Why Don’t People Understand Racism?

O n February 29th, 2016, Stephen A. Smith gave a speech at the University of South Alabama as part of the school’s offerings for Black History Month. During his talk, Smith told young black students and attendees that racism is not an excuse for lack of progress because it doesn’t exist.

 “You don’t have to go to the back of the bus. You’re not denied the opportunity to eat at restaurants, or to enter nightclubs, or to patronize businesses. You have the right to vote. You’re not being lynched. You’re not being hung. You’re not going through the trials and tribulations your ancestors recent and far beyond recent, endured so you can sit here today.”

He’s wrong, but his fantastic display of ignorance provided an idea worthy of examination. His delineation between racism in the ’60s versus racism today supports a theory I’ve mentally jousted with for the better part of six months. The theory being, people don’t know what racism is outside of “Jim Crow South” era tactics.

Someone listening to recent conversations regarding police brutality of unarmed black men, women, and children, won’t be surprised by this. While there may be some consensus a “whites only/colored only” sign or a lynching is an act of racism, it appears the word is solely bound to these images and actions. The threshold for racist acts seems only to exist when it happens in the most egregious way possible. The nuances of racism are glossed over, leaving many, regardless of race, to foolishly believe it is a myth being perpetuated by black people.

Smith’s assertion that racism no longer occurs is puzzling, considering there are so many examples to the contrary. The oft-quoted Ta-nehisi Coates’ The Case for Reparations essay targeted the relationship between America’s mid 1900s housing policy and its effects on black people, today. Young Invincibles, looking at data from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, discovered that “[a]t every level of education, race impacts a person’s chances of getting a job.” Racism affects the quality of healthcare received, the chance for a bank loan, the likelihood of being arrested for selling drugs, and the possibility of going to jail. The data is there to support the idea that America has maintained a system of inequality due to race. Yet, people still continue to deny this reality.

If someone is trained to think of racism in a certain way, it’d be difficult to imagine how the aforementioned examples proved its existence.

If someone is used to thinking of racism in a certain way, it’s difficult to imagine how the aforementioned examples prove its existence. It’s easy to ignore because of someone’s lived experience—a lived experienced so far removed from the average black American, they think the racism is a thing of the past. And they’d be wrong.

Smith was mistaken when he told attendees “people aren’t telling you to move to the back of the bus.” He was also wrong in his assertion that black people aren’t currently being denied entry into restaurants nor suffering from voting issues. For example, Toni Young is suing Greyhound after Cynthia Lara, the bus driver, had Young removed because she refused to move to the back of the bus. In 2012, a black 21-year-old named Jonathan Wall wrote a detailed account of being refused entry into a club in Raleigh, North Carolina because of his race. Meanwhile, Colin Daileda at Mashable wrote about voting rights being stripped away in Southern states and how those stripped rights are disproportionately affecting black residents. Smith believes black people aren’t being lynched but Walter Scott was shot in his back, Akai Gurley died on a staircase, Eric Garner was choked to death, Tamir Rice perished in a drive-by shooting from the police in a park, and Renisha McBride was killed for knocking on a door after her car broke down.

It’s tempting view these events as isolated incidents. But, there’s a pattern of behavior which really isn’t all that different from the time period Smith referenced in his speech. Therefore, Smith’s statement that “racism doesn’t exist” can be categorized as “wholly ignorant” or “willfully obtuse.” It simply does not serve him, nor anyone else, to suggest that racism only endures in such limited terms. Racism is not just the bombing of black churches, the assassination of civil right’s leaders, and the killing of black people with impunity. It’s also a great deal more than slavery and old Roots specials on your local PBS channel.

How, then, can someone tell others racism no longer happens despite the world showing them the contrary? For Smith, the likely answer is “success.”

Racism is the police showing up in riot gear to greet unarmed black protesters while college campuses full of rioting white students after big sports wins (or losses) are left unsupervised. It’s media outlets finding family pictures for Track Palin’s (son of Sarah Palin) domestic abuse issues versus publicizing Walter Scott’s arrest record after he was shot in the back by the police. It’s praising Kendall Jenner for her braided hair when little black girls are sent home for wearing their natural hair because it’s a “distraction” to the classroom. It’s being invited to host the Oscars, but having zero black actors nominated to win the award. It’s teaching schoolchildren that black people were brought from Africa as “immigrants looking for a better life.”

How, then, can someone tell others racism no longer happens despite the world showing them the contrary? For Smith, the likely answer is “success.”

Success, particularly within the black community, is blinding. “I’ve been able to be successful despite the fact that racism remains. If I’m able to do it, how can it still remain?” The idea here is if one black person can make it, all black people can make it. Rebecca Hiscott discussed this in her article, White People Think One Black Person’s Success Proves Racism Is Over.

“Bennett, who is white, suggested that if Barack Obama could become president, so could any black man. Implicit in the argument was that systemic racial discrimination was no longer keeping black men and women from success. Bennett is far from alone in arguing that a single black American’s success is proof that impenetrable racial barriers no longer exist. In fact, it’s a common view, according to a recent study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.”

