Breaking down racism so we can get out of it
Yesterday I was accused of calling someone a white supremacist. It wasn’t true: I haven’t called anyone who is not a public figure a white supremacist or suggested that anyone I know is one. But I believe that our society is racist and that even “non-racist” white America is complicit in that. How conscious that complicity is, and thus how “guilty” a person is in that complicity, varies a lot, as I know from personal experience, because it took me a long time to see it and understand its pervasiveness and how bound up in it I was myself in spite of being open-hearted and not defensive about it. But absolutely no one has an excuse for claiming total ignorance about this anymore. At the very latest now, we have all been directly confronted with all of these ideas and can no longer be held unaccountable for where we stand. It’s very late in the day as it is.
Some people (Larry Kudlow said this emphatically a couple days ago) have begun to advance the line that while racism still exists, “systemic racism” doesn't. We should be clear about what this term means and what it means to deny that it exists. It’s a broad term that can be used to describe different things, but the general idea is that racism is embedded in the structures of society and not just perpetrated by individuals or groups of racists. This should not be controversial since racism is systemic by nature, but there is a reason people refuse to see it that way.
The idea asserted by the Kudlows of the world, that the system is neutral and all these injustices are coming from “bad actors,” is part of the way that the racist system preserves itself: This shunting off of responsibility to individuals allows the overall system to stay in place. I understand that some people have more personal motives for denying “systemic racism,” but the effect is the same. Black people obviously understand this mechanism and are rightly refusing to accept this usual “return-to-safety” exit-ramp for the racist system – danger averted, we found a scapegoat!
Racism and us, we go way back
Racism has been so baked into the way white people in this country have thought since before it was even a country that we usually don't even recognize it as being a thought or an attitude that we hold. We don’t see it in daily life because it’s like the walls of our house – invisible from always-been-there familiarity. From the first moment Europeans set foot in the New World – already rooted in a long tradition of dehumanizing exotic foreigners – they did not view the people here as being the same as themselves. They did not regard killing them as murder nor taking from them as theft. They didn't even think, but unquestioningly believed, that they were superior to these beings.
That same perception obviously held for white views of slavery when it was instituted in the US, and for a long time afterwards – the enslaved people were not considered fully human, and even in the United States Constitution they were, for electoral purposes (though not their own participation and representation, which was denied them), designated as being worth three-fifths of a white person (Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3). Consider that: The founders didn't even bother with the idea that enslaved people had the right not to be enslaved; and the representatives of the non-slavery states actually wanted the ratio to be lower because three-fifths would give the slavery states more representation than two-fifths! It's a discussion that denies the humanity of the enslaved people and yet our hallowed founders evidently found it reasonable to haggle over this.
Even Lincoln, who is revered for ending slavery in the United States and for giving words to the “better angels of out nature,” did not view black people as being the same as whites. He says that he always found slavery unjust as an institution, but was not an abolitionist for most of his career; for some time he advocated sending black people back to Africa rather than keeping them here as free people (as if it were his choice if they were free), though he didn't mention this after the Emancipation Proclamation. His views evolved over time, but even he grappled until the end of his life with concepts that would be self-evident if you viewed black people as being equal to yourself. What does it say about the underlying habits of mind that even a man like Lincoln entertains such ideas?
Consider these words by Frederick Douglass in a book about Lincoln: “‘In all my interviews with Mr. Lincoln,' Frederick Douglass recalled in the 1880s, ‘I was impressed with his entire freedom from popular prejudice against the colored race.’ But in an oration delivered in 1876 at the unveiling of a monument to Lincoln, Douglass felt obliged to remind his black audience that ‘Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man. He was preeminently the white man's President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone and sacrifice the right of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people in this country.’” (From a review of A Man but Not a Brother: Abraham Lincoln and Racial Equality by George M. Fredrickson in The Journal of Southern History Vol. XLI, No. 1, February 1972.)
After the Civil War and Reconstruction, whites again developed ways to disenfranchise and dispossess black people. The Jim Crow laws that legally codified discrimination, unequal treatment and violation of black people's rights were in place until 1964. And anyone who thinks everything changed in 1964 ... what can you say? Can any white person out there honestly say that they fear for their life when they are pulled over for speeding? Or that they have been pulled over 49 times in 13 years as Philando Castile was? The moment we are living through right now will be another of those historic moments when change occurred, but we still didn't go the whole way because white people still aren't ready to give up being special at the expense of others' equality.
