Tim Wise just wrote a great diary on right wing racism. As usual, though, in the comments some folks started claiming that white folks could be the victims of “racism” too. Even though I thought, from Tim’s article, that the impossibility of that was clear, it’s a point that’s very hard to get across.
Coincidentally, an ex-student of mine wrote to me last night and asked me to remind her of my explanation of the impossibility of “Reverse Racism” — she’s in an M.A. program and found herself in a heated argument with some of her peers. So I wrote it down for her and sent it off. I thought, though, that it might be a useful document to post on DailyKos, so here it is…
In any discussion of racism and it’s alleged “Reverse,” it’s crucial to start with the definitions of prejudice and discrimination, to lay the foundation for understanding racism in context. There’s a reason these three terms exist, and a very good reason not to conflate them, as I’ll demonstrate below.
Prejudice is an irrational feeling of dislike for a person or group of persons, usually based on stereotype. Virtually everyone feels some sort of prejudice, whether it’s for an ethnic group, or for a religious group, or for a type of person like blondes or fat people or tall people. The important thing is they just don’t like them — in short, prejudice is a feeling, a belief. You can be prejudiced, but still be a fair person if you’re careful not to act on your irrational dislike.
Discrimination takes place the moment a person acts on prejudice. This describes those moments when one individual decides not to give another individual a job because of, say, their race or their religious orientation. Or even because of their looks (there’s a lot of hiring discrimination against “unattractive” women, for example). You can discriminate, individually, against any person or group, if you’re in a position of power over the person you want to discriminate against. White people can discriminate against black people, and black people can discriminate against white people if, for example, one is the interviewer and the other is the person being interviewed.
Racism, however, describes patterns of discrimination that are institutionalized as “normal” throughout an entire culture. It’s based on an ideological belief that one “race” is somehow better than another “race”. It’s not one person discriminating at this point, but a whole population operating in a social structure that actually makes it difficult for a person not to discriminate.
A clear cut example is a slave-holding culture: people are born into a society where one sort of person is “naturally” a master, and another sort of person is “naturally” a slave (and sometimes not considered a person at all, but a beast of burden). In a culture like that, discrimination is built into the social, economic and political fabric, and individuals — even “free” individuals — don’t really have a choice about whether they discriminate or not because even if they don’t believe in slavery, they interact every day with slaves and the laws and rules that keep slaves bound.
In a racist society, it takes a special act of courage and willingness to subject oneself to scandal or danger to step outside that system and become an abolitionist. It’s not the “fault” of every member of the master class that slavery exists, and some might wish it was gone. But the fact is that every single member of the master class benefits from the unpaid labor of slaves at every level of society because they simply can’t avoid consuming the products that slavery produces, or benefiting from the exploitation of slave labor. So unless members of the master class rise up and oppose the system and try to overthrow it (abolitionists, for example), they’re going to be complicit in the slave system: even abolitionists will profit — against their will — in the slave system because they still have to wear clothes or use other things the system produced.
The above is an extreme, clear example, which I use to make it easier to see the fuzzier, more complex situations in which we operate today. Despite the fact that slaves were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, and that the 14th Amendment gave African Americans voting rights, the institutional structures of racism were not overturned. Even after the 14th was passed, white people still had the power to prevent black people from voting by instituting the poll tax, the grandfather clause, and the “understanding” clause which required blacks to recite any segment of the Constitution the registrar wanted them to recite. In the Sixties, the Civil Rights Voting Acts were passed, which knocked down those obstacles to voting. But black Americans still do not have political power in proportion to their presence in the population (even though there’s a black President).
If you look at important voting bodies like the Federal and the State senates and congresses, or at the Federal and State supreme courts, or at the CEO list of major corporations, or at any other body that wields substantial power in the U.S., you will count only a few black faces (and in some cases, none). Out of the number of black faces you count, most of them will not be representing the views of the majority of black people in this country, but the views of the white majority. On the other hand, if you count the number of black people in poverty, and in prisons, or the number of people who are unemployed or lack health care, there are far more black people in these categories than is proportionate to their numbers in the larger society.
Unless you are going to argue that blacks are “naturally” inferior to whites (which is an outright racist position), you have to admit that there is some mechanism that is limiting black opportunity. That’s the mechanism we call “racism” — the interacting social, political, and economic rule systems that all discriminate, either overtly (racial profiling, for example) or covertly (i.e., white majority governments redrawing district voting lines so that black majority areas are politically split up and don’t have the electoral power to vote in black candidates; or, white-run banks using zip codes as a criteria for excluding people who apply for loans, and just “happening” to exclude all the majority black neighborhoods in a city, a practice called “red-lining”). One could go on for hours about these various mechanisms, and I’m sure you can think of plenty on your own which discriminate against blacks, Hispanics, “Arab-looking” people, Native Americans, & so on.
Now to “Reverse Racism.” It’s crucial to maintain the distinction between the above three terms, because otherwise white people tend to redefine “Discrimination” as “Racism”. Their main argument is that because both blacks and white can discriminate against each other, that “Reverse Racism” is possible. But the truth of the matter is that black people: 1) have far less opportunity to discriminate against whites than whites have to discriminate against blacks, overall; and 2) black people lack a system of institutionalized support that protect them when they discriminate against whites.
It took black and white people working together for one hundred years to get programs like Affirmative Action installed in the U.S., but it took one white man (Alan Bakke) only a single Supreme Court case to get those programs dismantled because he felt he didn’t gain entry into medical school based on his white race.
“Reverse Racism” would only describe a society in which all the rules and roles were turned upside down. That has not happened in the U.S., however much white right wing ideologues want to complain that they’re being victimized by the few points of equality that minorities and women have managed to claim. White people who complain about “Reverse Racism” are actually complaining about being denied their privileges, rather than being denied their rights. They feel entitled to be hired and not to be discriminated against, even though the norm is white people discriminating against blacks. If, in a rare instance, a black employer discriminates against a white job applicant, that’s not “reverse” anything — it’s simple discrimination. It’s to be condemned on principle, but it’s not evidence of some systematic program by which whites are being deprived of their rights.
The right wing popularized the term “Reverse Racism” because they were really angry at having their white privileges challenged. Anyone who uses that phrase, whether they are right wing or not, furthers the right wing’s cause. This is what I tell Democrats and progressives who I hear using the term — not only are they being inaccurate, but they’re helping out their opponents.
The above arguments can be applied to any institutionalized structure of oppression, affecting any race, ethnic or religious group, and can be used to to oppose claims of “Reverse Sexism” too.
I hope that clarifies things a bit.
The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion. We can forgive Whitaker’s assailant. Much harder to forgive is all that makes Whitaker stand out in the first place. New York is a city, like most in America, that bears the scars of redlining, blockbusting and urban renewal. The ghost of those policies haunts us in a wealth gap between blacks and whites that has actually gotten worse over the past 20 years.
But much worse, it haunts black people with a kind of invisible violence that is given tell only when the victim happens to be an Oscar winner. The promise of America is that those who play by the rules, who observe the norms of the “middle class,” will be treated as such. But this injunction is only half-enforced when it comes to black people, in large part because we were never meant to be part of the American story. Forest Whitaker fits that bill, and he was addressed as such.
I am trying to imagine a white president forced to show his papers at a national news conference, and coming up blank. I am trying to a imagine a prominent white Harvard professor arrested for breaking into his own home, and coming up with nothing. I am trying to see Sean Penn or Nicolas Cage being frisked at an upscale deli, and I find myself laughing in the dark. It is worth considering the messaging here. It says to black kids: “Don’t leave home. They don’t want you around.” It is messaging propagated by moral people.