Racism Isn’t Binary: The Complex Nature of Racism in America Today

08I want to share a great reflection from a new friend I made this week, Josh Tucker, who runs The New Progressive and shares a passion along with me for exposing the complexities of racism in our society today by studying it, exposing it, challenging it, and defeating it via advocacy in order to bring about justice, equality, and racial reconciliation. Josh has some wonderful thoughts on how racism isn’t so binary. What do I mean by that? This quote I recently read in Counseling Today sums it up quite nicely:

To overcome internal racial bias, counselors need to understand the ‘false binary’ of racism, Smith says. ‘There’s the powerful notion in society that one is either racist– an ignorant, mean-spirited, Confederate flag-waving, card-carrying member of the KKK–or a good person. And, of course, most counselors know that they are good, moral, kind, beneficent people, so it follows that, by definition, they cannot be racist. Therefore,’ he explains, ‘not only are they likely to fail to interrogate the ways in which they more subtly harm and microagress their clients and students of color, but they are also likely to ignore, deny and therefore inadvertently support institutional forms of racism such as the school-to-prison pipeline and anti-affirmative action.'” -Laurie Meyers quoting Lance Smith in “Counseling and Race Relations”

Of course that was written to counselors specifically, but its application applies to us all. We’re all guilty of this “all or nothing” attitude towards racism, but the complex reality of racism isn’t so black and white (pardon the pun) nor is it as simple as, “Well, I’m not a Klansman and have black friends, so I’m a good person and not racist.” Yes, chances are you are a great person and have many diverse friendships, but that does’t make you, make us, any less susceptible to the complex nature of racism, which Josh lays out for us here:

5 Categories of Racism 

by Josh Tucker

There are, in my view, five major categories of racism. I would argue that implicit bias is the third most insidious and harmful of the five.

(1) Hate-Based Racism: [this] is the most obvious kind [of racism]. It is also the only form of racism that white people almost unanimously recognize—while also assuming that it is mostly a thing of the past. (This is one of the primary reasons that white people don’t see racism as an issue in the present.) This form of racism conjures up images of sparsely toothed rednecks in their gun rack-equipped, Confederate flag-flying pickup trucks, dropping N-bombs—though it’s worth saying that you don’t have to be a Confederate flag-waving redneck to be this kind of racist. While harmful and dangerous and disturbing, it is the least consequential form of racism. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther Kind, Jr. saw these folks as less harmful than apathetic white moderates.

(2) Implicit Bias [Take the Implicit Bias test on race]: We all have it—some more than others, but we all have it. It works hand-in-glove with systemic/structural racism, as it is often implicit bias that leads to the individual actions (the hiring director who is less likely to call an applicant with a black-sounding name; the loan officer who qualifies a deserving black couple at higher interest rates, or denies them altogether; the police officer who views blacks as more criminal, more violent, etc.) that fuel systemic racial barriers (disparity in policing and the criminal justice system, employment discrimination, housing discrimination, etc.).

(3) Systemic/Structural Racism: These are the disadvantages and disparities built into our societal systems. This form of racism is more harmful to people of color than either of the above, because this is where you find the actual barriers that disadvantage them relative to white people, prevent them from comparable advancement and mobility, and exclude them from the “American Dream.”

(4) Strategic Racism: This is the George Wallace model. Strategic racism uses coded language to make racial appeals in terms that don’t SEEM racist to those who would be offended by overt racism. With Strategic Racism, politicians first inflame racial anxiety, and then they play on that racial anxiety to get voters to support politicians, policies, and platforms that they might not otherwise support. Strategic Racism has been the strategy used to break up and defuse every major broad populist movement in the United States, since Bacon’s Rebellion. Strategic Racism is what conservative and corporate interests use to portray public safety net programs (SNAP, WIC, Medicaid, TANF, welfare, etc.) as programs that enable lazy minorities to mooch off the hardworking (read: white) taxpayer, turning the white working class against “entitlement” programs. It’s culture blaming. It’s the “welfare queen” myth. It’s “tough on crime.”

Of course, it’s worth mentioning that politicians are not the only ones that employ Strategic Racism. It is a tactic of partisan pundits (Fox News is one of the worst offenders) as well—but most of all, it is the strategy of the über-wealthy, who pull the strings of politicians and pundits alike, and who deploy Strategic Racism as a tried-and-true method for getting middle- and working-class (white) voters to support policies that benefit the wealthy, and only the wealthy—and that actually hurt the very people voting in favor of them.

Many people consider Systemic/Structural Racism the most insidious and harmful, and for pretty good reason. Systemic Racism is where the actual barriers are that do the most harm to people of color on the macro level. But I tend to think that Strategic Racism is actually the most insidious and harmful, because it is Strategic Racism that creates and supports racist societal systems.

(5) White Apathy: Ian Haney López discusses the four kinds of racism mentioned above in his book, “Dog Whistle Politics“. I’ve never seen an explicit discussion of White Apathy as a clearly identified form of racism; the idea comes from Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” as well as from discussion that I’ve seen in various black spaces—from the phrase, “White silence is violence,” to the idea that white politeness is actually avoidance, to the idea that “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented” (Elie Wiesel). The point is that white silence, white inaction, and white apathy are not neutral—they are what supports and enables the continuation of systemic racism and white supremacy.

While locked up in a city jail in Birmingham in 1963, Dr. King wrote a 15-ish page letter in response to 8 prominent “liberal” (white) pastors who had criticized his methods (their criticism was virtually identical, by the way, to the criticism Colin Kaepernick has received from white people who claim they don’t have any problem with him protesting, and support his free speech right, but just don’t approve of “his methods”—that’s pretty much what these clergymen wrote to Dr. King, in admonishing him to cease his civil disobedience tactics). The letter [I, Jon, recently published my own letter to said moderates Dr. King speaks of here called “Letter to the White Moderate“] includes these words:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”

Another quote from Dr. King: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

And yet another: “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”


Is Racism on the Rise?

The New Threat: ‘Racism without Racists’

Go Ahead, Admit You’re a Racist

The Hidden Racism of Young, White Americans


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