Chapter 3: Covert racism


Covert Racism

Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force (Martin Luther King, jr.).

Covert racism tended to replace overt racism in the US after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Covert racism has been found to be associated with liberal political attitudes (Dovidio & Gaertner, 1996, 2000), whereas overt racism has been found to be associated with conservative political attitudes (Sue et al., 2007a, b). Although simplistic in nature to the point of naiveté, this dichotomization on the racism spectrum can serve to foreground the predominance of covert racism from the mid-20th century onward and provide an initial understanding of its internal workings and external manifestations. Covert racism persists to this day in addition to overt racism, which has returned among the American people in very recent history.

Starting with the Freedom Summer of 1964, three civil rights activists were killed in Mississippi by the KKK (Southern Poverty Law Center [SPLC], 2007). Despite the most intense federal investigation being carried out at the time and the successful identification of more than 20 perpetrators, just one perpetrator was prosecuted. The case became known as Mississippi Burning.

Non-therapeutic clinical study. In 1965 the US Army, supported by the Dow Chemical Company, carried out a non-therapeutic clinical study on 70 inmates at the Holmesburg State Prison in Pennsylvania to study the untreated effects of dioxin[1] (Cockburn & St. Chair, 1998-1999; Hornblum, 1997). Dioxin was injected subcutaneously into the selected participants, most of whom were African American males. Biopsies and painful procedures were frequent. 

The principal investigator of the study, Albert M. Kligman, professor emeritus of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania, revealed his sentiments in public about the study participants. He said, “All I saw before me were acres of skin . . . it was an anthropoid colony . . . which wasn’t going anywhere. I was like a farmer seeing fertile field for the first time” (Greger, 2007; Kaye, 1997). These experiments ended in 1974 after a wave of bad publicity. Dioxin ended up becoming part of the biochemical arsenal of the US military in the form of Agent Orange.

The Moynihan and Coleman reports. The Moynihan[2] report and the Coleman[3] report were released in 1965 and 1966 respectively. The Moynihan report was intended to address the issue of the Negro family. It became one of the most controversial documents of the 20th century among American policy-makers, because of the apparent victim-blaming that was inherent in it. The Coleman report had been commissioned by the US Department of Education (DOE) and was intended to address the issue of equal educational opportunity and racial discrimination in the public schools of the nation. The sample upon which the report was based consisted of more than 650,000 students; one of the largest study samples in US history. The results of the Coleman report brought the American education system to the brink of revolution.

Both the Moynihan and Coleman reports claimed that “the deep-seated structural distortions in the life of the Negro-American” (Guthrie, 2004) would continue unabated unless White intervention occurred into the “deep-seated pathologies” (ibid.) of Blacks. The educational failure of African American children was blamed on the ‘dysfunctional’ structures of female-headed Black families. No mention was made of slavery and segregation as predisposing factors, both to the educational lack of success among Blacks and the prevalence of female-headed households in Black American families (Jones, 1997).

The Coleman report advocated for non-segregated classrooms to facilitate the educational advancement of African Americans. However, in a report released nine years later, Coleman found that where public school desegregation had occurred, this was often followed by White flight,[4] reverting the educational situation for Blacks back to square one.

The Kerner commission: White racism as barrier to change. In 1967, many groups of African Americans engaged in riots toward symbols of White American society in Detroit, Michigan. They acted in a similar manner in Newark and New Brunswick, New Jersey. All three cities were Black urban areas. In reaction to the dangerous situation, President Johnson appointed the National Advisory (Kerner) Commission on Civil Disorders (NACCD) to identify the reasons for these riots and develop strategies for change.

In a landmark report, the findings of which can still be considered applicable to this day, the NACCD (1968) found that the nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal” (ibid.), despite all the legislation that had been enacted in relation to the issue of racism in the US. It declared that:

“Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American . . . Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most White Americans . . . White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, White institutions maintain it, and White society condones it” (ibid.).

The Kerner report was the first time in US history that racism – in particular, White racism and White privilege (McIntosh, 2002) – was officially declared to be the core conflict in the nation (NACCD, 1968). Remedies proposed included a massive redistribution of income, creation of a million more federal jobs, higher minimum wages, greater welfare benefits, and increased federal spending on education and housing. The President’s National Advisory Panel on Insurance in Riot-Affected Areas also found redlining to be widespread, with insurers using race in a blatant manner as a determining variable when assessing underwriting risks.

