Editor’s note: a version of this article was first published in 2017.
There is explicit racism in the United States. Look no further than when Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, KKK members, and other garden variety fascists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia to “unite the right,” committing terrorist violence in the process.
But perhaps even more distressing than the explicit racism of it is the response to it. From the weasel-worded statement by the president about violence on “many sides,” to his claim that there are “fine people” among the fascists, to his assertion of moral equivalency, to the tacit support by too many prominent pastors on the Christian Right, to the silence of too many others — the pervasiveness of racism was finally too great for otherwise well-meaning white people to ignore.
Unfortunately, the lesson learned from Charlottesville by too many people is that racism is something anyone can spot because it’s wearing a confederate flag or a swastika. And since most people don’t have those accessories in their closets, they figure they’re on the side of the angels when it comes to racism.
But here’s the thing: Racism isn’t just people intending other people harm because of the color of their skin; it’s not just marching with tiki-torches and assault rifles. Racism is toleration of (and, therefore, participation in) a system that routinely disadvantages people because of their race. In other words, it’s entirely possible to be racist without intending to be. That’s why we so often encounter racist statements that begin with “I’m not a racist, but …”— which then go on to use racist placeholders like “thug” or “inner city” or “you people.”
And I take (most) people at their word — that they don’t consider themselves racist. But whether you feel like a racist is largely beside the point. If you prop up a system — either actively or passively, through your silence — which regularly negatively impacts non-white people, you’re a racist.1
That you don’t belong to the KKK, or sport a Confederate flag license plate, or have a swastika prison tattooed on your forehead, or call people appalling epithets while offering Nazi salutes is a step in the right direction.
That you have a friend of a different race is laudable.
That you like Martin Luther King, Jr., and have a soft spot in your heart for his “I Have a Dream” speech is wonderful thing.
But none of those things get you off the hook.
Because you can do all of those things and still make excuses for a system that repeatedly refuses to hold white politicians, and white police officers, and white business owners accountable for abusing, and sometimes killing, people of color.
Because you can talk all you want about being “color blind” (but please don’t — seriously, just don’t) while still unconsciously assuming that middle class white lives are the standard against which all other lives are to be measured.
Because you can feel sympathy in your heart for Philando Castile and Eric Garner and Michael Brown and and Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin and their families, but still assume that if they were killed, the bulk of the blame must lay with them — since they had obviously questionable elements in their past or in their character, since they shouldn’t have questioned their treatment at the hands of someone with a gun who was (or claimed to be) in a position of authority, since maybe they shouldn’t have been where they were looking all menacing with their hoodies and Skittles and scary giant man-bodies.
Because you can talk about how everyone gets the same fair shake in our “post-racial” society, but still give the benefit of the doubt to a system that incarcerates African Americans at six times the rate of whites; a system where African Americans and Hispanics comprise 60% of the prison population, while comprising only 25% of the total population; a system that is three times more likely to arrest an African American person than a white person; and where estimates suggest that two African American people per week are gunned down by white police officers.
Feeling strongly that you’re not a racist isn’t enough. Avoiding using using overtly racial stereotypes and epithets isn’t enough. Not being “prejudiced” isn’t enough.
Whether or not it’s intended, if the practical effects of a system over time continually disadvantage one race to the benefit of another, it’s a racist system. If you think a system that’s obviously weighted to keep those in charge … in charge … is fair, and that any fault in it can always be traced to poor choices made by individuals, whether you feel like it or not, you’re a racist.
Now, me calling you a racist under that description of racism isn’t a value judgment about you personally (I don’t even know you); it’s merely an observation about the criteria necessary to establish that racism exists, and that otherwise nice folks (Christian or not) are up to their eyeballs in it.
But here’s the thing that keeps occurring to me: If you find that you’re continually defending yourself or your president from charges of racism, maybe it’s you who needs to reexamine your relationship to race, and not a demonstrably disproportionately disadvantaged group of people who need continually to reexamine their relationship to you.
Look, I take no pleasure in pointing this out, since it means I also have to contend with my own grievous complicity in a racist system.
A version of this post was previously published on medium.com and is republished here with permission.
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