A Reflective Summary on Racism and the Socio-Economic Effects of Segregation in America
Slavery is rightfully considered by many to be America’s original sin. This paper examines the deleterious effect of systemic racism on its victims and on race relations. My reflection will be anchored primarily by W.E. Du Bois’ acclaimed publication The Souls of Black Folk, with additional support from other historical and contemporary sources.
All men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, and among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness (U.S. Declaration of Independence, 1776, p. 1). For too long, this declaration premised on equal rights, has seemed illusory for African Americans. Subjected to the indignity of government-sanctioned oppression pre-civil right, and denied the most basic of rights, black people’s struggle for equality has been well documented in history. That struggle continues decades after the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and more than a century from the Emancipation Proclamation that ended slavery. Renowned activist, historian and sociologist William Edward Burghardt Du Bois poignantly captures the essence of that struggle in his literary masterpiece The Souls of Black Folk. Through the lenses of his book and other historically relevant texts, this dissertation will reflect on the psycho-social and economic effects of segregation and racialized labor on race relations in America.
An objective analysis of various texts and writings about racial discrimination in the confederate era reveals the deplorable and heinous nature of the racist treatment that African Americans had to endure. Despite the progress that has been made over the last century, the vestiges of racism and the inequities of slavery continue to plague black people. Meanwhile, no meaningful or concerted effort has been made to redress the injustices caused by slavery, and the political, social and economic inequities that arose from its legacy. In fact, the conversation on reparation, or for that matter race itself, has proven so divisive that our white-dominant society is often inclined to abstain from it. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois wrote extensively and forcefully about those issues. While the scope of this essay is too limited to comprehensively assess the full social and economic impact of racism on its victims, and on society at large, a critical reflection through the following outlines should provide ample evidence of its veracity.
An unknown African American once said: “I did not choose to be born in this skin, so I’m not sure why it has been used to discriminate against me”. This statement encapsulates the challenge that has defined the existence of black people in America. For a great majority, the skin attached to their body at birth has been a problem, if not a burden. Du Bois, uses the term veil to characterize how Black people’s view of the world diverges from that of white people, given how race and racism shape their experiences and interactions with others. The veil is a subtle reference to the skin color of African Americans in comparison to White people, and if you’re a black person, the veil isn’t really apparent until something happens that makes you confront its existence. For Du Bois, that reality came at a young age, during a trivial encounter. He recounts first realizing the veil’s existence when a young white girl refused his greeting card in elementary school: “It is in the early days of rollicking boyhood that the revelation first bursts upon one, all in a day, as it were. In a wee wooden schoolhouse, something put it into the boys’ and girls’ heads to buy gorgeous visiting cards ten cents a package, and exchange. The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card,–refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil” (Du Bois, June 1, 1903, The Souls of Black Folk, Page 2).
Those experiences strongly influence how Black people perceive and interact with their white counterparts. Racism is woven into the fabric of the very white-dominant institutions that people of color are supposed to trust and depend on. Understandably, African Americans have cultivated and harbored a perpetual sense of distrust vis-a-vis White people. There is this non-reciprocal relation of invisibility because the realities of black lives are invisible and incomprehensible to white society, but not vice versa. White people are more likely to fear people of color, rather than seeking to understand them and their perspective. The impulse to regard colored differences with suspicion and mistrust, the stereotyping of black people as fitting a certain negative prototype (robber, burglar, petty criminal, etc.), their continued profiling and abuse by law enforcement, the disparate imprisonment, are all byproducts and cumulative effects of racism. Du Bois recognized the need for diversity, but believed that a humane society should promote fellowship among its citizens, and address social challenges due to the central importance and the intrinsic value of all humanity.
In his book, Du Bois surmises that the veil prevents Black people from experiencing true self-consciousness, and that it instead coerces them into double-consciousness, wherein they understand themselves through their families and community, but also through the eyes of others who see them as different and inferior. He wrote: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (Du Bois, June 1, 1903, Page 3). Clearly, the harms of the color line are social, political, psychological and cultural, reinforcing inequality of all sorts, dehumanizing and degrading, but also ensuring that racialized communities cannot learn from and sometimes even coexist with each other.
My first trip to Western Europe, Rome to be specific, was the moment I realized that as a race, black people never had a reasonable chance of reaching their God-given potential. While touring the city’s treasured historic sites, I couldn’t help but think of the fact that those architectural masterpieces were built on the backs of African slaves. The same could be said for the White House. Those structures have one thing in common: they are symbols of economic power. What’s often lost in this narrative is that the enslavement of black laborers by their white oppressors helped to advance the economic interests of majority white societies. It also stymied their progress and blocked any path to political enfranchisement, social emancipation and wealth creation.
For many historians, this was one of the original sources of perpetual black poverty. Du Bois himself suggested that the economic plight of Blacks began during slavery when colored people were forced to work for no money, and continued long after Emancipation when they were forced to work for next to nothing. For most, accumulating wealth was not an option given that even industrious freed Blacks had to contend with Whites who were determined to sabotage their efforts. Du Bois’ criticism was particularly striking when it comes to the South’s influence, where plantations were replaced by tenant farming, and the political, legal, and social systems were all supported thievery.
Du Bois summarizes the persistent racial wealth gap created by America’s Structural Racism in the following terms: “The country is rich, yet the people are poor. The keynote of the Black Belt is debt; not commercial credit, but debt in the sense of continued inability on the part of the mass of the population to make income cover expense” (Du Bois, June 1, 1903, p 137). Wealth in America is still unequally distributed by race, particularly between white and black families. African American families have a mere fraction of the wealth of White families, leaving them more economically vulnerable, and impeding their opportunity for social and economic mobility. This is aggravated by lower income levels and lack of opportunity to build or transfer accumulated wealth to future generations. A number of factors influence this terrible cycle of wealth inequality but the Center for American Progress observes the following: “Black households, for example, have far less access to investments and savings, due in part to a long history of employment discrimination and other discriminatory practices. A history of mortgage market discrimination means that blacks are less likely to own a home than whites, which means they have less access to the savings and tax benefits associated with owning a home” (Solomon and Weller via Center for American Progress, February 21, 2018).
The bottom line is, by every objective measure, black Americans have struggled to keep pace with their white counterparts and that is due in part to the systemic perpetuation of institutional racism. The disparities that exist between blacks and whites today are attributable to flawed government policies often skewed to benefit affluent White people. From slavery to Jim Crow to school segregation, and from mass incarceration to environmental racism, public policies have consistently hampered African Americans from having access to opportunities to realize the American dream.
Du Bois’s observations and writings are timeless given that many of his concerns continue to plague society today. The American promise that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about in his famous 1963 I Have a Dream speech, whereby all men, black and whites alike, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, has not been fully realized. Research and data continue to show that racism still permeates all aspects of American society, and the sordid legacy of slavery continues to inflict permanent injuries to the Black race. The continued disenfranchisement of people of color, the racialization of crime, the persistent social and economic disparities are proof positive that more than half a century the passing of the Civil Rights Act, America has badly defaulted on its basic obligations to citizens of color.