A recent article published by Salon entitled, “The politics of being friends with white people“, offers a candid look inside the life of contributing writer Brittney Cooper as it relates to inter-racial relationships.
The article attracted a number of comments that reflect prevailing sentiments on race in America. One comment in-particular caught my attention as it conjures up a number of fallacies that find themselves in discussion of America’s oldest nemesis. According to the comment’s contributor, “Racism is in all races“.
One cannot determine the heart of a person who writes such a thing. Certainly, I cannot. However, this predictable response to discussions on race does little to advance one of our nation’s most persistent problems, but rather cloaks it in a kind of pursuit of collective indictment. The claim that racism is ubiquitous serves as a pretext to rationalize its continued existence in our society. But to the contrary, such a claim is similar to Masters & Johnson suggesting that ten percent of the population is sexually drawn to persons of the same gender. The claim rejected by a host of scientific researchers sought only to endear people to this way of life and appeal to political solutions that bolster this lifestyle. Claiming racism exists in all races is tantamount to drug addicts appealing to a hidden desire in others to “get stoned”. The ills that we embrace are also those that we seek to establish in others. Unchallenged, an assertion that all population groups practice racism only leads to an inevitable conclusion and discourages the struggles to end racism as we know it.
Racism. That 6-letter bad word that to some, defines America, as much as the Star Spangled Banner, iconic figures of our history, and apple pie. Racism is in the founding thread that stitched our nation. But this often-used word is like an identity thief, stealing the meaning of a closely-related word “prejudice”. Prejudice is simply preconceived notions about a thing without evidence to support the notions. For instance, one is prejudice to believe that public assistance is primarily consumed by black welfare queens with multiple babies born out our wedlock. No research. No government statistics support the idea. And yet, it is commonly held by Americans who are perfectly comfortable with harboring unsubstantiated claims so as to harbor deep-seated resentments. This is the work of prejudice.
Racism, on the other hand, is the exercise of power over another out of one’s racial prejudices. Racism is an employer not hiring an African American women out of some acceptance of a “welfare queen” prejudice towards black women. Racism is a pursuit to dismantle policies that serve a societal good, not because of fiscal reasons, but rather as a result of one’s beliefs that blacks are lazy, shiftless, not concerned about strong families and communities, or the burden of an otherwise healthy society. While prejudice desires one’s race to be first in educational achievement, racism establishes two-tiered districts, implements racially-biased tests, tracks blacks for lower academic outcomes, withholds scholarships, and takes other measures to ensure one’s race-first preferences. Prejudice leads residents of a municipality to concern themselves primarily with their community. Racism, however, organizes to guarantee that waste dumps, jails, and subsidized housing are disproportionately located in black communities away from predominantly white communities.
A recent 60 Minutes Sports segment featured the life of Marlin Briscoe, the first African American to start as quarterback in an NFL game. Owners, general managers, and coaches long held that African Americans lacked the mental acumen, emotional maturity, discipline, leadership, and other faculties to run an NFL offense. Had those feelings lurked in the background away from player personnel decisions, one would rightfully cite the prejudice. However, when that prejudice spilled over to decades of shutting-out blacks from one of professional sport’s most celebrated opportunities, doing so was racist. Racism requires power. Stated differently, an ordinary football fan might have simmered over the idea of turning his/her home team over to a black, only to see it implode. The idea would have been prejudice as the fan was not empowered to construct systems and make decisions that would prohibit an African American from being the team’s signal caller.
We might understandably conclude that prejudice is in all of us. Scriptures remind us that we are a creation of like passions. The same source of Nathaneal’s question to Philip, “Does anything good come out of Nazareth” [John 1:46] remains in the world today. Prejudgments and stereotypes are not confined to Euro-Americans. And further, prejudice is not limited to issues pertaining to race. Ask any parent, “Who is the prettiest girl in that class photo?“, and you will most certainly hear pride itself bursting at the seams, “Mine“! Prejudice follows our ideas about neighborhoods, schools, professions, churches, and virtually every dimension of our lives. It follows that relative to race/ethnic questions, prejudice is not racism. The latter requires the former, but the presence of the former does not necessarily yield the latter. And the absence of the latter does not prove the absence of the former.
