Racism is Not Your Fault, But it's Your Responsibility
Racism despicable. Treating another human being as if they are anything less than that is, itself, inhuman. The United States is witnessing one racially motivated tragedy after another. One of them was the gruesome killing of 9 black people in a church in Charleston by Dylan Roof, and then recently, the tragic shooting of two white journalists on live television in Virginia by their former colleague Bryce Williams in what appears to be a mix of revenge for Charleston and anger management issues. Racism, although thought to be a thing of the past by some, is still deeply imbedded in the American psyche. Those who deny it (black and white), do so because their sense of being good people depends on this denial. Denial is guilt driven but the fact is racism is not really your fault, just your responsibility
Racism vs. Prejudice
Can a black man be racist? The short answer is yes, but in the American context the answer would be no. In the U.S., a black man cannot be racist, only prejudiced. But isn’t getting so caught up in definitions a sign of digressing from the fundamental meaning? Are they not the same at their core? Is this not another form of denial?
Racism, according to sociologists, is the belief that inherent differences between races determine cultural and individual achievement. This belief is accompanied by the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to dominate other racial groups that are deemed inferior. To qualify as racist, the group would have to be holding political and/or institutional powers and as such, policies and government systems under their control would be designed to perpetuate this doctrine.
This is very apparent in the U.S.A. Poor, crime ridden, under developed inner cities that are populated predominantly by African Americans, were created by a color-based system of resource allocation. It is well documented. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “new deal” for instance, came with a strategy to provide affordable housing to the average American through the establishment of The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to insure home loans and set standards for construction. Pre-existing racial prejudice however, soon started to shape policy at implementation level. When deciding where this real estate capital should go, neighborhoods were categorized based on their supposed level of “investment security”. Perceived high-risk neighborhoods were marked red on city maps leading to the practice being dubbed “redlining”. Redlining was highly racist with minority communities particularly African American being clearly targeted, as ethnicity soon became the common denominator. A lower income white family would get a mortgage while a middle-income minority family was denied it, contradicting the “investment risk” argument. There were acute ripple effects. Real estate values in black and minority neighborhoods plummeted along with the general wealth of the families deterring other investments in those communities. Many buildings were abandoned and the ensuing poverty led to increase in crime and drug use as well as the inability to pass wealth to subsequent generations.
This outcome has certainly fed into the narrative of an inferior race that needed to be dominated. Redlining was eventually made illegal by the Fair Housing act of 1968 but continued under the radar as exposed by Pulitzer winning investigative reporter Bill Dedman on a series of articles written in the late 1980s (Redlining: An economic war waged on black communities)
Another good example of American structural racism and its effect was displayed in the agricultural sector. The scale of the effects was mildly mirrored by the $2.4 billion settlement to a lawsuit brought by the National Black Farmer’s Association – the largest U.S. civil rights settlement ever. It all goes back to when white farmers became increasingly fearful of competition from freed slaves. The U.S. Government through the USDA responded to this fear by changing qualifications to loans to include credit, immediately shutting out the freed slaves. Over the years there were thousands of cases of denied loans to black farmers, with some through delays until the season was over, or by approving a fraction of the requested amounts, or by denying crop disaster payments with responses that it was too much where as white farmers received them routinely. This gross injustice, to which the USDA has admitted wrongdoing, resulted in the 98% decline in the number of black farmers in this major U.S. industry by 1992. Structural racism, a product of racial prejudice, continues to exist even in the absence of ill will or intent.
Prejudice, on the other hand, refers to holding an unfavorable preconceived opinion without knowledge, thought or reason. The difference to racism lies in the absence of power and a structural framework to perpetuate it. On a personal level, however, it is really no different. Prejudice preludes racism in that there cannot be racism without racial prejudice first. The mindset preludes the system. Are some African Americans guilty of racial prejudice? Absolutely.
