Racism is a pandemic

It's not just an empty slogan. Racism really is like a virus: it constantly evolves and requires constant vigilance to keep at bay. (Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash)

I’ve been almost totally ignorant about racism until very recently. Like so many White Americans of my generation, I grew up under the false pretense that, since my family and I were not ourselves racist—in the sense that we didn’t think less of people of color, nor did we engage in any overtly racist acts—racism was not my problem. I naively felt that racists were bad people and that, since my friends, family, and I were not bad people, we could not have been racist. I had no notion of the concepts of white supremacy or white privilege.

I didn’t feel “privilege” at all. Quite the contrary: I felt that, having grown up poor, the things I have, such as an education and material comfort, are things I had earned through my own hard work and perseverance, not because of the color of my skin. If you had suggested otherwise, I would have been offended.

Perhaps most perniciously of all, I had convinced myself that I didn’t see race in the first place. I felt that we lived in a post-racial world, or at least in a post-racial country. I felt that to see people for their race rather than to see them as individuals would have been racist, wouldn’t it? I felt that racism was the legacy of a previous generation born into a different, long-gone reality, and that it would only be a matter of time before those few remaining tottering old racists died off and we as a society and as a people could move forward as one.

I now recognize that all of these beliefs are wrongheaded. Worst of all, they caused me to be complicit in a system that oppresses the very people I claim to view as equals.

Systematically unpacking this system of cultural beliefs, and challenging racism in all of its forms, is the work of a lifetime. While I have only just begun this process, I want to share a few things I’ve learned so far in case others might find these ideas helpful. This list is a starting point, and is in no way intended to be complete: if you see something missing, or something you disagree with, please let me know! Many of these ideas will probably seem like common sense to people of color and to readers further along this path than I am. The degree to which I found them surprising and insightful speaks to the degree of my ignorance about racism.

One additional note. While most of what follows is in line with the Black Lives Matter narrative that people of color today are systematically oppressed and that we all have an essential role to play in addressing racial inequities—which of course are true statements—I also highlight some facts that challenge parts of this narrative. I’m personally more interested in facts and objectivity than I am in supporting one particular movement or narrative, but readers who have not taken the time to explore these facts deeply might find some of them uncomfortable. I’m also less interested in being comfortable than I am in finding the truth and a common path forward. We’re all going to have to deal with some discomfort if we want to stand any chance of meaningfully addressing racism.

