We struggle with truly understanding racism.
Many of us think that racism is what begins inside our hearts. That racism is the necessary outward expression of an internal feeling of bias or racial animus. That one hates another so much that they intentionally push them down and oppress them. We often think that racism is only an expression of what is rationally created inside mean, arrogant people.
That’s not really how racism works. And worse, that understanding makes real discrimination and bigotry more likely to occur simply because it is impossible to prove.
If racism is about what’s on the inside, then how are we supposed to prove what is only visible on the outside? This makes racism invisible! The courts don’t need motive to convict a person of murder (though it helps), so why in the world, would we ascribe such an idea to racism?
The simply answer is that we just don’t like the idea that we support discrimination: that we may be doing something that is racist when we don’t feel like racists.
Racism is defined, not by intent, not by racial animus, but by the discriminatory actions themselves. It isn’t what’s inside the person, it is what they do. Or don’t do. It is the system. It is the culture. It is the product of a way of life that has as its default that whites are the majority and don’t think to accommodate other ethnic and cultural groups.
That’s why I’m calling for a moratorium on using the word racist to describe another person or a person’s personal character. It is counterproductive. It doesn’t help bring an end to racism or reveal racism, but instead, makes racism about the lone wolf, the one bad guy out there. It tricks people into thinking racism can be diagnosed like a disease, and therefore treated. Or that it is something that someone else can be guilty of, and therefore they can be punished.
So then we dig the hole deeper and say “we’re all a little racist ” which simply gives people the chance to say “so we don’t need to do anything about it” because we’re all guilty.
The problem we have with racism isn’t truly found in the individuals who feel racial animus and openly seek to discriminate. These people are much rarer than the silent majority who defend racism in our society because they cannot see how it actually manifests or refuse to recognize the ways that they benefit from the current system while other ethnic groups are punished for being culturally “other”.
This is how we can feel regrettable about a couple of police shootings, but avoid the problem of racial profiling and imbalanced policing. It is how we can defend the hiring practices of institutions for their “right ” to hire candidates whose names sound “whiter” than those with more ethnic names. It is how we live with mass incarceration of people of black and brown skin for the very things which whites are often not even prosecuted. It is why Congress could pat itself on the back a few years ago for reducing sentencing of crack possession to a 12-to-1 rate over cocaine: down from 100-to-1. And this view of racism is certainly why minorities are so rarely ever tried by a jury of their peers.
If we stop calling people racists, focusing our energy on the racism itself, what happens? We deal with the actual problem and change the actual racism.