More non-therapeutic clinical studies. In 1969, the CDC chose to continue the Tuskegee study, despite federal enforcement of the Nuremberg Code since 1966 for any PHS-funded research (McManus et al., 2005). The study was brought to an end through public outcry in 1972 after an internal leak to a newspaper brought it front and center to the attention of the American people. President Clinton (1997) later apologized in a formal manner on behalf of the US government to four of the senior-age study survivors in a public attempt toward racial reparation and healing.

In 1970, another non-therapeutic clinical study was carried out in which 82 indigent African American male and female patients at the medical center of the University of Cincinnati were given full-body radiation (Rothman, 1992). The patients were exposed to radiation levels 10 times the established safety level. Twenty-five patients died. Upon investigation, it transpired that all the signatures of the patients on the informed consent forms for the study had been forged.

That same year, Mexican-American women of low socioeconomic status in Texas were randomized into a clinical experimental study to determine the efficacy of different kinds of contraceptives. The participants were not informed about the nature and risks of the study. Most women ended up pregnant.

Also in 1970, Richard Milhous Nixon, the 37th President of the US, issued Order #4 to correct for the underutilization of minorities by federal contractors (Americans for a Fair Chance, 2003). In the meantime, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (P. L. 92-203) resolved the issue of aboriginal land claims in Alaska and provided for the facilitation of economic development. The Equal Employment Opportunities Act of 1972 (P. L. 88-352) banned employment-related racial discrimination.

Institutional review boards (IRBs). The National Research Act of 1974 (P. L. 93-348) established a nationwide public and private system of institutional review boards to ensure that a scenario of studies like Tuskegee would not reoccur. The National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research was also set up.

De facto resegregation. Despite the above, the racist core inherent in the psyche of the nation and upon which its society had been founded was never too far from the surface. Racism was just waiting for the right opportunity to re-emerge in modified forms.

The SCOTUS ruled in Milliken v. Bradley of 1974 (418 U.S. 717) that urban school desegregation did not require aid from more affluent suburban schools and districts to make classrooms more equitable in a racial manner. This ruling facilitated White flight toward affluent suburbs and resulted in racial and ethnic minorities becoming more and more concentrated in urban areas due to lack of adequate transportation services and finances (Orfield & Lee, 2006). The Milliken decision was considered comparable to the decisions handed down in Dred Scott and Plessy (Pettigrew, 2004), because it restarted the regressive trend toward de facto resegregation in the public schools of the nation.

Resisting affirmative action. In Regents of the University of California v. Bakke of 1978 (438 U.S. 265), the SCOTUS upheld the constitutionality of race as a variable when considering admissions to institutions of higher education, but not on its own. Bakke, a 35-year-old White male, had twice applied and been refused entry to the medical school of University of California at Davis. The Court ruled that untailored quota systems were illegal and mandated that race had to be considered with other individualized variables (e.g., grades) when deciding admissions to tertiary level institutions.

In Fullilove v. Klutznik of 1980 (448 U.S. 448), the SCOTUS upheld the 10% congressional allocation of federal funds to minority business enterprises. The Indian Land Consolidation Act of 1983 (P. L. 97-459) was passed to redress some of the injustices instituted by the General Allocations Act in relation to Native American land fractionations.

In United States v. Paradise of 1987 (480 U.S. 149), the SCOTUS found that Alabama had discriminated both in a systemic and systematic manner against African Americans for 37 years, because the state had never employed a Black police officer. It also upheld the use of quotas to combat systemic racial discrimination. In the meantime, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 (102 Stat. 904) was passed to ensure that the internment of US citizens would never reoccur. It contained within it provisions for a public apology and financial reparations by the federal government to former internees who were Japanese American.

The Glass Ceiling commission: Covert barriers to change. The Civil Rights (Glass Ceiling) Act was passed in 1991 (P. L. 102-166) to reinforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The concept of damages for emotional distress in cases of workplace discrimination and unlawful harassment were introduced. It also provided affected human persons with the right to a jury trial.

Under Title II of this Act (P. L. 102-166), George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st President of the US, appointed a federal bipartisan Glass Ceiling commission to determine the nature of the ceiling barriers present in the system of the nation, which prevented the advancement of racial and ethnic minorities in addition to women. The Commission was given the mandate to identify policies and practices that had facilitated advancement in the private sector. The glass ceiling was defined as “the unseen, yet unbreachable, barrier that keeps minorities and women from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of their qualifications or achievements” (ibid.).

