Black people may see racism as central to their reality, while white people may consider racism a thing of the past.
Picture this: In our nation, as we see the decriminalization of marijuana in state after state, as the federal government has increasingly lowered the penalties for accumulating small amounts of pot, New York State still maintains a law criminalizing the sale of loose cigarettes. On July 17, 2014, a gaggle of police officers surrounded Eric Garner, a 43-year-old, 6’3” black man, for simply selling lose cigarettes on a street corner in Staten Island, New York. One officer, Daniel Pantaleo, grabbed Garner from behind, pulled him to the ground, and locked him in a “chokehold” for 15-19 seconds as Garner yelled 11 times he could not breathe. Garner died on the spot. The grand jury called in the aftermath watched the incident, which was clearly recorded by an eye witness, and still, it refused to indict Pantaleo.
Picture this: Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman driving her car on July 10, 2015 on a Texas street when Officer Brian Encinia ordered her to pull over in a routine traffic stop for allegedly failing to signal while changing lanes. After she stopped her vehicle at the side of the road, Officer Encinia ordered Bland to extinguish her cigarette. When she argued, Encinia ordered her out of the car, opened the driver-side door, and attempted to forcefully remove Bland from her car while he shouted: “I’m going to yank you out of here,” and “I’m going to drag you out of here.” The Officer then yelled, “I will light you up!” while pointing a Taser gun at her. After Bland stepped out of her car, Encinia arrested her. Three days later, Bland was dead of an apparent, though suspicious suicide.
Now picture this: In Ferguson, Missouri, a group of unarmed peaceful protestors joined in the streets on August 11, 2015 to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man, by Officer Darren Wilson. Though demonstrators remained peaceful, police arrested approximately 25, and one officer squirted pepper spray into the crowd when people refused to leave the area. This came in spite of a statement by police spokesperson Shawn McGuire conceding that no shots had been fired, there were no burglaries, looting, or property damage, and there were no reported injuries to police or civilians.
In a related “picture this”: Also at the demonstration in Ferguson were members of the so-called “Oath Keepers,” a paramilitary, right-wing, antigovernment “patriot” militia whose mission as stated on their website describes them as “a non-partisan association of current and formerly serving military, police, and first responders, who pledge to fulfill the oath all military and police take to ‘defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.’ ”
Appearing on the streets and perched on roof tops of Ferguson, the Oath Keepers, composed of what appeared as mostly white men, carried military grade assault rifles, bulletproof vests, and camouflage gear. However, according to St. Louis County Police spokesperson, Shawn McGuire, county police officers did not confront the Oath Keepers or ask them to leave the streets, even though police demanded this earlier of the peaceful demonstrators.
The Veil and “Double Consciousness”
[African Americans are] born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world—a world which yields [them] no true self-consciousness, but only lets [them] see [themselves] through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.1
For DuBois, this “veil” concept can be taken three ways. First, it suggests the literal darker skin of black people, a physical delineation of separation from whiteness. Secondly, the veil suggests white people’s deficiency or inability in seeing African Americans as “true” U.S.-Americans. And lastly, the veil refers to black peoples’ difficulty under a racist system to see themselves apart from how white U.S.-Americans define and characterize them.
The veil hanging over African Americans, though, operates like a one-way mirror. They can easily see outward onto white America, and in this way, they develop a “double consciousness.” Though not in the truest sense “bicultural,” they acquire a realization of “otherness.” For emotional and often physical survival, they must learn how to operate in two societies, one black and one white. White people have no such veil wrapped around them, and the mirror makes it difficult for them to perceive the realities of African Americans.
This relative inability of white people to see through the veil was reflected in a Pew Research Study of 1000 people conducted between August 14-17 last year. It found profound racial divisions between African American and white people on attitudes surrounding the police killing of Michael Brown.
Among the study’s finding, fully 80% of African Americans compared to 39% of white people stated that the fatal shooting “raises important issues about race.” Conversely, 47% of white people versus 18% of African Americans believe that “race is getting more attention than it deserves.” In addition, 65% of African American and only 33% of white people believe the police response went “too far” in the aftermath of the incident.
Blauner wrote earlier of a United States in which there exists “two languages of race,” one spoken by black people (and by implication, other people of color), the other by white people. By “language,” he refers to a system of meaning attached to social reality, in this instance, a “racial language” reflecting a view of the world. This echoes the conclusions of the Kerner Commission report released in 1968 in its study of urban unrest. It stated, in part, that the United States was moving toward two separate societies: one white and one black (though the report left it uncertain where other communities of color fit into this equation).
Many black people and other peoples of color see “race” and racism as salient and central to their reality. Many white people—excluding members of the more race-conscious extremists groups—consider “race” as a peripheral issue, and may even consider racism as a thing of the past, or as aberrations in contemporary U.S. society. Since the 1960’s, many people of color have embraced and expanded the definition of “racism” to reflect contemporary realities, while many white people have not.
Although most white people are aware of what Batts terms “old fashioned racism” (taking such forms as enslavement, lynchings, cross burnings, definition of people of color as inferior to whites, legal segregation between the “races,” and others), many white people, asserts Batts, are either unaware of or unwilling to acknowledge the many manifestations of “modern forms of racism” by whites. Batts lists these forms as dysfunctional rescuing, blaming the victim, avoidance of contact, denial of cultural differences and denial of the political significance of differences.
Can we as a society cut through this veil and begin to know and understand those different from ourselves, to have the ability to walk in the shoes of another, to break down these “us” versus “them” notions that separate? First, we must abolish the denial systems that prevent many of us from grasping our social privileges.
Depending on our many social identities, we are simultaneously granted certain societal privileges and socially marginalized based solely on these identities. Based on Peggy McIntosh’s pioneering investigations of white and male privilege, we can understand dominant group privilege as constituting a seemingly invisible, unearned, and largely unacknowledged array of benefits accorded to members of dominant groups, with which they often unconsciously walk through life as if effortlessly carrying a knapsack tossed over their shoulders.
This system of benefits confers dominance on certain social identity groups, for example in a U.S. context, males, white people, heterosexuals, those who present gender normatively, Christians, upper socioeconomic classes, temporarily able bodied people, people of a certain age range (young adults through the middle years), and U.S. born, while subordinating and denying these privilege to other groups, for example, females and intersex people, racially minoritized people, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people, those who do not hold to Christian beliefs, working class and poor people, people with disabilities, young and old people, and non-U.S. born. These systemic inequities are pervasive throughout the society. They are encoded into the individual’s consciousness and woven into the very fabric of our social institutions, resulting in a stratified social order privileging dominant groups while restricting and disempowering subordinated group members.
Maybe one day, we white people may escape from our self-imposed hermetically sealed worlds that cut us off from the realities of our neighbors of color, a day when we become fluent in the multiple languages of “race.”