Steven Frank

Why racism persists in America

As we all recognize, Israel has many issues. One of them is race. Recently, the treatment of Ethiopian Jews in Israel has made headlines. There are 135,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel, about two percent of the population. However, unlike the United States, where African Americans were imported against their will as slaves, and where, even under the United States Constitution, they only counted as three-fifths of a white person, Ethiopian Jews were brought to Israel in state-sponsored missions (Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991) designed to rescue them from the perils in their homeland. Once in Israel, they became full citizens with all the rights and privileges of any other Israeli citizen. Still, problems persist and the Israeli government and its people are seriously addressing charges of discrimination.

In sharp contrast, 150 years after the end of the Civil War in the United States, racial issues for the forty million African Americans in the United States (approximately 13% of the population) remain persistent and inflammatory. But instead of addressing the root causes of racism in America and its still segregated society, progressive Americans are satisfied with merely exorcising the symbols of racial inequity. Here’s a recent report from the front.

On June 17, 2015, a deranged racial supremacist shot and killed nine African Americans at a historic black church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. Immediately thereafter, a mass social movement arose to ban the Confederate Flag which had motivated the killer. As a result, Wal-Mart, Amazon, Ebay, and others announced plans to stop selling the flag and similar merchandise emblazoned with the symbol of racial hatred. Warner Brothers proclaimed that they were halting the production of “General Lee” car toys, which features the flag on the roof. Within weeks, the Confederate flag was officially removed from the capitol grounds of South Carolina. White Americans felt good about themselves. African Americans buried their dead.

America has learned to condemn racism in no uncertain terms. After Ferguson, Baltimore, and now the horrific tragedy in Charleston, the public shakes its collective head, posts appropriate platitudes on Facebook, and goes about its business. If someone utters a racially insensitive remark in public, they are immediately condemned, banned, fined, or otherwise driven from polite society by cable news. Everyone goes home feeling better about themselves, having distanced themselves from racial divisiveness.

That’s the problem. Everyone goes home, distancing themselves, not only from racial insensitivity , but from race itself. A recent study sponsored by the Russell Sage Foundation (“US2010: Discover America in a New Century” by Brown University sociology Professor John Logan) showed that the average white American lives in a neighborhood where more than three quarters of his neighbors (77 percent) are also white.  Only seven percent are black, while 10 percent are Latino, and 4 percent are Asian. The average white’s neighbors in Portland, Maine are 95 percent white, and in the 30 major metropolitan areas with the lowest neighborhood diversity, the average white’s neighbors are more than 85 percent white. Most of us loudly and proudly condemn racism, but live in a racially-segregated bubble.

And, contrary to progressive Americans’ sanctimonious view that racism and its symbols are confined to the backward states of the old Confederacy, it is a national problem, as prevalent in New York as it is in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. According to the University of Michigan’s Social Science Data Analysis Network, the ten most segregated urban areas in America are Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, New York and Milwaukee. Not Atlanta. Not Houston. Not Ferguson. But New York and Chicago.

New York’s West Village is 83% white. A study found Long Island to be the most segregated suburb in America. Last summer, the Michigan town of Grosse Pointe Park built a farmer’s market in the middle of one of the few streets that allowed cars to pass between the predominantly white affluent suburb and the nearby urban, and mostly African American, Detroit neighborhoods. If you live in the 97 percent white enclave of Delmar, New York, a suburb of Albany, you could probably spend your entire life without ever seeing a person of color.

It is easy for Facebook social activists, comfortably ensconced in their white enclaves to hit the “like” button on posts calling for the removal of statues of Confederate generals from the town square. It is much harder to actually confront racism in their daily lives when the only race they encounter is their own.

I happen to live in Washington, D.C., a fairly diverse place where over half the population is African-American. But even here, the city is divided strictly along racial lines. The Northwest quadrant of the city is virtually lily white, the Northeast and Southeast quadrant largely black, and the Southwest quadrant, where I live, is mixed. Although my neighborhood is not a haven of integration, it is a place where whites and blacks mix daily and naturally in grocery stores, pharmacies, parks, and restaurants, and on public transportation.

I know that my life is enriched by the relative diversity in which I live, chatting with elderly African Americans about vegetables at the grocery store, discussing sports and politics at the local barber shop, experiencing blues at the church, listening to my mostly African American fellow jurors explain their experiences with the police during jury duty, and even, walking past crime-ridden housing projects on my way home from the ballgame. Those whose only experience with African Americans is the occasional stop and chat with the one African American lawyer in their white collar law firm or the few African American professors on their otherwise white campus, are missing out on an important conversation. As an African American acquaintance of mine told me: “every white person has one black friend.”

In 1968, the Kerner Commission Report on Civil Disorders concluded that “[o]ur Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” Almost fifty years later, much progress has been made. But, on their way home tonight, Americans should look around themselves and ask: “where are the African Americans?” Removing the symbols of hate, such as the Confederate flag, just like removing people of color from their daily lives, is not the answer. The answer lies in finally having an honest, open discussion about race in America. One-hundred fifty years after the end of the Civil War, it’s time.

About the Author
Steve Frank is retired after a 30-year career as an appellate lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. His writings on Israel, the law and architecture have appeared in numerous publications including the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, the Jerusalem Post, the Jewish News Syndicate and Moment magazine.