Race in America | The Economist
WGEORGE FLOYD HEN was killed by Derek Chauvin a year ago, the feeling of injustice was tinged with despair. Why, asked many Americans, is this still happening in our country? Why, many outsiders have asked, does the history of the breed in America never seem to change? Except this time it was different. Mr. Floyd’s death sparked the largest civil rights protests in American history. Mr. Chauvin, exceptionally, was convicted of murder. And institutions in America and beyond looked at each other in a different light. Something had to change. But what exactly?
The Biden administration and the Democratic Party have made reducing racial disparities an organizing principle of government. It sounds simple, but it’s not. Despite the gains in legal and political rights made by African Americans since the civil rights era, measures of relative poverty and black-white segregation have barely evolved over the past half century. Tackling persistent injustices requires clear reflection on their causes.
Most racial disparities arise when three things collide: secular economic trends, cues from slavery and segregation, and current bigotry and racism. The first two are usually the main causes of poor outcomes for African Americans, but the third – racism today – is getting the most attention.
It’s upside down. Covid-19 has killed African Americans at higher rates than whites or Asian Americans. The causes are still unclear, but the fault is unlikely to lie with racist doctors, nurses and insurers. Instead, for reasons that include past racism and current poverty, African Americans are more likely to suffer from pre-existing conditions and have to work outside the safety of their home, and less likely to have a job. Health Insurance.
Racism remains a curse in America, although it is less prevalent than it was 30 years ago, let alone in the age of civil rights. But, as it is lodged in fanatical minds, its eradication is far beyond the power of any government. Poverty and the structural legacy of racism in institutions are different. Take the Biden administration’s new child tax credit, which is expected to reduce child poverty by 40%. Because African Americans are disproportionately poor, this race neutral policy is expected to halve the number of poor black children.
Since the problem is racial disparities, why not target aid directly to African Americans? One of the reasons is practical. People are more likely to support measures that they themselves could benefit from. There is wide support for the child tax credit. If it was designed to benefit only one group, its support would drop. Any administration that targeted policies solely on African Americans – using, for example, reparations and more affirmative action – would soon be out of power.
In contrast, policies that help all poor Americans are popular and effective. Since the Affordable Care Act in 2010, 39 states have expanded the availability of Medicaid, the health insurance program for low-income Americans. As a result, the share of uninsured African Americans has fallen by 40% in a decade. A government that wanted to spend more could provide poor Americans with baby bonds and vouchers to get out of areas of concentrated poverty. A less spending-inclined government could relax zoning rules, making it easier to build apartments near good schools. None of these policies are based on race, but all of them would dramatically reduce the disparity in outcomes.
These general policies are not only practical, but also moral. Racial injustice is particularly hot in America because of the horrors of slavery, the violence of reconstruction, and the institutionalized racism of Jim Crow. African Americans have the legal right to vote, to marry whoever they want, and to live where they want for one lifetime.
Yet not all African Americans need help. Despite the drawbacks they face, the country’s thriving large black middle class is often overlooked in discussions about race in America. Additionally, people who are not black also face inherited prejudices and disadvantages. How much better if government policy reduces poverty among Latinos, Native Americans, Asians and Whites too. Denying aid to people in the name of racial justice would be perverse.
What is true of poverty is also true of police reform. In this area, notable progress has been made over the past year, as cities and states have reduced “qualified immunity,” a broad defense available to police officers who kill civilians. Police killings of unarmed young men are often presented as a racial problem, as police kill a disproportionate number of African Americans. Even before Mr. Floyd’s murder, the murders of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Eric Garner in New York, and Breonna Taylor in Louisville drew attention to this fact.
Yet the police kill Americans of all races more often than they should. Separating the many justified police shootings from those that should never have happened should be a national priority. It would be easier if policing was understood as a civil rights issue affecting all Americans.
A racially neutral approach will not always work. To create more diverse organizations, companies, too often run by white people, need to pay more attention to race when hiring. Unless elite universities take positive action, their input will not be representative of the country. But whenever possible, a non-racial approach to opening up opportunity is more likely to help America – and especially its African American citizens.
A year after a terrible injustice, the United States faces not only its past, but also its future. In the next 50 years, it will be the first large rich country where no racial group, ethnic group or religious denomination will be in the majority. The more politicians exploit the tribal fears of some voters, the more eventful this transition will be. The Republican Party’s enthusiasm for rewriting voting rules in states like Arizona and Georgia shows how much democracy could suffer.
Yet America also has the chance to set an example for other countries. A smooth transition is more likely if politics is not conceived of as a struggle for resources between groups in which people are born and cannot leave. Instead, the country can make a common cause to reduce persistent racial disparities while helping all Americans to abandon injustices. This must be the goal. ■
Editor’s Note: Twelve months after the murder of George Floyd, The Economist publishes a series of articles, movies, podcasts, data visualizations, and guest contributions on the topic of race in America. To see them, visit our hub
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the title “Race in America”