Take interracial relationships for example. Although legal since 1967 when the Supreme Court ruled anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional, and although Gallup polls show a 90% or so approval from blacks and whites, interracial relationships are still a cause for discomfort for some people of color (and white too). Cereal producer Cheerios discovered that when they uploaded an advert on YouTube that had an interracial couple with their mixed race infant daughter in 2013. There was quite a reaction online. They had to disable comments to maintain civility. With African Americans, the discomfort is greater among women, the demography with the least number in an interracial relationship. Black women “wince” when the see “a good black guy” with a “white woman”.
“Wince” is the word one African American singer used to describe her reaction when she sees this type of coupling (especially if he is successful). She went on to explain how it comes from feeling betrayed. African American men and women have suffered together. Men were beaten and lynched, women were raped and ridiculed and now that the fight is seemingly over, it’s inconceivable to her that the men would just walk over to the “other side”.
She argued that she was not being racist (or racially prejudiced) or separatist but isn’t this sense of “us” vs. “them” where prejudicial sentiments stem from?
“Us” vs. “them” from a racial perspective was again on display when O.J Simpson was trialed for murder in 1995. There was a mountain of evidence against Mr. Simpson. Most people were convinced of his guilt (both black and white), however the majority of African Americans wanted his acquittal simply because he was black. This was revenge because the American justice system has worked in favor of the white man for so long. References to Emmett Till were made, the 14-year-old boy who was gruesomely murdered in Mississippi in 1955 by two white men because he “flirted” with a 21 woman! The two men were acquitted but eventually confessed to the crime shortly afterwards in a paid interview. Double jeopardy protected them from persecution at that point. The story of Emmett is difficult to digest to this day but won’t revenge for him only produce another Emmett from “the other side”? Both will be innocent victims and the vicious circle will continue for generations.
Love vs. Fear
What is the root of racism and prejudice? There are two basic motivational forces in human existence, love and fear. Love encompasses other love-based emotions such as compassion, excitement or acceptance while fear includes guilt, shame, anger, insecurity etc. It has to be one or the other. If you don’t chose love, you have already chosen fear.
What does this have to do with racism? Well, in 1979 Henri Tajfel made a huge contribution to the field of psychology when he came up with the Social Identity Theory. He proposed that social groups give us a sense of identity and with that, a sense of pride and self-esteem. These groups could be based on anything from family or ethnicity to football teams or religion. We enhance these feelings of self-esteem and identity by discriminating against other groups deemed different. By “lowering” others you get to feel “elevated”. We do this to feel safe.
Man has been trying to feel safe by grouping ever since he could form the firm group – the family. Grouping is done for protection. It is motivated by an inherent fear - a basic instinct that is designed to motivate man to protect himself from danger. This instinct has not evolved with man and remains rudimentary. Danger is based on perception. It’s not always real. In fact, it often isn’t. You will find that after forming one group, that ever-present irrational fear will motivate the formation of another group within the original group through the subconscious but relentless focus on perceived differences.
For example, you may start with USA vs. Iran. The common enemy will unite U.S.A but once focus shifts from a common enemy it becomes blacks vs. whites. The white people may group based on religion into Jews vs. Gentiles while the blacks group based on geography into East Coast vs. West Coast (RIP Biggie and Tupac). If you go to the West Coast you then find “the bloods” fighting for control against “the crips” etc. This is true for people everywhere. There is prejudice towards Aboriginals in Australia, ethnic Albanians in Greece, Dalitis in India, the Haratin in Mauritania and so on and so on. Fear breeds insecurity and separateness, which creates more fear. This is the root of racism and prejudice.