  1. There is no biological basis for racism, but it still matters because it’s a powerful social construct that has very real implications. It won’t go away on its own, so we cannot and should not ignore it.
  2. Racism in America today, as everywhere and always, is institutional, systemic, and structural. Structural racism is as real, and as pernicious, as overt acts of racism. If anything, it’s worse because of hypocrisy: we are all complicit in it, but very few of us are willing to admit this or to act to address it.
  3. Slavery was not that long ago. The great-grandparents of many people alive today were born slaves. Many more worked in conditions indistinguishable from slavery for many years after slavery officially ended. And the terrible legacy of slavery is still very much with us. Schools in areas with a legacy of racism are still far more segregated than schools elsewhere. People in those same areas are far more at risk of chronic disease, and as a result, of Covid-19 as well. And they also tend to be poorer and less educated.
  4. Neither is the legacy of slavery only an issue in the South. The situation in urban Black communities around the country is similar. These communities have long been disadvantaged due to discriminatory policies such as exclusionary zoning and redlining.
  5. While it’s true that around 90% of murders are committed by African Americans today, historically Whites have been far more dangerous to Blacks, and have inflicted far greater harm and suffering upon them than the other way around. And the vast majority of Black violence today is Black-on-Black. The perception of Black people as posing a threat to White people today is richly ironic and not in line with history nor with the facts.
  6. The histories of racism, colonialism, imperialism, conquest, globalization, commerce, and capitalism are intrinsically bound. We cannot understand one outside the context of all the others.
  7. Like capitalism and globalization, racism is a modern phenomenon. It was invented in the 16th century as a way to socially and morally rationalize European economic interest in the burgeoning African slave trade, and in European conquest of the New World. As Eric Williams puts it, “Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.” Racism as an idea was not truly popularized until the end of the 19th century.
  8. Racism serves racist policy, which came first, not the other way around. Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it thus eloquently: “Race is the child of racism; not the father.” The ultimate cause of slavery is the same as the cause of all forms of oppression: the self-interest of those in power protecting their interests at the expense of the less powerful.
  9. White fragility is a very real phenomenon. I count myself among the ranks of White Americans who have grown up in near total ignorance of the realities of race in America today. I was ignorant of the degree to which we are complicit in ongoing racism, and as I wrote above, I would have taken offense if you had suggested otherwise.
  10. The only realistic chance we stand of overcoming racism is if all Americans, most especially we White Americans, take a good, long, honest look at ourselves, our country, and our history. We must begin by admitting our ignorance, fragility, and lack of sensitivity to this topic, and we must adopt a stance of humility, open mindedness, and compassion, rather than one of umbrage.
  11. Regardless of the color of one’s skin, or how or where one was raised, we should all have an opinion on racism. We should all educate ourselves about it, and speak openly about our thoughts, feelings, and experiences. This does not exclude White people: we are not “innocent” of race-related questions, nor are we without race or raciality ourselves. To claim that one “does not see race” is a form of self-deception, and it’s an example of behavior that Robin DiAngelo describes as a false sense of “racial innocence.” This behavior serves only to propagate the status quo.
  12. People of color are not solely responsible for addressing racism, nor for educating ignorant Whites about race. We all bear this responsibility.
  13. The mere fact that White people don’t need to think about race or its context is a form of white privilege. It stems from the misguided perception of whiteness as default, normal, or standard, which enables racism.
  14. Before we can do anything to address racism, we first need to gain the ability to speak openly and honestly about it. We must acknowledge its existence. We must call it by its name, in all of its many forms.
  15. Racism is not just present in overt racist acts. Racism can be, and today more often is, passive. By not recognizing this fact, and by not taking action to end racism, we are complicit in its continued existence.
  16. For this reason, claiming that one is “not racist” does not absolve one of responsibility for racism, nor is it enough to address racism. If every American alive today claimed they were not racist, and didn’t engage in overtly racist acts, but simply continued to go about their daily lives according to the status quo, racism would persist indefinitely, and perhaps even worsen.
  17. By extension, it is not the case that “racists” are “bad people,” and that good people cannot be racist. We must overcome this false dichotomy before we can see our own patterns of racist behavior. Good people can and often do do racist things. Inadvertently saying or doing something racist does not instantly make one a bad person.
  18. We also need to overcome the use of “racist” as a pejorative (as in, “she’s racist”). It’s more helpful to use racist as an adjective, to describe an act or a system, rather than a person (as in, “his behavior is racist” or “this policy is racist”). We are all capable of committing racist acts one day, and not the next, and using language this way better reflects this reality.
  19. It is not possible to be without prejudice. Prejudice is a set of subjective judgements about the things and people around us, and we have prejudice because no person is truly objective. As Ibram X. Kendi puts it, what we call objectivity is in fact a form of “collective subjectivity.”
