New York Law School

Racism’s New Face


Racism’s New Face

Not much more than 60 years ago, Black people, who were legally relegated as second-class citizens, began a movement to put an end to the terror that was part of their everyday lives. The Jim Crow system, which operated primarily in the southern states, made their lives a living hell. Not only were Blacks disenfranchised by the laws, they were also caste into a position of permanent social inferiority. Black people faced indignities on a daily basis with signs such as “No dogs or Negroes Allowed,” “White only Drinking Fountain,” or “Colored Served in Rear.” Subsequently, with the help of national television, Americans witnessed Blacks being fire hosed, beaten with batons and fists, spat on, attacked with police dogs, simply because they were either attempting to register to vote, have lunch at a “Whites Only” lunch counter, or ride in the front of a bus. Television helped to put a face to racial discrimination and oppression, which was brutally open and unapologetic, and helped to win sympathy and galvanize support for the movement across racial lines.

As a result, Black organizers in the Civil Rights Movement and their allies fought for and won significant federal legislation and litigation victories, such as Brown v. Board of Education, holding that separate but equal schools for Black and White children was unconstitutional; the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; the Voting Rights Act of 1965, prohibiting racial discrimination in voting; and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, providing for equal housing opportunities regardless of race, creed, or national origin. Following the federal government’s lead, many states and localities enacted similar laws.

These resulting laws, which were aimed at ending racial discrimination once and for all, helped to erode many of the overt racial barriers that Americans had become familiar with on their televisions, however, they did not eliminate racial discrimination. In fact, racial discrimination continues to be a pervasive reality in the everyday lives of Black people, sometimes appearing in a form today that is less conspicuous than the overt oppression of Black people that was displayed on national television some 60 years ago. Describing this new face of racism, University of Wisconsin sociology professors Matthew Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer, explain that, it is “like a recessive tumor, twenty-first-century racism has disguised itself, calling itself by other names and cloaking itself behind seemingly “race-neutral” laws, policies, practices, and language”[i]. Moreover, this mutated, more sophisticated form of racism continues to penetrate every facet of Black life. For example, the criminal justice system, the housing market, and the labor market are replete with examples of ongoing systemic racial discrimination.


The Criminal Justice System

Black people make up only 13% of the U.S. population—yet they makes up over 40% of the prison population, while Whites and Latinos who make up 64% and 16% of the U.S. population, respectively, represent 39% and 19% of the prison population[ii]. A major reason for this disproportionate representation of Blacks in the prison system is the so-called “War on Drugs[iii]” which has disparately impacted the Black community. For example, Blacks makes up 38% of those arrested for drug offenses and 59% of those in state prisons[iv]. One reason for this outcome is the disparity in federal sentencing laws, which had a 100 to one ratio between crack cocaine and powder cocaine to trigger the same sentence. Although the Fair Sentencing Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 2010, reduced the crack to powder cocaine disparity to an 18 to one ratio, and the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015, which is currently before congress, calls for retroactively lessening the sentences for a select number of drug offenses, the fact remain that there is still a sentencing disparity. However, the sentencing disparity does not fully explain the higher rate of drug arrest among Blacks, or the disproportionate representation of Blacks within the prison system.

Other data suggest that implicit bias—stereotypes that affect our decision-making process in an unconscious manner—probably play a role in stops, arrest, and sentencing of Black people. In her study on the influence of stereotypic associations on visual processing, Jennifer L. Eberhardt of Stanford University found that most Americans associate Black people with adjectives such as violent, aggressive, or criminal[v]. This subconscious stereotypical association with Black people as criminals may help to explain why Black children are 10 times more likely to be arrested and sentenced for drug crimes even though White children are more likely to use drugs than Black children[vi]. Moreover, Black drivers are three times as likely to be searched than White drivers, even though they were stopped at similar rates—and moreover, stopped White drivers were twice as likely to be carrying drugs than stopped Black drivers[vii]. This sort of motorist profiling has become known as Driving While Black (DWB).

A well-documented incident of DWB occurred on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1998[viii].   A van carrying three Black men and one Latino man—Danny Reyes, Keshon Moore, Rayshawn Brown, and Leroy Grant—was pulled over on the Turnpike by state troopers, ending with the police firing 11 shots injuring three of the young men. The four young men were on their way to a basketball tryout at North Carolina University when they were pulled over. The police alleged that the driver of the vehicle attempted to reverse the vehicle onto one of the two officers; however, the young men contended that they were fully cooperating with the officers. When the vehicle was searched all that was found were basketball gear and a bible. Fed up with this sort of police profiling, community leaders pressured the State’s Attorney General to probe into the matter. The State’s attorney found that although Blacks and Latinos were only 13% of drivers on the Turnpike, they accounted for 40%of all traffic stops and 80% of those arrested[ix]. As a result of the New Jersey incident, many community leaders throughout the country, who were hearing similar complaints from young Black men in their cities, forced city officials to look into their city’s policing practices, which turned out to be no different than New Jersey’s—the New Jersey incident exposed what was a national phenomenon[x].