Explicit elements of the system
Before describing less apparent aspects of systemic racism, here are some concepts and situations in which black people suffer harms that can only be described as systemic rather than individual in nature: Gerrymandering, school funding, Flint, environmental justice, voter suppression, policing. The list would be easy to expand. In all of these areas, black people are subjected to unequal treatment and in some cases even treatment that is specifically intended to harm them or restrict their influence or power. In all of these cases, both the effects and the intentions are disputed by the white people who decided to implement them. In the following, I will highlight less visible aspects and describe how I think the system of racism works rather than breaking down every example. I think this will shed light on the above issues as well.
The “systemic” part of systemic racism isn't mainly a question of blatantly discriminatory laws or codified practices. The Emancipation Proclamation changed the law. The Civil Rights Act changed the law. But attitudes and behaviors persisted. Consider the traffic stops of Philando Castile – 49 in 13 years. Can any white person relate to that? Systemic racism, boiled down, is that the system, even without explicit discrimination, works differently depending on who you are. There’s deniability of discriminatory intent built in – he had a broken taillight. He was going 30 in a 25. Or else: He wasn't doing anything but matched the description of a suspect in a crime and then something illegal was discovered by chance.
The operative function here is that the black man is given 49 chances in 13 years to have done something wrong, whereas I, the white guy, have been pulled over maybe 5 times in 30 years in spite of being a habitual speeder and have never had my car searched once. Of course a white guy in a shitty car with the smell of dope wafting out the window can also get busted, and a white guy who acts erratically or seems to pull a gun can also wind up getting shot by cops; but it's the exceptions that prove the rule. The white guy has to be pretty stupid or messed up and definitely breaking a few laws to even worry about getting in trouble, but the black guy can get stopped any old time.
I think of the story of Henry Louis Gates Jr., the scholar, Harvard professor and extremely affable host of Finding Your Roots on PBS, getting arrested at the front door of his own house when the door was jammed and he was trying to get in. How many white Harvard professors do you think that's happened to? Gates is an elegant man who sounds every bit as smart as he is, which is a lot. He doesn't fit anyone's description of a likely burglar except, apparently, in one way that can be seen from across the street. The system works through selective enforcement of its provisions. There is always leeway in how available measures are applied: The policeman or border control agent doesn't scrutinize every single person passing by. But that leeway allows unequal treatment without an obvious violation of the letter of the rule. This is often described under the rubrik of racial profiling and that's not wrong, but we can also look at it from another angle: You can say that the black person is singled out, or you can say that the white people are allowed to pass. I think of it that way because the control mechanisms in place are actually inherently unfriendly: As constituted in the US, they are there to control and harass, it’s just that some people are exempted. It's like having white skin is the passport to hassle-free travel. The system is going to leave the white person alone unless they do something egregious and undeniable on film – and possibly even then. For everyone else, representatives of the state can hassle them whenever they feel like it and no one can demonstrate that it wasn't legitimate because they have the authority and/or impunity to do it to anyone – they just don’t usually do it to white people.
The hidden duality of fairness
Another part of systemic racism is the ways in which we explain to ourselves why racial disparities exist. Why are black people, on average, poorer? Why do black people, on average, come in lower in many indicators of social status or achievement or health? This, like other aspects, is complicated by the sheer number of factors that play a role in determining each of these indicators, with big differences within racial groups as well by location and wealth and a million other things. Here again we have a huge degree of deniability built into every conclusion. You can't draw a straight line between any particular factor and any particular result.
But we are letting ourselves off the hook way too easily, and doing that is part of the scheme. If you look at what people prioritize in their own lives, you can very easily discover that white people discount all kinds of factors as explanations for black-community results that they simultaneously value highly for themselves. Black people, we are told, are not doing badly because of having underfunded schools or low access to healthcare or food deserts or low wages or living in polluted areas with no social services – the fact that white people demand well-funded schools and healthcare and high wages and refuse to live in polluted areas is purely coincidental!
But of course it's not coincidental; and if pressed white people will often, eventually, reveal that they do think those things are important and helpful and that if those other people want that too they should earn it. This is a manifestation of systemic racism on the personal level – the willingness to believe that the inequities are deserved based on established plug-in narratives from the historical racism playbook. These beliefs are not based on knowledge of black people being undeserving of the same benefits that white people find important for themselves. They are based on widely propagated narratives that have been established and passed down through generations of people who don’t have any first-hand knowledge of the situation. These plug-in rationalizations then mesh with the natural inclination of people who have received unearned advantages to deny that this is the case.