  20. As racism is rooted in prejudice, it is therefore an unrealistic goal to be completely free of racism. It’s much more helpful to be honest with ourselves about it, and to strive to change patterns of thought and behavior where we can. This task is a lifelong process.
  21. People of color can be just as racist as White people, and they can be prejudiced towards other people of color, including people of the same color. However, there is still a difference between this form of racism and racism on the part of those in positions of power, which has the ability to inflict more harm. These power dynamics are important and cannot be ignored.
  22. Even those who self-identify as racist can have productive conversations with people of color and friends who are people of color. They can be around people of color, and work alongside people of color, and function perfectly well. By extension, having friends of color does not mean that one is not racist. Nor does not looking down upon people of color, nor having lived abroad, nor having attended a majority nonwhite school, nor living in a diverse neighborhood, nor any of the other myriad excuses White people come up with for why they, themselves, cannot possibly be racist.
  23. Americans tend to place enormous weight on the shared cultural value of individualism. This is problematic in two directions. It means we tend to ascribe failures, such as lack of education, crime, and poverty, to irresponsible individuals without seeing the structural conditions that may have set those individuals up for failure to begin with. And it means we tend to think of ourselves as exceptional: as somehow innocent of the same racism that others are guilty of. This may take the form of the excuses mentioned in the previous bullet point, or it may take the form of believing we “already know this” or “have already arrived” and require no further instruction. We must overcome this tendency. We need to stop looking for reasons we, as individuals, should be excused from this difficult conversation.
  24. We have an aversion towards generalizing, and many of us were raised to believe that to generalize about a group of people is a crime. Sometimes, however, we must generalize to see structural issues at work.
  25. “All systems of oppression are adaptive,” as Robin DiAngelo put it. They’re not so easily overcome; certainly not by the simple passage of this or that legislation. They evolve and reshape themselves over time, and are especially pernicious in that they convince people they’ve been solved, or are about to be solved, but continue to exist, persistently.
  26. It’s not the case that racism in America today is strictly a legacy of an older generation, nor that it will die when that minority dies and a younger, more modern, more progressive generation takes over. Racism is alive and well among young people in America today, although it has taken on a different form.
  27. The vast majority of the people in positions of power, authority, and influence in the United States today are White. This includes 100% of top military advisors and 95% of four-star level commanders in the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard; 100% of the ten richest Americans; 96% of governors; 90% of Congress; 84% of full-time college professors; and 97% of the owners of men’s professional football teams. These positions represent hard as well as soft power: “of the hundred top-grossing films worldwide in 2016, ninety-five were directed by white Americans (ninety-nine of them by men).” This is vastly disproportionate to the White share of the population. (Sources: A black man now heads the Air Force. It’s progress, but military brass remains starkly white, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, pg. 31.)
  28. While we clearly still have a long way to go, the number of people of color in positions of authority, such as in government, is higher than it has ever been before, so progress is being made. We should celebrate this fact, while continually striving to do even better. (Sources: List of minority governors and lieutenant governors in the United States, For the fifth time in a row, the new Congress is the most racially and ethnically diverse ever.)
  29. Today’s narrative is largely one of racist White police officers directing aggression at Black people. However, evidence to support this narrative is mixed. On the one hand, there is evidence that police are more violent with Black suspects than with White suspects (though the cause is unclear). Black suspects are more likely to be killed by police even if they are unarmed, and/or pose no threat. On the other hand, the evidence suggests that Blacks are actually around 25% less likely to be shot by police than White suspects. Many articles claim that Black people are disproportionately likely to face police violence. While this is true relative to the overall Black share of the population, it fails to account for the proportion of attempted arrests that involve Black suspects, which is also disproportionately high. Black and Hispanic suspects are also more likely to be shot by Black and Hispanic police officers than they are by White police officers. And the vast majority of violence that Black people face is intraracial. The point is that reality is far more complex than this simple narrative would have it, and we have a lot more work to do to disentangle the effects of racism from other factors. More data would help: while the FBI compiles data on police use of violence, many jurisdictions refuse to report these data. (Sources: Can We Pull Back From The Brink?, Deaths Due to Use of Lethal Force by Law Enforcement)
  30. While in no way comparable to the way it harms people of color, racism is harmful to everyone, including White people, though in subtler, more subversive ways. It gets in the way of authentic relationships. It gives rise to an environment of fear and lack of trust. It leads to guilt. Most seditiously of all, it strengthens every other form of oppression, including classism, sexism, ageism, and ableism.

Which of these do you agree or disagree with? What’s missing from this list? Leave a comment and let me know.