Skin Deep in America

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This year marks 400 years since slaves were first brought to the shores of what is now the United States of America. Unlike other notable anniversaries, this is not a cause for celebration.  But it should, however, motivate us to reflect and to take stock of where we are today.

Yet that is exactly the problem: very few Americans are willing to take an honest look at the legacy of slavery and how it has impacted our society today. Worse, we have become accustomed to a culture of censorship where words like “racism,” “white privilege,” “white supremacy,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “systemic racism” cause knee-jerk reactions that prevent any opportunity to explore new views and examine ourselves. We complain that political correctness censors us as we tiptoe around issues. We complain that these days everyone is accused of racism when actually only a few extreme people are racist. We dismiss grievances about discrimination or microaggressions by accusing the aggrieved as “playing the race card.” We defend ourselves by claiming that our ancestors didn’t own slaves, or that we worked really hard to become successful in our careers, or that black and brown people prefer to live in their own neighborhoods and socialize among themselves (though we might also claim that we have friends of color).

I’ve been asked to write about white supremacy, but I feel caught in a double bind: I’m not going to be able to convince anyone of anything new. Race is a subject that cuts us deeply as a society and personally. It challenges our ideas about our own self-worth and accomplishments. We either already recognize the symptoms of white supremacy, or we feel angered at the suggestion. Unless, of course, we espouse an ideology of white supremacy – but that’s a different matter.

Inequality in the US

In this context, it’s not at all clear what to say. Although statistics fail to persuade people who are already ideologically committed to a position, I share a few from respectable sources that I find compelling.

For every $100 in white family wealth, black families hold just $5.04. And instead of improving, wealth inequality has gotten worse over time: “Between 1983 and 2013, the wealth of the median black household declined 75 percent (from $6,800 to $1,700)” (Institute for Policy Studies).

I find this startling. How do we account for these vast differences in family wealth? In the US, the explanation often given is that blacks live in crime- and drug-ridden neighborhoods. They have unstable families, disproportionately rely on welfare, and are lazy or make poor life choices.

Here’s another set of statistics, this one about hate crimes motivated by race or ethnicity, provided by the FBI for 2017:

Hate crimes motivated by race or ethnicity, 2017 (as reported by the FBI)
48.8 percent were motivated by anti-Black or African American bias.
17.5 percent stemmed from anti-White bias.
10.9 percent were classified as anti-Hispanic or Latino bias

Because religious bias also motivates hate crimes, here are some FBI statistics about hate crimes against religious groups in 2017:

Hate Crimes against religious groups, 2017 (as reported by the FBI)
58.1 percent were anti-Jewish.
18.7 percent were anti-Islamic (Muslim).
4.5 percent were anti-Catholic.
3.2 percent were anti-multiple religions, group.
2.4 percent were anti-Protestant.
1.8 percent were anti-Other Christian.
1.4 percent were anti-Sikh.
0.9 percent were anti-Hindu

To really make the two sets of numbers meaningful, one must put these percentages into the context of the much lower percentage of the population in the US represented by African Americans, Hispanic/Lantinx, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus.

So, on the one hand, we see enormous economic inequality, where overall whites in America hold majority of the wealth. On the other hand, we have evidence that the majority of hate crimes are motivated by bias against non-whites and against non-Christians.

The US abolished slavery in 1865 with the 13th Amendment of the Constitution, and the Civil Rights act of 1964 made segregation and employment discrimination based on race illegal, but do we really believe that we have turned the page on the effects of systemic racial discrimination?  Are white Americans correct to think that racism today exists only in a few fringes of society? Have we examined how the legacy of slavery has endured in the structures of our society – our neighborhoods, boardrooms, schools, and grocery stores – and in our minds?

White supremacy

So, let me turn to focus on two types of white supremacy, one perpetrated by racists and the other by racist systems. The statistics about hate crimes listed above are expressions of active white supremacy, of racism. In more extreme cases, this has manifested in the mass shootings in El Paso, the Emanuel AME Church massacre in Charleston, SC, at the mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. When Trump explains that these acts are committed by very troubled people, he is correct. To a certain extent. However, these acts are not reducible to mental illnesses. They are rooted in ideologies about us/them, self-preservation/fear, superiority/inferiority. These ideologies overlap among people in what is now, thanks to the generosity of the world wide web, a global network. In ways that are insightfully explained by others and experienced in lesser degrees by many of us, these people enter an echo chamber fueled by algorithms that feed off fear and anger.

