In recent years, there has been the pernicious claim that racism is over. We are post-racial, living in a color-blind society. In 2002, two black actors won the best actor and actress awards. In 2008, we elected a black president. Racism is thoroughly stigmatized.
In short, Mission Accomplished. We no longer need institutional protections against racism. Quotas? Long outdated. The Voting Rights Act? Defunct. Who needs bulwarks against something that is extinct?
Somehow, even as there is a resurgence of Jim Crow laws, the Supreme Court ruled that protections against such laws were unnecessary—thus setting off a surge of even more egregious laws designed to shut out minorities from the voting booth.
Perhaps one reason this hasn’t struck home as hard as it should is that the effects are almost never directly visible to most people. Evidence is usually statistical or theoretical, and these can be rather easily denied. Will a law keep more minority voters away from the polls? That’s just a theory, and Fox News is always ready with some statistic or another which lets me deny it. What about the study [PDF] which shows that job applicants with white-sounding names get 50% more callbacks than applicants with black-sounding names? Surely there’s something wrong with the methodology, as hiring is purely about qualifications. There’s always some excuse for the evidence. None of my friends are racist, they told me so. I never see racism.
However, surely even the most die-hard adherent to the idea that racism no longer exists in America must be at least somewhat shaken by the two rather marked public displays of racism in the past few weeks.
Cliven Bundy made headlines recently when he turned from being a right-wing folk hero to a flaming racist by casting black people as criminal, abortion-seeking layabouts who never learned to pick cotton and would be happier as slaves. Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who had been slated to receive a (second!) lifetime achievement award from the NAACP for his contributions to the minority youth community, also came under fire when a tape surfaced of him demanding that his girlfriend delete photos of black players on her Instagram account, and not to bring black guests to the games.
It’s kind of hard to see these two recent cases, and accept that they are somehow radical exceptions in an otherwise non-racist society. Although these displays are the least of what is damaging about racism, there are the most visible, and the most difficult to dismiss. As a result, they become highly conspicuous examples.
However, holding up Bundy and Sterling as being representative of racism is part of the problem.
Here’s the problem: most people don’t understand what “racism” is. Bundy and Sterling themselves are excellent examples of this: even as they made racist statements, both professed the belief that they were in fact not racist.
You might just dismiss that as a self-serving delusion, but I think that this highlights a central problem in dealing with racism.
If you ask someone what racism is, a standard response would be, “someone who hates people of another ethnicity.” If you ask them to give an example of what a racist looks like, they might bring up a white supremacist who posts on Stormfront and unabashedly uses racial epithets and states their hatred for people of color.
A more considered response might take into account the fact that racism has become so stigmatized in society that racists have taken it underground; that a racist might look and sound like a normal person, but would quietly harbor such beliefs and act on them in a disguised way.
However, even that view overlooks the greatest misunderstanding about racism: that you can be opposed to racism, even despise racism, and yet you can still do something racist without even realizing it.
As Bundy and Sterling demonstrate, even rather extreme displays of racism can be unrealized by the people who perform them. This should demonstrate the fact that countless other acts of racism much less clear also go undetected by the people who perform them.
It seems clear to me that this is in large part because of our simplistic definition of what racism is. We think of Bundy and Sterling as being the face of racism. We think that in order to be racist, you have to be like them, or much worse. This is simply not true.
Having open hatred of people different than you is simply a more extreme form of racism. Racism, in fact, is any act influenced by a consideration of race.
Reading that, you might see this as a classic example of liberal overreach: “Oh, so everything a white person does is racism!” No, no: in order to understand the emphasized sentence above, you must first remove from your mind all connotations you have for the words “racism” and “racist.” Do not jump from “racism” to “act filled with overt hatred.”
This is why we need new vocabulary on this: the words “racism” and “racist” have such extreme associations that they instantly and radically blur the lines between thoughts and actions that are worlds apart from each other.
Consider someone who is hiring for a job. They do not hate people of other ethnicities; they have acquaintances, coworkers, and friends who are people of different races, and they regard and treat these people with compassion and respect. However, they have also been exposed throughout their lives to certain ideas of how people of certain groups behave, from stories they hear from friends, to representations in TV and movies, to reports on the news, and more. So, when hiring for the job, these ideas creep in, usually unconsciously, and influence impressions and judgments which contribute to decisions being made. This employer, seeing two candidates, one their own race, and one of another race, might make a decision they truly believe to be based on non-racial considerations, and yet racism could very clearly have been a tipping point in the decision. Were this person made aware of the nature of their actions, they would likely be appalled.
