“I’m not a racist. I just think people should be able to defend themselves.”
In recent discussions on race, it has begun increasingly clear that the use of the word “racism” blinds people to everything that comes after it. Why? Because everybody agrees that “racism” is a bad thing. They just don’t agree on what “racism” is. Those most complicit in protecting racism are convinced that “racism” is limited to state enforced (de jure) racism, and ignore what may be the most important facet of racism: implicit racial prejudice.
Society is not simply a matter of laws: some may look at cases like Michael Brown’s or Eric Garner’s and say “if they hadn’t been breaking the law, nothing bad would have happened to them”. However, the deaths of Tamir Rice and John Crawford – both breaking no laws – would suggest otherwise. Even more telling, the death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of a civilian would suggest that there is more at play here than a simple overzealous prosecution of law, but a hyperactive fear of black men. At its heart, this implicit bias is the root of racism, but it is also a complicated topic which forces us to rethink how we address racism.
Racial prejudice is what we think of when we hear “racism”: biases against people on account of their race. When people say “black people can be racist, too”, what they mean is “black people can be racially prejudiced, too”. This is quite true, of course. Racial minorities can be just as equally racially prejudiced (in fact, on account of the discrimination they face, one would understand their being more racially prejudiced, in the presence of an actual reason).
Racism denotes an institution which reinforces racial inequality. As such, it is not really possible for an oppressed class to be “racist”, per se, since racism requires that their actions be part of reinforcing a system that supports their privileged place in society (and they have no such privileged place). That system can come from a number of different sources, but the most common are government and businesses, as well as the impact of historically discriminatory conditions.
To a lot of people, institutional racism is the only kind of racism, and if the state isn’t endorsing racism, it’s not problematic. Institutional racism is typically associated with the government (such as Jim Crow laws in the post-war south) to racially discriminatory mortgage policies. It is important to note that race does not have to be referenced to have racial impacts. For example, low estate taxes serve only to reinforce wealth gaps between blacks and whites. As well, past de jure racism can have lasting effects that ripple into the modern era. For example, blacks were historically prohibited from moving into suburbs, neighborhoods linked with status, wealth, and income, not to mention better schools. This generation’s of black Americans may not be legally prohibited from doing so, but they certainly couldn’t have benefited from growing up in such an environment of stability and educational potential.
There are hundreds of hate groups rooted in the ideas that the races should be kept separate, from the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups to the Black Riders Liberation Party and other white separatist groups. Their positions can range from “races should be separate” to “certain races are inherently inferior”. While explicit racial prejudice may be the most visible form of prejudice, given the modern stigma against it, it may actually be less impactful than we fear.
One need not have conscious opinions about other races to be a racist; the significant majority of white Americans harbor an undue degree of fear towards black Americans. Whether this is thanks to biological tribalism or fear-mongering by the media is irrelevant, but the sad truth is this: white Americans fear black faces. This can be most clearly seen through the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The IAT judges people’s implicit reactions to black faces by forcing people to associate positive and negative words with white and black faces.
Whites show a significant bias against associating positive words and black faces, taking much longer to do so. Interestingly, all racial groups except for black Americans show this bias, although none so significantly as white Americans. This bias is significantly stronger in conservatives than in strong liberals. If the blip at “slightly/moderately liberal” confuses you, consider that moderate democrats are often referred to as Southern Democrats, and have a much stronger focus on economic than social issues, and as we can see, implicit racial bias is at its worst in the South.
However, this is not the only test we have. Over 40% of white Americans – according to the 2009 Cooperative Congressional Election Study – describe “many” or “almost all” black men as violent, as opposed to under 15% of white men. Even using the word “black” instead of “African-American” causes whites to judge a hypothetical person less favorably.
This may seem like a subtle and unimportant distinction, but small distinctions are strongest when it comes to split-decisions.
This is precisely why it is so important to understand implicit bias. When it comes down to an instantaneous, life or death situation, implicit bias is one of the few factors in people’s actions, and can actually cause people to identify weapons where none are present. In this context, it becomes much easier to understand the abundance of shootings where a white guy or a cop, “fearing for his life” killed a black man who “had a weapon”, and no such weapon is found.
Here lies the ultimate problem. Modern racism is more subtle than the language of the 60s allows for. Racism is often not rooted in legal policy or even active opinions, but in split-second judgments. Racism (the prejudice, not the institution) may be everywhere. Data from studies such as the IAT suggests that a majority of people have significant racial biases against black Americans. When implicit bias is combined with institutional power, it creates systemic disenfranchisement. For example, negative racial associations cause black college students to be less likely to be hired than white high school dropouts.
Until we understand and address these underlying causes of racism, we will continue to find white men and cops standing over the dead bodies of unarmed black men with an excuse quick to their lips: I was afraid for my life.