This violence is, relatively speaking, a rare phenomenon. But as terrorist acts, they can be effective at spreading fear among all people and especially those who already feel marginalized and discriminated against. However, the fact that these acts of violence is a growing phenomenon that is also matched with far-right politics that fuel animosity toward brown and black skinned migrants should be concerning to us all.

Here I need to dispel another misconception that leads to inability to discuss race across US political divides. As, Seth Jones, chair of Center for Strategic and International Studies, explains,

“the terms “right-wing extremists” and “left-wing extremists” do not correspond to political parties in the United States, such as Republicans or Democrats. Instead, right-wing terrorism commonly refers to the use or threat of violence by sub-national or non-state entities whose goals may include racial, ethnic, or religious supremacy; opposition to government authority; and the end of practices like abortion.  Left-wing terrorism, on the other hand, refers to the use or threat of violence by sub-national or non-state entities that oppose capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism; focus on environmental or animal rights issues; espouse pro-communist or pro-socialist beliefs; or support a decentralized sociopolitical system like anarchism” (2018).

Americans these days tend to see everything through the lens of Republican or Democrat and are therefore unable to discuss issues honestly and without political bias.

The second type of white supremacy is based in systemic racism – on the racism perpetuated by systems and by people who are not necessarily racists. While most of us are quick to condemn extremist acts of hatred and violence, we have a harder time looking at the ordinary violence of the everyday. This violence is evident in the above statistics regarding distribution of wealth. Other indicators are seen in life expectancy, infant mortality rates, health status, and education and employment levels. In all these areas, whites outperform blacks in the US. They also outperform Hispanics/Latinx in most measures of wellbeing.

Why is there such disparity between white and black family wealth?  Many of the foundations for the current racial divide were built through 246 years of slavery, when blacks had no possibility of earning anything for themselves and their families. But a series of policies and practices from the early 20th century significantly increased the racial divide by preventing blacks from obtaining the same opportunities as whites.

After the Great Depression, the government established the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to sponsor loans for purchasing homes and to increase employment with house construction. However, FHA excluded people of color through the practice of redlining, in which the government created color-coded maps of neighborhoods. Those in “red” neighborhoods lived in “bad” neighborhoods, which were predominantly black, and were ineligible to receive government-sponsored loans. From 1934 to 1968, as the FHA made home-owning more accessible, only 2% of government-backed loans went to people of color. Instead, black home buyers had to take loans from predatory land contracts, which increased the cost of their home purchases significantly. Redlining was widespread in Chicago, where “the practice of ‘land contracts’ led African American families to pay an average of $20,000 more for their homes than the prices paid by White families, ultimately stripping more that $500 million in wealth (about $3 billion in 2017 dollars) from families of color over a 30-year period” (2017).

At the same time, as white families bought homes, especially in suburbs away from city centers, businesses also opened, and wealth in those communities flourished. Suburban neighborhoods avoided selling to blacks, and racial segregation continued. “The Road to Zero Wealth” provides an excellent analysis of the racial wealth divide in the US.

These government policies and practices of racial discrimination have shaped the neighborhoods in America today and, crucially, have resulted in very few families of color being able invest in the future of their families and in the communities in which they live. Even if income levels today were the same for blacks and whites (they’re not), there is no chance for black families to catch up. Today, public transportation fails to provide practical transportation between black and white neighborhoods. Today, healthy food is available in the grocery stores of white neighborhoods. In contrast, some people of color live in what are called food deserts. One needs to imagine the long-term societal and personal impact of these disparities.

Whites are generally unconscious about their color or what it means to others. That is because in much of American society, whiteness is assumed. Most of the shops, neighborhoods, grocery stores, and workplaces they visit are populated by whites, with only a few black or brown people. Looking around the boardrooms of most companies, most faces are white. In everyday life, then, color does not figure very high in a white person’s mind. They know neighborhoods that are predominantly black, but avoiding those neighborhoods does not hamper them from having a job or a fulfilling life.

In contrast, being black or brown means that one must enter white spaces regularly in order to get needs met: to work, or to get a better education or healthier food. Entering these spaces, one is aware of one’s color. This is in part because those who hold most power and economic resources are white, so one must conform to expectations set by whites in order to get by. If you have traveled to a country where your cultural norms or skin color are in the minority, you can understand the choices to make about behavior – whether to adjust to the cultural norms of the society you’re visiting (when in Greece, do as the Greeks) or be yourself (and possibly offend). Imagine doing that daily – in your own home country. But it’s not merely about adjusting behavior in order to fit in; it is the fact that most systems have been created by whites, are governed by whites, and –whether intentionally or not – benefit whites. Adding to the stress, these are also spaces where one experiences discriminatory behavior and remarks. Take for instance the example of “driving while black (or brown).” This is incomprehensible to whites who do not have to raise teenage boys to fear police (who also learn to fear black men). For brown people, this fear is compounded by the knowledge that police may also demand evidence of citizenship. I have been many places where I stood out as a minority, but in almost all cases that afforded me extra privileges.

