(AKA a woefully inadequate overview of racism in America)
There is a huge difference between racism and racists. It seems many people struggle with this idea. As an uber-simple working definition, a racist is a person who discriminates based on race. Since race itself is a loaded and complex word, lets just substitute skin color. Racism is an invisible, but tangible system underpinning society that discriminates against people of color in leading their lives on an everyday basis. It is more than a way of thinking and that’s important to know. For the sake of discussion, let’s start with racists.
At some point in the recent past, “racist” became the absolute worst thing you can call a white person. In that way, it has become the N-word for white people. The label has ruined careers, lives and relationships. Unfairly in some cases. Possibly because when most people hear the word “racist”, they think of someone burning crosses in front lawns and lynching black people. Not too long ago, there were quite a few of those kind of racists around. More than 150 years ago, they likely owned black people as slaves, giving them the right to do whatever they wanted with their property.
Post-emancipation through the Civil Rights Movement, these racists actively terrorized some groups of black people with murders, bombings, arson, assault, etc. They initiated conflict based on their ideology, and harmed thousands of people. Post-Civil Rights Movement, with the public consciousness in opposition, these racists retreated to distinct communities. They were still dangerous but pretty easy to avoid, like a Great White shark. From what I’ve gathered from those who lived during this era (and my own personal experience), you knew where those kind of racists were and avoided them. Today, those racists certainly still exist but are marginalized to the fringes of society. And for that, everyone gets a pat on the back and America gets a high five. Seriously, we probably don’t celebrate that enough.
However, there is a new kind of racist and it’s far more pervasive. (Sorry to rain on the parade.) In fact, everyone is racist to some degree. I’m racist. You’re racist. And it’s ok. So what is that system?
Racism is like a cancer that lives within the structure of society. Truly, it’s a system within the system. Hidden in our country’s rules and culture is a discriminatory force that hinders black people from attaining the lives more organically afforded to white people. This doesn’t prevent all black people from achieving the lives they desire. It also doesn’t mean all white people have the lives they want. (I think there’s a class element here. And a gender one too… but those are entirely different posts, even if the system is similar) In many cases this racism is codified in the laws that govern our country. Here, I’ll give our Founding Fathers benefit of the doubt. I don’t think George Washington hated black people. Nor did his colleagues. I don’t believe they intentionally established America to discriminate against anyone. I think they genuinely thought “all men were created equal”. But being a wealthy, white land-owner is all they knew. It was the only lens through which they were able to see the world. They were about as concerned with giving black people equal rights as they were concerned with legislating automobiles or internet commerce. As I mentioned before, at this moment in history the vast majority, like 99%, of black people in America were slaves. Which meant you weren’t a person as much as a commodity. Later black people were upgraded to 3/5 of a person and eventually a full human being with theoretically equal rights. For sake of discussion, let’s say equal rights and emancipation coincided, meaning equal rights started in roughly 1865. Societally speaking, that gives white people a roughly 100 year head start on the American dream. And believe it or not, that still matters today. Not because 150 years isn’t enough time for something to change but because racism was (and still is) embedded deeply in the fabric of society, even though most people aren’t still “racist” in the classic definition.
Take the statistic from the ACLU that 1 in every 106 white males are incarcerated (almost 1%), while 1 in every 15 black males are incarcerated (6.6%). There are two basic explanations: 1) black people naturally engage in more criminal activity or 2) the system imprisons more black people. I don’t really see another explanation, unless you believe it’s an imagined statistic. If you believe #1 is the explanation, I have no designs to convince you otherwise. Let’s be honest, you probably haven’t read this far anyway. If you believe #2 is the case, then you must also accept that you are part of the system of racism. And therefore… a racist.
But, you’re not alone. I’m racist, you’re racist, this whole damn country is racist (with that definition). The first step to working on this is admitting there’s a problem and we’re all responsible. That’s not fair, I know. None of us created this or asked for it. But now a racist is simply someone complicit in supporting or furthering the system of racism in our society. By expanding the definition, maybe we can all take ownership an find solutions together… as racists.
Originally published at jonpyle.tumblr.com.