Racism’s Long Shadow
“Racism still alive/They just be concealin’ it” -Kanye West, Never Let Me Down
Ten years into to the 21st century, the United States is still arguing over the same central problem it faced 10 years into the 20th, 19th and 18th centuries: racism. From the “peculiar institution” to Jim Crow to redlining to anti-immigrant profiling, overt and covert racism has been a consistent foundation for discrimination, displacement and disenfranchisement.
Racism’s tragic legacy is tearing apart families and communities everywhere across the country. Hate crimes are up in Baltimore. Why? Because anti-immigrant vitriol is being dispersed by politicians and media personalities. Because people are translating their economic insecurity into fear of people who don’t look or speak like them. This thinking turns neighbors against neighbors and needlessly forces communities into hiding because they fear for their safety. Worse still, according to the article, people are afraid to come forward and cooperate with law enforcement because of the hate-filled environment. Simply put: they don’t trust the people who are paid to protect them, which makes these already-vulnerable communities even more susceptible to criminals who know their victims are less likely to contact the authorities because they’re afraid of being profiled.
Many Black communities have a long history of being weary of police forces that disproportinately use excessive force and harass them, so they too are often unwilling to cooperate, leery of not being taken seriously or being victimized again. It’s the vile cycle of victimization.
Out of the many implications of the far-reaching impacts of racism, three stand out for me in this current socio-political moment.
1. Demonization of difference
Though this country’s founding was fueled by an imperialist premise, it was based on certain principles that protected the freedom to be different. Diverse religions, diverse sources of wealth, diverse methods of communication, etc. The freedom to be different, however, has been systemically walked back in several respects, as protectors of tradition have cloaked their radical views with nice-sounding thoughts like returning to the “good old days.” What they really mean is the “good old days when non-white people and women were largely subservient and the transfer of wealth and power existed within a homogeneous, incestuous, repetitious vortex.” What they want is a return to the days when it was cool to say “freedom of religion,” but people only used that freedom to choose what flavor of Christian they wanted to be. Kind of like Henry Ford saying that people could have any color Model T they wanted, so long as it was black.
This is the clear rationale behind the clamoring from conservative radicals to repeal the 14th amendment’s clause that grants citizenship to all children born in the United States. That clause was included because, previously, the children of slaves (read: Black people) were not citizens of the United States and could not enjoy the privileges and immunities of citizenship, thanks to the Dred Scott decision. The precedent that the 14th amendment rejected and dismantled was abhorrently racist, and it’s sad that today’s racists want to set us back 150+ years because they are scared of non-white babies.
2. Anti-government sentiment
There is tremendous overlap between the people who are clamoring about how they want to altogether eliminate government and people who are publicly racist. The most dishonest members of this cabal advance the level of government influence on private life in order to achieve this objective. They push for policies that make people more prone to question the motives of their government, such as racial profiling laws, laws that diminish women’s autonomy over their own bodies, cuts to programs that benefit the working class (e.g. unemployment benefits, food stamps), etc. This increases the pool of people potentially open to an anti-government message, which is the point of the strategy: the more people mad at the government, the better.
One of the primary functions of our government is to be the referee that protects factions of the population from injuring each other (see Federalist Paper No. 10 by James Madison). Just because a majority or plurality of individuals want something doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing to do. A prime example is the Department of Justice suing and winning a preliminary injunction against Arizona’s SB1070 immigration law. Though many polls find most Americans support the Arizona law, it is the federal government’s responsibility to ensure that the community impacted by that law (in this case, immigrants in Arizona) is treated fairly. Racial profiling, which was what the law sought to institutionalize, clearly is unfair, illegal and morally wrong. It had to be stopped. It’s the same reason that Jim Crow laws were eradicated in the 20th century.
3. Powerful Victim Paradox
An interesting paradox present in racism’s long shadow is that the fear inherent in racist thinking leads those with those views to see themselves as helpless victims, which then motivates them to grind their heels further into the necks of those they seek to oppress. Let’s call this the Powerful Victim Paradox. This is what motivates people afraid of people of color moving into their previously-homogeneous neighborhoods to protect their ‘hood by making sure that the people they are afraid of, even if they move in, are jeered and treated disrespectfully to the point where they’re intimidated into relocating. (Think this doesn’t still happen today? Ask this woman & son in Clearfield, PA who were greeted at home last Saturday by two burning crosses on their lawn.) They think that if new people move in, they’ll steal the power and influence, so they must press their levers of influence even harder. Same is true for the argument that we should continue to destroy the lives of immigrants because they’ll take jobs (for an alternative vision, try this). It’s a great American tragicomedy.
Race has divided people nationally and locally. Nationally, one needs to look no further than the Park51 Community Center flap to see hatred and prejudice, in this case racial, ethnic and religious, on full display. The idea that a community center, run by Muslims can’t be constructed in any NYC neighborhood, near Ground Zero or anyplace else, is preposterous. It’s the equivalent to saying that you can’t build YMCAs in neighborhoods where Jewish people live. The status quo is unsustainable.
How to move forward
We can put an end to racism’s reign of terror, entrenched though it may be. We can and we must because our communities depend on it. Here’s how we can begin:
- Call racism what it is when you see it
Racism persists in part because of silent acceptance. It is amazing, however, how things can be changed when proper attention is paid to them. It is not politically incorrect to call something or someone racists if it is clear that they are behaving in such a manner. Don’t be afraid to do so.
- Remember that community literally means “with unity”
Unity is not the destruction of difference. Instead, it is the embrace of diversity. It’s about alignment, not assimilation. As organizers, activists, policy makers, etc., we may have different paths. That is fine so long as we are clear about our destination. Movements predicated upon assimilation are no match for movements that respect and encourage creative thinking toward a common purpose.
For us, that common purpose is an America and a world where we recognize the dignity and decency of every person. Where we see strength in people speaking for themselves and taking care of one another. Where communities create institutions and craft policy that treat everyone as equally important and powerful. There are no special interests, only human interests.
In order for this to be realized, the long shadow of racism must subside. Turn up the lights. Let’s recommit to this today.
One Love. One II.
Originally posted on the Center for Community Change blog.