Seeing and not seeing our racial reality

Lee A. Daniels

Lee A. Daniels

“Americans don’t want to imagine that our racist history is actually an ongoing racist reality. We like to look at racism as a thing that has gotten better (if not gone away completely) and that the way Black Americans are treated in society is actually colorblind.”

Those words, written by Washington Post reporter Philip Bump a year ago, provide context for the polls of last week showing that Americans as a whole believe race relations have grown sharply worse in the aftermath of the death of Baltimorean Freddie Gray in police custody and the protests it provoked, and why we once again see a widening of the racial divide on issues involving police and Black Americans.

For example, the New York Times/CBS News poll found that 61% of Americans believe race relations now are generally bad, up from the 44% who said so after the police killing of Michael Brown last summer. The Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey found that 96% of those polled expect more racial disturbances this summer.

The Pew Research Center on the People and the Press poll sought answers to five different major questions in the aftermath of the Baltimore protests. It found that, on the one hand, overall 61% of Americans believed the violent protests were largely the result of some people “taking advantage” of the situation to engage in criminal behavior (54% of Blacks said so compared to 66% of Whites). On the other hand, overall 56% of those surveyed also said that tensions between the police and the Black community played a significant role in the protests as well.

Not surprisingly, these and other surveys found that Blacks and Whites had significantly different responses to many of the questions. For example, the Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey found that 60% of Blacks said the Baltimore protests reflected “longstanding frustrations about police mistreatment of African Americans.” Just 32% of Whites agreed. In the New York Times/CBS News poll, 79% of Blacks said police are “more likely to use deadly force against a Black person” than a White individual; but only 37% of Whites said so.

None of these surveys’ individual or overall findings are surprising, of course. In fact, Americans’ new worry about worsening race relations is just the latest turn of the wheel of the continuing dynamic of ‘racial déjà vu’ I wrote about in a recent column: a racial crisis loop rooted in the age-old issue of Black Americans’ status in American society.

Incidents of sharp racial controversy that push that issue to the top of the American agenda always lead Americans (largely, White Americans) to believe race relations are getting worse.

One reason is that White Americans have always been significantly shielded, by government and private-sector actions, from the reality most Black Americans of high and low status face every day. Another is that the White majority has historically always taken refuge in the belief that the lack of a racial explosion means, as Bump wrote, the promised land of racial equality of opportunity and treatment has arrived. They’re repeatedly shocked to discover that’s not so.

Study after study over the past two decades has shown why that particular gap persists: continued racial discrimination in the job market.
That’s another ‘racial reality’ America’s White majority likes to pretend it can’t see.