U.S. Progress on Inequality Depends on Addressing Systemic Racism, Experts Say

Joseph P. Williams

In the spring of 2020, as the novel coronavirus pandemic swept into the United States from Europe and Asia, a disturbing pattern emerged: African Americans were twice as likely to become infected with the virus, and die from COVID-19, than whites -- evidence, experts say, of longstanding racial, economic and health disparities, hidden in plain sight.

Months later, as the pandemic death count spiraled, George Floyd died face-down on a Minneapolis street, a white police officer pressing his knee on the Black man's neck. A bystander's video of the killing ignited fierce protests nationwide, demanding justice for Floyd and spurring an overdue reckoning on race.

Yet in January, a mob of far-right extremists, white supremacists and backers of former President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington in a deadly riot, bent on overturning the results of the 2020 presidential election, by violence if necessary. Some in the mob sported MAGA gear; others wore neo-Nazi paraphernalia and waved Confederate flags.

If the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama was to have ushered in a unified, "post-racial America," then events of the past 13 months confirm that, when it comes to race, the U.S. is still a house divided against itself. Some 156 years after the Confederate Army surrendered to Union forces at Appomattox to end the Civil War, a nation that stands as a global beacon of freedom and liberty is unable to atone for its "original sin" of slavery.

Views about racial inequities are shown in the 2021 Best Countries report and rankings, an annual survey on global perceptions of countries. Of the 78 countries evaluated, the U.S. is seen as among the 10 worst countries for racial equality.

Additionally, while the vast majority of U.S. survey respondents say diversity is important for society, less than 48% of Americans agreed with the statement, "My country treats everyone equally," a lower proportion than the 54% of the 17,000 global respondents who agreed with the statement.

Since March 1877, when Congress approved The Great Compromise -- a political deal to resolve a disputed election that awarded Rutherford B. Hayes the presidency, removed federal troops from the South and gave rise to the Ku Klux Klan -- the United States has been locked in a near-perpetual cycle of racial advancement and white backlash, experts say.

The African American civil rights movement in the South, for example, was often met with violence, including the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Pushing back on Supreme Court rulings banning segregation in housing, education and public facilities, whites in some communities closed pools, shut down schools and fled to the suburbs. After Black voters in Georgia and elsewhere turned out in large numbers to help defeat Trump in the 2020 election, more than a dozen Republican-controlled state legislatures drafted laws stiffening voting requirements.

A central reason for the backlash, experts say, lies in the country's unwillingness to fully confront its enslavement of Black Americans, acknowledge that the "peculiar institution" helped build its wealth or dismantle white supremacy, a cornerstone of its social order.

"America is a fundamentally racist society and it is an indelible part of this country," says Kyle T. Mays, assistant professor in African American Studies and American Indian Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. "From prison rates to segregation to wealth disparities to educational inequality, the numbers show that (people of color) continue to suffer disproportionately across most social metrics," with racism at the root.

Jamila Taylor, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a left-leaning Washington think tank, agrees that "racial bias both in overt and covert forms, is so pervasive in this country" and has helped retard the growth of communities of color. Despite recent attention to the problem, she says, "We are continuously met with opportunities to dismantle it, yet continue to fall short."

Others, however, insist the current moment of crises -- a pandemic revealing vast inequality, ongoing demands for racial justice and the Trump-fueled rise of white nationalism -- has overshadowed more than a century of drastic cultural changes when it comes to race. They say combatants on either side of the Civil War could not have imagined a Black man in the White House, let alone doctors, lawyers or movie stars of color.

"Moments for change are always present in the U.S. when it comes to racism and the need for racial justice," says Taylor, who specializes in health care policy at TCF. "Have we ever had a period of time that didn't glaringly call on us to address our racial problems once and for all? I think not."

Pippa Norris, a comparative political scientist and professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, says there is "considerable evidence that America is becoming far more tolerant today than it was, say, in the 1950s." Segregated schools and bans on interracial marriage have vanished, she says, and an emerging generation of young white people are locking arms with African Americans, standing against racial injustice.

"The younger generation are far more liberal, partly because, of course, they live in diversity," says Norris, an adviser on election integrity and co-author of the book, " Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit and Authoritarian-Populism." Having grown up with gay marriage and a black president, she says, "The under-20-year-olds, themselves, are almost in minority, in terms of the distribution of population. Over time, as one generation dies out and another generation expands, you can see a rise of racial tolerance."

Progress, Yet Critical Gaps Remain

Few would disagree that the U.S. has seen fundamental change since April 9, 1865, when Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee grudgingly signed the terms of surrender to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in Appomattox. Politically and culturally, African Americans have made profound advances in a country that once saw them as chattel.

Black voters have become a powerful political bloc that helped Obama serve two terms and propelled President Joe Biden, a one-time longshot, into the Oval Office with Vice President Kamala Harris. King, the civil rights icon, has been memorialized with a federal holiday and a memorial in Washington, near those dedicated to Lincoln and Jefferson. In 2019, 4.2 million people visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, and Vice President Kamala Harris -- the first woman of color to occupy the office -- is a graduate of Howard University, an historically Black higher-ed institution, and is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, an African American sorority that dates to the early 1900s.

Nevertheless, "We have to be careful not to equate the success of individual people of color with the elimination of structural barriers," says Jessica Fulton, vice president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a nonprofit that analyzes race and economic policy.