The idea that we have a “meritocracy” is our way of suggesting that everyone has earned their station, be it high or low. If black people have not earned their poverty and low status through their own (de)merits, then it stands to reason that white people have also not necessarily earned their wealth and privileges. It is “systemically” necessary for blacks to be undeserving in order for whites not to be guilty of accepting the benefits of an unfair system. Therefore: Blacks are undeserving.
This is a system: The truth of each part depends on the truth of the other. It can't be true that blacks are treated unfairly but whites all get precisely what they deserve. For whites to deserve what they have, the black people have to deserve what they get. This duality is important to understand because it is fundamental to why the system is racist in its effects rather than allowing for the possibility that black people could be getting a bad deal without white people (or: the dominant social group) having a share of blame.
The white rationale for asserting moral neutrality in the situation is based on the idea that they are being treated fairly even if not everyone else is. Black people may not be treated fairly, but that is not – according to this rationale – because white people are taking unfair advantages. We’re not doing anything wrong – the answer is simply to make sure that black people also enjoy this fairness. And this is rather easy to accept on a personal level, because we all face hardships in life and we all know that, unless we are undeniably advantaged by wealth, we have to work hard to excel in competition with peers and so on. So it doesn’t naturally feel like a person is getting any breaks unless it is compared to someone else who doesn’t have the same preconditions in place. (Segregation certainly plays a big role in making this invisible to many people.)
But this is a half-baked concept if ever there was one. How could it be possible in a shared society for some people to enjoy advantages without that meaning that other people were disadvantaged? Is it not an advantage to be treated “fairly” when someone else in the same context is not? If two people are vying for an opportunity and person A is given the requisite tool and person B is given nothing, you can’t say that person A was treated fairly but unfortunately person B had bad luck. It is an intrinsically unfair situation; and even if person A didn’t cause the situation, it would be ridiculous to say that they didn’t have an unfair advantage, or that they have no reason to question the scenario because they personally were given fair conditions. If they accept that, they are complicit in the situation. In reality, person A can only be treated fairly if the other person is also being treated fairly – otherwise they are enjoying an unfair advantage.
This is why the advantage of white people cannot be seen in isolation from the disadvantage of black people, and why white people can’t claim to simply be enjoying fair conditions themselves that should be extended to others.
The language of self-concealment
We have a language in which all of these supposedly value-judgement-free concepts that validate white “success” as earned are actually loaded with meanings that we don't see or admit. We give unequal structures the imprimatur of legitimacy by assigning them generic neutral virtue terms like meritocracy or “rags to riches” or bootstraps or “land of opportunity.” These words allow us to describe the status quo in neutral terms that remove any suggestion of personal responsibility for the welfare of anyone else, or the interconnectedness of people’s conditions, or questions of unfairness. (It should be noted that we also use such language in other social relationships – not just racial ones. We also use terms like this to describe business titans in neutral-virtue language that casts them as deserving heroes regardless of how they got there or how they treat people. “Job-creator” is a great one – it absolves the bearer of any number of crimes and confers an unassailable status of virtuousness.)
Just think: What if you have a “merit” system that gives out more points to one team than the other for the same performance and then crowns the winner on that basis. Calling that a “merit” system suggests an impartial result, but in reality that seemingly neutral concept actually covers up the fact that it is unfair. We have a lot of such subsystems in which people have the discretion to decide how many points are awarded and yet at the end of the day the scores are tallied up and presented as a yardstick of “merit,” which removes from view the system by which the points were assigned.
A lot of systemic racism relies on this practice of ignoring how the score was calculated and then taking the score as a reflection of merit or deservingness. (Here again we have a parallel in relation to wealth: In this system we also assign merit based on a result that is highly determined by a discretionary distribution of spoils, but then look at the result as if nature itself had determined it rather than the people who decided how the booty would be distributed. Rich people are given status and power in this country based on their wealth and poor people are treated like lowlifes who – again – have earned their lowly station; but it is the rich people themselves who decide how much of our shared efforts will go straight into their own pockets. It is silly to base any conclusions on the score sheet when the points were distributed unevenly or by people involved in the contest. Oh look, I won again!)
So when Larry Kudlow says “there is no systemic racism,” he is not just saying that he does not believe in the existence of this thing. He is denying that it can be used as an explanation for any disparities. Whether he consciously thinks it or not, he is saying that the way things are is a straightforward reflection of merit. He is telling you the score without telling you that Team A was running downhill and Team B was running uphill, or that the judging panel was made up of Team A’s mothers, or that he himself kept the score. He is, indirectly, affirming the racist viewpoint that disparities are due to merit or lack thereof.
