits for them, even though it may actually violate their own personal belief in justice or equality. Williams’ advice may give them a guilty conscience, but for them following their conscience to its logical conclusions will not be an easy choice.

The victims/opponents/critics.. For every disparate impact of discrimination benefiting a perpetrator there is a symmetrical victim disadvantaged by that impact. Profits for some mean losses for others; a favorable economic climate for some is bad weather for others; competition inevitably means, at least in the first instance, victory for some and losses for others. In old-fashioned terms, the exploitation of labor means profit for capital, housing that is deliberately exclusionary leads to enclaves of the rich and ghettoes for the poor. But those at the losing end of the competition, are not likely to be passive. There will be actors in a resistance to disparate distribution of benefits and costs. And there will be opponents and critics pained by the system, ideologically critical, culturally injured, morally repelled, in various stages of resistance. The more democratic the political system, the greater the disparities, the more intuitive rules of fairness are violated, the more active will that resistance be. And, to complicate things, some are both victims and perpetrators, unwilling collaborators or simply thoughtless, whose actions may be self-contradictory and unpredictable.

And of course of all actors operate within the rule laid down by the system, the political, economic, social, and ideological patterns of the society, established over the course of history by the outcomes of the various conflicts and the relative powers of the various actors involved. Ultimately, whether specific problems can really solved, and even the extent they can be superficially remedied, depends on what those rules are: how the economy functions, how the law defines private property, what goods and what services are distrusted through the market and what through the state, what ideologies are developed and supported, and by whom, that support the status quo and what that critique it. The complexity the inter-relatedness of allof these structures , what makes capitalism the name of a single system affecting all that is done within it, the importance of what is coming to be called intersectionality, all this is strikingly apparent in the housing field. Think of just one issue: “home ownership.” Private ownership of land is historically a recent development, and what priority the law gives to rights of “ownership” is bitterly contested. How real estate taxes are calculated, who benefit and who pays, is important. What security it provides fluctuates. , and the psychological importance placed on what security it does provide is centrally determinant of the actions of many actors. The financialization of housing plays a large role, and has global causes and consequences. Even the aesthetics of architecture and its link to social status is are involved. The actors specified above determine their own actions and make their own policy decisions, but not under circumstances and structures of their own choosing.

So what are the possibilities for affecting housing and planning outcomes to end discriminatory adverse disparate impacts?

The answer is two-fold:

First, public policy must act aggressively against the perpetrators of discrimination and penalize discriminatory behavior, for not only will that action prevent its undesired disparate consequences, but also by seeing it penalized, it will help unwitting collaborators regain their wits and motivate them to change their own behavior, producing the results that Williams hopes for from self-examination.

Second, however, and in the longer view, that system, those structures, that produce the chains of discrimination, with its consequent aligning of the interests of collaborators with those of the perpetrators, must be changed.to change the system that gives them the guilty advantage, the system that chains together discrimination in one field to effects on another, low wages for Walmart workers to low prices for collaborators as consumer, segregation and exclusionary enclaves to safety on the streets for their resident collaborators, profits from technological advances for some to unemployment for others. And since that system benefits the perpetrators and harms the victims more than it benefits the collaborators, there is are complex underlying conflicts of interests involved that must be faced and worked with if discriminatory behavior is to be banished.

In one reading, the aspects of today’s societal system that account for the undesired disparities of discrimination with which we are here concerned is its reliance on profit-seeking as it motors, acceptance of wealth creation as its goal, the market as its means. What is needed instead is rather solidarity and mutual caring as its motor, social welfare for all as its goal and informed democratic discussion as its means. But that is topic for another and broader discussion!

[This blog is one of 5 taking up the Supreme Court’s decision in Texas vs. Inclusive Communities and HUD’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Regulation (AFFHR), and some general principles dealing with the meaning of social change and the efforts to accomplish it

.Blog #68 – Evaluation of Recent Developments, examined the reception the Court’s decision and the AFFHR have received and their respective roles in dealing with housing discrimination.

Blog #69 – Fair Housing: Limitations of Supreme Court decision and AFFHR, took up the limited scope of the AFFHR, the weaknesses in the Court’s decision and the problems of implementation for both.

THIS Blog #70 – The Causes of Discrimination, opens an analysis of the current causes of discrimination, and the attribution of causes to the legacy of slavery and to present actors—the thoughtless, the perpetrators, the collaborators, and the victims, the structural context in which they operate.

Blog #71 – Fair Housing – Remedies and Solutions, then proposes some immediate remedies, and then some principles for real solutions.

Blog #72 – Beyond Fair Housing: Some Elusive Principles for Societal Change, raises some questions about elusive general principles for societal change.]

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[1] According to a Gallup poll cited by the New York Times, Magazine section, July 5, 2015, p. 14.

[2] A note on terminology: “discrimination” is not the same as “differentiation,” though the Supreme Court seems not to acknowledge the difference (See Justice Kennedy’s comment in the Texas case calling for remedies that do not differentiate by race, that are “race-neutral”) “Discrimination” as used here means causing an adverse disparate impact to protected minorities, with a focus on African-Americans or Blacks. “Race” is used, although an outdated concept, simply as shorthand for those adversely affected by discrimination.

[3]

[4] THE END OF THE SEGREGATED CENTURY: Racial Separation in America’s Neighborhoods, 1890-2010,

Edward Glaeser, Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research

Jacob Vigdor, Adjunct Fellow, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research

http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/cr_66.htm

[5] Experts Attack Manhattan Institute Study Claiming End to Segregation in U.S. Cities.By Marjorie Valbrun. America’s Wire, available at http://americaswire.org/drupal7/?q=content/experts-attack-manhattan-institute-study-claiming-end-segregation-us-cities-0.

[6] The Fair Housing Act, text available at http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/hce/title8.php or https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/3604

[7] Federal Register / Vol. 80, No. 136 / Thursday, July 16, 2015 / Rules and Regulations, available through http://www.huduser.org/portal/affht_pt.html#final-rule.

[8] Supra note 2.

[9] A reviewer in The Nation long ago formulated in: when I write “we” I mean “me and my friends.” Period.

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