While representation is important, "it isn't an indicator the structural barriers have been eliminated" or that Black people have achieved equality, Fulton says. "They are more likely an indicator that these specific people of color have had the opportunity to achieve in spite of those barriers."

Indeed, there have been persistent, trans-generational gaps between African Americans and whites in a host of important categories, from health to wealth.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Blacks ages 18 to 49 are twice as likely than whites to die from heart disease, and are more likely than whites to be diagnosed with chronic afflictions like hypertension and diabetes. Black men and women are jailed at more than triple the rate of whites, and nearly half of all inmates awaiting execution are Black.

The economics of race aren't much better: The percentage of Black people living in poverty is more than twice that of whites and Black unemployment is about double that of whites. A 2019 Federal Reserve study found that, on average, a white household has eight times the wealth of a Black one. That gap, according to the report, has held steady since 2016.

"If by 'progress' we mean that the du jure forms of Jim Crow segregation are over -- and that is debatable -- then yes, race relations have progressed," says Mays, the UCLA professor. Yet from prison rates to segregation to wealth disparities to educational inequality, the numbers show that (African Americans) continue to suffer disproportionately across most social metrics."

Backlash Against Progress

While many point to the ballot box as a solution, "Georgia just passed a voting law in order to largely suppress African American voting," Mays says. Coming just after Black voters in Georgia sent Raphael Warnock, a Black man, to the U.S. Senate for the first time in its history, experts say, the new restrictions dovetail with the Jan. 6 attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election -- evidence that the forces of racial resentment are pushing back.

In a Washington Post essay published on April 6, political scientist Robert A. Pape of the University of Chicago wrote that a study he conducted of those arrested in the riot indicated that resentment -- whites' fear they were losing status to minorities -- was a key factor.

"Counties with the most significant declines in the non-Hispanic white population are the most likely to produce insurrectionists who now face charges," Pape wrote. "For example, in Texas the majority of the state's alleged insurrectionists -- 20 of 36 -- live in six quickly diversifying blue counties such as Dallas and Harris (Houston)... In fact, all 36 of Texas's rioters come from just 17 counties, each of which lost white population over the past five years."

History shows that "there has always been a series of far-right extremist movements responding to new waves of immigration to the United States or to movements for civil rights by minority groups," Pape told The New York Times. "You see a common pattern in the Capitol insurrectionists. They are mainly middle-class to upper-middle-class whites who are worried that, as social changes occur around them, they will see a decline in their status in the future."

Norris, the Harvard professor, agrees. Even though their socioeconomic status is largely unchanged, "some older whites feel as though they're doing worse off. In practice, levels of unemployment and income are not that much worse off. And it's not simply that they're being told that they're worse off. You could argue that (they are threatened by) growing racial tolerance amongst the young ... that they can no longer have the status they had."

Though she believes racial progress will probably continue, if haltingly, Norris says she is worried that racial resentment among whites is fueling the rise of right-wing authoritarianism in the U.S., with the Republican Party as its vehicle.

"Because they've become more extreme, they've moved from what you can turn a conservative party" in favor of free markets and fiscal responsibility "to something far more authoritarian in their values towards outsiders -- those who they think are not quite American for a variety of reasons."

And that is a huge impediment to racial progress. Despite a history of bigoted public statements, including coded and overt appeals to whites in both the 2016 and 2020 campaigns, former President Trump collected the second-highest number of votes of any presidential candidate in United States history. Biden, his successor, is the only candidate to win more.

"What's changed, I think, is that under Trump we saw racism become much more explicit" in "dog-whistle" political appeals, she says. "The traditional white rural America (ambiguity) on things like Charlottesville was only kind of the tip of the iceberg. There are many other kinds of signals that are being sent out. And that's unfortunate for the mainstream within the Republican Party, by and large."

Fulton says "it is possible" for the U.S. to end the two-steps-forward, one-step-back approach to ending racism, "but it will take systemic change. There needs to be an acknowledgement of how racism pervades every American institution: it is ingrained within socio-political systems, housing, health care, the economy, and the list goes on."

Race "is a social construct that was created for the sole purpose of subjugating entire groups of people based on skin color," she says. "This social construct was institutionalized and has been able to thrive for centuries. We can't expect the solutions needed to dismantle racism to be implemented and take effect overnight."

And it's not as simple as it sounds, she says.

"This will take time, as well as the political will and right actors to be in place," Fulton says.

Joseph P. Williams writes for the Healthiest Communities section, exploring and investigating the social determinants of health including poverty, racial inequity and access to care. He joined U.S. News & World Report in 2014 as an editor and writer in the News section, covering national news, politics and the U.S. Supreme Court. Before coming to U.S. News, Williams worked as a senior editor at Blue Nation Review; as a political analyst for print, television and radio outlets including "The Jeff Santos Show" and "Washington Watch with Roland Martin"; and as an editor and White House reporter for Politico. Previously, Williams worked as the living editor and the deputy Washington, D.C., bureau chief for The Boston Globe, the assistant managing editor for local news at the (Minnesota) Star Tribune, and a staff reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. A graduate of the University of Richmond, Williams was awarded a Nieman Fellowship by Harvard University in 1995 to study race and the judicial system. Follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn or email him at JWilliams@usnews.com.