Rethinking Racism in the 21st Century

Who is Racist?

You’ve heard about the Detroit police officer Gary Steele’s racial mocking of Ariel Moore after making her walk home in subzero weather. More recently, you’ve heard about the xenophobic, antimuslim remarks of Chicago Cubs billionaire Joe Ricketts, 77. This all comes while folks are still trying to figure out what to make of Senator Bernie Sanders calling President Trump “a racist” on MLK Day, since he seems to be “intentionally and deliberately” attempting to “divide us up by the color of our skin…”

How much do we learn from Bernie Sanders’ observation or from these other explicitly racist acts that we haven’t learned in the 50 years since Dr. King’s death?

The short answer is, very little.

We at Focus: HOPE suspect that for finally disrupting racism in 21st-century America, what’s really needed is tools and bridges for those who want to overcome their bias rather than giving excessive attention to those who do not.

Simply put: Many of us—if we knew better—would do better.

Shifting the Conversation

The first thing we need to know is the biggest harms of contemporary racism don’t come through explicit, intentional bigotry such as we seem to see in President Trump, Officer Steele or Joe Ricketts. Racism presents itself today largely through unconscious, unintentional or “implicit” biases in favor of white people and against Blacks and other people of color. To make progress, we must provide the tools needed to help address and overcome those biases. This allows us to shift energy away from frustrating and hurtful debates over who is or isn’t “a racist” in order to point our efforts toward the problems we are actually trying to solve by confronting racism.

One such problem is generational poverty. When Father Cunningham and Eleanor Josaitis (a white catholic priest and self-characterized “suburban housewife”) worked with others to found Focus: HOPE in 1968, it was specifically to address the clear disparities that existed along racial lines in education, health and access to opportunity.

And those same disparities continue to exist today.   According to the Economic Policy Institute, today the median hourly wage for a black worker in the U.S. is only 75% of the median hourly wage for a white worker; the median household income for a black worker is only 61% of the median income for a white; and shockingly, the median net worth for black families is just 10% of the median net worth for white families.

So what has any of this to do with racism today?

The word “racist” is popularly (and over simplistically) used to describe a person who “hates people because of their color”. This definition does not and cannot explain the disparate impacts noted above, since good sense tells us most policymakers and practitioners do not explicitly hate those who are being left behind. Continued attempts to hold discussions that fail to address this misunderstanding will only result in confusion and resentment.

Rethinking Racism

Racism usefully defined leads us to ask not “who is a racist?”, but “how does racism work, who does it benefit and who is currently being harmed by it?” To be clear, racism in North America benefits white people while others are disadvantaged by it. This is because North American racism at its core upholds the deeply ingrained phenomenon of white preference. That this preference is largely unconscious makes it far more powerful and dangerous than the devil of explicit racism, since its perpetrators are good people of all races who are unaware of their thoughts and actions. As goes the saying of any devil, the greatest trick of racism, then, has been convincing Americans it no longer exists.

What is the way forward?

For sure, we can no longer go about pretending we do not see race, since it is a construct deeply embedded into the social conscious of American society. We assign it to our children at birth. We check race boxes on our applications. We select it on our identifications. We include it in our educational text and use it to tell the story of our country. More important, we recognize that disparities in education, economics, criminal justice and health exist across racial lines. Therefore, pretending we don’t see race and that racism doesn’t exist is not only socially immature; it is also irresponsible and dangerous—it ends up placing blame for racial disparities on those being marginalized rather than tracing those disparities back to a long history of oppression based on color.

What we must to do is double down on the creation of spaces where we can be honest about race, and where we can learn more about how racism really works.  In our goodness and eagerness to move into a post-racial society, many of us attempt to avoid discussions about race. But helping our society to heal itself from racial disparities requires that we approach decision making from a racial equity lens. Such a lens necessitates our leaning into discomfort to talk about race in spite of the emotional consequences. It also necessitates people of color trusting that all people, including white people, want to eliminate racial injustice.

And it does little good to rank people according to whether their racism is explicit, since this draws attention away from our illusive but arguably far more dangerous underlying biases and from the clearly disparate impact of our policies and decisions.

We believe the biggest gains are to be made by assisting the majority who want to disrupt racism to overcome the hurdles to achievement. We do this not by singling folks out for their explicit racism, but as a country by rethinking our understanding of racism and the way it works. We do it through brave talks that help us to recognize and confront the biases against Blacks, Latinxs, Arabs, Indigenous, Jews and other peoples of color we often overlook in our own thinking.   And we also do it by looking for change and improvement – both within ourselves and in our society.

Jasahn M. Larsosa is Director of Advocacy, Equity & Community Empowerment, serving under Portia Roberson, the newly appointed CEO of Focus: HOPE, which is focused on overcoming racism, poverty and injustice.  The insights in this analysis grew out of an internal Focus: HOPE education series launched on MLK Day.   Look for more analysis with further insights on disrupting racism from Mr. Larsosa.

Thomas Shapiro, in his paper explaining the roots of the Black-White economic divide, indicates that the wealth gap between white and African-American families nearly tripled from $85,000 in 1984 to $236,500 in 2009.  He lists a number of causes, including significant differences along racial lines in years of home ownership, household income, unemployment, and education.    Perhaps even more important is the impact of disparate levels of inheritance – the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and mass incarceration has had a severe negative impact on Black families’ abilities to accumulate wealth over generations.

For this reason, it is important to understand that hatred need not be (and often is not) present for racism to be at work.

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