Democratic Underground  

The Resegregation of America
December 18, 2002
By Boyce Brown

The neo-confederate tripe recently served up by Trent Lott at the 100th birthday party of Strom Thurmond was clearly reprehensible and should rightly cost Lott his leadership position. What all the pious hue and cry over such blatant racism obscures, however, is the fact that widespread belief in the useful fictions of civil rights and upward mobility facilitates the maintenance of a two-tiered society every bit as effectively as Plessy v. Ferguson ever did - so effectively as to essentially render moot the animosity towards that Supreme Court decision long held by Lott, Thurmond and even Chief Justice Rehnquist himself. With the transformation of Kennedy's war on poverty into Reagan's war on the poor - lately and dramatically reinvigorated by the Bush Administration - de jure integration only masks a greatly intensified de facto resegregation. A key distinction of this new resegregation, however, is that it is less about whites repressing blacks than the rich repressing everyone else.

Even as landmark civil rights legislation was passed (in spite of epic filibusters from Strom Thurmond), white flight into the suburbs was already decimating the property tax base available to inner city schools and obliterating much of the gains made possible by Brown v. Board of Education. Even today, limited educational opportunity remains the central factor in keeping down the income and - more importantly - asset development levels of the working poor, a trend which continues to impact blacks disproportionately. For example, in the 1990s they earned about 80 cents for every $1 in income earned by whites but only owned a shocking 10 cents for every $1 in assets owned by whites.

This inequity makes it extremely difficult for the working poor to gain access to the higher education, home ownership and small business development they need to pass on even modest amounts of wealth to their children. This is, of course, greatly exacerbated by a regressive tax system, in spite of recent editorials in the Wall Street Journal about some working poor being "lucky duckies" for paying little or no income tax, asinine comments designed to hide innumerable examples of outright legalized property theft, such as the fact that half of the recent "tax cut" stolen from Social Security went to the richest 1%. The economic distinctions of this reverse Robin Hood syndrome have frequently been given physical form in recent decades in mass public housing and major highway development. All too often, the new interstate or ring road identifies and consolidates the racial and class divides of a community.

These circumstances force the economic conscription of the working poor into the military during times of "peace" and their legal conscription during times of war, when potential long-term "overproduction" and social equity is prevented by enforcing the periodic destruction of a mass of productive forces - not simply weapons but bodies as well. While defense and corporate welfare spending continue to rise dramatically, valuable social service programs comprising a comparatively small portion of the national budget are eviscerated. This leads many seeking solace or misguided economic opportunity to drugs, which continue flooding into our inner cities in spite of a decades-old war on drugs. Even when transport isn't directly facilitated by the CIA, narco-trafficking all too often provides lucrative off-the-books financing for the allies and goals of misguided American foreign and intelligence policy, a strategy of truly monstrous cynicism that, needless to say, dooms interdiction efforts before they begin.

Amidst this urban environment of strategically created hostility and hopelessness, the police are more often seen by minority communities as colonial armies than as forces designed to "serve and protect" them, a hypocrisy which also extends to the courts, who regularly give harsher sentences to, say, blacks on crack charges than whites on powder cocaine charges. New jail construction can hardly keep up with campaign promises by politicians to be tough on crime, with little noticeable effect on crime rates. Our ever-increasing incarceration rate is already many times higher than that of any other nation in a category we used to belong to - democracies. This disenfranchises huge percentages of young black men in particular - and "justifies" the illegal scrubbing from voter rolls of many more by incorrect felony records, most recently and dramatically in Florida in 2000 and 2002. Blacks also remain the predominant target of disinformation and intimidation campaigns aimed at preventing them from voting, as we saw across the country during recent elections - again.

When does complicity bleed into collusion? When does collusion become conspiracy? It's impossible to say in one sense, and irrelevant in another, a matter of semantics that has nothing to do with the fact that, taken as a whole, lowered education funding, regressive taxation, reactionary urban planning, perennial militarism, reduced social spending, the influx of drugs into inner cities, a double standard in the law enforcement and criminal justice systems, the dramatic development of the prison-industrial complex, and enduring voter harassment have all been incredibly effective in systematically perpetuating a permanent underclass - composed not only of blacks but the working poor as a whole - by keeping them broke, disorganized, unhealthy, disenfranchised, and subservient.

In a very direct and real sense, it has also enabled the laying of the statutory foundation for a constitutional dictatorship over the past two years. The basics are already in place and there's more to come with the next Congress - with or without the cheer leading and rubber stamp of Trent Lott. The very shamelessness and scale of this hypocrisy and greed would be laughable if it weren't so incredibly immoral and counterproductive, if it didn't create so much tangible human misery. While Lott may have inadvertently shown America the casual cruelty and painful ignorance at the heart of the militarized plutocracy of the Republicans, we cannot afford to delude ourselves into thinking that the censure of one man ends our obligation to challenge the less noticeable but far more nefarious examples of racism already in progress. As we stand poised on the cusp of losing democracy, security and prosperity for some time to come - perhaps indefinitely - the fate of the battle for racial (and by extension social) justice may well end up serving as the canary in the coal mine of the American experiment.

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