We have a racism problem.
I know it’s not popular to say so right now, but as a middle class White guy, I’m calling us on it.
I grew up in a rural area near what is, for Kansas, a large city. My father was an executive, my neighbors and extended family farmers. I went to school with blue collar people and white collar people, the sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers, factory workers and accountants.
One thing that was common, though not universal, in the White community, regardless of social class or education, was racism.
Because I am a White male, other Whites found it was OK to be racist around me, to share racist “jokes,” racist stereotypes, and sometimes simple racist invective, assuming I would agree.
To my shame, I did not, do not, often enough disagree.
In the aftermath of an election victory by a person who refused to distance himself from openly racist people, White establishment types on both the Right and the Left have gone out of their way to find other explanations for why so many supported him. The idea that it could be racism would put pundits and reporters in the difficult position of alienating most of their audience, so they repeat the ideas that “this was a change election,” and that Trump’s success was primarily a case of people “voting their pocketbooks.”
Maybe so. But if you’re really actively combating your own inner racism, Donald Trump would turn your stomach. Racism may not be the main reason people voted for him, but it sure didn’t dissuade too many people.
I think racism in White America comes in three not always easily distinguished classes.
The first are the hardcore racists. The active members of this group will be the ones who organize and turn violent. These are the Klan people, though most of them will never join the Klan. They’ll move out of a neighborhood that gets too “ethnic.” They’ll redline a whole community and disown a kid who marries across racial lines.
Statistics on White flight would indicate that hardcore racism is far more common than people admit.
Granted, most White Americans who harbor racist feelings and thoughts don’t think of themselves as racists. They’re of the “some of my best friends are Black” persuasion, and they probably don’t actively hate. But they still will tell you about the “bad” part of town. They bought into the “superpredator” rhetoric of the ‘90s.
This second category of White racists won’t redline a community, but they also won’t stop the bank executive who does. These people will read Charles Murray and note that “he makes some good points.”
They pride themselves on the common decency to say “Well, I’m no racist, but” before saying something racist.
On my more generous days, I’d say that this is the most common form of White racism. After November 8, 2016, I’m not so sure.
The third category is the one I’ll put myself in. Generally educated in identifying racism, or maybe even specifically educated in Critical Race Theory, we still haven’t fully confronted the structural racism in the institutions and organizations—mainly academic and non-profit—we pervade.
We’re the sort of folks who can even identify the definition of structural racism on a multiple choice test.
We also have a terrible track record of tokenism, of presiding over the English department with the one Black guy in it, of setting up the Diversity Office that employs half the Black folks on campus and has no real power.
We talk a good game. Sometimes we even publish anti-racist stuff. But our homes, our churches, our inner circles, are all lily-hued oases, free from the anxiety and discomfort diversity might make us feel.
Identity, to some degree, is at issue in all these categories—the ways we identify self from other. It’s stronger in those who frequently feel that identity is at risk. But there’s also a degree of lay tradition: we feel this way because that’s how we were taught to feel by our parents and grandparents, the important people in our lives.
We can move through these categories due to experiences, education, social situation. Even hardcore racists can change.
So there’s hope.
But the rest of us, those of us in the second and third categories listed here, need to stop hiding behind barriers of gentility, academic theory, and social respectability. We need to call it and confront it when we see racism, and when we perpetrate it.
It won’t be comfortable. But real change seldom is.