Tag Archives: institutional racism

How can I be racist?

Let me tell you about something that’s annoyed me for years: White people making excuses about racism.

“I can’t be racist because my boyfriend is black.”

“I can’t be racist because my grandparents came from Poland after the end of slavery.”

“I can’t be racist because I know a lot of Hispanic people and they all tell me how awesome I am.”

Have you ever heard this general line of thought? Usually, I admit, it’s a little less blunt. Instead, white folks might start talking about their Asian girlfriend or wife like she’s a trinket or their black friend like a trophy.

Racism has surprisingly little to do with your friends or their skin color. Who can forget the Louisiana judge who refused to officiate a wedding because he doesn’t believe in the “mixing of the races”? Still, he claimed, he has “piles and piles” of black friends. Suppose that he really does have “piles” of black friends and he really only was concerned about the children this couple might eventually have feeling rejection from both whites and blacks. Well, unfortunately for him, it’s the judge’s willing participation in the system of racism that’s the problem. I sincerely doubt that the couple in question felt better that at least he had black friends after refusing to perform his duty and help them get married.

Racism, it turns out, has a lot to do with systems and your participation in and perpetuation of these systems rather than whether or not you know how to tokenize your acquaintances.

Second of all, racism as it has evolved in white culture over the last couple decades in the United States has to do with two routes often chosen as the best way forward. First of all, denying race. A friend of mine who attended the same nearly all-white high school as me told me once that he didn’t see race because he had a friend in grade school who was black and it was never something they noticed.

Now this is an interesting thing. Kids are blessed, I think, in being outside this complicated, damning and long history that is racism. I think it’s true that kids don’t notice race the way many adults notice it because they haven’t yet learned the significance of it. But can having one friend who is a different background than you sufficient to propel you into a colorblind adulthood?

The second route tends toward what I described at the beginning: Claiming your friends, your significant other, your acquaintances as proof that you can’t be racist. The first route is damning since it glosses over history and supposes that there is no tension between us. For white people, this is great. We get to forget that slavery ever happened because if we can’t see any black people, who’s going to remind us of what we did to them or that we still collectively benefit from this? The second route is just as damning since it objectifies otherness.

The closest we can get to “not racist”, I think, is realizing that we live in a racist system and acknowledging that there’s a reason why such a large proportion of those living in poverty in the United States are of African-American, Native American, or Hispanic descent.

Many people feel uncomfortable acknowledging this because it should make us uncomfortable to acknowledge that we benefit from a broken, unjust system. It goes back to the individual of a certain European descent claiming that they are exempt from the racism of the American system since their grandparents or parents (or they themselves) arrived well after slavery. “I never had any slaves. My grandparents were poor farmers in X, Y or Z country.”

Participation in a system is validation for the system. Racism is not about how much you like your black friend or your grandparents showing up on American shores to fight Hitler in World War 2.

Participation should make us uncomfortable. Silence should make us uncomfortable.

Silent participation = passive participation = acceptance.


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In our weak economy, certain members of the GOP have offered themselves to voters as CEOs to hire, as businessmen who know how to run operations smoothly and cost-efficiently.

The two businessmen I’m thinking of are Mitt Romney and Michigan governor Rick Snyder.

Rick Snyder submitted his candidacy for governor as someone who wasn’t interested in social issues but rather wanted to get Michigan’s economy back on the tracks again. And so far, he’s mostly stuck to his plan to focus on the economy – whether or not he’s managed to get the economy back on its feet again, well that’s another matter.

Mitt Romney has been doing a less successful job with this. Nationwide there are just too many Republicans who are insistent on having a candidate who presents himself as not only a commander-in-chief but also as a preacher-in-chief. I genuinely believe that Mitt Romney would like to run a campaign free from messy social issues and would love to be presenting himself as a successful CEO, as a successful businessman who can cure the United States’ economic woes. Unfortunately for Republicans like Mitt Romney and John McCain, the Religious Right is perhaps the most powerful political force in this country and there isn’t a single Republican nominee who’s managed to secure the nomination in recent years with their blessing.

I would like to argue, however, that a government and a business are not at all the same thing.

Even if Mitt Romney could run purely as a successful businessman, just because you have successfully run a business, that hardly means that you should be in charge of a government.

In fact, I’d like to argue that it might mean just the opposite.

Where businesses exist to earn money, governments are instituted to protect the rights of their citizens. Governments facilitate and regulate the basic framework of daily life, ensuring that everyone has access to basic needs when they are in want, that everyone gets a piece of the pie (or the American dream, if you will) through access to education, transportation, healthcare, etc. I know, I know, to many GOP pundits and politicians, the word “regulation” equates with socialism. But we have regulation so that employees don’t get exploited by their employers, so that we can have clean air and drinkable water that won’t catch on fire because of pollution.

Governments don’t exist to look out for their bottom dollar.

Governments exist to take care of everyone from the top CEOs and money-makers to the people living on the street, lining up for a place at the shelter night after night. I realize that this introduces a major ideological conflict with the libertarian lot who think that government just gets in the way, but when was the last time you thought it might be cool if a river flowing through your town caught on fire?

This is my major problem with Rick Snyder: He’s confused the two. He ran for governor of Michigan with the slogan “Hire Rick”.

And frankly, he’s running the state just as you would expect a businessman to.

He’s zeroed-in on the weak departments and started cutting away the dead branches – only in this case the dead branches are local city and town governments under financial duress. Local, democratically elected officials are being replaced with appointees from Governor Snyder until the Emergency Financial Manager (EFM) decides that the books are balanced and they’re through making their cuts and running the town.

Two problems:

As a Michigander, let me first say that I am well aware that Michigan has been facing a time of drastic hardship. Drastic times, drastic measures. I get it, I get it.

However, let me counter that with another cliche: Then ends don’t justify the means.

Replacing democratically elected officials, undermining the democratic process is no way of getting a community back on its feet. This is a profound disrespect for democracy that we’re seeing here in the state of Michigan that punishes the people of Michigan for nothing that they did wrong.

Detroit, for example, has been in financial trouble for years because it’s been losing its tax base. The population has been cut in half over the last fifty years – from a peak of nearly two million to about three quarters of a million today – due in part to one of the most drastic examples of White Flight in US history. African Americans migrated from the South to Detroit at the beginning of the 20th century looking for a better life in the manufacturing boom. They left behind oppression, they left behind being treated as second class citizens so that today, in 2012, they could be… treated as second class citizens all over again. As Rachel Maddow has already observed, the vast majority of people in Michigan who are directly affected by this EFM law are African American.

Do we need a clearer sign of lingering institutional racism in our country? African Americans moved north for a better life. 100 years later, their great-grandkids can’t even vote for their local town and city officials.

I’m not accusing Rick Snyder or Michigan Republicans of racism at all.

But if you can’t see the problem here, pull up your pants. Your privilege is showing.

Secondly, putting an EFM in a community may balance the budget, but what does that do for the local economy? What jobs are created? Where does it leave the community? What sort of precedent does it create? What other scenarios might arise where the state governor decides that it’s in his or her best interest to replace local officials?

If you haven’t been following the story, Rachel Maddow has been doing a really good job following it for over a year now (use the search engine to look up old segments) and I can’t recommend Eclectablog highly enough – I can’t believe I’ve only just started following. I guess that’s what grad school does to you.

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