Volume 10 Number 3 1997
White Racism: The Basics, Joe R. Feagin and Hernan Vera, Routledge, 1995, 230 pages, £12.99 paperback.
White Racism is a bold and provocative book, that argues against those contemporary social critics, who claim that the significance of 'race' is declining in American society. Feagin and Vera's theoretical starting point is the belief that black racism does not exist. For them, arguments pertaining to black racism or 'reverse discrimination' are meaningless, as whites have not been subject to the same historical and political forces that blacks have, i.e. blacks lack institutional and social power in being able to reinforce their personal prejudices:
`Racism is more than a matter of individual prejudice and scattered episodes of discrimination. There is no black racism because there is no centuries-old system of racialized subordination and discrimination designed by African Americans to exclude white Americans from full participation in the rights, privileges, and benefits of this society' (p.ix)
Feagin and Vera argue that the 'declining significance of race' theorists are at odds with the empirical evidence, which underscores their argument that racism is alive and well in America. Compelling evidence is presented, showing the racial inequalities in education, health, employment and income, which result in the fact that blacks are three times as likely as whites to be living in poverty. For Feagin and Vera the primary factor lying behind the social condition of blacks in America is white racism, defined as the 'socially organized set of attitudes, ideas, and practices that deny African Americans and other people of color the dignity, opportunities, freedoms, and rewards that this nation offers white Americans' (p.7, emphasis in original).
Feagin and Vera use a number of diverse case studies to illustrate how embedded racist ideologies still are within mainstream American society. These range from detailed examinations of incidents of racial discrimination against blacks in educational settings and employment practices, to an analysis of police racism, via a sophisticated and persuasive reading of the police beating of Rodney King and the subsequent media coverage of the 'Los Angeles riots', or what Feagin and Vera prefer to describe as 'the largest urban rebellion by black and Latino Americans in the twentieth century' (p.97). There is also a comprehensive analysis of how 'racial icons' have been used in Presidential campaigns, in seeking to appeal to racist sentiments within white America. Here the 'Willie Horton' advertisement used by George Bush in his 1988 campaign, and Bill Clinton's denouncement of the supposedly racist remarks made by the rapper and activist Sister Soulijah, are perceptively examined.
Finally, in a chapter entitled 'The Souls of White Folk', Feagin and Vera examine the extent to which racist attitudes and views are held by white Americans and how this affects their beliefs about African Americans, by conducting ninety exploratory interviews with female and male whites across America. A vivid picture is portrayed of widespread racial stereotyping and even outright hostility towards blacks by white Americans, despite often denouncing racism as being morally wrong and not considering themselves to be racist. Feagin and Vera argue that the costs of white racism are not born solely by blacks but that whites too pay a moral, psychological, and sometimes financial, cost for their anti-humanist beliefs, regardless of whether they actively participate in racist actions or not:
`At an individual level white racism indicates a massive breakdown in empathy across the color line. Whites who discriminate against blacks, or who stand by while other whites discriminate, reveal they have given up the ability to take the black person's place, to imagine what it would be like to be in his or her situation. The lack of empathy on the part of whites entails a denial of others' humanity - and thus of their own' (p.174)
In a welcome contrast to most sociological analyses of racism, which are often happy to just describe racism and its effects, without offering any remedial solutions to the problem, the authors prescribe a number of steps for overcoming racism. These range from the more 'liberal' solutions of arguing for increased multicultural training and education and the inclusion of 'new courses on the oneness of all humankind' (p.184) in all the U.S. educational programs, to the more radical proposals calling for major reparations to be paid to African Americans, which would `mark a collective recognition by white Americans of the severity and consequences of racial oppression' (p.187). Feagin and Vera also argue for a new constitution, and thus a new constitutional convention, which would include:
`...representatives, in proportional numbers, of all racial, ethnic, religious, class, and gender groups. Such a broadbased assembly would ensure for the first time in history that the white majority encounters a discussion of and pressure for the constitutional interests and rights of all minorities' (p.191)
White Racism has a number of failings that are related, in part, to its strengths. The book provides illuminating and unequivocal evidence of the continuing racism in American society. However, the force of the argument, and the evidence presented, is at times so overwhelming, that you are left wondering at the end if any measures could ever eliminate such deep seated racial sentiments. The proposals that are suggested also highlight some of the deficiencies of the book. For example in calling for reparations to African Americans, no attempt is made to acknowledge that that other social relations, such as class, need to be considered. Simply giving money to the African American population may have the desired symbolic effect, but in terms of challenging the underlying economic and social structures that produce and reproduce black America's current position, such measures would do nothing. How, for example, could one argue for the likes of Michael Jordan or Oprah Wimphrey being given money simply on the basis of being black? And what of the effect on those white working class, who are committed to an anti-racist society, who would see money going to their next door neighbours on the basis of her or his skin colour? As well as unintentionally reinforcing the common-sense racist assumption that blacks are a problem, such measures would not address any of the structural constraints affecting the working class, black or white. Thus because Feagin and Vera fail to show how racism interrelates with questions of class and gender, they are then left to make recommendations that treat 'race' as if it were an independent variable unrelated to these other social structures, which it clearly is not.
Despite these drawbacks the book does put such debates more clearly onto the agenda and forces the reader to confront the pervasiveness of racism in America, which is sometimes underplayed in more liberal and conservative accounts. The book's relevance to the British context could not be more obvious. The avoidable deaths of Stephen Lawrence, Joy Gardner, and Brian Douglas, to name just three, and the continuing high rates of black unemployment and low educational attainment, make Feagin and Vera's arguments all the more compelling for the British reader, especially if we are to avoid their almost apocalyptic analysis of future 'racial relations': `In our view U.S. society cannot afford white racism in the long run, for it may well destroy this society as we know it sometime in the next century' (p.xiii).
Leeds Metropolitan University
Copyright Ben Carrington 1997