Cover Story

A new division, a new dream

Racism as we knew it is gone: But government preferences over the years created a new kind of antagonism-based not upon race but instead upon class. We need a new dream: that we be judged by the content of our character, not our resumés

Issue: "A new division, a new dream," Aug. 25, 2001

I stand here as an African-American, a century after Dr. King's speech, and I am flustered. While discrimination has declined in one form, it has erupted in another. Racial antagonism between Anglos and people of color has declined, but achievement-or class-antagonism has sprouted. We have now learned that racism was simply a cover. Racism was a convenient way of putting in their place those who were not members of the ruling economic class. Today we have racially integrated discrimination. People of all races judge each other not by the color of their skin but by the content of their resumés. Racially integrated discrimination is based on achievement and merit-a meritocracy where one's educational and professional achievements establish social status. Racially integrated discrimination began in the late 20th century when income gaps became understood as a function of education rather than race. We began to notice that racial antagonism increases when government catalysts like affirmative action are used to introduce underrepresented segments of our population into particular labor markets. We learned that as long as government is the primary mechanism for upward economic mobility for certain demographic groups, there will always be racial antagonism, resentment, and tension. Ironically, it was the upthrust of the most rapidly growing minority that convinced both blacks and whites of this. As African-Americans around the beginning of this century saw their "most favored minority status" eclipsed by the increasing numbers of Latinos, racial antagonism took on a new form. African-Americans grew to resent Latino progress and began to treat Latinos much like Anglos of previous generations treated them. The cause was labor-market stress. Working-class African-Americans resented working-class Latinos because they feared job losses due to preferential hiring. Middle-class Anglos resented middle-class Latinos because they feared Latinos would receive preferential treatment for graduate-school admission. Race-based anti-discrimination remedies have the residual effect of fostering resentment. Soon, African-Americans began seeking to keep "unqualified Latinos" from taking jobs previously held by African-Americans. The NAACP and other groups argued that when the government coerces racial preference, unqualified individuals advance. African-American professionals began to object when Latinos were the "preferred minority" and were promoted into middle and upper management. Eventually, relations between African-Americans and Latinos improved, and now skin color was no longer an issue-but we are not living in the New Jerusalem envisioned by Dr. King. Middle-class whites, blacks, and Latinos now live together peacefully, but only because they have a common cause: perpetuating the middle-class ethos and working together to keep the lower classes of any race from invading their communities. Moreover, all races of the upper class continue to resent all races of the underclass because of their "tax burden." Racially integrated discrimination rules the day. We are divided today into the "knowers" and the "knowers-not." At the end of the 20th century, labor-market data revealed that Americans with the most education experience the greatest upward socioeconomic mobility. As our economy changed in the post-civil-rights era, class distinctions within racial groups widened. That trend has continued, so that the gap between the African-American well-off and the under-class has now developed into a canyon. African-American meritocrats-and I confess I am one-demonstrate that true progress in America is a function of resumé. The greatest income gaps in our economy continue to exist between those who graduate from college and those who do not, regardless of race. We now see that a key result of civil-rights legislation was the great African-American middle-class diaspora. The African-American achievement-oriented elite took their families, and their middle-class social stabilizing institutions, out of the city to pursue the American dream in the suburbs. And why not? The black middle-class had been forced to live in certain communities because of their legally enforced second-class status. When they were free to seek new opportunities for housing, education, and job markets, who can fault these families for pursuing them? Moreover, members of the middle-class African-American elite took full advantage of affirmative-action programs as they ascended the corporate ladder, attaining graduate degrees from top schools and essentially becoming like the Anglo middle and upper classes we had previously criticized. This demonstrated clearly that race-based patterns of social behavior are unsubstantiated. We began living in expensive and exclusive all-African-American neighborhoods, socializing at all-African-American country clubs, sending our kids to private schools, acquiring superior post-secondary education, and so on-exactly as whites had done. This has been the greatest paradox of Dr. King's legacy: African-American middle and upper classes simply adopted the Anglo ethos. So it was not surprising to see the educated Latino meritocrats follow suit. At the beginning of this century, Latinos were starting to experience greater socioeconomic mobility through federal catalysts like affirmative action. Soon a Latino elite emerged, and the socioeconomic gap between educated Hispanics and uneducated Hispanics began to widen. In the century following Dr. King's speech, we have learned a painful lesson: A colorblind society is not necessarily a just society. We may no longer judge others by the color of their skin, but all races now judge others by their education and achievement. Perhaps the words of Dr. King should now be modified, "I have a dream that one day my children will not be judged but the content of their resumés but the content of their character.

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