Invisible Racists?

Who are they and what to do about US?

This is perhaps the trickiest blog I have ever set out to write! Issues of race in America have long been rife with hazards for even the best-intentioned white people. At 89, I’m STILL learning new things about this subject, and despite waves of hard-fought progress over many decades, I am still coming to grips with how far we have yet to travel.

A good friend, in commenting on my blogs, made this point to me which provoked my current self-examination.

Many traditional, well established white people (like myself) see and describe themselves as always open to everybody of all races, color and creeds –and indeed that is particularly true when we are in direct control over events in our lives. For many years, a “color-blind” society seemed like the ultimate goal. Unfortunately, it appears to be, instead, a chimera.

There is, after all, no escaping the racist tropes and stereotypes that permeate politics, culture and more. All of us – black, white or otherwise — unwittingly absorb these throughout our lives. Consider a common example: the (perhaps) fleeting thought, when encountering a black man on the street at night, that one should cross to the other side. It may or may not be a valid course of action, depending on the specific circumstances, but it springs into our minds, unbidden, in virtually every unexpected encounter with someone who is “different.”

Here’s another example: welfare. Ronald Reagan made famous the entirely illusory example of the “welfare queen” driving around in a Cadillac, buying steak dinners, and otherwise living a life inconsistent, in his view, with their “station.” It was, at the time, a thinly veiled attack on black people, poor ones in particular. But the reality then, and now, is that the vast majority of welfare recipients are white!

Both highlight the nature of “implicit bias,” a scientific term describing the pernicious and unconscious association of negative qualities to people perceived as “others.” 

There is simply no escaping this bias. It’s ingrained in all of us, desired or not. Some may take that knowledge and conclude we’re all racists, but that’s not a full or fair picture. More accurately, we all carry racially-based attitudes and prejudices that permeate our subconscious. Having such thoughts simply cannot be avoided. What counts is whether or how we act on them. Unquestioningly following the lead our implicit bias offers makes us racist. Challenging those assumptions when they arise in our heads is essential to creating a more just and equitable society. Even then, it’s only a first step.

(Those interested in learning more on the subject may be interested in Harvard University’s “Project Implicit,” which features a test that highlights implicit bias in action.)

We must also turn our attention to the fact that “equality” is insufficient. We’ve all learned a lot recently about systemic racism – the idea that our institutions reflect the prejudices that plague us. Consider affirmative action. Proponents of equality assert that judging everyone exclusively on their merits (the “color-blind” solution) can overcome the biases baked into the college admissions process. But the advantages many white students have enjoyed (better schools, tutors and the like) render the process rigged from the start! When we speak of “equality,” we are generally talking about equality of opportunity – the idea that everyone has an equal chance. What’s needed instead is a focus on “equity” – the equality of outcomes. Any one black student aspiring to a first-rate college education may win out over any single white student; but, absent proactive policies (like affirmative action) the big picture is changed not a whit by such individual victories (and, indeed, those exceptions are frequently proffered as proof that discrimination is behind us!). The general concept is exceptionally well described by the picture below.

The roiling protests over the death of George Floyd (and too many others) in our summer of discontent have reminded us that equality and equity in America remain elusive. Racism is real, and more publicly visible than at any time since the 1960s, openly encouraged by the first blatantly racist president in 100 years.

Certainly, our president, along with racist militias and Confederate-flag wavers, has provided a wake-up call to all Americans who aspire for our country to one day fully realize its promise of all people, created equal, enjoying without encumbrance the social, political and economic benefits of society.

White anti-racists still have a long way to go, of course. But this seems like the moment for us to STEP UP, to confront racism in all its forms (including our own), and to embrace the struggle that people of color have waged for more than 400 years. Marches and protests are fine – indeed, necessary – to raise awareness and force politicians to take notice. But alone they are insufficient to the task before us.

We have to undertake the hard work of educating ourselves. We have to support political candidates who embrace anti-racism. We must speak out – loudly and clearly and even embarrassingly – whenever and wherever we encounter injustice. We must stop going with ‘the flow’ because that flow was specifically designed to benefit us at the expense of others.

It’s no longer enough to say, “I’m not a racist.” We must become ASSERTIVELY anti-racist, speaking (and acting) forcefully but not stridently lest we diminish our voice – and effectiveness – in society at large, too much of which still does not get this point.

We’ve seen and learned too much – at too high a cost – to accept the status quo. If we are not expressly anti-racist in word and deed, we will remain complicit in our system of injustice.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s