Fear can be eliminated, when we start to see ourselves in other people and the separateness subsequently disappears. When this happens, focus shifts from superficial differences, perceived or otherwise, to the fundamental commonalities that we share. We are really no different. When you become aware of a person’s fears, insecurities, aspirations, struggles, failures and successes, you begin to relate to these universal realities and naturally respond with empathy and compassion. You understand where they are coming from even if you don’t necessarily agree with their rationale every time. Those who judge are those who do not understand, but those who understand are unlikely to judge. This is why teaching black history, race relations and the history of racism in a very direct manner in schools, is a much-needed component to the much needed healing in the United States. Compassion, as Charles Darwin alluded in his book, “The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex”, is essential for the survival of our specie. Survival is for the kindest, not fittest because we exist as groups. Compassion, empathy, patience, acceptance, is the absence of fear. It is therefore love. It is not a relationship between the healer and wounded but a relationship between equals.
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Fault vs. Responsibility
Any white man born into social privilege in the United Sates is as much at fault as any black man born in the disadvantaged ghetto. That is to say, neither is at fault. When blame is levelled on either side, the natural response is defence. With this instinctive reaction comes a denial of responsibility for the “now”. In the words of Rick Ackerly, “fault looks back and responsibility looks forward”. Those at fault are no longer here but those who are here are now responsible for what they are doing about it.
When the response to racism is prejudice, you simply get more of the same because fear then prevails, and for that both parties carry responsibility. You may not have started it, but you are continuing it. Fear must be met with love (compassion) for it to dissipate. This was displayed beautifully by the Director of South Carolina Department of Public Safety, Leroy Smith who as a state trooper, was on crowd control duty during a white supremacist rally at the removal of the Confederate rebel flag. Whilst there, he noticed an ailing elderly white man in the crowd under the unforgiving July sun. Despite the fact that Mr Smith is black and this man was a KKK supporter wearing a T-shirt bearing a swastika, he quickly moved to his aid, putting his arm around him and slowly walking him up 40 or so steps to the State House (with words of encouragement) into an air conditioned room for him to recover. The fact that a photo of Mr Smith helping a KKK supporter went viral is indicative of the power of this gesture.
Anti-racism activist and writer, Tim Wise – who happens to be white, also displayed love and responsibility when he boarded a plane from Nashville to St. Louis and noticed that both pilots were black. Mr Wise has been working to fight racism since he graduated in 1990 and has given lectures in over 600 college campuses on the subject but even he had to consciously fight the conditioned presumptuous mental and emotional response of “oh my God, can these guys really fly this plane?” His environment conditioned him this way but he is taking responsibility and consciously fighting it with heightened awareness along with his admirable work to dismantle institutional racism. By the way, he wrote on his website that the flight was flawless.
Love as a response needs to be directed to one’s self too. In fact, this is where it should start. Each one of us is responsible for loving ourselves. Self-love begins with self-acceptance and then motivates an individual to strive for something better. Years of victimization, discrimination and poverty planted seeds of self doubt and self rejection in African Americans displayed ever so often in the incessant need to display wealth (bling) to “qualify” for worthiness. Bling is a staple in rap videos that mirror the mind-set of the streets. It just feeds the stereotype. The phrase “ghetto rich” refers to having expensive accessories while having no assets or a meaningful amount of money in the bank. You seek approval when you are not comfortable in your own skin – excuse the pun.
Comedian Dave Chappelle once made a funny skit on his “Chappelle's Show” in which black people were paid reparation for slavery but promptly sent the money back where it came from by buying rims, sneakers and bling etc. It was a hilatious but also sad depiction of the collective black consciousness. This self-doubt also comes out in the form of false confidence masked as being “gangster” with “street cred”. Aggressive people are simply insecure people trying to get rid of that feeling by getting some level of control.
When Dr Martin Luther King uttered the famous words, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” he was referring to the day that his children will not only be judged by the content of their character but will judge themselves and others by the content of their character too.
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That emptiness inside…it can disappear occasionally but then it always seems to return, sometimes playing in the background like a soundtrack. We often go on a long tiresome journey trying ever so much to fill it. We look for refuge in work, relationships, money, alcohol, sex, drugs etc but that only seems to make the void bigger. What is the answer? Better still, what is the problem?