I think we can all agree that our country has a pretty horrific history. The soil we “founded” our nation on? Stolen. The labor used to build this country? Enslaved. And yet, many conversations about 21st century race relations fail to critically examine and account for our country’s history and its deplorable impact on our present narrative. More often, Black people are accused of “using race as an excuse” or “bringing up the past too much,” as if we enjoy thinking about our ancestors as property that could be purchased.
People (white people, in particular) like to believe that unless they’re in the streets chanting racial slurs at minorities or prohibiting them from sitting at the same counter, racism no longer exists. We overcame it. High School history teachers will lead you to believe the Civil Rights Act of 1965 eradicated all of the mindsets, systems and structures that built white supremacy. That’s partially what’s wrong with our country today–many of us were taught that racism, along with slavery and legal discrimination, had a start and end date. And because the institutions of slavery and Jim Crow no longer exist, racism must not exist anymore either.
Let’s be clear. We could remove all of the vile, hateful, racist people from this earth and ship them off to Mars, and we would still interact with racism everyday. White people would continue to benefit from racism everyday, and people of color would continue to be disadvantaged by it. Now, let’s talk about why.
1. “Race-neutral” policies are just as racist as explicitly racist ones. Michelle Alexander talks about this concept in her book The New Jim Crow, as she discusses our intricately designed incarceration system that is drenched in [covertly] racist policies that disproportionately funnel African Americans into prisons and then forces them into a subordinate group once they get out. She describes this phenomenon as the new Jim Crow because it maintains the same racial hierarchy and power structures that Jim Crow created, but is adapted to fit the rhetoric and “legal constraints” around race today. In other words, while you can no longer hang a “Whites Only” sign on a restaurant door, you can tailor the law to give white people the benefit of the doubt. For example, Blacks account for 22% of cocaine users, but 79% of cocaine possession arrests. The law does not explicitly state that Black people will get charged more severely and frequently than white people, and yet, that’s the way it works. On purpose. But let’s not just talk about the way the law disadvantages Black people, because it’s just as important to understand the ways it has and continues to benefit white people. In 1933, 98% of the recipients of New Deal legislation loans were white. In 1944, the GI Bill passed, which allocated over $95 billion in opportunities that almost exclusively benefited white soldiers. In 1978, Proposition 13 passed, which created tax structures that greatly and again, almost exclusively benefited white homeowners. The result of these policies? Today, Black families with the same educational attainment as whites earn incomes that are just 66% that of white families, and a white person with only a high school diploma will statistically accumulate more wealth than a Black person with an undergraduate degree. We created multi-generational wealth with discriminatory housing policies by giving white families special benefits on tax rates, interest loans and down payments; we created educational inequity by closing the Black schools and firing the Black teachers that allowed Black students to thrive before integration, and by funneling tax money out of Black communities therefore reducing the financial resources to build excellent schools; we created the issue of over-policing by declaring the War on Drugs, establishing harsher punishments for drugs that are more readily available in Black communities and looking the other way for identical crimes committed by white people. Every single racist system that negatively impacts the livelihood of Black people was created to do so. We don’t have to explicitly write “No Blacks Allowed” to displace Black people from our own communities and create socioeconomic barriers to inhibit us from getting back in.
2. Institutional racism has created inherit bias through our socialization that deeply affects the way we see, interpret, and respond to situations and people. We are all a product of racism. Our socialization begins before we are even born. We don’t come into the world questioning things; we believe what we see and what we’re told. Over time, we begin to accumulate experiences and unconsciously develop norms and expectations based on what we see. Our norms become so commonplace that we don’t question them or even notice they’re there. We don’t notice white people benefiting from the system; we don’t notice who we start to associate power with; we don’t pick up on the biased, stereotypical messaging we are inundated with through the media. It’s why we expect to see white people succeed and are surprised when Black people do. It’s why Barack Obama has never had a single personal scandal throughout his entire presidency but is ridiculed and scorned more than any other President in US history. It’s why Michael Phelps is able to get two DUIs and get photographed smoking out of a bong without it ruining his career, but instead granting him a 2-hour documentary before the Opening Ceremony. It’s why Michael Vick, on the otherhand, goes to prison for dog fighting. It’s why the Stanford swimmer who raped an unconscious girl gets his cleaned up yearbook photo portrayed all over the media instead of his mugshot, while the media questions if the Black men being killed by white police officers “could’ve done something differently to avoid it.” These are just some of the norms that define our daily lives. It doesn’t take a racist person to make it that way; it only takes a racist system.
3. Those with the most power have invisible identifiers, creating the perfect environment for racism to thrive. Have you ever heard white people ask “Why is there a Black Entertainment Television and not a White Entertainment Television?” or “why are there Black Greek organizations but not white ones?” Have you ever noticed that the US census doesn’t ask white people to specify their ethnic origin (they can just check white), but people of color are asked to do so? It’s because we’ve made white the default. It’s implicit. It doesn’t need to be stated. White Entertainment Television is Fox, Lifetime, Hallmark, HGTV, ABC (with the exception of Shondaland–shoutout to the queen!), TBS, PBS, and every other network that employs majority white actors and actresses, with the occasional appearance of the token black character or family. It doesn’t occur to us when all white casts lack diversity, but it’s too risky to air a film with an all-Black on any other network besides BET or Centric. Racism is a system of power more than anything else, yet the recipients of that power are the most likely to feel uncomfortable talking about race in the first place. People are so quick to question affirmative action, not realizing that white affirmative action built this country — giving white people a little more after a little more to get ahead, until they’re so far ahead that we can be sure people of color will never catch up. Then, we’ll create something for them to catch up, only so we can accuse them of getting handouts and not working hard. Interestingly, white people weren’t complaining about government handouts when they came in the form of low interest rates and free college tuition exclusively for white war veterans.
In summary, let’s stop making the focus of the conversation on racist white people. While they are an issue in and of themselves, the real issue is the normalized, self-functioning system of white dominance that we were born into and have become products of. Without disrupting that system, we will never have a fair shot at ending racism. And in order to disrupt it, we have to understand it.