Changing demographics

So, what happens when census experts inform us that the demography of the US – and much of Europe – is undergoing dramatic change due especially to immigration? That by 2050, whites will be in the minority in the US?  Already we are seeing several things happen: There is an increase in white nationalist organizations and their activities since 2008. Conservative pundits are stating that white Americans are becoming an endangered species. And white Americans are claiming that they are facing more discrimination against them than blacks are. Against the backdrop of statistics provided above, these claims suggest something else is going on.

When we begin to think that our ways of life are being threatened by others, we’re motivated to protect our own.  We’re more likely to support policies and politicians that will benefit our own group rather than others. The system of inequality is not enforced by racists alone. It is also enforced by people seeking to secure the future and wellbeing of their own group. Unfortunately, both groups reinforce systems of inequality.

Most people are probably not racist in the sense that they have antipathy toward others. When whites feel threatened by immigrants and changing demography, most are doing something pretty natural: protecting and preserving their community and ways of life from change. But the problem is that wealth in the US and globally is not distributed fairly. And the immigrants who are feared, just like the blacks in the US, hold substantially less wealth and power. Protecting and preserving our community then perpetuates a horribly unjust system of inequality.

Race as construction

I’ll end this article with a few comments that I usually begin with when discussing race. Race has no biological reality. Race is not encoded in our genes. The categories that Americans use for “race” and “ethnic” identities, such as Black or African American, Asian, Hispanic or Latinx – do not reflect biological facts. This is now commonplace knowledge among biologists and human geneticists. But in the US, we have many folk theories about race, including the “one drop rule,” where any person with a drop of African blood is considered black. Consider also the ever-evolving census reports. In the 1920s, when the US was experiencing a similar “crisis” about immigrants, Italians and Irish were not considered “white.” For a time, Arab Americans were considered honorary whites. In the 2000 census, a person with Middle Eastern origin was included as “white” (Hill 2008:15). These categories of “race” are debated and change over time. They do not reflect biological facts.

But none of this means that race and racism are not real experiences. As cultural constructions, we infuse meaning – stereotypes, expectations, power – onto the categories that we have created. Because of the enormous imbalance of power, wealth, prestige, and access to resources – including health care, education, and healthy food – the system keeps perpetuating inequality, even by those who are not racists.

Because of the global power of the US, how Americans address race impacts how people in other nations act and think as well. Jane Hill, who studies white racism in the US, suggests that globally, “White American racism is considered to be at least as typical a feature of life in the United States as is American wealth. People in other countries measure their own local experiences of racism against what they believe to be American patterns, deplore the global influence of American racism, and wonder how it is that American life can encompass such a contradictory combination of the best and worst in human nature” (2008:x).

400 years is a lot of history to reckon with. But I cannot imagine anything more important than to set this right.


Lisa Irene Knight is Professor of Religion, Asian Studies, and Anthropology and Chair of the Department of Asian Studies at Furman University in South Carolina.





Asante-Muhammad, Dedrick, Emanuel Nieves, Chuck Collins, and Josh Hoxie. 2017. “The Road to Zero Wealth: How the Racial Wealth Divide is Hollowing Out America’s Middle Class.” Prosperity Now. (Posted September 2017; accessed 12 September 2019).

Daniels, Jessie. “the algorithmic rise of the ‘alt-right.’” Contexts 17:1, 60-65. 2018 American Sociological Association. (accessed 26 September 2019)

Coates, Ta-Nehishi. 2015. Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

Farley, Robert. 2019. “The Facts on White Nationalism.” A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center. (Posted 20 March 2019; accessed 10 September 2019).

Hill, Jane H. 2008. The Everyday Language of White Racism. West Sussex, UK and Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, A John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., Publication.

Incidences and Offences. FBI 2017 Hate Crime Statistics.

Jones, Seth G. 2018. “The Rise of Far-Right Extremism in the United States” CSIS Briefs. (accessed 15 September 2019).

Parker, Kim, Rich Morin and Juliana Menasce Horowitz. 2019. “Views of Demographic Changes.” Pew Research Center: Social and Demographic Trends. 21 March 2019; accessed 28 September 2019).

Thompson, Brian. 2018. “The Racial Wealth Gap: Addressing America’s Most Pressing Epidemic.” Forbes.  (Posted 18 February 2018; accessed 12 September 2019).


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