Briefly: Why is that racist? As some people never tire of pointing out, black people sometimes do unhelpful things like doing crimes and drugs and having kids out of wedlock (as if white people didn't also do those things, just with fewer consequences); but this is another case of looking at the score without minding how it was calculated. Imagine if you knew two guys, one black, one white: Both have a dime bag of weed in the car – black guy gets arrested, white guy doesn't even get pulled over. Now the white guy goes on to keep his job and get married while the black guy loses his job, goes to jail and doesn't get married. If you knew the two guys and knew the story, you wouldn't think: Wow, white guy really has his shit together while black is a mess, must be a racial thing. You would think one guy got shafted and the other guy got lucky. Well, this is how it happens all the time, we just don't know both guys. It is, moreover, a willing acceptance of the unproven and preposterous theory that even if black people had not been enslaved and discriminated against for centuries, leaving them unable to compete on an even playing field or build any of the personal and institutional assets on which prosperity are based, this is exactly how they’d be doing anyway. It's a pretty straightforward expression of thinking black people are inferior, which brings me to my next point.
Attitudes of superiority
In his influential book “Hitler's Willing Executioners,” Daniel Goldhagen posited that the question with beliefs passed down through generations in families and private settings isn't whether you can find explicit evidence of their continued existence, but whether you can find evidence that they are gone. The assumption has to be that long-standing attitudes of racial or ethnic superiority, or sexism, etc., are going to continue existing unless they are actively snuffed out. These aren't ideas that people tend to wear on their sleeves and talk about in public all the time – apparently still our definition of what a racist is –: They are attitudes passed down through muttered comments when some adult in the family is mad. They are handed down in snide remarks not meant for everyone's consumption. They are inculcated in the home and intimate contexts of childhood. They are remembered deeply, and they form the basis for interactions in the real world. They tend to be self-reinforcing because a feeling of animosity toward a group of people discourages positive encounters. You are not very likely to find out that your ideas of racial superiority are wrong if you have no inclination to meet anyone of that group, or to be open-hearted if you do. You are likely to find and put yourself in situations where you are confirmed in your beliefs rather than challenged in them.
We have already established that the founders didn’t think of black people as equal to whites; some held enslaved people themselves and they explicitly dehumanized black people in the constitution. Abraham Lincoln thought of black people as human but not the same as whites. Jim Crow laws that explicitly discriminated against black people and segregated them from white people were in place until 1964. Interracial marriage was only allowed nationally in 1967. Black people have continued to face discrimination and hatred ever since. The detestable confederate flag still flies all over this country, including in northern states that weren’t even in the confederacy.
Tell me, when did these attitudes go away? Sometime in the last 5 minutes?
These attitudes have always been based on a sense of white superiority and have always gone hand-in-hand with efforts to explain away poor treatment of black people as justified by their inferiority or failings.
To me, the unifying thread in all of the different and changing expressions of this over the centuries is the consistent use of euphemisms and code-switching based on the audience. People are conscious of the fact that their ideas are racist or could be perceived as such and take pains to avoid allowing the impression to be directly associated with themselves. (What is the difference between being aware that a thought is racist and being aware that it could be perceived as such? I don’t know, do you?)
This consciousness of how things could be perceived and efforts to avoid creating the impression while still expressing the underlying idea or attitude suggests that the idea is held strongly enough, or that the idea in itself has enough social prestige, that uttering it is still considered worthwhile in spite of the elaborate balancing act it requires. When you consider how many public figures are still caught out every year saying blatantly racist things that they could easily imagine would damage their reputation if made public, it provides a sobering picture both of the presumable prevalence of such remarks and attitudes as well as the social cachet of saying them in certain circles. There is no reason for a public figure to touch radioactive subjects unless they share the attitude and/or think they will score with the specific audience by doing so.
If someone goes to that much trouble, we can, at the very least, conclude that they are not being honest if they claim not to be aware of the whole situation. I leave it to each individual to work out what’s behind this, which is probably not the same in all cases, but which has been evident and persistent enough throughout history that calling it anything other than systemic is absurd.
The denial of it all
Taking as granted the self-evident fact that after 400+ years of slavery, deprivation of rights and means of building wealth, and pervasive discrimination of all kinds up to the present day, black people could not possibly have “caught up” to the white people who have spent the same period profiting from exploiting the black people and enjoying all the opportunities to amass wealth and power that were denied to the black people: The denial of this obvious fact is a form of systemic racism in itself.
