(That wasn’t a rhetorical question.)
I take it as a good thing and as a measure of meaningful progress that white people absolutely lose their minds when someone suggests that they are racist. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that a disturbingly large segment of America’s white citizens was unabashedly proud of their racist identity. It was an explicit expression of their superiority, intellectually, culturally, economically and politically, over people of color. In 1972 and 1976, George Wallace ran for president as a Democrat and won several state primaries each time. This is the same man who passionately declared, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”
Not so long ago.
Today, however, almost no one willingly embraces that label. Today, almost everyone agrees that being called a racist is a bad thing. A very bad thing. Today, people immediately become angry, agitated, and defensive if you suggest that they are racist. “How dare you? You’re the racist for even suggesting it. You are spewing hate for trying to call me that. You should be ashamed!”
So, I think it’s a good thing that people appear to have changed since the days when George Wallace ran for president. I think it’s a good thing that – in the minds of most people – “racist” equals “bad.” Regardless of whatever else has changed, or failed to change, this should be seen as progress.
This suggests that, as a society, we have become more enlightened and more inclusive. Or is it possible instead that we, as a society, have merely become more discreet and more elusive? Is it possible that we don’t mind being racist, but we just don’t like being called racist anymore? Personally, I believe that both possibilities are true.
And yes, that’s still progress.
But let’s pause for a moment and examine that word, “racist.” Because – and I hate to break it to you – I am racist, and I think you are too. Okay, now let’s take a breath and let’s keep talking. Most people define and understand “racist” as a bad person who commits intentional bad acts based on hateful motives predicated by race. When people think of racists, they think of Klansmen or white supremacists or Nazis. This perception has two substantial benefits.
- It makes it pretty clear that they/we are definitely not racist.
- It supports the narrative that racism in America has been shrunken and reduced to just a very small group of violent extremists. It supports the narrative that the rest of America is now so much more evolved.
But we need to discard that definition of racist completely. It is inadequate and inaccurate. It completely misunderstands the mechanisms of racism (i.e., the way it works) and overlooks the pervasive impact of racism.
Racism is in the everyday ways that society functions differently for people of color than it does for white folks.
It’s in the way banks make it harder for Black homebuyers to obtain a mortgage. And when they do, the interest rate will be higher. It’s in the way that banks make it harder for Black entrepreneurs to start a business in their community. It’s in the way that insurance companies will charge them higher rates.
It’s in the way that the overall health of people of color is significantly poorer than for white folks. Why is that?
- Because they are far more likely to live in neighborhoods adjacent to environmental pollution.
- Because their access to basic healthcare is far lower, with fewer doctors and hospitals and clinics in their communities.
- Because they are far more likely to have jobs where their employer does not provide health insurance.
- Because the grocery stores in their neighborhoods are far less likely to offer fresh fruit and vegetables.
Black people own less. Earn less. And have less to pass on to their children to help their start in life. The playing field will never be level.
It’s because schools in communities of color are often the problem and not the solution for children of color. Why is that?
- Textbooks so old they don’t mention DNA, 9/11 or artificial intelligence.
- Schools that have too many on-site police officers and too few guidance counselors or school psychologists.
- Schools with busted plumbing, unreliable heat and no broadband access.
- Schools with teachers that couldn’t get hired anywhere else.
Even when they get a good education, it doesn’t matter. An African American college graduate has the same job prospects as a white high school dropout. (Yes, you read that right.)
It’s in the fear and dread you feel when a policeman pulls you over or stops you on the street.
It’s in the job you didn’t get because the interviewer thought your hairstyle just wouldn’t fit in around here. Or the interview you never got because your name sounded ethnic.
I could go on (and on and on), but you either get it or you don’t. The key take-away here is that none of these things are individual bad acts committed by bad individuals. They are part of the way our society operates. They are what’s called “systemic racism.”
Oh, so that’s what they mean by that.
And systemic racism is everywhere. Everywhere. It’s like the air we breath, except that the air is horribly polluted. We are all breathing it. We are all participating in the effects and implications of its pollution. And even though some people suffer more than others, ultimately, that pollution hurts all of us.
Racism is also in the everyday ways that you and I function. From the moment we are born, we observe the world around us so that we can understand the world and so that we can learn the best ways to survive and prosper in it. We also observe and learn from the behavior of our parents or other people that matter to us. If they like something, we like it. If something frightens them, it frightens us too. As time goes by, we grow up, have our own experiences, and form our own life lessons. All of that ought to work wonderfully. But mixed in with all that intellectual, practical, and cultural learning, is a whole bunch of other stuff that we learn.
These are biases, attitudes, tribal preferences and prejudices. Some are useful. Many are not. These are racist perceptions and behaviors that we often don’t even realize that we have. But we do have them. All of us.
You have them. Racist thoughts that occasionally trigger racist actions.
You are not a bad person. I certainly believe that I am not a bad person, yet I know I have racist perceptions, attitudes and biases. I make judgments about people all of the time and it takes real, focused work for me to step back and realize that I don’t know this person or that person, and I have no business forming judgments. I make generalizations all of the time that are honestly embarrassing when I hear them echoed back to me. I use labels because labels are easy and I am lazy. It’s not that easy to be the person we aspire to be. I have to work at it. We all do.
Almost always, these personal biases and prejudices are not nearly as pernicious or as consequential as the impact of systemic racism. Yes, the frequent micro-aggressions committed because of your unconscious beliefs and attitudes are painful to others. But the structural inequality of the criminal justice system is far, far more harmful.
But you and I cannot be let off the hook that easily. Here’s why. Systemic racism cannot sustain itself autonomously. It is not self-perpetuating. The thing that keeps the wheels and gears of systemic racism turning, day after day, year after year, where one side always benefits and one side always loses, is the acceptance and acquiescence of this toxic status quo resulting from our own personal racism. There is a little voice inside of us that says, “The system is the way it is because it is supposed to be the way it is.”
And we will never dismantle systemic racism until we change the conversation with that little voice inside of us.
So please, please, please, stop losing your mind every time someone suggests that you are racist. They might be trying to have a really constructive dialog with you. They might be trying to shine a light on common ground. We are all so uptight about having the awkward, uncomfortable conversations about race, that we would much rather put up a wall and pretend that someone is assaulting us with their words. Anything to avoid the conversation.
You and I are down in this ditch together, but there is a way out.
You and I can go about our lives not being racist and think that is enough. It’s not. It’s not, because it’s not real. It’s an illusion. You cannot be passively “not racist.” The only alternative to “racist” is “anti-racist.” The only alternative to the way things are is to be proactively, intentionally, consistently and earnestly anti-racist, to commit to the dismantling of systemic institutional racism and commit to changing the ways that you personally perceive and engage with others in the world.
So, the next time someone tells you that you are racist (because, you know, you are) don’t freak out and have a hissy fit. Instead, try saying, “Yes, but I’m making an effort to be better, and I’m trying to make the world around me better. Let’s try to do this together.”
Mark Robinson is co-founder and a member of the Board of Directors of Ridgefield Allies. The Board of Directors approved this essay for publication.