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Understanding Racial Perceptions

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Understanding Racial Perceptions

Understanding Racial Perceptions

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Some people say America is finally entering a post-racial age; that's an age when people of all races have the same equal opportunities. But some scientific studies show we might not be there yet. For example, researchers find some people automatically produce stress hormones when they see someone of a different race. So, how do studies like this show how race perceptions manifest in our conscious and subconscious mind?

This month, News & Notes is taking a look at race in America; we're asking, what is race and racism? When is it real? And when is it imagined? We're going to take a little bit more of a sociological look today, and we're going to talk to Thomas J. Sugrue, a history and sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. His book is "Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North." And we've also got Richard Thompson Ford, professor at Stanford's Law School. He's the author of "The Race Card: How Bluffing about Bias Makes Race Relations Worse." Hi, guys.

Dr. THOMAS J. SUGRUE (History and Sociology, University of Pennsylvania; Author, "Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North"): Hi.

Professor RICHARD THOMPSON FORD (Antidiscrimination Law, Stanford Law School; Author, "The Race Card: How Bluffing about Bias Makes Race Relations Worse"): Hi. It's good to be here.

CHIDEYA: So, Thomas, you have done a lot to flesh out the subtleties of racism in the North. Give me an example of something you consider racism, and define racism for me.

Dr. SUGRUE: Racism is the inequitable distribution of power and resources in the society. And a good example of that in the North would be racial segregation in housing and education, so that African-Americans tend to live in communities with underfunded and understaffed schools. Whites tend to have access to better education and better resources because of the geographic divisions by race that are still pervasive in our metropolitan areas.

CHIDEYA: So, Richard, do you think racism still exists, or that it's been overhyped or both?

Prof. FORD: Well, both actually. Racism certainly still exists. We live in a society that's strikingly racially polarized. And I agree that some of the most severe racial problems involve racial segregation in our nation's cities and in our schools, where funding inequities and inequities in educational opportunity are severe problems, and I could go on and talk about incarceration of particularly young black men in urban areas. So, no, we've certainly have not overcome racism.

At the same time, one of the things I say in my book is that we unfortunately tend to, when addressing racial problems, assume that there must be a racist behind them. And so, we point the finger of blame at the person who happens to be on hand, when in many cases, these problems are actually the effect of racism in the past, but not racists that are alive today. So, I think we need to look to more comprehensive social solutions for these problems rather than trying to find a bigot to pin to the dart board every time. But we absolutely still live in a society that's plagued by racism.

Dr. SUGRUE: I would agree with Richard. I mean, ultimately, we spend too much time trying to finger individual racists and not look at the ways in which it's built into our everyday life, to our political institutions, to our neighborhoods. It's there where we live it, that race still has real significance and meaning, not in terms of what we hold in our hearts or our souls.

CHIDEYA: Richard, when you talk about taking the focus away from individuals and putting them on systems, what are the means of redress and recourse? Because for example, in some places, people who've filed lawsuits, every now and then, you see a massive lawsuit on behalf of, say, employees at Coca-Cola or a certain company. Then, you know, you see everything from arbitration to conversation, to petty rebellions. What's the recourse when you see racial systems go array?

Prof. FORD: Well, the law provides for many mechanisms to deal with these types of problems, and one thing I'd like to emphasize that most people, both lawyers and non-lawyers, think that we have to find a racist in order to have legal redress. So, the image that most people have in their minds is that we look for a discrete state of mind, bigotry on the part of some decision maker in the - in management. And once we find that, then we can have a legal redress. But in fact, the law allows for redress even in circumstances in which there's no bigot to pin to the dart board, but where we see policies and practices, that have the effect of - have a discriminatory effect on members of racial minority groups. And the number - the remedies are in some cases for the employer to simply get rid of the policy, if the policy isn't justified by a good economic reason or a good job related reason. In some cases, it involves monetary compensation to the class of injured individuals.

CHIDEYA: Thomas, when you have looked at racism or race in the North, which is what your book, "Sweet Land of Liberty," looks at, how might people have played the race card differently in the north than they did in the South?

Dr. SUGRUE: Well, I think a lot of Northern activists, and I think Southern activists did this as well, put attention on trying to ascertain individual intentions rather than looking at the ways in which race and racial inequality were built into the structure of the economy, that it wasn't just a matter of racist employers individually harboring negative thoughts about African-Americans; that was part of the story, but a really important part of the story was the ways in which the cumulative effect of those decisions over time, set up workplaces in ways that basically cordon off African-Americans to one type of job and gave whites opportunities for other types of jobs. And that goes beyond an emphasis on individual intention to really looking at the whole way we organize our workplaces, our neighborhoods, our everyday life.

CHIDEYA: Richard, just briefly, how have people who are not black and not white - Latinos, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, people of mixed race - have been treated in this kind of dialogue?

Prof. FORD: Well, the law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race regardless of one's race, so it treats Latinos, Asians, Native Americans - to the extent they're understood as racial groups - exactly in the same way that it will treat African-Americans, and indeed, it also prohibits discrimination against whites. So, legally, there's no distinction made between the various racial groups. Now, of course, in social dialogue, I think it's fair to say that most of our country's discussion about race relations has taken the form of a kind of a black-white paradigm, that that was the most striking - those were the most striking examples historically of racial discrimination. And even today, they define many of the most severe cases. But I think that dialogue is beginning to shift, particularly as Latinos become such a large proportion of the minority communities in the United States.

CHIDEYA: All right. Gentleman, thank you.

Prof. FORD: Thank you.

Dr. SUGRUE: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: We were speaking with Richard Thompson Ford, professor at Stanford University's Law School. His book is called "The Race Card: How Bluffing about Bias Makes Race Relations Worse." Also, speaking with Thomas Sugrue, professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of "Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North." Richard Thompson Ford spoke to us from KQED in San Francisco. And next on News & Notes, Aretha Franklin brings us her take on the holidays, cooking tips and a new album.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: You're listening to News & Notes from NPR News.

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