This article addresses the prospect of ending racism and discrimination in the United States. It begins by defining racism and discrimination and differentiating individual prejudice from institutional racism. It then reviews the extent of social change that has lead to a decline in racism and discrimination since the middle of the twentieth century, as well as the continuing significance of racism and discrimination in the lives of people of color. People have proposed various ways of reducing or ending racism and discrimination. This article reviews three such proposals: increased multicultural education, reforms to the legal system, and radical social change. It also considers the argument that eradicating racism and discrimination in the United States is impossible as well as the argument that eradicating racism and discrimination is unnecessary.
Keywords Civil Rights Movement; Color-Blind Racism; Civil Disobedience; Discrimination; Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC); Ethnic Studies; Institutional Racism; Interviewer Effect; Prejudice; Privilege; Race; Racism; Redlining; Reparations; Segregation; Social Movement; Stereotype
When most people think about the term "racism," they think of the various attitudes and beliefs individuals may hold about different racial groups, particularly negative stereotypes about one or more racial groups as well as the opinion that one's own racial group is superior. To sociologists, this common understanding of racism is more accurately termed "prejudice." It is hard to get a good sense of what percentage of Americans continue to hold prejudiced views about other racial groups. When asked survey questions about their opinions of other races, few Americans give answers that suggest that they hold prejudiced views, and these figures have declined substantially over the since the mid-to-late twentieth century. However, there is evidence that surveys designed to elicit individuals' racist views suffer from something called interviewer effect. What this means is that when surveyors ask certain questions, survey respondents will give what they believe are the socially desirable responses rather than their actual beliefs or opinions.
Despite both our uncertainty about how many Americans continue to hold racist views and the fact that the percentage of Americans holding such views has declined over time, racism continues to have significance in American life. In addition to individual racism, institutional racism occurs within organizations like the government, corporations, and schools. While individual prejudice may result in a person experiencing a racial slur or a hate crime, institutional racism is responsible for many of the inequalities between racial groups, such as poverty and segregation. Institutional racism can continue even when there is no individual racist person within an institution. Instead, institutional racism is manifested in the policies and practices built into an institution that lead to racist outcomes. For example, if a mortgage company redlined a neighborhood forty years ago based on the fact that the neighborhood was heavily black, and if, as a consequence, African Americans living in that neighborhood could not get mortgages and could not sell their homes, that neighborhood today will likely continue to be run down and have low property values—even if the people working for the mortgage company today are committed to racial equality.
Both individual prejudice and institutional racism can lead to discrimination. Discrimination is what the group experiencing the prejudice or institutional racism encounters. For instance, if an individual who is prejudiced against African Americans refuses to hire a black employee, that individual has discriminated. For the most part, racial discrimination is illegal in the contemporary United States. Individuals are permitted to think racist thoughts and write racist texts, but they are not permitted to make hiring decisions, sell real estate, or engage in other sorts of differentiation on the basis of race. This legal prohibition does not, however, mean that discrimination has ended. In order to penalize an individual or a company for discrimination, the person who has been discriminated against must prove not only that discrimination occurred, but also that the individual or company accused of discrimination intended to discriminate (Crenshaw, 1995). This makes it very difficult for individuals to win racial discrimination law suits.
Thus racial discrimination continues in many aspects of life in the contemporary United States. For instance, in 2007 alone, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received over 30,000 charges of racial discrimination in employment; in 2012, this figure increased to over 33,000. Other areas of life in which racial discrimination continues to play a particularly significant role include housing, the criminal justice system, and healthcare. Yet despite the continuing significance of racial discrimination, discrimination has declined considerably since the middle of the twentieth century.
In 1950, it was still completely legal for school districts and schools to segregate education from kindergarten through graduate school—if graduate schools were even available for nonwhite students. It was legal for real estate agents to refuse to show homes or apartments to members of certain races, and individuals could even write language into the deed of their home prohibiting its sale to nonwhite buyers. Classified ads for employment could say "whites only," and several states still prohibited interracial marriage. Things have come a long way.
These changes did not come easily. They required concerted efforts by social movements, lobbyists, religious leaders, educators, and others. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s played a key part in effecting the social changes that led to the end of legal discrimination. For instance, the leaders of the movement coordinated sit-ins and other acts of civil disobedience that led to the desegregation of lunch counters and public transportation throughout the South. They also led voter registration drives that helped elect black candidates to public office. These black politicians then became instrumental in passing laws that reduced discrimination. Among the crucial legal gains of the civil rights movement were:
- The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination based on race,
- The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which made it easier for southern African Americans to vote,
- Executive Order 11246, which established affirmative action for government contractors,
- The Civil Rights Act of 1968, which specifically prohibited housing discrimination.
Inspired by the civil rights movement, social movements representing American Indians, Asian Americans, and Latinos emerged during the 1960s and 1970s, and these movements also pushed for an end to discrimination. Among other things, these groups pushed immigration reform, changes in college and university admissions policies, the honoring of treaties with American Indian tribes, and the establishment of ethnic studies departments that would expand knowledge and teaching about people of color. Many—though far from all—of these goals were attained. For example, the US Supreme Court has ruled in favor of affirmative action policies in higher education in three cases: Regents of the University of California v. Bakke(1978), Gratz v. Bollinger et al. (2003), and Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) (Pitt & Packard, 2012). It is important to not understate the gains these movements made in reducing racism and discrimination in the United States, but the problem has not disappeared. In fact, the Supreme Court invalidated part of the Voting Rights Act (1965) when they voted in June 2013 to allow nine states to change their election laws without getting federal approval in advance (Liptak, 2013). In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was challenging changes in voting laws in North Carolina, Kansas, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, that the ACLU says threaten the rights of voters including minority voters (ACLU, 2013).
How to End Racism
If racism and discrimination continue to make a significant impact on the lives of people of color in the contemporary United States, what can be done about it? Scholars and activists have made several proposals. Some focus on the importance of education and diversity or multiculturalism for changing the culture of racism. Others point to legal reforms as a way to make it easier to challenge acts of discrimination or institutional racism. A third group argues for more substantial social change aimed at repairing the effects of past discrimination. Finally, some people believe that racism has become such an integral part of the fabric of American society that it cannot be removed.
For the first group, racism and discrimination can be eliminated through education. In particular, advocates of this perspective include educators who are committed to multiculturalism and diversity in their classrooms. Such educators believe that the American society will eventually accept people of color as it did white immigrant groups, and all that is needed is to educate about difference and celebrating the diverse cultural backgrounds that make up the United States. Advocates of this perspective believe that multicultural education will change...
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