ABC News: Colin Powell on Iraq, Race, and Hurricane Relief

In a September 8 interview with ABC's Barbara Walters, Colin Powell said

When you look at those who weren't able to get out, it should have been a blinding flash of the obvious to everybody that when you order a mandatory evacuation, you can't expect everybody to evacuate on their own. These are people who don't have credit cards; only one in 10 families at that economic level in New Orleans have a car. So it wasn't a racial thing — but poverty disproportionately affects African-Americans in this country. And it happened because they were poor.

The last two sentences of this quote are troubling because of the naivete they indicate regarding the nature of racism. Racism is the prejudicially differential treatment of people because of their race. Powell understands that African-Americans are disproportionately poor. How does he think this situation arose? Of African descent himself, surely he does not believe that African-Americans are intrinsically less capable, less worthy, less energetic or effective? We know this not to be true, and we believe that Mr. Powell does as well.

The fact that African-Americans are disproportionately poor testifies in itself to the existence of racism. The truth is, there are are still powerful institutional structures working against economic equality for African-Americans. These structures are racist structures. Even if we grant the premise that the discrimination reflected in them is not intentional, we should not shrink from calling it racist!

Black people in American today are disproportionately poor because their ancestors were brought to North America against their will, were subjugated under the worst kind of oppression, and were systematically denied liberty, property, and opportunity. Once emancipated, the effects of their subjugation were not miraculously wiped away. They were victimized by laws and cultures that continued to keep them down because of their race. If that is not racism, what is? A racist legal and political system kept them in poverty, and that a few have overcome that system should only sharpen our focus on those have not and why.

Racism is not principally about prejudice in interpersonal relations. It is principally about the existence of systems that stack the deck against people of some races. Improvement of race relations and the building of an integrated society are important goals. Achieving them will certainly help. But we have a moral duty also to change the structures of our society so that poverty, lack of education, lack of access to medical care, lack of a safe and secure environment do not fall disproportionately on blacks. These adversities reflect a racist society. Until we learn to identify racism and call it by name, our work against it is bound to be ineffective.