The findings of the commission were second in import and substance only to those of the Kerner commission. The Glass Ceiling commission identified multiple interacting societal, internal structural, and governmental barriers to advancement for both racial and ethnic minorities as well as women. Societal barriers included those of supply and difference. Internal structural barriers consisted of recruitment practices, corporate climates, and pipeline barriers. Governmental barriers included inconsistent monitoring and law enforcement, in addition to inadequate reporting.

The commission declared that the US labor force was race-segregated and gender-segregated, with White males tending to hold the most senior positions. They reported that “women and minorities . . . [were] locked into low wage, low prestige, and dead-end jobs . . . not connected to any career ladder” (ibid.). Recommendations for change included the ongoing use of affirmative action, with managerial accountability for its progress; public disclosure of demographic data including race, gender, and ethnicity for the effective transparency and accountability of different processes; diversity utilization reviews, family- and work-friendly policies; and federal oversight of hindering practices. The findings of the Glass Ceiling commission remain relevant to this day.

De facto resegregation continues. In Board of Education v. Dowell of 1991 (498 U.S. 237), the SCOTUS ordered all neighborhood school desegregation plans to be dismantled, since such plans had been deemed unsuccessful in eliminating de jure segregation. This mandate was reinforced by another two Supreme Court decisions, those in Freeman v. Pitts of 1992 (503 U.S. 467) and Missouri v. Jenkins of 1995 (515 U.S. 70). Taken together, these three rulings confirmed the emerging trend toward resegregation that had been initiated by the Milliken ruling. Cremin (1976) had described in an eloquent manner what was happening when stating that:

“American society steadfastly refuses to give all children a genuine chance . . . most believed that education was for the elite and ‘the great mass of people should be trained as hewers of wood and drawers of water, if they are to be trained at all.’”

Modified applied eugenics: The Bell Curve. The above views about the intersection of education and opportunity became very overt when Hernnstein and Murray (1994) called for the nationwide establishment of a cognitive elite through their bestselling book The Bell Curve. Hernnstein was a psychologist who had written a revisionist history of the intersection of eugenics, intelligence testing, and racism (Snyderman & Hernnstein, 1983). Murray was a political scientist and Bradley Fellow of the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, one of the oldest and most influential public policy institutes in Washington, D.C. The bell curve was the original standard distribution curve adopted by the intelligence theorist and eugenicist, Charles Spearman, to denote the unequal distribution of fluid intelligence[5] based on the unequal distribution of the races (Jones, 1997).

Hernnstein and Murray (1994) declared the urgent need for the establishment of a cognitive elite to construct and implement policies and practices across the US on the basis of four points. These points were that:

  1. Intelligence quotient (IQ) was the best predictor of success in American life;
  2. IQ could be assessed in an accurate manner through intelligence tests;
  3. There were statistically significant correlations between metacognitive capabilities and race, with mean African American and Latino scores lying at one to one-and-a-half standard deviations below the mean scores for Whites and Asians;
  4. Race was biological and hereditary.

Using regression analyses of scores obtained by 12,000 youth on the US Armed Forces Qualifying Test (AFQT) in 1979 and 1990 as part of the US Department of Labor’s (DOL) National Longitudinal Studies of Youth, Hernnstein and Murray called for the social engineering of births in America toward women with high IQ to counteract the presumed legal, political, psychological, and social endorsement of mothers with low IQ – by extension, children with low-IQ – through neoliberal welfare and child support policies. They proclaimed that America was headed toward substantial downward social-cognitive causation from the ongoing failure of the Great Society programs of President Johnson, which had resulted in filial regression to less-than-mediocrity. Hernnstein and Murray added that barring change, “a significant part of . . . the population must be made permanent wards of the states” (ibid.).

The DOL studies had been bankrolled in part by the Pioneer Fund – a hate group as classified by the SPLC (2006). The Fund also financed social darwinist research that foregrounded the genetic superiority of races from Northern Europe (Flanders, 1999).

