Editor’s note: Last week I started a big debate over at my blog with this rant/post. The post below is inspired from that debate. I’ve been really frustrated with the “I’m not racist” refrain that I keep hearing over and over, and Dumi over at Black at Michigan put some of my views into his words, so I gave a short ranting response that lead to a good discussion on racism. I’m posting the follow-up post where I discuss racism and racists in more depth, but in order to follow the meaning of this post, I suggest following the debate at my blog, and reading the post at Dumi’s blog to put this in perspective.
The I’m a Racist and I Participate in Racism thread has really touched on many important issues, and I thought it would be useful to further discuss some of the issues that people brought up in the comments section. Let me first say that I don’t really think that we can separate racism and racists. I see racism existing in four major forms:
- Individual or isolate—actions or incidents that are the products of isolated individuals, who intentionally or unintentionally harm people physically, psychologically, or socially because of the race, gender, national origin, etc.
- Small group–actions or incidents that involve a relatively small number of people, who intentionally or unintentionally harm people physically, psychologically, or socially because of their race, gender, national origin, etc
- Direct Institutional—laws, policies, and formal and informal practices encoded in institutions that are specifically designed to exclude minority groups from access to resources
- Indirect institutional–laws, policies, and formal and informal practices that are not specifically designed to exclude minority groups; however, the result of these policies is such that minority groups are disproportionately affected. (These typologies comes from http://www.socioweb.com/sociology-textbooks/book/0136747221“> Feagin and Feagin.)
Feagin’s model could be used for any type of discrimination, but in this case I wanted to focus on racism. I think racism exists on two major levels–the institutional levels and the interpersonal level.
Of course racism, is not the same as racists. Racists would be the people who participate in racism whether it is institutional or interpersonal in its nature. When most people think of racists, they think of people engaging in interpersonal racism, but I think anyone who participates in upholding racist structures or institutions is indeed racist. I know that won’t sit well with many folks because they view racists as people who act with a deliberate intent to cause harm, but I would contend that many people do not intend to cause harm. In fact, some people are relatively powerless in a social system, and they engage in racism even though they may think that it is wrong or harmful. In his famous essay on racism and the American creed, sociologist, Robert Merton1 mentions a group of people he labels non-prejudice discriminators. These are people who do not hold prejudiced beliefs, but engage in discriminatory behavior. I think in many cases non-prejudiced discriminators are relatively powerless. Take the example of a loan officer at a bank that has redlining policies or a cashier in a store that has informal policies of targeting black customers as shoplifters. While the loan officer and the cashier may think these policies are wrong, they could fear losing their jobs if they do not comply with the institutional rules. Are these people racist? Yes. However, they are likely not as culpable as the people who create and enforce such racist policies. Moreover, we could also have social institutions that include people who are not racist in their interpersonal lives, but a part of systems that support institutional racism.
Many people immediately jump to a discussion of culpability when racism comes up–the key question they ask is, “Who is to blame?” However, I think if we just started from the point that blame is less important than eradicating racist behaviors and institutions, we would all be better. Personally, I think everybody deserves a little blame, but some deserve more blame than others. For me culpability is directly related to power–the more power a person has the more culpability he or she has. Nevertheless, the blame discourse is not really going to get us further because it exacerbates social inequalities that already exist. I’m not saying; don’t speak truth to power, but I am saying that it is important as a strategy to work of redistributing power more than placing blame.
Personally, I use the term white racism, not because I want to “blame” all whites for racism. I use “white racism” because I agree with the commenters that institutional racism is much more insidious, and institutional racism in the US is undoubtedly “white racism.” Racism is not just “white” because of who created or maintained it; it is also white because it upholds white supremacy. There is no history of social institutions in this country that upholds “black racism” as an ideology. Many people of color also participate in white racism–one primary example being colorism which exists in numerous societies.
Many commenters also suggested that “reclaiming the term racist” and arguing that everybody is racist may not be an effective strategy for social change because it is either 1) too radical for people to accept or 2) it is so conservative that people may say why change. I think the question about strategy is important. I don’t have a simple answer as to what the best strategy would be, but I do have a collection of random thoughts about it:
- I would like to change how people define racism. To me racism is not about hate or evil, although I do think it is morally corrupt. If we could focus more on behaviors and practices and less on “good vs. evil,” we may be able to make a dent in racism. Part of what started my rant was the fact that people were engaging in very clear (interpersonal) racist behavior, and saying they weren’t racist because they were nice people, etc. etc.
- Part of the problem we have now is the emergence of a colorblind/raceblind rhetoric. Reclaiming racist challenges colorblindness and can make institutional and interpersonal racism more apparent. People don’t like the r-words (racist and racism), but many really don’t have a problem with engaging in racist behavior or turning a blind eye to racism.
I could write more, but I’ll turn it over to the readers. Do you think it is worth it to try to put the word “racism” and “racist” back into the lexicon? If not, why? If so, what strategy do you think we be effective.
- Merton, Robert K. 1948. “Discrimination and the American Creed.” Pp. 99-126 in R.M. Maclver, ed. Discrimination and National Welfare. New York: Harper & Brothers. [↩]