Smith probably believes his success is evidence of racism being a non-factor. His career trajectory has been impressive. He acknowledges that racial barrier exists, but he insists there should be no excuse for lack of success. With his viewpoint clear, it becomes understandable how he managed to grossly underestimate the problem then oversimplify its solution.

Geography might influence Smith’s ignorance, as there’s a the popular notion that racism only exists in the South. The Civil War was fought on geographical delineations and the residents of the North were characterized as staunch adversaries of slavery in particular and racism in general. That belief fueled “The Great Migration,” a movement wherein almost six million black people left the South between 1910 to 1970 in order to escape racism. It was thought other parts of the country were more progressive in their dealings with blacks. This logic would be proved faulty.

One black man making it to the top doesn’t mean much if all the men (and women) after him are still dealing with the problem.

Dick Gregory spoke on this “difference” between Northern and Southern racism in a 1971 issue of Ebony magazine. Gregory said, “in the South, black folks have been abused by the white man physically. In the North, black folks have been abused by the white power structure mentally. The difference is that in the North the white system is more clever with its abuse.” That white power structure mentality might look something like New York’s notorious stop-and-frisk policy, Chicago’s infamous redlining policy, or Flint’s current water crisis. Northern racism can also be physically violent as Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Eric Garner and countless others would attest to.

Another reason why people don’t understand racism is because a meaningful exchange of ideas is almost impossible. There’s a consistent idea that black people are mad “about the past” and we should “move on” because “slavery was a really long time ago.” In more ridiculous cases, someone’s selling a narrative of their family owning, but not mistreating, their slaves. They’ve described how their ancestors “loved” their slaves and that love that was reciprocated. The relationship, as they tell it, has been misconstrued and perverted to cause division. If it weren’t for all these books and “race dividers,” more people would look at the “relationship” between slave and master with a different lens. It’s alarming how widespread misinformation has made it difficult for some to really grasp how racist America’s past, present, and, likely, future, is.

There’s also the possibility people don’t understand racism, because they don’t want to. The benefit works for white people because it doesn’t affect their day-to-day life and it frees them from having to deal with the guilt of benefiting from a system tailored for their success. It benefits black people because we’ve been brainwashed to believe the only thing holding us back is ourselves. Hard work and determination are the primary factors of our success and because we can control those things, there is no reason why we can’t be just as successful as our white counterparts. It benefits everyone else because so long as they’re not black, they have an opportunity to show they are better than us. And, when push comes to shove, they always have someone to point to and say “hey, it could be worse. We could be them.”

A widespread idea for building better race relations, which ironically contributes to people’s lack of understanding, is to pretend the issue isn’t real by being “colorblind.” Typically, the mindset is framed as “we’re all human and America will be unable to move forward if color and race are always brought up.” Unfortunately, this rhetoric created a climate where any attempt to engage in this conversation makes one “racist.” Black people attempting to tackle this conversation publicly are referred to as “reverse racists,” accused of self-victimization, or trying to “play the race card.” Finally, people don’t understand racism because they don’t actually know what the word means.

Racism, in simple terms, is best thought of as negative actions toward someone based on skin color reinforced by an institution of white supremacy.

Racism, in simple terms, is best thought of as negative actions toward someone based on skin color reinforced by an institution of white supremacy. The keywords here are “reinforced by an institution of white supremacy.” White people are the main benefactors and gatekeepers of this system. While other people of color, including black people, can’t benefit from this system, they can still act as agents of it (see: black police officers). That’s typically referred to as “anti-blackness.” Anti-blackness is when people of color harbor the same attitudes and carry out actions born of white supremacy.

There’s an implication by Smith that identifying racism and how it blocks success is an excuse not to do better. Smith’s failed acknowledgement that black people have been operating under a system of oppression since we entered this country is frightening. Black people have found a seemingly inexhaustible amount of resilience that frankly still boggles my mind. Smith, and anyone else who follows this frame of mind, should understand that conceding the existence of racism does not mean giving up. Black people will never stop moving forward.

Slavery didn’t stop us. Sharecropping didn’t stop us. Lynching didn’t stop us. Raping our mothers and sisters didn’t stop us. Killing our fathers and jailing our brothers didn’t stop us. Selling our children didn’t stop us. The “black codes,” Jim Crow, the FBI, the CIA, the war on drugs, housing policies, lack of educational support, overt racism, covert racism, crack sentences, student loans, police brutality, comparing us to monkeys, calling us animals, killing our hopes and crushing our dreams, didn’t stop us.

Black people will continue to move forward because that’s who we are. Our community is the Rick Grimes in a country of walking dead. But, pretending there isn’t an entire institution standing in the way of our success is morally irresponsible, historically inaccurate, and just plain fucking stupid.

Categorized as Racism

By Garfield Hylton

Garfield Hylton, J.D., is a dark-humored, self-deprecating misanthropist whose only hope of redemption is turning blank Google Word documents into piles of well-executed thoughts. He likes to add the suffix "J.D." on everything he writes because he understands that everything sounds better when coming from a doctor. You can listen to his podcast here: @NWAPcast.