Many of my academic colleagues are dedicated to the proposition that the United States is racist to the core. That, in fact, is the thesis of the influential book Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations, by former American Sociological Association president Joe R. Feagin. The nation is so deeply poisoned with white supremacy, in this view, that the country must pursue a massive mandatory re-education program for whites and compensatory political, economic, and educational benefits for all non-whites.
This argument has always puzzled me. I’m aware, of course, that racial inequality is one of the fundamental dilemmas running through American history. I grew up in the South during the period of the Civil Rights Movement. But I have also lived and traveled widely outside the United States and I have continually been struck by the fact that the U.S. is actually more egalitarian and more tolerant in attitudes and practices than most of the other places on our imperfect little planet.
A couple of days ago, I happened on the map above, which, according to an article in The Washington Post, shows the world’s most and least racially tolerant countries. This was the work of two Swedish economists who used data from the World Values Survey to see whether economic freedom made people any more or less tolerant. Apparently, they did not find a relationship between racial attitudes and economic freedom, but it is notable that “racist America” is, by their measure, one of the world’s most racially tolerant countries.
One can raise questions about the measurement. Attitudes are difficult to measure. I suppose one could also take the position of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, that racism is not a matter of attitudes, but of social structures, so that we have “racism without racists.” This ultra-radical proposition means that any statistical variation at all among groups, regardless of attitudes, is evidence of racism and requires the continual redesign of American society until a goal of complete categorical equality can be achieved. Like Feagin, Bonilla-Silva has no real world, historical basis of comparison for his condemnation of American society.
This lack of a real-world basis for comparison, I think, is the reason that social critics are often so willing to portray what is arguably one of the world’s most open, inclusive, and tolerant nations as redeemable from its racism only by a regime of radical transformation, and also the reason they blindly believe that some such regime of transformation actually would create their fantasy of a “just” society. These critics are not judging the United States by the standards of world history or by the standards of existing nations. Instead, they judge by the standards of a “counter-system,” the perfect society that exists nowhere but in their own imaginations. Measured against Cloud Cuckooland we will always fall short.
The Moral Liberal Sociology Editor, Carl L. Bankston III is Professor of Sociology at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA. He is the author and co-author of a number of books and numerous articles published in academic journals. An incomplete list of his books includes: Growing Up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States (with Min Zhou, 1998), Blue Collar Bayou: Louisiana Cajuns in the New Economy of Ethnicity (with Jacques Henry, 2002), and A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana (2002), Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation (hardback, 2005; paperback, 2007), and Public Education – America’s Civil Religion: A Social History (2009) (all with Stephen J. Caldas). View Professor Carl L. Bankston’s Amazon.com Page here. He blogs at Can These Bones Live?
Copyright © 2012 Carl L. Bankston III.