In our currently tense racial atmosphere, two questions that I routinely see raised are “Can Black people be racist? and “What do Black people want?” The former is a classic question with a great deal of social capital that has hovered in American popular culture since the end of Jim Crow. On its face it seems like a simple question to ask but this is deceptive. The latter is a question that haunts sections of White America and shapes their actions. Both of these questions are tied up in racism, which makes their answers complicated. Before these questions can be answered, racism must first be understood unto itself.
In general, there are three types of outwardly directed racism: interpersonal, institutional, and systemic. The interpersonal is what people assume racism looks like on the individual level as prejudice or bigotry. This is the smallest and most vital level that racism exists on because without the interpersonal, institutional and systemic racism cannot exist. It has been recently asserted that unconscious racial bias exists and that one can practice racism without being racist. I do not doubt this but that bias must first exist consciously in other people to even be fed to people on an unconscious level. The racist behavior practiced by non-racists was first established by overt racists. From the racist perceptions of individuals, institutional racism emerges which is another way of saying that enough racist individuals have amassed in an institution to the point where the institution reflects the racist attitudes of those who occupy it. Institutional racism is what permeates schools, hospitals, universities, courts, civil service and the government. Now, all of these institutions impact our lives everyday which, if racist, causes constant harm. Institutional racism becomes self-perpetuating absent actual racists because the racism of the previous occupants becomes ingrained as policy. The total impact of institutional racism is systemic racism, which are phenomena like racial disparities in life expectancy rates, the wage gap, mass incarceration, and education rates.
So, can Black people be racist? Interpersonally, absolutely. Black racism towards White people does exist but it is not writ large in a sentiment of superiority, although some fringe groups do hold this position. Black racism towards White people is rooted in a centuries long history of being brutalized, oppressed, and then blamed for their own social situation. While a great deal of ink is used to describe White racial resentment towards the gains of people of color in the United States, Black racism is literally racial resentment at treatment by White society from the interpersonal to the systemic. It must also be noted that Black people are not spared the same racism concerning Hispanic, Middle Eastern, and Asian immigrants that is also prevalent in the White community. Can Black people be institutionally and systemically racist? No. There is no evidence of Black institutional racism or systemic racism against White people as those phenomena take an amount of power to inflict that Black people, and people of color in general, lack in the United States.
What do Black people want? This answer is simple but why this question is even raised is complicated. Black people want the same freedoms that White people, writ large, enjoy in the United States. Black people want not to have to raise their children with an omnipresent fear of death at the hands of a vigilante or the police. Black people want to be able to feed their children. Black people want to live in a society where they don’t have to repeatedly ask why their jail sentences are disproportionately longer than their White counterparts for the same crime. Black people want their history and contributions acknowledged in the history books outside of Black history month. Black people want America to acknowledge after centuries of brutalizing them and then blaming them for their own brutalized state, that their lives matter in the country of their birth. Black people want to fail or succeed based on their own decisions rather than the machinations of the numerical majority. Black people seek restitution for the government sponsored and enforced pauperization and brutality which they have been subjected to for most of their history. Now, these answers ignore the very real blights of sexism, homophobia, ableism, genderism, and poverty but that is all that Black people as a people have ever wanted. Why does that terrify White America so? Are they unreasonable? Why this question is even asked is an ironic expression of a fear of Black revenge and a refusal to admit that the way that White people freely exist is not granted to the non-White population. The fear of Black revenge, although there is no history of it outside of slave revolts, manifests itself as White racial resentment of Black social and material gains.
Indeed, a question that Black people have demanded of White America is “what have we ever done to you?” The answer is nothing. If there is indeed a racial struggle, Black people have historically stood there and accepted the blows from White America. In the face of an oppression that has been only outdone by the most heinous regimes in human history, Black Americans never turned to violence outside or riots and self-defense which themselves are not acts of revenge. Some will dismiss this as playing the victim but that is a dodge; what makes one a victim of something is being subject to a violation. Let us speak plainly. Slavery and subsequently Jim Crow discrimination, which lasted well into the 20th century, was a violation of the Black body, mind, spirit, and community. Black people did not enact policies of pauperization, crowd themselves into ghettos, and deny themselves access to the means of social mobility. Even with the success of the civil rights movement and the voting rights act, Black people did not spend the last 50 years attacking those things. These are the transgressions of the White supremacist power structure done in the name of benefitting White America.
Against this, all Black people have ever demanded is peace and equitable treatment. There is no Black genocide of White people in the United States nor have Black institutions ever turned White people away. Black people have never created any organization or movement, including the Black Panther Party and Black Lives Matter, that has ever engaged in the terrorism of White people like the Ku Klux Klan because terrorism is not our way. In the debate between violent resistance and civil disobedience, Black America chose civil disobedience in pursuit of rights and treatment that White people themselves justified a revolution on. If White America wants to see the protests stop and remove the specter of violent Black reprisal from their own minds, all they need to do is abandon institutional and systemic racism, acknowledge the crimes of the past, give restitution for past policies, and seek reconciliation with Black America, which will not turn them away.
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