Is this person a “racist”?
In a very real sense, they are racist: they made a decision which discriminated against a person based on their race in a way that could have a severe impact on that person’s life, and when repeated endlessly in a society, has a chilling effect on racial equality.
However, because we equate “racist” with the nastiest, most overt form of racism, using that word to describe their actions would immediately alienate this person who otherwise would be sympathetic, giving them tremendous offense and perhaps leading them to think of you as a shrill, judgmental ass ridden with “white guilt” who calls everything racism, and that you are slandering them in the worst way possible. The person can then rationalize their behavior in any number of ways, from arguing that they are only responding to statistics to outright denial.
You see the problem.
Part of the difficulty is to get people to accept that they may harbor feelings which are influenced by race even when they are not what most people would consider to be racist. Our feelings on race are not simply binary or clear-cut. They exist on a rather broad spectrum, and are scattered about our psyches. These ideas and feelings are usually subtle, based on unchallenged assumptions, and are often by definition unrealized. Take one of my own experiences, not directly about race, as an example. I wrote a blog post years ago about the connection between poverty and crime. I tried to explain how it could be true that poor people commit crimes more often. However, years later, I realized that I had made a critically unchallenged assumption that poor people actually commit more crimes. I simply accepted this without question—something I no longer do. We make these kinds of assumptions constantly.
Consider walking down a mostly empty city street late at night. You become aware that a young man is walking not far behind you. Your thoughts turn to the fear that you could be in imminent physical danger. You glance back to get a better look. How differently will you react if you see that the person walking behind you is white or black? Not in the safety of your armchair considering the scenario, but actually being there? Can you honestly say that the race of the person following you has no effect on how you feel? Is it at all possible that you would feel less safe if the person was black? Even if you yourself are black?
You can perhaps relate to this experience, and hopefully understand how irrational it is to feel that way, whatever your justifications may be. Perhaps you can then understand how your judgment of the person behind you is not a unique or isolated feeling, but one of many, only this time enhanced by the prospect of personal danger. Perhaps you can accept that the same feeling might influence your thinking when you do not feel that you are in danger, but instead are just reacting to something. Perhaps you can reflect on how certain thoughts and impressions which you are ashamed of come unbidden to your mind—and perhaps you can accept the idea that you do not recognize all of them as being shameful. Perhaps you can accept that sometimes these impressions are subtle enough that you do not even recognize them at all, and yet they influence how you think, feel, and act.
So, are you a racist?
Once again, you can see how the terminology is woefully inadequate. There are clearly a great many levels and nuances, from the morally sound person reacting to subconscious assumptions, all the way up to the despicable monster filled with violent contempt.
What we need are new words, words clearly defined, words which do not equate the best people making an unknowing mistake to the worst people perpetrating considered hateful acts. We need words for various feelings of uncomfortableness that you get when you see a person of another race, one which brings enough painful awareness so you will recognize it and deal with it, but not present so strong an accusation that you will reject it out of hand. We need words for actions based upon assumptions which may seem reasonable in a pragmatic sense but do harm to individuals. We need to publicly explore and chart these different areas, enough to create broad awareness of them, but not so complex as to make common acceptance overly difficult.
Perhaps if we have a greater understanding of this issue, and can communicate it without extreme misrepresentations, it will help us get to a point where we can realize what racism is, to the point where enough people would see the current claims of our society being “color blind” as the outrageously ludicrous misstatements that they are.
When Halle Berry and Denzel Washington won the best acting awards, a lot of people were saying that this proves America is color-blind. It seemed so clear to me that this was patently absurd. You know what would have been “color blind”? If Halle Berry and Denzel Washington had both won the Oscar, and no one thought about or cared that both were black.
A year later, maybe, someone would sit up and say, “Hey, I just realized, Berry and Washington won the same year and both were black!”
To which the common and reasonable response would be, “So?”
We don’t live in that society yet. We are nowhere close to being “color blind.” We have made a lot of progress, to be sure. However, the importance of that event was defined by the fact that it was, in every sense of the word, remarkable. We have to begin to realize why that is, and take the next of many, many more steps.