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The minefield of American racism

| Friday, September 19, 2014

When former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum visited Notre Dame this week on tour for his new book, “Blue Collar Conservatives,” he enthusiastically advocated a controversial solution to poverty in America, noting that America’s political leaders should express their support for marriage and family. Santorum cited a CDC report that shows the poverty rate for married families in America is five percent, but 40 percent for single-mother families.  While this may not prove causation, other studies have affirmed Santorum’s conviction that family breakup perpetuates the cycle of poverty in America.

In his book, Santorum argues that family breakup has been especially devastating in African-American communities. Today, 67 percent of black children do not live with their fathers, according to a Pew Research Center estimate. He dismisses racism as a cause of tragic poverty in minority community, in his book, arguing, “we need more from [President Obama] on this subject. Promoting responsible fatherhood, particularly in the black community, could be his greatest legacy, if he cared enough to do it.”

When asked Wednesday evening if there are systematic or institutional inequalities in America and if the government has a role in righting those inequalities, the former senator responded with the following:

“Is there inequality? Certainly it depends on how you measure that. When you look at the economic situation for black America versus white America and you say, well, they’re unequal, so therefore there’s inequality. I think you could probably say that. If you look at incarceration rates, there’s inequality. There’s lots of things you can look at for inequality. But the question is: what’s the root of that? Is there some inequality at the root that leads to that inequality as a result? That’s a lot harder to dig through, because it’s multi-factorial … this is where it gets real difficult because it’s easy to point to something and say, well, it’s just that people are prejudiced and that’s the problem. And it’s very hard, as we’ve seen a lot of political figures, entertainment figures, even the black ones — Spike Lee or Bill Cosby — when they try to address this issue they just get hammered by the establishment and so if Bill Cosby and Spike Lee are going to get hammered, I’m not going to walk into that minefield. They have more credibility than I do on this issue.”

Everyone agrees that racial inequality in America is a difficult topic to discuss. But it’s most difficult for Americans who suffer from systemic racial inequality every day. According to an estimate from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, almost one of every three African-American males will serve time in prison over their lifetimes.

“And how do you think the dad ended up like that? Almost 85 percent of young men in prison grew up without a father in their home,” Santorum writes in his book.

When thinking about the “root of inequality,” let’s look at those fathers’ fathers, and their fathers’ fathers, etc. After Reconstruction, Southern business owners figured out that they could legally enslave former slaves if they were convicted of a crime. Thus, they established the notorious Jim Crow laws that unjustly incarcerated the African-American population. In the North, white crime lord syndicates and state governments took over the illegal lotteries, working with local police forces to eliminate their African-American competitors by imprisoning them. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 abolished Jim Crow, but disproportionately high incarceration rates remained. In the 1980s, the “War on Drugs” disproportionately targeted crack cocaine, which has the same effects as cocaine, but is more prevalent in lower income and African-American communities. Today’s mandatory minimums for people convicted of certain crimes still reflect the racism of the 1980s. I recommend Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” for further reading about the history of racism and incarceration in America.

This is the history of the United States of America. This history may be a minefield, but we must understand the origins of our institutions if we hope to eradicate poverty and racism. Racism may be a “multi-factorial” problem, but racism contributes to poverty, so that makes poverty a “multi-factorial” problem as well. Santorum, who served in Congress for 16 years and ran for president in 2012, refuses to “walk into that minefield.” This is how institutional racism persists. You may not hate other races, but we all support systemic racism if we are afraid to talk about racial injustice and we elect leaders who are quick to blame but don’t work to understand the “roots that lead to inequality.”


Maria Caponigro


Breen-Phillips Hall

Sept. 18

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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