Friday, July 24, 2009

Views on American Racism

"Racist" and "racism" are provocative words in American society. To some, these words have reached the level of curse words in their offensiveness. Yet, "racist" and "racism" are descriptive words of a reality that cannot be denied. African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans and Asian Americans (people-of-color) live daily with the effects of both institutional and individual racism.

After the election of Barack Obama as America's first African American president there were many who asserted that racism is no longer a problem and that we are now living in a "post-racial America." However, with the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the expulsion of a group of black children from a private swimming pool apparently because of their race, the true state of America's racism emerges to the surface once again to remind us that "we ain't there yet, y'all."

It isn't necessary to sight case after case of individual racism. What is needed is the collective realization that institutional racism is embedded deep into the moral fiber of America; that there has to be a collective will to confront, engage in dialectic discussion(s) leading toward the complete and total elimination of individual and institutional racism. The process for the elimination of all forms of racism has to begin now.

It may be said that dichotomy oversimplifies the complexities of America's race problem. There are some, both black and white Americans, who believe that if we are not suffering from "overt racism" then racism has ended and therefore we need not continuously bring up the subject again and again. It is true that it is no longer fashionable to put on a hooded sheet and lynch a black man. Nor do we see the "For Whites Only" signs of overt legal segregation. However, "overt racism" has given way to a more subtle or sophisticated form, which doesn't depend on brute force to enforce laws to subjugate and control. This "subtle racism" allows some whites to vote for Obama, and to carve out exceptions for those black and brown folks who make white folks comfortable, but to maintain fundamentally hostile views towards the larger communities of color from which these exceptions come. In other words, the kind of racism that says, black folks are fine, so long as they went to Harvard Law, speak a certain way, dress a certain way, and pander to the tastes of us white folks. "If you're white you're right" as the old saying goes.

Even immigrants get caught up in this "subtle racism" when they come to America. These immigrants, whose skin may be black or brown, in their effort to imitate the white ruling class will take on the psychic and the racial biases of white Americans. They will view blacks--even children--as pathological, socially dysfunctional, likely to misbehave, and unworthy of the opportunities enjoyed by whites.

In light of the latest racially motivated incidents, let me make the following point in the clearest possible terms:
The white racial psychic must be thoroughly challenged, exploded, destroyed, eradicated, before the United States of America can ever hope to achieve racial equity, or even the most rudimentary levels of social justice.
"Institutional racism" is the structure that houses race-based discrimination in justice, housing, education, employment and health. It reflects the cultural assumptions of the dominant group, so that the practices of that group are seen as the norm to which other cultural practices should conform (Anderson and Taylor, 2006). Institutional racism is more subtle, less visible, and less identifiable than individual acts of racism, but no less destructive to human life and human dignity.

Challenging and dismantling "institutional racism" requires a sense of history -- the history of racial stereotyping in America -- and a capacity to listen and observe how frequently the present echoes the past (David Shipler, 2002). One must be aware that what seems to bother white people more than anything, whether in the case of "expelling black children from a swimming pool" or at any other time, is being confronted with the recognition that black people do not see the world like they do; that black people, by and large, do not view America as white people view it. White people are shocked that this should be so, having come to believe apparently, that the falsehoods to which they cling are not equally shared by darker-skinned compatriots. White people are shocked to learn that black people actually still perceive the U.S. as a racist nation -- they're literally stunned that people who say they experience discrimination regularly (and who have the social science research to back them up) actually think that those experiences and that data might actually say something about the nation in which they reside. Imagine.

The difficulty is that one has to perceive the problem to embrace the solutions. If you think that racism isn't harmful unless it wears hooded sheets or burns crosses or bars blacks from motels and restaurants, you will support only the crudest anti-discrimination laws and not the more refined methods such as affirmative action and diversity training. If you recognize how subtle racism can be, the subtler tools seem appropriate (David Shipler, 2002).

There has to be some acknowledgement that whites benefit from racial prejudice, even as society suffers as a whole. Few white Americans reflect on the unseen privileges they possess or the greater sense of worth they acquire from their white skin. In addition to creating the traditional alignments of power in America, negative beliefs about blacks tend to enhance whites' self-esteem.

If blacks are less intelligent, in whites' belief, then it follows that whites are more intelligent. If blacks are lazier, whites are harder working. If blacks would prefer to live on welfare, then whites would prefer to be self-supporting. If blacks are more violent, whites are less violent --- and the source of violence can be kept at a safe distance.

Many conservatives urge that an "optimistic" assessment of America's racial situation be presented. At the same time, they refuse to see the pernicious racism that persists. That blindness does not justify optimism. Legitimate optimism comes from facing the problems squarely and working to overcome the insidious subtleties of bigotry that still remain in America.

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