Maxwell School, Syracuse University

Political Dealing or Racial Healing?

John Yinger
J. Milton Yinger

Imagine this: The President of a leading democracy responds to a series of terrorist acts against a racial minority by traveling to the site of one such act and calling for racial healing. "Show the forces of hatred they cannot win," he says. Leaders of the opposition party denounce him for taking advantage of the situation. One leader says that the President "does not see a tragedy, he sees a photo op," another calls the President's statement "a political event" and a third calls it "transparent, shameless politics." 

The nation, of course, is our own. The terrorist acts are the burning of over 30 churches with predominantly black congregations over the last eighteen months. The opposition leaders are Dick Armey, Majority Leader of the House of Representatives; David Beasley, Governor of South Carolina; and Haley Barbour, Republican national chairman.

How could things have come to such a pass? Why do some of our leaders respond with partisan whining to thoughtful, appropriate comments on one of our nation's greatest problems? How can we get the national discussion of our racial and ethnic divisions back on track?

 Let's start by looking at the facts.

Despite common perceptions to the contrary, racial and ethnic discrimination remains widespread. Evidence from recent matched-pair studies shows that both black and Hispanic households face a 50 percent chance of encountering some form of unfavorable treatment each time they visit a housing agent. They may be totally excluded from available housing, shown fewer units than equally qualified whites, offered less assistance in finding a mortgage, or steered to minority neighborhoods. Extensive recent evidence indicates that minorities are more likely than equally qualified whites to be turned down for a mortgage, more likely to be offered a mortgage on unfavorable terms, and less likely to be given assistance in filling out a mortgage application. Recent matched-pair studies of hiring practices reveal that young black and Hispanic men are less likely than equally qualified whites to be offered a job.

Racial and ethnic disparities in economic and social outcomes, which reflect past and current discrimination, remain disturbingly large. The black male unemployment rate, for example, is more than twice the white male rate, the black poverty rate is almost three times the white poverty rate, the black homeownership rate is twenty-five percentage points lower than the white homeownership rate, and blacks are far more likely than whites to attend high-poverty schools. Disparities between Hispanics and nonHispanic whites are almost as large. These disparities, along with disparities in many other outcomes, have persisted for decades, often without any decline.

Discrimination, disparities, and divisions impose large costs not only on minority citizens, but also on our society as a whole. In today's competitive global economy, we place ourselves at a disadvantage when must spend so much time and money dealing with racial and ethnic conflict, and we cannot afford to undermine the productivity of so many of our citizens.

In our democratic society, there is plenty of room for reasonable people to disagree about the best way to enforce anti-discrimination legislation or the best form of affirmative action.

But there is no place for leaders who belittle attempts to bring about racial and ethnic healing, who try to divide us for partisan advantage, who pretend there is no discrimination, or who act as if racial and ethnic disparities will disappear if we simply ignore them.

We call on all leaders of both parties and on national figures outside of government to join President Clinton in denouncing racial and ethnic hatred, to support the enforcement of anti-discrimination legislation, and to search for new ways to break down the barriers that divide us along racial and ethnic lines.

 

 *John Yinger, Trustee Professor of Public Administration and Economics at The Maxwell School, Syracuse University is the author of Closed Doors, Opportunities Lost: The Continuing Costs of Housing Discrimination (Russell Sage Foundation). J. Milton Yinger, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Oberlin College, is the author of Ethnicity: Source of Strength? Source of Conflict? (SUNY Albany Press).
 

Trustee Professor of Public Administration and Economics