Thursday, May 1, 2014

Exposing The Face Of Racism

When we think of racism we think of Governor Wallace of Alabama blocking the schoolhouse door; we think of water hoses, lynchings, racial epithets, and "whites only" signs. These images make it easy to forget that many wonderful, goodhearted white people who were generous to others, respectful of their neighbors, and even kind to their black maids, gardeners, or shoe shiners--and wished them well--nevertheless went to the polls and voted for racial segregation...Our understanding of racism is therefore shaped by the most extreme expressions of individual bigotry, not by the way in which it functions naturally, almost invisibly (and sometimes with genuinely benign intent), when it is embedded in the structure of a social system.
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (2010)

All our silences in the face of racist assault are acts of complicity. What does our rage at injustice mean if it can be silenced, erased by individual material comfort?
bell hooks, Killing Rage: Ending Racism (1995)

Talking about racism in America is like trying to have a sincere conversation with teenagers about driving while texting. They actually think it's everyone else's problem. Surely, they rationalize, they are multi-taskers who can do both perfectly well at the same time. But as far as their parents are concerned, well that's where real issue is, right?

Indeed, addressing race in America is still at an adolescent stage. This whole media spectacle of the Old Racists: The Cliven Bundy Story, and its well-timed sequel, The Donald Sterling Story, unveils quite nicely the convenience of projecting all our anger and hatred at "racist" individuals in an dramatically un-post-racial society. White suburbanites take cover by pointing to the isolated examples of what they speculate as "real racism" that continues to plague America long after Martin & Malcolm. But this isn't where all the dead bodies are buried.

De facto racism soaks our prisons, schools, job interviews, loan applications & university application processes. For instance, the population of U.S. prisons (state & federal combined) is made up of almost 50% African-American while blacks make up only 4.4% of the next incoming class at UCLA (African-Americans constitute about 12% of the total U.S. population). And, of course, when many white Americans hear these statistics, they immediately reveal their own ingrained racism by blurting out things like, "Well, they commit most of the crimes don't they?" or "Well, they don't possess the work ethic of whites & Asians" (etc).

Currently, the idea is totally ingrained that, in American society, black & brown people (somehow) have just as much opportunity as white people--to stay healthy, to become educated, to live in a house, to get a job that pays a living wage, to have a little bit of leisure time to enjoy the gifts God has provided--just as long as they work hard and "do the right thing."

This might just be the biggest farce on the American landscape today. After kidnapping them from their continent and enslaving them in a new world for centuries, white folks, since the 19th century, have patched together all sorts of strategies--from institutionalizing segregation to inventing suburbia--to keep our power & privilege over all people of color. Most of this has been subtle & even subconscious, but the point is that African-Americans & Latinos continue to be held back by precisely the lack of opportunities that white people, by and large, so proudly proclaim.

It's time for white people to move from a myopic focus on symptoms to a serious engagement with systems. We must take the time and energy to form a critical consciousness. Eduardo Porter had a fantastic piece in the New York Times yesterday, covering America's bloated prison system. There are many complex reasons for the overwhelming growth over the past 4 decades and it's worth reading twice. Sure enough, race rears her ugly head:
Bruce Western of Harvard suggests a specific American motivation, which sprang to some degree from the victories of the civil rights movement.

“The crime debate was racialized to an important degree,” Professor Western told me. “The anxieties white voters felt were not just about crime but about fundamental social changes going on in American society.”

Today, a little under half the state and federal prison population is black. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that a black boy born in 2001 had a 32.2 percent chance of doing time behind bars.
Deeply ingrained fear has been a significant factor driving policy decisions to build more prisons and lock people of color away. This fear has led to what Michelle Alexander has compellingly chronicled "the new Jim Crow." This fear, as bell hooks wrote two decades ago in Killing Rage, masks the shameful entitlement we white folks experience on the North American continent: our contemporary times white belief in black inferiority is most often registered by the assertion of power. Yet that power is often obscured by white focus on fear. The fear whites direct at blacks is rooted in the racist assumption that the darker race is inherently deprived, dangerous, and willing to obtain what they desire by any means necessary. Since it is assumed that whenever fear is present one is less powerful, cultivating in whites fear of blacks is a useful neo-colonial strategy as it obscures the reality that whites do much more harm to blacks daily than vice versa.
As a white male, this sad legacy of racism is deeply personal. My grandfather, although I never "knew" him, financially contributed and campaigned for George Wallace in the 1960s. My own father was silent on issues of race, but other adult role models (otherwise nice, prosperous, fun-loving white men) were not, using the "N-word," telling racial jokes and scapegoating black and brown folks for their socio-economic plight. These men were good neighbors on their suburban streets, not social degenerates like Donald Sterling (as Bill Simmons wrote yesterday: "200-plus pounds of the worst greed Southern California could offer"). Ultimately, I was raised in a culture (South Orange County, CA) of white privilege & entitlement. It was an inertia that literally forced me into false beliefs about white supremacy. It's taken years of work. And it will take more.

But there's no use harping on our elders. We must take personal inventory so that we can have a prophetic imagination.

Yesterday (April 30), was the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "Why I am Opposed To the War in Vietnam" sermon at Riverside Church in New York. Scripting from the Good Samaritan episode of Luke's Gospel, he calls all of us committed to his vision of the "beloved community" to more than just charity work:
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be changed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar.
If we really want to be good neighbors, we've got to move beyond symptoms and address the whole System: the complex interplay of all our social, economic, political & family policies and traditions. When we try to convince ourselves that our country consists of isolated racists, even the Supreme Court can justify voter-approved bans on affirmative action & an overturning of race-based voting protections (as they have done in recent weeks). Racism doesn't just exist in the minds of old, crotchety, greedy white NBA basketball team owners. It's in our water and we're all drinking from it. In order to purify our Land, we've got to address the real source of the pain and privilege that divide us.

1 comment:

  1. Well written! Thank you so much for sharing!