Over the past thirty years, I’ve written hundreds of articles and more than a half-dozen heavily footnoted books documenting the reality of racism as an ongoing force in America.
In this, I am hardly alone.
Scholars and researchers have long demonstrated how racism operates, individually and systemically, impacting the opportunity structure and how persons of color — especially Black folks — are treated in schools, the workplace, housing, health care, and the justice system.
Yet, no matter how much evidence we present, some will not accept it.
More to the point, they will seek to rationalize whatever disparities they acknowledge.
They insist that when there are inequities of condition or representation between white people and Black people, it must be the result of some behavioral pathology on the part of Black folks rather than pathological unfairness meted out by whites.
For instance, if you ask most anyone on the right if they believe there is racism in policing, from arrest rates to rates of brutality or deadly violence against civilians, they will answer no.
They say that any disparate treatment we observe in policing is due to higher crime rates in the Black community.
Simply put, police know who is most likely to be engaged in criminal activity based on their personal experience and the data confirming it. So naturally, many argue, they will end up disproportionately enforcing the law against certain people and not others.
But the biggest problem with this particular deflection is that in offering it, those who find it so persuasive end up proving the very thing they seek to deny.
How’s that? Simple.
See, it’s one thing to note the differential crime rates between white folks and Black folks. That’s a matter of verifiable fact, owing to several sociological and socioeconomic factors that are highly correlated with offending and which are more prevalent in Black communities.
But to say that police are then enforcing the law based on that aggregate data and the reality to which it speaks — and thus, not doing anything that should be considered racism — is altogether different.
And within that claim lurks a revealing contradiction.
After all, when police interact with people, for good or for bad, they are interacting with people — with flesh and blood individuals.
They aren’t encountering statistical abstractions on a spreadsheet or in an FBI Index Crime table.
Or at least, they shouldn’t think they are.
But if they are stopping, searching, frisking, assaulting, or even killing individual Black people based on what aggregate data says about abstract “Black dangerousness,” and thus, whom they should suspect or fear, they are reducing those individuals to data-driven stereotypes.
In most cases, they won’t know if the Black person on the street corner — whom they may decide to stop, frisk, chase, or shove against a wall (or worse) — is one of the same Black persons whose exploits have been memorialized in the DOJ’s latest estimates of crime victimization.
And if their actions are rooted in generalized suspicions — as the deniers admit, albeit to rationalize those suspicions — they will end up stopping, searching, frisking, assaulting, and even killing many innocent Black people.
OK, so, funny thing — there’s a word for that, y’all.
There’s actually a name for the phenomenon of treating people in a hostile and unjust fashion based on the racial group to which they belong.
And there is also a name for that phenomenon whereby systems operate based on racial assumptions in a way that produces inequity, with or without personal bigotry.
Would you like to guess what that name is?
The same contradiction manifests in right-wing denials of racism in other areas of life, like jobs and education.
Deniers will say that racial disparities in occupational status, income, wealth, or academic achievement are not due to racism — past, present, or a combination of the two — but instead flow from different levels of effort.
Black folks, they say, just need to try harder. Their work ethic or commitment to education isn’t strong enough.
Again, I’ve written plenty on this in my books and essays, debunking both the premise and the conclusions drawn from it.
But the biggest problem with this argument is how it ultimately confirms the problem it seeks to disprove.
After all, this argument essentially boils down to saying this:
Now think about that for a second. Do more than think about it. Repeat it in your head five or six times and see if the problem strikes you.
It should be obvious.
If a person believes that, how could they be expected to treat individual Black folks justly? How could employers or teachers with such an attitude be expected to evaluate applicants or students fairly?
If I believe you come from a group that, on balance, is inferior in some way — perhaps intellectually, behaviorally, or characterologically — I would likely discriminate against you based on the assumption that you are representative of the larger group until proven otherwise.
Once again, there is a word for all this.
And there is a term for when that word becomes systematized over time.
You can deny it all you like.
But in so doing, you have made the case as well as we ever could.
And for that, my anti-racist colleagues and I would like to offer our sincerest thanks for the assist.
Well played, you.
This post was previously published on Tim Wise’s blog.
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