Reflections for this Black History Month — 2019
Race, more than being a physical marker, is one of the most wicked, sinister, and persistent tricks of history constructed and propagated by white Europeans who twisted the peacemaking word of God in order to violently colonize and plunder the world. The concept arose out of our human prejudice and tendency to abuse power when given the opportunity. The imaginary distinctions that make up race — white men can’t jump; black men can dunk; white children are smart; black children are poor; blacks are drug dealers and criminals; white people are moral people — were always made to appear legitimate, when in fact they are purely political. In isolation, the effects of these labels can seem personal and limited. However, these inane stereotypes are recklessly empowered by “we the people”, who continue to elect politicians who write some really bad laws — Slave Codes, 3/5 Compromise, the Racial Integrity Act, Jim Crow Laws, tough on crime laws, and voter suppression laws to name a tiny few. This paper trail of racist laws, establishes and reinforces a classification system based on race, a racial order.
America founded and sustains an economic and racist caste system. Once created, the racial order would be ingrained into the country’s fabric, appearing innate and beyond merit-based reproach, race — or at least racial order — cannot be easily destroyed. And we see this dynamic evidenced in our attempts to redress racism. For example, consider this pattern: slavery, followed by emancipation, segregation, integration, white flight/suburbanization, mixed income communities, and modern gentrification. As a matter of perspective, yes, that’s what this racist storm that we call progress looks like.
On the individual level, racism informs what we perceive about others as well as what we perceive about ourselves in relation to others. You can see it in the disgustingly overused statement that “all Muslims are terrorists.” Or that “Mexicans are not our friends…They’re rapists.” Whether or not you believe the statement to be true (and both are patently false, 1, 2), you now account for that association in your interactions and in your understanding of the colored experience. You’ve learned it. You’ve seen people of influence say it repeatedly on TV. You see politicians and candidates proposing to codify it into law. Maybe you know people who hold and guard this belief. It’s too easy to say race isn’t playing a role here.
Whether favorable or unfavorable, you know race is a factor in how we see people in society. Although we would all like to think ourselves colorblind and believe race is nothing more than just skin color, we’ve learned to see race as more than a physical trait. It’s called implicit attitudes. These deep rooted stereotypes — gut feelings and reactions — are formed from individual memories, experiences, and acquired knowledge. We absorb these racist lessons as children, and apply our learnings to the real world as we get older.
As an individual, to untangle racism, you have to accept that it exists and is not going away without direct confrontation. To even speak or think about racism — to even call oneself colorblind — requires that we acknowledge, even if only conditionally so, the presence of a false assumption that race exists as more than a physical trait. It’s captured in that ironic situation where, in order to explain how racism in America is over, you might make the argument that we elected a black president. It is exceptional that President Obama is the first black president exactly because he is black, and precisely because American has not yet ended racism. It’s ever more exceptional that WE elected him because President Obama is not the first and only electable black person, just like Neil Degrasse Tyson isn’t the only intelligent black scientist, who has ever existed.
We, as citizens, are the ones who do the progressing. We as citizens are the ones who have become more culturally tolerant, which brings visibility to the marginalized black and brown experience. Moments like President Obama’s election validate that progress is being made and that more (but not enough) opportunities are being opened to qualified black and brown people. Yet, equally so, overt racism (Remember when Pat Buchanan called President Obama the “drug dealer of welfare”?)and covert racism (Remember when Pat Buchanan called Justice Sonia Sotomayor the “affirmative-action pick”?) continues to occur at a disturbing rate. Whether you believe it is a widespread and frequent problem or a limited and infrequent problem (and it is a widespread and frequent problem), you should be morally concerned that racism exists at all.
If the politicized idea of race is the product of our imaginations, racism explains its primary function. That primary function is to help you remember the racial order. Racism, then, is the term we use to understand the sometimes subtle and at other times violent interplay of race in our personal and public lives. It ranges from a forgivably ignorant stereotype (black people love fried chicken) to a malicious attack (“welfare queens”), from a lack of inclusivity (the Academy Awards or most employers) to an explicit attempt to be exclusive (the KKK); and then there is white racist violence, white racist terrorism, white racist patrolling, and white racist genocide. Racism explains the truth of white America’s “civilizing” mission. Racism explains both our history and the social, political, economic, educational, and even religious disparities in society. That is to say that my race is measured and accounted for as part of nearly every interpersonal and intrapersonal interaction I have while residing in America.
Systemic or institutional racism describes the trends manifest from this false and politicized concept of race. Systemic racism serves as a verbal spotlight, shining a light on how enacted policies, principles, and practices have served to disenfranchise and negatively impact black and brown lives. In such a system, it must be conditionally so that the opposite circumstance is true. As many groups are disempowered, a privileged group is observably bolstered or at least unaffected by systemically racist trends. Things like white privilege, gentrification, the school to prison pipeline, mass incarceration, and environmental racism are expected products of a culture that, at its origin, was always meant to create and sustain racial order and division. Today and throughout our yet young history, that same culture favors dog whistles over real conversations about racial reconciliation.
In 2019, the truth of systemic racism is yet still difficult for many to grasp. It is undeniably true that the culture and government of America was built and is maintained by racist division. The Racial Equity Institute puts it this way: if you were approach a lake and see a single dead fish, bellied up, you might ask what happened to or was wrong with that one fish? If you were to see half the fish in a lake bellied up, then you would not question the condition of the fish. You might ask what is going on with the water, “Is it toxic?” Similarly, when black children around the nation are being failed by the public education system, would you posit that every child is essentially deficient, or target the deficiencies of the school? If you were to observe the same phenomenon in multiple area lakes, you would have to posit “What is poisoning the lakes and ground?” This poison is the lasting consequence of racism, and yet so many refuse to even recognize the basic truth that modern racial disparities — in education, policing, corrections, work and wealth, political and cultural representation, and access to housing and transportation might — stem from our collective apathy towards racism.
Acknowledging that racism exists and agreeing to the truth that racism persists with long-suffering consequences is an essential first step in arriving at society’s reconciliation to progress together.
by the author.