Denying that the black youngster starts from 10 miles behind is not only an injustice toward that kid in that it rules out doing anything to remedy the disadvantage that is no fault of their own – you don't fix problems that you don't acknowledge –, but also freights the kid for a lifetime with the frame of judging their performance from a standpoint that is fundamentally unfair to that person's being and their potential.
By those who deny the 10-mile disadvantage, they are judged as failures without recognizing that they spent their whole life chasing the race; and by those who recognize their disadvantage, they may be looked at in a way that is patronizing and demeaning in its compassion – being viewed as someone who struggled valiantly under tough conditions is a harmful distortion when the kid actually would have had what it takes to be outstanding if the disadvantage hadn't been there.
The only right thing to do is to remedy the disadvantage and then society can also let the chips fall where they may. But that is the last thing we ever do. We never remedy the disadvantage – we leave it there and then calculate the result without taking it into account. And then wash our hands of it in all the ways described above.
Outright obfuscation , deflection and gaslighting
Beyond denial, which one might construe as being more directed toward propping up the denier’s narrative of not being complicit in unfairness, there are also mechanisms of simply shutting down or discrediting black people’s attempts to address racism. The most famous recent example is Colin Kaepernick.
The response of many white people to Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality against black people employed the full gamut of white shutdown techniques that we have seen over the course of American history. There is the classic “I understand why he’s upset but this isn’t the right way to do it.” This response is comparatively soft-spoken, with a self-congratulatory timbre, since they have acknowledged the grievance, to be discussed at some unspecified time in the future, if the black person by some miracle manages to identify the appropriate occasion.
And then there is the spectrum of increasingly furious denunciations of the act as an outrage against the flag and veterans who fought heroically to make the country free. (Free for whom?) This response is just a dishonest shutdown, notwithstanding the fact that many in the shutdown crews seem genuinely enraged at being forced to engage. There is the unmistakable stench of “how dare they” in this anger, which is very revealing when you consider that they are outraged at someone protesting unpunished murders.
Does anyone truly believe that Kaepernick was acting out of disrespect for the flag or the military? He clearly explained repeatedly that this was not his intention, that he did respect the service of military people (including some close to him), had given it a lot of thought and talked to military members about how to do it respectfully. It’s notable that the white men who were so infuriated by his protest paid absolutely no attention to what he said. It was simply unacceptable, full stop. Flag. America.
This illustrates how symbols of “patriotism” are used to dignify telling a black man to shut up. The type of person who does this will eagerly do the same to a white enemy, but the white enemy will have some other avenues or recourse. It’s a manipulative abuse of the supposedly sacred symbols the person is claiming to revere, but it works like a charm.
What all of these maneuvers have in common is the accusation that the protest is profaning something of a higher importance and/or showing a lack of proper respect, and can therefore be dismissed without further consideration of the matter. The result is that the issue is simply not considered at all. In defining the appropriate means of addressing the issue, which is invariably some channel that will not bother the people who would prefer not to be aware of it, the white peanut gallery simply boos the issue off the stage never to be paid attention to again, until the next time some black entertainer who is not being paid for their opinions accosts the audience again, with the same result. It’s never acknowledged by the people who demand it be done at the right time and place, but in fact there is no right time and place. They just don’t want to hear it. Putting someone off till later when you don’t intend to get back to the person is dishonest. It’s just a cheap way of getting off the hook without exposing oneself to the social consequences of blowing someone off who has a legitimate point to make.
That is disrespectful; but the expectation of respect only flows one way in this relationship. This, like everything else mentioned here, has not changed throughout American history – it just morphs into the shape of the moment. Never mind that we’re forcing you to drink at a different fountain – don’t you dare be disrespectful in your protest! Never mind that we’re barring you from sitting at this counter – just going and sitting there is an outrage! Never mind that we’re forcing you to give up your seat on the bus to a white person – how dare you not do it! The insolence of these black people not treating us with “respect” when we treat them with none!
The irony is that, of course, the black protagonists in all of these situations were acting with far more respect than the people who were screaming at them that they were disrespecting something. But this point should not be emphasized too much: Black people do not have to be saints to deserve respect of themselves and their rights.
In all of these situations, if you look at what’s really happening, it is white people mistreating black people and then trying to shut them up, first with gentle dismissal or, if that doesn’t work, rage and gaslighting and violence. Kaepernick lost his career for peacefully protesting something that none of us should tolerate and is still subjected to the abuse of the people who ran him out for it. What flag stands for that?