According to Hegarty (2007), the argument of Hernnstein and Murray echoed that of “Galton’s imperialist vision of a society lead by a male cognitive elite.” It was an argument that reflected the old positive and negative eugenics agendas of selective inbreeding of the fittest and coercive sterilization as moral imperatives, while integrating both psychological nativism and scientific racism. It was this precise agenda that had been endorsed in 1927 by the SCOTUS, which was exemplified by the words of Chief Justice Holmes:[6] “Three generations of imbeciles are enough” (Mehler, 1988). The agenda, both covert and overt, of Hernnstein and Murray was reminiscent of the travels of Goddard in the early 20th century when he had frightened Americans into believing in the rapid growth of feeblemindedness through lantern-slide presentations across the Union (Selden, 2007).

The argument set forth by Hernnstein and Murray (1994), however, ignored in a consistent and repeated manner the facts that:

  1. The AFQT is not an intelligence test, but a general knowledge test (Darlington, 1996);
  2. Intelligence tests (e.g., the Wechsler or Stanford-Binet tests) are not race-normed. Their verbal and nonverbal subtests[7] are culturally-biased toward, and loaded with, the formalized middle-class and English-based educational system in the nation (Dana, 1992, 1999; Helms, 2006; Sternberg, Grigorenko, & Kidd, 2005; Suzuki, Ponterotto, & Meller, 2007; Valencia & Suzuki, 2000);
  3. Intelligence tests do not assess all components of the multiply defined construct of intelligence (Neisser et al., 1996; Sattler, 2001; Sternberg, Grigorenko, & Kidd, 2005);
  4. The nativist perspective of intelligence had been debunked over and over (Gould, 1996; Neisser et al., 1996);
  5. Fluid intelligence[8] operates in environmentally and culturally-contextualized ways (Sternberg, Grigorenko, & Kidd, 2005);
  6. Formal education shapes crystallized intelligence (Snow, 1996);
  7. Racial and ethnic minorities had been excluded for longstanding periods from formal education;
  8. Human persons in performance-based settings tend to fulfill expectancy effects[9] (Speight, 2007; Valencia & Suzuki, 2000; Weinstein, Gregory, & Strambler, 2004) according to stereotype threat (Steele, 1997, 1998). These effects are correlated with a change of up to 27 IQ points.[10] Academic performance is positively correlated with ‘raceless’ student identities (Arroyo & Zigler, 1995);
  9. Intergenerational intelligence distributions at the filial dimension regress to the mean (Sattler, 2001; Smith, 2005);
  10. Race is a social, not biological or heritable, construct (Helms, 2005; Human Genome Management Information Systems – Oak Ridge National Laboratory [HGMIS-ORNL], 2003; Shih, Bonam, Sanchez, & Peck, 2007; Smedley & Smedley, 2005; Sternberg, Grigorenko, & Kidd, 2005);
  11. Consistent African American and Latino mean score differences of about one to one-and-a-half standard deviations below that of Whites and Asian Americans are thought to reflect class and/or other multicultural individual differences[11] (e.g., racial identity ego statuses).

Racial elitism based on an inherent and underlying mentality of the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race and its derivatives including Aryanism, together with a higher middle class-to-high class obsession with racial purity, was to bring even more challenges to egalitarianism, despite the US being considered the epitome of first-world civilization.

More challenges to affirmative action. In 1995, the University of California ended affirmative action programs throughout its school system. In Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Peña of the same year (515 U.S. 200), the SCOTUS called for strict scrutiny of the implementation of affirmative action policies and programs to determine whether racial discrimination existed in reality. The Court declared that affirmative action should be banned outright, but added that the persistent effects of racial discrimination required some use of race-conscious remediation.

The Adarand ruling stimulated various responses. For example, in his speech at the National Archives, President Clinton (1995) reiterated that:

“The purpose [of affirmative action is] . . . to give our nation a way to finally address the systemic exclusion of individuals of talent, on the basis of their gender or race, from opportunities to develop, perform, achieve, and contribute. Affirmative action is an effort to develop a systematic approach to open the doors of education, employment, and business development opportunities to qualified individuals, who happen to be members of groups that have experienced longstanding and persistent discrimination.”

After the ruling, President Clinton reviewed all federal affirmative action programs and called for them to be mended, rather than ended. In the meantime, the old and tired argument of non-White work being inferior in nature and quality to White work continues to this day under the mantle of the affirmative action debate. Diversity hires are often considered inferior in intellect and skills to non-diversity hires. The quality of work they produce, even at the highest levels of the academy, is diminished or minimized in a consistent and repeated manner (Vasquez et al., 2006).

