In fact, the good news is that racial prejudice is on a steep decline. Today, racism is taboo and most people do more than try to hide it – they want to overcome it. That doesn't mean they always succeed: Racial stereotypes still poison race relations and vicious bigotry surfaces even in the minds of basically decent people. Old-school bigots of the Bull Connor ilk still rattle sabers. And extremist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Neo-Nazis still find converts. But they are extremists, far outside the mainstream. We haven't overcome racism yet, but each new generation is less prejudiced than the last.
So what accounts for the bad news? Today's racial inequities are largely the result of America's racist past and the stubborn effects of poverty and isolation. Decades of discrimination have produced dramatically segregated neighborhoods. The black middle class took advantage of civil rights reforms and moved away from inner cities, but they left a poorer and more isolated underclass behind.
Today's ghettos aren't just poor and racially segregated – they're cut off from the prosperous mainstream of American life. These are places where joblessness is the norm, crime is rampant, and decent people have to hustle in the gray-market economy to survive. Teens living in these neighborhoods have no role models to teach them how to navigate the work-a-day world.
As a result, even the diligent and talented have a hard time finding regular work. Many turn to crime and find themselves saddled with the stigma of a criminal record, making it that much harder to earn an honest living. That can lead to a vicious cycle of poverty, isolation, and dysfunctional socialization.
Many civil rights activists, perhaps understandably, seize on any opportunity to draw needed attention to persistent racial inequality. But this can lead some to insist, wrongly, that racism is as bad today as ever and to exaggerate the significance of visible but trivial or ambiguous incidents.