First off, read this article. It’s really well written and nicely sums up the issues of the current state of racism in America.
My own thoughts on racism have changed over the years. To begin with, I grew up in Maine, one of the whitest states in the country. Literally, I think there might have been a half-dozen black people in all of the schools I went to from head-start to high school, combined. I never saw black people treated differently, but for the most part, never saw black people, period.
I also grew up relatively poor. My parents did a good job, my brother and I never went hungry or anything, but there were times when we were on food stamps or other support programs. I should point out that Maine is also one of the poorest states in the country. But we did well enough that I went to a mix of public and private schools, and after high school, I was able to go on to college in Georgia.
Now, I would hear people talk about racism, and I thought I knew what it was. My grandfather was racist, he hated and feared black people. I never quite got why – as a Jew, shouldn’t he understand not to judge anyone in a group by exaggerated stereotypes? That, to me, was racism: saying you didn’t like black people.
When the perpetually downtrodden state of blacks was pointed out to me (such as prison populations, unemployment rates and incomes), my counter was that wasn’t an issue of race, but of economics. This, to me, was simply the cycle of poverty, where the system is designed to keep poor people poor to the benefit of the rich. It was something I had narrowly escaped, but something I could empathize with, because I had been poor at many times in my life.
I had small tastes of this, since from my late teens to mid-twenties I had long scraggly hair and an unkempt beard, and was actually mistaken for homeless once or twice. So I had been treated differently at times because I looked poor. At one point, riding with my roommate back from shopping, a police officer stopped us and searched the car, probably because of how I looked. So I felt I understood what the issue was.
This is an easy trap to fall into, because it is true, it can be very hard to break out of poverty. But it is also false, because racism is also a big problem ON TOP OF THAT. By saying “it’s just poverty, I pulled myself up by the bootstraps and so can anyone” is to deny the whole other layer of racism that exists.
I remember one time, a few of us were talking with a (white) manager about new hires, he said in passing that part of what he looked at on the resume was the name. If it was some “weird” kind of name, he figured, they wouldn’t mesh as well with the group and might have communication issues. We pointed out how wrong that was, and it took a lot of arguing for him even to understand that he was being racist. When he finally got it, he shrugged, saying his mother was really racist, and it was just how he was raised. Now, this is not a mean guy we are talking about, he’s one of the kindest guys I know.
There’s blatant racism, like people setting black churches on fire and calling president Obama a monkey. In a way, that’s easy racism to fight because it’s so obvious, but there’s a whole other layer of racism, woven into the media, language and ways of thinking, such that it can be invisible to white people because it’s just “normal”.
And as that article states so well, white people take pointing out racism personally. “I’m not racist!” is the response, and one I have had myself. But it’s pretty obvious these days that everything is pretty badly skewed when it comes to race.
When author John Scalzi wrote a short piece comparing being a white male to playing a video game on “easy”, it of course drew immediate and sustained fire from white males saying “hey, my life isn’t easy, I’ve had to work hard!”. But the metaphor is very apt. When you play a game on easy, the enemies don’t step out of the way. It’s usually more subtle, there are a few less enemies, or they have less health, or they deal slightly less damage, or you find ammunition more often. If the game is designed properly, playing a game on easy gives the same gameplay experience and “feels” like the same game, it just allows for a greater margin of error on the part of the player.
In the same way, institutionalized racism is a collection of subtle changes that make it seem like blacks and whites are playing the same game, but we really aren’t. Eddie Murphy did a famous SNL skit where he goes undercover as a white man and finds out that when black people aren’t looking, white people give each other things for free and have special perks. It’s a hilarious exaggeration but also spot-on.
In the end, though, all this thought leaves me in a position a lot of white people probably find themselves: acutely aware of the system that benefits them, but clueless as to what to do about it.