The US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals then heard Hopwood v. Texas of 1996 (78 F.3d 932) whereby it struck down the race-conscious admissions process of the law school of the University of Texas, because it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The Court also forbade the school from considering race in any manner in its admissions decisions, either singly or jointly with other variables. Hopwood was represented by the Center of Individual Rights, a neoconservative organization that both lobbied for a ban to affirmative action and was bankrolled in part by the Pioneer Fund (Flanders, 1999).

That same year, Proposition 209 on the ballot of California amended the constitution to ban affirmative action statewide on the basis of reverse discrimination (Americans for a Fair Chance, 2003). Proposition 209 was upheld in 1997 by the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In 1998, the Initiative-200 of Washington (Civil Rights Act of Washington State, Chapter 49.60 RCW) amended the constitution of that state to prohibit “preferential treatment based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin” in public accommodation, education, or employment. However, the US Congress voted to end attempts at banning affirmative action programs across the higher education system of the nation (Americans for a Fair Chance, 2003).

The Wartime Violations of Italian-American Civil Liberties Act of 2000 (P. L. 106-451) provided some official recognition of governmental error in the internment of Italian Americans during WWII. However, the parallel internment of German Americans remained unaddressed. That same year, Florida banned affirmative action through its One Florida Initiative (Americans for a Fair Chance, 2003), whereas the DOL issued reporting regulations for compensation, hiring, promotion, and termination practices by federal contractors to promote equal pay for minorities. These regulations were the first federal reporting requirements of their kind in US history in relation to pay structures. The conflict between federal and state views on affirmative action was becoming institutionalized, with individual states attempting to undo what the federal government was granting minorities nationwide.

In Gratz v. Bollinger of 2003 (539 U.S. 244), the SCOTUS ruled that the points system of undergraduate admissions at the University of Michigan violated the Equal Protection Clause of 14th Amendment, because it was an untailored mechanistic quota system. The university was awarding 20-point bonuses at the time for underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities, toward the minimum of 100 points needed for admission.

The University of Michigan was sued by the White applicants Gratz and Hamacher after having been denied admission to its College of Science, Literature, and Arts. In a move considered by some as reflecting interference in the constitutional separation between the executive and the judicial branches of government, George Walker Bush, the 43rd President of the US, denounced the affirmative action policies of the university (The White House, 2003) and filed an amicus brief with the Court. However, in Grutter v. Bollinger of 2003 (539 U.S. 306), the SCOTUS declared the affirmative action admissions policy of the law school of the University of Michigan to be constitutional, because this policy was tailored to achieve a critical mass of underrepresented students from racial and ethnic minority groups.

In 2004, the American Indian Probate Reform Act (S. 1721) amended the Indian Land Consolidation Act, permitting the reversal of the land fractionation consequences under which Native Americans had ended up with parcels of land worth less than one dollar each. The number of federally-recognized Native American tribes was also increased from five to a total of 561 tribes.

In 2006, the Civil Rights Initiative of Michigan (ballot Proposal 2; MI 06-2) amended the constitution of the state to ban preferential treatment based on ethnicity, gender, or race. But in a converse move, the US House of Representatives renewed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by 92% of the vote. The renewal took place under the name of Voting Rights (Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King) Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act (P. L. 109-246). The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HR 1592) passed the US House of Representatives in 2007, facilitating the prosecution of crimes related to race, color, and national origin.


[1] A cancer-causing agent.

[2] Written on his own initiative by the Assistant Secretary of Labor, the sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1965), the report launched his first-tier career as a politician. He became a four-term US senator representing New York and a top advisor to President Nixon.

[3] A report of over 700 pages written by James Samuel Coleman et al. (1966). Coleman was professor of social relations at Johns Hopkins university at the time. He also served as advisor to President Nixon.

[4] The mass exodus of Whites from an institution, area, or location in order not to intermingle with minorities.

[5] g.

[6] Holmes was a student of eugenics. Before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the coercive sterilization of the financially, legally, and mentally challenged was enforced by law in 30 states (Guthrie, 1997, 2004; Strickland, 2000).

[7] These subtests are presumed to assess both fluid and crystallized intelligence capabilities.

[8] The heritable component of intelligence.

[9] The Pygmalion effect.

[10] Almost two standard deviations.

[11] Within-group variations.