Another well-documented phenomenon of racial profiling that resulted in a disproportionate number of Black and Latino men ending up within the criminal justice system was the New York Police Department’s (“NYPD”) Stop Question, and Frisk policy, which allowed the police to stop, question, and frisk individuals they “reasonably suspected” of committing a felony or misdemeanor[xi]. Between 2004 and 2012, the NYPD conducted over 4.4 million stops, 52% of who were Black and 31% Latinos, were stop and frisked[xii]. As a result, a disproportionate number of Black and Latinos were put through the system and even though the arrest rate was only 6%—6% of 4.4 million means tens of thousands of Black and Latino young men going through the system[xiii].   The collateral consequence of these arrests, even though most did not lead to a conviction, was life changing for many of these young Black and Latino men. Many of these young men either lost their jobs, because of spending unnecessary days going through the system, lost a bed at a homeless shelter, or access to affordable housing[xiv].   Irrespective of these consequences, then mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, refused to adhere to the community leaders’ call that the policy was disproportionately impacting Black and Latino communities.   However, in 2013, a federal judge in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York held that the NYPD’s stop and frisk policy was unconstitutional, because it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Nonetheless, Black and Latino youth impacted by Stop and Frisk are still grappling with its social and economic effect.



Another area where racial discrimination is still prevalent is the housing market. According to a 2012 Department of Housing and Urban Development audit measuring housing discrimination against Blacks and other racial minorities, racial discrimination in the housing market is expressed in a more subtle form than the more blatant slamming the door in your face, which occurred in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, Black people are told about or shown fewer rental or housing units, given less assistance with financing, and are steered into less wealthy neighborhoods, compared to their White counterparts[xv]. For example, the study found that Blacks inquiring about renting property were shown 11.4% fewer units than their White counterpart; and those looking to purchase homes were shown 17% fewer homes than their White counterparts[xvi].

These more subtle forms of racial discrimination not only limit housing options for Black people, but they also limit employment and educational opportunities, and access to social networks that are necessary for healthy development. In effect, this sort of de facto segregation, more than concentrating Black people into resource-deprived enclaves, tends to stunt the growth of entire communities. In a recent study, the Social Science Research Council showed that Black youth living in highly segregated metropolitan areas tend to have higher than average disconnection rates (16 to 24 year olds, who are neither in school nor employed and lacks access to vital social networks), whereas, White youth tend to have lower than average disconnection rates; In other words, residential segregation by race disproportionately harms Black teenagers and young adults[xvii]. Not surprising, the disconnection rates for Black adults mimic that of young adults in these segregated communities. As a result, discriminatory housing practices that steer Black people into resource-deprived segregated communities help to perpetuate cycles of poverty and despair, which is compounded by lack of economic opportunities.


Labor Market

Current research also suggests that race still continues to play a major role in labor market disparities. According to the Federal Reserve Board’s triennial Survey of Consumer Finances in 2010, non-white families earned about 65 percent of what White families earned[xviii]. Moreover, in 2013, the wealth of White households was 13 times more than that of Black households compared with 8 times the wealth in 2010[xix].

Employment statistics paint a similar picture. For example, a Princeton University study found that Black people are twice as likely to be unemployed as White people. What is more, the study shows that applicants with White-sounding names triggered a higher percentage callback rate than Black applicants, even though they had equivalent resumes. For example, applicants with names such as Brad and Emily triggered a 50% higher callback rate than equally qualified Black applicants with names such as Jamal and Lakisha; moreover, Black applicants who were called back were offered salaries that were 15 cents less an hour than their White counterpart[xx]. Granted, these studies do not account for all of the factors that contribute to Black people’s social and economic outcomes, however, they do show that Black people with similar qualifications to their White counterparts are handicapped before even getting out of the gate. This sort of implicit racism, similar to what occurs in the criminal justice system, produces social and economic outcomes in Black and Latino communities that makes it even more difficult for the next generation to break the cycle of poverty and despair.

In spite of these and other factors in the criminal justice system and the housing market that tend to limit opportunities, Black people are hopeful and resilient—as is evident by the BlackLivesMatter campaign—and is continuing to push for positive change. Racial discrimination and oppression are still major problems for Black people. Most of the time, it is neither overt nor intentionally sanctioned by state power; nonetheless, it can be found in every facet of the system. And despite its concealed nature, today’s civil rights leaders can, with the help of social science data, convincingly show that racial discrimination, not only still exist but that it is systemic. Moreover, justice require, not only the showing of continued racial discrimination and oppression, but also the demanding of reasonable corrective. In short, identifying the problem is one thing, finding lasting solutions requires greater effort and consistency. Nonetheless, this effort must be made if we are to not only honor those that came before us but also secure a future for our children’s children. In the words of Frederick Douglas, “power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”




[iii] The War on Drugs is a term that refers to a campaign to prohibit the recreational use of certain types of drugs. First introduced by president Richard Nixon in 1971, the War on Drugs did not acquire its modern day character until president Ronald Regan reenergized the campaign in 1982. The federal and state policies that were an of shoot of the campaign focused on criminalization, followed by harsh penalties especially for crack cocaine, which resulted in a disproportionate representation of Black men in federal and state prisons.






[ix] Id.



[xii] Id.

[xiii] Id.









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