Several years ago, I was meeting with Robert, a Jewish individual, who had taken over his family’s firm. A fast talker, prone to unannounced sidebar conversations, our meetings often resembled holding back wild stallions with shoe laces. In one particular digression, Robert delved into a dialogue on race. He proceeded to tell me about a meeting that took place in a rural area of Mississippi. So goes the story. Robert entered the office of a prospective client who turned out to be the prototypical “backwoods bigot”. Dressed in overalls, the man looked up and took a deep gasp as this well-dressed Jew quietly approached. Said my Jewish friend, “The next few minutes were filled with every derogatory term that gentleman could hurl at me. I as shocked.” [I’ve chosen to withhold the details] Continuing the story, Robert then stated, “A strange thing happened. That guy stopped his slurs. And he invited me to sit down and do some business. I left a couple of hours later with $3 million!”
That gentleman in Mississippi might have been stuck in the stone ages of prejudice. One might argue that the open expressions of negative sentiments ventured into the realm of racism. But Robert’s point in sharing this story is that people can hold sentiments. But how we operate is the final litmus test. My friend conveyed, “Ken, my people understand racism as do African Americans. We must not get sidetracks on how people feel, knowing we cannot change that. We must focus on ensuring those feelings are not brought to our public transactions. If I had gotten upset, returned some curse words, and stormed out of the office, I would have robbed my business of $3 million!” That product of the jim crow south held negative feelings about Jews, but his prejudice did not interrupt the business transaction with a Jew. In the grand scheme, the deal is what Robert traveled to Mississippi to consummate. Converting someone with obvious prejudice was of lesser import. He did the deal and my Jewish friend received a blessing.
So, you ask, “What is the significance of telling this story”? What happened in that meeting demonstrates the razor-thin distinction between prejudice and racism. And it reveals why African Americans, a largely disenfranchised population group, cannot be racist. Namely, a requisite element in the any meaningful discussion of racism must identify the systems and areas in society where a certain race has the power and resources to exercise prejudice. Racism activates prejudice. Unless one is able to do the former, while that person might hold prejudice, he/she is not racist. The 400-year sojourn of Africans in America have been a constant struggle to build infrastructure and control resources. This has been successful in some respects, but numerous countermeasures have stymied these efforts.
[pullquote align=”right” textalign=”right” width=”30%”]“Consider also that all 1.9 million Black-owned businesses produced revenues totaling less than 1% GDP. That was before the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression.”
Source: Black Innovation and Competitiveness Initiative
A position that blacks cannot be racist does not assign some higher-order virtue that blacks are incapable of ill-will. Indeed, blacks can and do harbor prejudices. However, without control of societal resources and the power to dictate the future of others, blacks have not been in a position to demonstrate virtue or fall to the evils of [structural and systematic] racism. To leap from any prejudices that blacks might hold to a unsubstantiated conclusion that blacks are (or would be racist) is pure supposition.
And it is for this reason that whites, who look upon Affirmative Action and other efforts to level the playing field, misread the intent of these measures. The struggles for civil rights were not so much about “legislating sentiments” — a charge often made by those who set-out to dismantle legislation. The focus was and continues to be righting unjust systems established with racist designs. Blacks have little time, energy, and resources to end prejudice. That’s as fool-hearty as Ponce de Leon exploration to find the fountain of youth. Prejudice is an inevitable part of human frailty. Racism, however, need not be a societal reality.
Assertions that racism is in all races avoids the real problems of race-based impediments, systems, structures instituted by groups that control America’s resources. Harboring myths that racism is in all groups prevents our nation from addressing the overt expressions of racism in criminal justice, voting rights, education, and economic development. Further, such suggestions confuse prejudice and racism, focusing more attention on the former, while neglecting the actionable opportunities in the latter.
We might never resolve racial prejudice. However, we can learn to co-exist in a climate of racial justice where our prejudices do not supersede our commitment to fairness and equity. These are not incongruent ideas. Think of it like a linebacker coming onto the field, with bruised ribs. He can choose to play despite the persistent pain. Prejudice might very well be a national pain that never goes away. But we can still come to the marketplace, with a commitment to further the American experiment. That includes rejecting myths and courageously addressing the issues at-hand.
Therefore, I offer this as one man’s perspective on race. And I invite your comments.
1. “The politics of being friends with white people“ — Brittney Cooper, Contributing Writer, Salon, AUG 13, 2013 06:45 AM CDT.
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