I am so moved and inspired by the current protests against police brutality. I am sending love and support to protesters (and donating to organizations and directly to people when I can). I am unable to attend myself due to asthma and other chronic illnesses, but there are multiple ways to be involved and I’m doing all that I can from home. With all of that in mind, I thought I’d address a particular pet peeve of mine.
Racism and other forms of oppression are often described as unknowable abstract concepts that exist only in the “hearts and minds” of evil people somewhere out there far away. People actually join white supremacist groups, get their emblems tattooed on their bodies, and then insist that they are not racist. (There are several youtube videos. I will not be linking them).
Those of us who are Black know that racism is actually everywhere and intrinsic to many of the institutions that we interact with daily. But the thing I want to emphasize today is that racism is not some abstract, esoteric concept floating in the wind. Racism is concrete, observable, and measurable.
Racism is Prejudice Plus Power. The shortest definition of racism is that it’s prejudice plus power. It’s the belief that one race is superior to others and the power to put that belief into meaningful practice. The reason “reverse racism” doesn’t exist is that racism can only go in one direction, from the more powerful to the less powerful. Power doesn’t hop back and forth between groups, it stays exclusively in the hands of the dominant group or groups (see: the demographics of Congress, the presidency, high level executives, and the wealthiest people in the U.S and around the world). Racism exists both as a result of and as a way to reinforce that power structure.
Race is a Social Construct, Not a Biological One. Social scientists have known for quite some time that racial groups are not biologically distinct from one another (see this statement from the American Anthropological Association in 1998).
Race is actually a modern concept and historians will (happily!) tell you that the way we think of race today had no bearing on the structure of the societies that existed before the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, colonization, and the mass killings of indigenous people and theft of their land around the globe. There were still meaningful groupings of people, they just weren’t grouped by what we understand race to be today. What bell hooks described as white supremacist patriarchical capitalism is the justification for the brutality and theft of resources that changed the global landscape into the one we all know today.
The reason I’m emphasizing this important distinction is that it means that when you see vast disparities between racial groups, you’re almost always looking at differences that result from social structures and government policies. So when psychologists report that white students get higher scores on average on standardized tests than Black students, what you’re seeing is not evidence that Black people are less “intelligent”, but instead evidence of resources (nutritious food, safe housing, adequate school supplies, teachers who get the support and training they need) that have been funneled away from Black people and toward white people. One could argue that the entire concept of intelligence is derived from and in service of racist societal structures. But that’s a whole post in and of itself.
Racism is Structural. Racism is put into meaningful action through laws, policies, social norms, and behaviors that occur on a group level.
Before the Civil Rights Movement, there was no motive to be subtle or coded about how racist policies were proposed. You can see several policies in the United States in which white people were intentionally and explicitly given resources at the expense of Black people (for example: redlining and withholding GI benefits from Black servicemen ). These policies aren’t often taught in high school and people don’t often reflect on how they impact us today. If you go to an area of town that seems run down to you, you’re looking at the long-term consequences of redlining as well as its informal practice today.
Since we live in an era in which saying too obviously racist things is still fairly unpopular, it tends to be coded. Instead of explicitly saying that you don’t want your kids to go to a Black school, white and non-Black parents are able to say that they “want the best for their kids” when they send them to private school. On an individual level, that might sound quite reasonable – who doesn’t want the best for their kids? But on a group level, this is one of many ways that the U.S. government allows (encourages?) white people to hoard resources that Black people might otherwise enjoy. Sending wealthy white kids en masse to private school redirects resources away from public schools. It’s a tidy way to reinforce a racist policy that seems like a simple individual decision on its face. This doesn’t mean I think you’re a bad person if you send your kids to private school. But understanding racism means understanding that sometimes we participate in it without knowing the bigger ramifications of our choices.
The Best Way to Identify a Racist is to Ask if They Endorse Racist Beliefs and Support Racist Policies. People often insist that they don’t have a racist bone in their bodies! But of course, racism doesn’t live in our bones. It doesn’t even really live in our minds, not exclusively. If people in the United States only had racist thoughts and never spoke them out loud, acted on them, or voted based on them, it wouldn’t particularly matter. There would be no substantial impact. The thoughts would stay thoughts.
The reason that racist thoughts matter is that people say them out loud! Constantly! They write them in medical books, history books, and teach them to their children. They hire according to them. They nod along when a politician “dog whistles” or straight up shouts their racist beliefs as a promise to enact racist policies when elected.
Therefore, on an individual level, the best way to figure out if you’re “racist” or not, or to what extent is to see how often you agree with racist ideas and support or enact racist policies. Of course, people lie to be socially acceptable but you would be surprised just how often people tell the truth! Many racist ideas are mainstream and rarely get challenged in exclusively white social groups. Sadly, even Black people end up internalizing these ideas and may even teach them to their children. When Obama talked about Black men needing to “pull up their pants,” he was reinforcing a racist belief that dressing in a culturally specific way means that Black men deserve to be imprisoned and to have resources withheld from them. In fact, dressing in a culturally specific way does not have bearing on your worth as a human and should not determine your access to resources.
The reason I’m passionate about studying racism and sharing this information is that it gives you options for how to behave. Believing racist ideas is not a life sentence! Just as you learned racism growing up from what your family said or didn’t say about race, what your social studies teacher told you about slavery, or what the nightly news told you about crime, you can unlearn those same ideas and replace them with more accurate and nuanced beliefs. You can even take on an explicitly anti-racist stance and explore ways to work toward a more just society. It takes discipline and thoughtfulness, but most of all it’s a choice that any of us can make.