The centrality of racism
The US political system has been in a heightening state of turmoil for at least a couple of decades now. I believe the breakdown of politics is because until quite recently, whites had a monopoly on power through both parties that is now changing. The parties could be civil with each other and not get too hysterical about policy differences because in the end they were both playing for the white team. (Douglass’ quote about Lincoln still seems apt a century later.) The Democrats broke that unspoken compact and the actual purpose of the Republican party as the defender of white rule was laid bare. I suspect this idea would outrage any self-respecting Republican, but I would defy them to show how their policies and conduct lead to any other conclusion.
It is rather clear that they have made it their goal to secure as much of the country’s wealth and power as possible before running out of quasi-democratic winning-power. It has also been evident for quite some time that they use policy as a means of cementing the social order as it is and providing evidentiary backup for philosophies of government that undergird systemic racism. Their policies are described in terms of their priorities, which are further entrenching the wealthy and white middle class and defending the identity and culture-war territory that enables them to get the votes of white people whose economic interests they are screwing. But there is also the flip-side of their policies, which both in terms of financing and policy limit the ability of the poor and minorities to compete and thereby also set them up for the failure that is then used to bolster the unspoken arguments of racism. You let them grow up drinking lead and going to underfunded schools and then you point to their average eighth-grade reading levels and say, hmm, gee, we’ve done everything we can and yet …
And this is perhaps the ultimate essence of it: The willingness to pretend, even convince ourselves, that in spite of all the bad things of the past, now we really are doing things right and yet it still doesn’t work in spite of our best efforts. This is a racist lie in the individual; but it is also a cultural practice among whites, this ritual concern-face-with-lilting-tone (think Betsy DeVos) followed by the sorrowful, whispered conclusion that it was all for naught. And in this they are all white, together. It’s a communal experience. We tried, said the white people to each other.
Yet all the while their definition of trying for the black people is a pittance compared to the Herculean efforts they exert on their own behalf. They are far more energetic in their fury at Colin Kaepernick than in their concern for the people whose deaths Kaepernick was protesting. And they are far more angry to be asked to understand their own role in racism than they are about racism itself. Because they know it and don’t want to.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to alienate everyone. The solution is for everyone to come along. This doesn’t describe all white people, and I reckon all people of any color can change if they want to. But most of us, even the ones who always wanted to do it right but didn’t understand enough and the many who now are just waking up to it, have been a part of the system in systemic racism for too long. And it’s long past time to stop making excuses and presenting some puffed-up honor when faced with the misdeeds of our country that we have profited from at the expense of others.
Why does all this happen and what can we do?
If all of the above is a description of parts of American racism – racism in itself is no American phenomenon, but each place has its own contours –, why is it that way? Why do white people in this country still accept this shit, even though far fewer of them than in the past consciously agree with it? I don’t know. I posed this question at the end because I asked myself the question when I got this far.
The best I can come up with is that it goes way back in history and has become deeply woven into the culture in so many ways that even when we want to, it’s very hard to tease the strands apart and see what’s what. In-group/out-group thinking seems to be one of many instincts in human nature, but we are also adaptable and are not bound to follow every instinct without thinking. Even animals check their instincts – a thirsty deer or bird by the water doesn’t just drink, but remembers that a predator could be near and stops to look. If a bird can still think when an instinct arises, so can we. We all know that.
One thing that seems clear is that when we group ourselves into inside and outside, we quickly start to create stories about them and ourselves that justify our stance. We don’t wait to find out before starting to craft the story. And it doesn’t take much imagination to see how that, over time, could lead to fear and hatred. Indeed, short of having them do something bad to you, the shortest path to hating someone is to do something bad to them – the psyche must either confess its offense or find a reason to justify the act as warranted, and we all know how that tends to turn out.
However it started all those eons ago, long before any countries existed, nothing was necessary for it to keep going and become more complex and ingrained – that was the downhill path for the water of racism. The hard part is going back upstream – first finding the way and then mapping it out and understanding the space we’re in.
White racism, as we can still observe right now, is so bad and so deep precisely because it has had to justify to itself so many bad acts over so much time. We still see this instinct in many people to dig into it precisely when it is faced with its own ugliness. That is the moment that requires the greatest rationalizing effort and that adds new layers of hatred and demonization in proportion to the difficulty of justifying it.
But this also gives us clues for how to get out of it. The more we recognize how it looks and how it works, the more capable we are of dismantling it.