A recent interview of Morgan Freeman by CNN host Don Lemon lit a firestorm of conversation. Freeman argued that his personal success, and that of Lemon’s, made it clear that racism was not a factor in closing America’s growing problem of inequality. Freeman argued that inequality was a crisis because a vibrant middle class was needed for the growth of the economy and stability of society, and the current chasm between the 1% and the 99% was unhealthy. Clearly, Freeman’s views on inequality are incontrovertible, so why the storm about his statement on the role of race?
Recent work by business school professors Clayton Critcher, of the University of California—Berkeley, and Jane Risen, of the University of Chicago, note that people’s views about the role of racism in America's inequality is shaped by their knowledge of African Americans who succeed outside the realm of current black success, like professional sports or music. When shown pictures of African American business leaders, for instance, even in the context that the individual is an exception, the respondents become less sympathetic toward the racial polarization of American life and its role in holding down African Americans.
But the narrative used to explain high poverty, high unemployment and low wealth among African Americans is important, not just to race relations, but because the story line Americans buy in accepting the tenuous economic position of African Americans is integral to the story line of accepting American inequality broadly. How does one explain how America alone as a democracy is so accepting of levels of inequality that are closer to Mexico and Turkey than to France, Canada or Denmark? How do we elect politicians that benefit the 1% to such extremes, and are in the process of destroying class mobility—once the key to America’s core identity?
Despite moments of exceptions like for their geo-political role in sports victories when Jessie Owens won at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and Joe Louis knocked out Max Schmelling in 1938, America held fast to denying African Americans access to the American dream of social mobility, including Southern Democrats in Congress shaping the New Deal to limit African American access to the new safety-nets of labor standards, unemployment insurance and Social Security and the full benefits of increasing home ownership provided by the Federal Housing Administration and later the GI Bill. Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro have laid out how various policies interacted with race to create the huge wealth divide between African Americans and whites.
But in the era since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Medicare in 1966 (ending segregation in health care) and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, Americans have been forced to reconcile racial inequality with the American ideal of social mobility. Don’t we now have equal opportunity? Isn’t that enough to assure equal outcomes? One resolution is as ancient as the forces that held slavery together—racism, an abiding belief that African Americans are inferior in character and culture. The other is to understand the many layers of inequality and their interaction with the lack of wealth, income and employment with ongoing policies. A third is to understand that racism is still an ugly factor in American life.
I think those who disagree with Freeman think his dismissal of race was an assumption that equal opportunity exists. If African Americans are not held back in moving up the class ladder, then how can anyone in America claim to be held back? If the economic game in America is fair and not rigged against African American success, which Americans can call foul?
Just as the victories of Owens and Louis did not mean the end of segregation or discrimination, neither does the victory of President Barack Obama mean the end of Donald Sterling’s sprawling Los Angeles real estate empire that discriminated against black and Latino tenants. The 1% benefit from a different set of rules, from lower marginal tax rates to bigger tax deductions for their homes, savings and health.
Blaming African Americans for not seizing the day and rising to the top is an indictment of the 99%. Racism is not an “excuse,” but a way to understand the rules are not fair, this is not a lack of will, but acknowledgement rules are rigged for multinational corporations to give away our jobs and Wall Street to steal our homes. It is an understanding that inequality is not a natural state, but is manufactured.
Dr. William Spriggs is the chief economist for the AFL-CIO.