Modern day America has a problem with racism.
But the problem is not that Americans are not against it. On the contrary, you’ll have a hard time finding anyone who won’t come out against racism, or at least who won’t vigorously deny being racist.
The problem is that we don’t understand racism enough to get past the outdated caricatures of what it is and how it works. Guess what, people? There’s a lot of diversity in racism.
I mean, seriously. There’s a cornucopia of options when it comes to racism in the 21st century. Some of it’s interpersonal. Some of it’s structural. Sometimes it’s based in fear, other times it’s based in fantasy. This group hates that group. That group hates another group. This guy’s part of the group that he relentlessly opposes out of a sense of guilt. That lady finds a way to silence the cognitive dissonance in her brain that tells her to love the things her group does but hate the exact same actions and attitudes when they’re in other groups.
And on and on.
Ironically enough, many of the people who say they value diversity end up unwittingly propagating racism, because they can’t see how many kinds of racism exist. They can’t see the ways in which it continually morphs and evolves, like a resilient virus, in order to continue to survive in modern society.
Don Imus. Shirley Sherrod. Michael Gerson. Bill Yoast. Louis Farrakhan. Clayton Bigsby. Michael Richards. Paula Deen. Rif Hutton and Andy Garcia. Margaret Sanger. Uncle Ruckus.
And now Donald Sterling.
These are many of the names and faces that we can identify with racism in America.
But be honest. You only knew half of those names, right? And of the ones you did, probably the only ones you associated with racism were Don Imus, Michael Richards, and Donald Sterling, because they are white males involved in high-profile racial incidents.
That’s because when most people hear the words “racist” or “racism,” what they think of are incidents like these, where the guilty are sentenced in the court of public opinion to be personae non grata, people who are outcast as outdated pariahs, worthy only of public scorn and nothing else. To be racist is to violate one of the few taboos we still have in postmodern American culture, and thus, the word “racist” is synonymous with “terrible human being that everyone hates universally.”
But racism, in its most succinct and widely-accepted-by-academics definition, is a simple formula: “racism = race prejudice + power.” But that simple formula is capable of generating millions of permutations. As many kinds of people there are on the earth, that’s how many kinds of racism there can be.
For example, one of the underreported forms of racism was propagated by Margaret Sanger, one of the early birth control advocates, whose work provided the foundation for the organization we now know to be Planned Parenthood. Margaret Sanger was a believer in eugenics, the idea that the human race could be improved by increasing the reproduction of genetically superior individuals and restricting the reproduction of genetically inferior ones. But when it came to perceived genetic superiority, guess who never made the cut? Black people, that’s who. (The fact that so many progressives stand by Planned Parenthood without questioning its ideological origins are proof that politics always create interesting bedfellows.)
Or take Michael Gerson, the speechwriter for George W. Bush who coined the phrase, “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” The idea behind this phrase is that basing a set of low expectations on a group of people because of their racial identity, is itself a form of racism. This phrase played well with conservatives who opposed programs of racial preference like affirmative action – despite the irony of George W. Bush, who was known as a C student throughout college, lecturing the public about low expectations as a barrier for success. So low expectations affect poor black students but not wealthy, well-connected white students? And this means we should stop affirmative action? Dubious logic here.
And yet, sometimes this line of thought rings true. In Remember The Titans, Denzel’s Coach Boone character lectured his white defensive coordinator coach Yoast about not coddling his black players. (“You ain’t doin’ these kids a favor by patronizing them. You crippling them. You crippling them for life.”)
The same line of thinking applied in the 1988 classic educational drama Stand and Deliver, where actors of color Andy Garcia and Rif Hutton played school officials who mandated a retest for a mostly Hispanic class of high school students who got high marks on the Advanced Placement calculus test. After their teacher Jaime Escalante, played by Edward James Olmos, accused the officials of racism in their suspicion of cheating, one of them said, “There is two kinds of racism, Mr. Escalante. Judging a group because they are a minority, and *not* judging a group because they are a minority.”
Are these examples of racism? Why, or why not? It seems to me that if there is racial prejudice and some layer power involved, there is racism. This is why it’s not true that it’s impossible for nonwhite people of color to be racist. It’s just that racism from blacks or other POC is often limited in scope because of the limited number of us in true positions of power. And even if suddenly all of America’s powerful positions were vacated by whites and awarded to blacks and other people of color, it would take centuries to recreate the current climate of white racial bias that permeates every nook and cranny of north American culture.
This, by the way, is why most accusations of reverse racism are a load of crap.
Shirley Sherrod would’ve been the closest example of reverse racism — and conservatives who pilloried her for that charge would’ve had a point, except that the video they seized on was heavily edited, and that the full video of her remarks in context showed pretty much the exact opposite. Though Andrew Breitbart and plenty of other Tea Party types ended up with proverbial egg on their faces, their point was still hypothetically valid — racism isn’t always the exclusive domain of white people. The “not all white people” chorus, just like the “not all men” meme, is usually an exercise in missing the point. But that doesn’t mean everyone who draws a distinction is wrong.
My point in these examples, and there are plenty of others, is that racism is an insidious force that isn’t always confined to stereotypical villains, those who are white, overwhelmingly conservative, and/or older. Some of the racist things I’ve ever seen came from ignorant high school students, liberal do-gooders, and self-hating black people (see: “Bigsby, Clayton” and “Ruckus, Uncle” from The Boondocks and Chapelle’s Show, respectively).
Tim Wise, in a recent address at Google, recently stressed an important truth. Racism, like capitalism and other -isms, is both an ideology and a system, and just like capitalism, it’s common to participate in the system without fully buying into the ideology behind it. A hungry person who impulse purchases a candy bar in a grocery store doesn’t necessarily support the ideological concept of an unregulated free market, but by buying that candy bar, they’ve still contributed to the system. In the same way, everyday people like you and I end up supporting the many intricate layers of institutional racism, merely by going about the business of meeting our needs and taking care of our families. Many of us, merely through passively participating in portions of the interlocking societal institutions of education, criminal justice, public housing, journalism, and entertainment, end up reinforcing societal norms that were intentionally biased in favor of white people – even if we don’t feel personally biased towards white people.
Systems don’t care about your feelings, they just keep on churning. Don’t believe me? Take it from Tim Wise himself:
So we perpetuate an outmoded version of reality when we speak and behave as though racism is only a matter of the heart. As illdoctrine’s Jay Smooth famously said, it’s often better when having discussions about racism to focus on what’s been done or said, rather than what a person is. Racist thoughts only cause damage when they become racist actions.
So if your knee jerk response to the word “racism” is guys like Don Imus, Michael Richards, or Donald Sterling, you need to wake up. There’s a whole wide world of racism out there!
And the first step to conquering it is recognizing that it exists.