(First posted in August of 2017, I thought it time to resurrect and update this post.)
I’m not sure if I am making much progress. In email exchanges, Facebook interactions and face to face conversations, I still spend most of my time trying to explain racism to white people who are convinced they “don’t have a racist bone in their body.” Too often, instead of talking about the injustice done to people of color and how we rectify those inequities, I’ve had to focus my energies on soothing the hurt feelings of white people offended by the insinuation that they, our country, or our systems might be racist.
I understand the great frustration on the part of people of color with the lack of serious conversation in the United States about racism. When Mike Pence says systemic racism is a “leftist myth” and Republican legislatures are passing laws against teaching about structural racism, I can understand why people of color are tempted to violence. I’ve wanted to pound my keyboard during more than one recent conversation with another white person.
I’ve begun to wonder whether such conversations are futile. If a white person is unable to see the evidence of racial prejudice and bias in our society, they are either unobservant or willfully ignorant. While I understand no problem can be solved that isn’t first acknowledged, I am discovering how many incentives there are for white people to pretend there isn’t a problem. When the game has been stacked in your favor so long and so well, there is little incentive to change the rules.
Why are so many white people insistent they, our country or our systems aren’t racist? I think it has to do with a collective misunderstanding about the nature of racism in America. Many white people associate racism with the hatred of people of color. Since they feel no great animosity toward people of color, they assume they can’t be racist. Some of their friends and even family members are people of color. This affection for a few people of color convinces them they cannot be racist.
Unfortunately, equating racism with hatred is a seriously flawed understanding of racism. Consider this analogy. We’d find it odd if, when asked if they loved their spouse, someone replied, “I don’t beat them.” A lack of hatred and abuse for your spouse is hardly evidence of your affection and concern. Yet I have had many white people, when I’ve suggested their attitudes and behaviors might be racially motivated, reply, “I don’t mistreat people of color.”
Let me state this as clearly as I can. Finding a sign reading, “No Dogs, Negroes or Mexicans” offensive does not mean you are not racist. It means you aren’t an asshole. As with your spouse, the proof of your affection and concern for people of color is in what you do to enhance their lives and not in your lack of abuse. While hatred can certainly cause someone to be racist, hatred is not at the core of America’s racial malaise. It is the inconsistency, inattention, carelessness and power of white people that has entrenched racism so deeply into our societal systems.
Inconsistency in behavior is at the heart of all racism. While most white people do not actively seek to harm people of color, they are quite comfortable treating people of color differently than other white people. They do this so unconsciously that they aren’t even aware of their bias. Yet this bias has been demonstrated scientifically again and again.
Studies have repeatedly found that police officers pull over people of color at a much higher rate than white people. Juries convict more people of color. Judges pass harsher sentences. Landlords are less likely to rent to people of color. Banks make loans at a higher rate of interest. Housing accessors undervalue homes owned by people of color. Job applicants with minority sounding names are less likely to be interviewed. I could go on and on.
These inconsistencies are evidence of a racial bias. While they may not be intentional or conscious, they are still racist. When someone responds to the killing of people of color by the police with Facebook posts declaring “Blue Lives Matter,” but posts nothing when a black officer kills a white woman, that inconsistency reveals their racism. Blue is not the color that motivates their behavior.
You don’t have to hate people of color to be racist. You just have to treat them differently than you would treat another white person. Racism – at its core – is an inconsistent application of basic human rights and privileges, or the tolerance thereof.
Inattention is another of the signs of rampant racism. To push my earlier analogy further, being a negligent spouse – while less destructive than being an abusive one – is still a sign of a lack of affection and concern. Yet many white people, though they do not actively seek to harm people of color, are willing to ignore, diminish or tolerate the unjust treatment of people of color. Quite simply, for many white people, even if they acknowledge racism in our society, it isn’t worth their time and attention.
I have often had white people tell me that since they have not actively caused the injustices done to people of color they have no responsibility to rectify them. Yet what would we think of a person who, upon finding out that their spouse was being mistreated at work, responded, “I’m not the one mistreating them so it isn’t my responsibility.” If you care about someone, you take the injustices they experience personally.
A lack of national outrage over the historic and current racial inequities in America is ample evidence of this deeply entrenched racism. Indeed, we haven’t even expressed national embarrassment yet. We’re still in denial about our ugly racial past. You don’t have to hate people of color to be racist. You only need to look the other way when they are mistreated. This inattention reveals both a lack of compassion and a lack of identification. They are not like you; therefore their treatment is of little concern. Racism thrives on this inattention.
Carelessness – in every sense of the word – defines the racism of most white people. We don’t hate people of color. We simply “care less” about the racial injustices of our present system. We refuse to look carefully at our own prejudices for signs of latent racism. By defining racism as hatred, we can ignore all of our daily micro-aggressions toward people of color.
This careless attitude about the struggles of people of color may seem rather harmless, but it is insidious in its ugliness. Indeed, in some ways, the hatred of some toward people of color is more respectful. At least hatred acknowledges them as a legitimate threat and opponent. When white people treat people of color carelessly, we demonstrate a deeper disdain. They are not even worth our emotional investment. We care less because they are worth less.
Finally, no thorough discussion of racism can avoid questions of power. While any person of any color can be inconsistent, inattentive and careless in their attitudes and behaviors toward people of a different skin toner, only those with power can systematically damage and diminish the lives of those whom they disdain. In a society where white people have controlled the levers of power, racism is a direct product of white society.
White people can be inconsistent, inattentive and careless in their behavior toward people of color with little risk or consequence. We can treat a Latino worker with disrespect without censure. We can be inattentive to a police officer without danger. We can be careless about racism without any effect on our quality of life. This is not true for people of color. A person of color who complains about disrespect is often fired. A person of color who is inattentive to a police officer can be killed. A person of color who is careless in their interactions with white people will eventually be punished. This power differential turns common bias and prejudice into a uniquely white ailment – systemic racism.
In fairness, I am aware of the inconsistency, inattention, carelessness and power of white people largely because this described my attitudes and behaviors for nearly fifty years. I have been part of the racial problem in America. Even now, I am a recovering racist at best. As such, I am well positioned to see the racism of other white people. It takes one to know one.
Unfortunately, I am also learning most white people don’t appreciate and value my newfound ability to see racism. I experience far more resentment than appreciation. I am seen as disloyal rather than helpful. More than once, I’ve pledged to stop arguing with other white people about racism. Indeed, two years ago, I entitled this post, “One Last Try To Explain Racism to White People.” I concluded that post by saying that “If white people are unconvinced, I will move on.”
Obviously, I can’t do that.
Talking to other white people is my responsibility. Over and over and over again. I do this, not because I will be successful, but because it is the right thing to do. Silence is complicity and even if I can’t change our country, I will no longer be silent. Maybe, just maybe, my speaking out and writing will move someone somewhere a little closer to being anti-racist. Or maybe its only utility is keeping me more honest. Regardless, I will continue to stand in the gap between my privilege and the oppression of others and call it out.
It is truly the least I can do.