I’ve noticed a disturbing trend over the first nine months of writing this blog. In e-mail exchanges, Facebook interactions and face to face conversations, I have spent a majority of my time trying to explain racism to white people who are convinced they are not racist. Too often, instead of talking about the injustice done to people of color and how we rectify those inequities, I’ve focused my energies on soothing the hurt feelings of white people offended by the insinuation that they might be racist. After nine months, I’m exhausted.
I’m also more sympathetic. I better understand the great frustration on the part of people of color with the lack of serious conversation about racism in the United States. When a large percentage of the white population refuse to acknowledge racism exists and even imply they are the oppressed ones, making progress on righting injustice is nearly impossible. When a common white response to “Black Lives Matter” is “All Lives Matter,” 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 a 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, every exposed injustice is also an incentive for white people to pretend there isn’t a problem. When the game has been stacked in our favor so long and so well, why change the rules.
Ironically, I often hear white people talking about the need for minorities to be more accountable and responsible for their behavior. Yet white people are extremely resistant to any accountability for a racist system that has benefited them and their ancestors for centuries. I’m tired of hearing white people disavow any responsibility for the injustices of today. These are the same people who are offended when I suggest their attitudes and behaviors are racist.
I’ve thought a lot about why so many white people insist they aren’t racist. A primary factor is our collective misunderstanding about the causes of racism in America. Many white people associate racism with the hatred of people of color. Since we feel no great animosity toward people of color, we assume we can’t be racist. Some of our friends and even family members are people of color. This affection for a few people of color convinces us that we 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 we are not racist. It means we aren’t assholes. As with our spouse, the proof of our affection and concern for people of color is in what we do to enhance their lives; not in our 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, we are quite comfortable treating people of color differently than other white people. We do this so unconsciously that we aren’t even aware of our 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. 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 motivating their behavior.
We don’t have to hate people of color to be racist. We just have to treat them differently than we 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 sign of rampant racism. To push my earlier analogy further, being a negligent spouse – while less destructive than being an abusive one – still exposes a lack of affection and concern. Yet many white people, though we do not actively seek to harm people of color, are perfectly willing to ignore, diminish or tolerate the unjust treatment of people of color. Quite simply, for many white people, even when we acknowledge racism in our society, it isn’t worth our time and attention.
White people often 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 we care about someone, we 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. We don’t have to hate people of color to be racist. We 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 us; 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, hatred 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 color, 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 an 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 new found ability to see racism. I experience far more resentment than appreciation. I am seen as disloyal rather than helpful. So I’ve decided to no longer argue with white people about their racism. When they disclaim or dispute the prevalence of racism in America, I will ask them to read this essay.
If they are unconvinced, I will move on.
I will identify them for what they are – the reason racism continues to thrive in America.