This article is one in a series of arguments on U.S. history in our summer issue.
Barack Obama sought the middle of the road. “It is incontrovertible that race relations have improved significantly in my lifetime,” he told an interviewer in 2015. But, he added, “the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution in our lives . . . that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on.”
Nikole Hannah-Jones is not so optimistic. “Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country,” she wrote in the lead essay for the 1619 Project. The bequest of slavery, conjoined at the founding with America’s vaunted claims to freedom and self-government, yielded a racial inheritance that we have not yet, and maybe never will, overcome.
Saying “racism is in our DNA” is to speak metaphorically. The argument is not that racism is literally programmed in the genes. At the same time, the reference is curious, given the long, invidious association of genetics with the idea of “race” as embodied differences in moral character and cognitive ability. It is arguable that every instance of modern racism depends upon and returns to this intellectual source code. One might ask, then, why would anti-racists go there?
To answer this question, we need a better account of the racial policy regimes and conflicts of the post–civil rights era. By the 1990s, three competing approaches with different conceptual vocabularies and legal arguments had emerged: one embraced the language of colorblindness, another emphasized the persistence of explicit racial bias, and a third focused on both more subtle and expansive notions of institutional or systemic racism.
Until quite recently, colorblindness had won the law and policy argument. A curious metaphor in its own right, colorblindness suggests that the best way to address the stubborn and unpleasant fact of racial difference is by not seeing it with our full-spectrum capacities, if at all. Such a tortured conception belies an aggressive political project, inverting applications of equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment to restrict anti-discrimination law, limit affirmative action and proactive school desegregation, and provide race-neutral justifications for mass incarceration and voting rights restrictions.
In the Obama years, whatever political truce had been forged among U.S. elites over colorblindness unraveled, particularly once states moved to limit voting after the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder released them from federal oversight under the Voting Rights Act. Meanwhile, the persistent problem of racial disparities in police violence and criminal punishment erupted with a new intensity. The rise of Black Lives Matter protests gave decisive impetus to longstanding criticisms of the colorblind legal and policy regime, reinforcing the perception of racial stalemate during the post–civil rights era, with America’s penal complex, according to a popular title, described as tantamount to a “new Jim Crow.”
The resurgent idea that “racism is in our DNA” has emerged as a shorthand for thinking about the historical continuities of racial domination and overturning the colorblind legal and policy approach. If colorblindness rests on the claim that the civil rights movement changed everything, the idea that racism is in our DNA borders on a fatalistic proposition that it changed little or nothing. Colorblindness counseled “benign neglect” in the face of persistent racial disparity, viewing the latter as a “tangle of pathology,” which Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously argued was now “capable of perpetuating itself without assistance from the white world.” The claim that “racism is in our DNA” insists instead that racial disparities are evidence of social injustice produced by racism, demanding policy remediation.
The metaphors we live by tell us a lot about our predicament. Colorblindness—an impairment of the senses—was always more about sanctioned indifference to racial inequality than ensuring fairness. To explain away enduring racial disparities, colorblind partisans reopened the door to racist science and culturalist explanations of poverty. But those who focus exclusively on racial disparity risk falling into a trap of their own by treating racial differentiation as if it stands outside of history and determines its course. The bitter irony is that essentialist thinking about racial inheritance has crept back into contemporary life, as we can see in the turn to epigenetic trauma, DNA ancestor quests, and ontological conceptions of racial identity.
Colorblindness and the DNA metaphor are linked by an unstated commitment to the stubborn truth of racial difference, particularly along a black/white axis, as the prime mover of American social and political life. Each abandons more ambitious efforts to denaturalize race: to supersede both racist and racial frameworks. Racism and racial differentiation repeat not because they have been designed or preset in a manner that determines or codes the future, let alone our bodies, but because they are conserved by moral, legal, political, economic, and spatial orderings of society that have never been fully or even adequately reconstructed on non-racist principles and according to non-racial standards of justice.
If racism is a type of code, it is more like malware, introduced into and then inherited from history and human decision-making, not nature. It must be reiterated in each generation. The process of reiteration, however, is not a direct recapitulation of the past. A major reason for this is that collective struggles for racial equality have engendered partial reconstructions and repair of corrupted operating systems, substantively changed the terms of racial ordering, and created new opportunities and path dependencies. While historical underrepresentation of racial minority groups still arranges participation in our most powerful and influential institutions and shapes wealth disparities, elite struggles over representation have also made concrete gains and now unfold among people with substantially overlapping social experience, and similar professional and educational opportunities.
In the United States we tend to think that race is predetermined but class is malleable. But what if class position is both durable and inextricable from persisting material inequalities framed in racial terms? This stubbornness of class differentiation at the bottom of our society illuminates the inadequacies of both the colorblind and racial disparity frameworks. In the United States today, non-wealthy people who must work to live remain sharply divided by race, region, occupation, and urban/rural location, but they are united by their greater exposure to prison, poverty, and premature death. Racial wealth gaps owe primarily to the immense concentration of land ownership and financial assets among the top 10 percent of the population, and are especially concentrated among wealthier whites. As historian C. Vann Woodward once quipped, in the United States “white supremacy” has always been about “which whites are supreme.”
Class position remains differentiated by what Barbara and Karen Fields call “racecraft,” which diversifies the elite and divides the demos. Black abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass gave an early intimation of how this works, describing the “craftiness” by which slaveholders fostered the “enmity of the poor laboring white man against the blacks.” “The white slave had taken from him by indirection,” he wrote, “what the black slave had taken from him directly and without ceremony.” This is not an argument that we need simply to prioritize class over race and racism, but rather to recognize how in American history race and class division comprise a singular prismatic field and political assemblage. We need a clear understanding of this interrelationship, its mutability, and the agents and mechanisms responsible for perpetuating its worst features if we hope to create a more just and equal society.
Nikhil Pal Singh is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History at New York University. His most recent book is Race and America’s Long War (2017).