Is it White People’s Responsibility to Fight White Hate, Anxiety, and Rage (and Are they Copping…
umair haque

Yes, as a white person, I agree that white people need to use social and community pressure to reduce racism among other white people. They should, I would add, also examine their own thinking and assumptions to understand and reduce their own prejudices and bigotry.

Actually, I think lots of white people have been doing those things for quite some time. Among the white people I know, and I don’t live in a college town, no one would dare tell a racist joke or make a clearly racist remark at a party. And if they did, they would meet with disapproval. It’s not acceptable. Some would openly disagree. They might not be invited back. In addition, in many work, neighborhood, social and even family settings, the odds of a non-white person being present is significant and affect behavior.

It is now 2018 now, not 1958. The world is not the same as it was 60 years ago, just before the Civil Rights Movement, and neither are white people. I know this because I’ve lived through this history. Clearly there is still much farther to go. Racist attitudes and racist behavior are still common, but anyone who thinks nothing has changed for the better is being willfully blind or dishonest.

In 1958 Jim Crow legal segregation still reigned, few black people in the American South were allowed to vote, virtually all Northern suburbs effectively excluded black people, the majority of black college students went to historically black colleges, US immigration law put severe limits on non-European immigration and most of the nations in Africa were still European colonies or white-ruled apartheid states. How many non-white people would willingly, right now, go back to that time?

The current effort to have white people somehow show they are not racist by calling out other white people, including parents, siblings, next door neighbors or co-workers, when they make racially bigoted or prejudiced remarks may be a way to fight racism, but I don’t believe it’s a particularly effective way.

First, and this should be obvious, coming right out and calling someone a racist is very unlikely to change their mind. It may have the opposite effect. And, as you correctly noted, refusing to speak to someone or unfriending them is in most cases essentially a cop out.

It’s more about signaling one’s own virtue. If one is really interested in changing a person’s thinking, one needs to use tact, empathy and common sense. Voting for Trump is not automatically a racist act. A dated or inappropriate joke is not a hate crime. Someone who is not “woke” and is not ready to put a “Black Lives Matter” bumper sticker on his car is not necessarily in danger of being recruited by the white supremacist alt-right.

Instead of attacking and criticizing, point to alternate ways of thinking and seeing the world, suggest applying the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”), appeal to their better nature, their humanity. “How would you feel if you were black in that situation?” If you are sincere, you should think about what approach might be most successful in changing your own mind.

Second, at this point in American history, I think impersonal institutional racism rather than personal face-to-face racism is the biggest day-to-day problem for most black people, if not emotionally then in terms of practical effects.

Racially discriminatory policies and practices and their serious effects have been widely documented in many public and private institutions, including police agencies, prosecutor’s offices, court systems, penal systems, schools at all levels, banks and credit agencies, local zoning and planning agencies, corporate hiring and promotion, social service agencies, media coverage, Hollywood, the list is never ending. (While formidable, I think changing institutional practices is more likely to be successful sooner than trying to changes individual hearts and minds.)

Focusing on personal racist attitudes, often by older people who have little authority and whose private remarks are most likely heard only by other white people and are rarely acted on, also seems like a cop out.

It lets us voice our disapproval of these relatively harmless “deplorables” while giving a pass to large and powerful government agencies, private corporations and other institutions and individuals who are, in fact, designing, obfuscating and perpetuating racist practices that victimize millions of non-white people every day, for both power and profit.

This racial victimization is often so baked into the seemingly impersonal system as to be almost invisible except in its aggregated effects. These include systematic voter suppression, mass incarceration, growing residential and school segregation, credit discrimination, lower life expectancy rates and all the other unjust results that go almost without notice in modern America.

Why worry about all that. No need to write a letter of objection to the CEO of a corporation we own stock in or to our police chief or mayor or governor or congressman who could do something about the problem but hasn’t. No need to write a letter to the editor or go to the next town council meeting to demand needed changes in policy. No need to talk to your supervisor at work to point out problems you’ve seen. No need to search out organizations focusing on specific problems that particularly hurt non-white people and donating time or money.

Just tell your 68-year-old uncle who voted for Trump or used the N-word at a family cookout that what he did puts him in the same category with the neo-Nazis who rioted in Charlottesville. So therefore, since he refuses to admit the error of his ways, you will not talk to him or expose your kids to him ever again, even though you’re sorry his wife has cancer. That will show everybody that you know racism when you see it and you’re doing everything you can to end it.

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