August 1, 2009

Troy D. Smith

Is there a difference between racism and prejudice?

There are commonly some misperceptions about the words "prejudice" and "racism."

If you are prejudiced, you "pre-judge" others without data, based on your suppositions about all people of a certain group. All black people are lazy, all Jews are greedy, all Arabs are terrorists, all white people are racists.

Racism, technically (at least according to us wacky academics), is not the same thing as prejudice. Racism means supporting or being actively invested in the continuation of a racial hierarchy in which one's own group dominates. By this definition, anyone and any member of any group can be prejudiced. George Jefferson and Fred Sanford were extremely prejudiced, to use fictional examples. It could be argued that Malcolm X was actively prejudiced for many years, MLK was not. But those individuals technically could not be described as racists; only someone who traditionally benefited from being at the top of the social structure could do that. Archie Bunker was working class, barely qualifying as lower middle class, and didn't have a lot of leverage in society; still, he was racist. This is because, as a white man of his generation, he was taught to believe that simply being white made him superior to anyone who was not, and that was the natural order of things- he was invested in this belief, and felt threatened when liberals chopped away at how things had always been, because if that lifelong belief were challenged he would be losing the only thing in his life that made him feel naturally special, and which he had come to expect society in general to back up.

Because of the nature of the world around us here in the U.S., I believe that none of us can ever completely rise above our prejudices. No matter how liberal you are, or how open-minded a conservative, you might still feel more threatened walking down a dark street with young black kids around than young white kids, for example. I also believe that, no matter how non-racist you want to be, it is virtually impossible for a white person in America to divorce him or herself from the intrinsic advantages of being white in what has always been, and was designed to be, and thus to a degree still is, a racist society. Sure, folks can say that affirmative action gives all the advantages to the minority instead of the white male. This does not negate either the effects of generations of disadvantage placed on a minority group, or the fact that in daily life they can still expect to be treated differently in subtle ways than a white person would. For example, one early study on racial profiling indicated that in one U.S. city black drivers made up 70% of random traffic stops, even though they were only 17% of that city’s population. Henry Louis Gates is not a unique case; I have a black friend right here in Champaign County, Illinois who was confronted in his own home and almost arrested on suspicion of burglary after neighbors saw him go in through the window when he lost his key. Now, I’ve been locked out of my own home and broken in on several occasions, as have many of my white friends, and none of us have ever had the cops called on us. I say this again: I believe that being white confers certain automatic advantages on a person which most of us never think about and don’t recognize because we take it for granted. I say this despite the fact that I come from a very poor background and in a lot of ways have had to struggle mightily to overcome that and get where I am now.

Despite the fact that we can’t divorce ourselves from the advantages of whiteness, we do not have to be racist. It is possible to renounce the structure and no longer invest in it. Some call such individuals “race traitors.” A lot of Americans, though, are still very invested in the racial hierarchy, often without being aware of it. A lot of them are working class. The loss of that hierarchy, or even adjustments to it, means a subtle shift in their world and in their view of themselves; they feel threatened, because they sense that they would be losing that certain something which makes them feel special. I have a close relative who is probably the most prejudiced person I have ever known. Once, visiting him, he started yet another race dialogue and his embarrassed wife intervened. “Leave Troy alone,” she said, “you’ll only start an argument; you know how he feels, and he knows how you feel, and you’re being rude.” Then, however, she turned to me with a concerned look on her face. “But Troy,” she said, “I’m not prejudiced, and I have black friends –but what would happen if we all started intermarrying, and there’s more of this mixed race stuff? What would become of white people?”

“Why,” I answered, “if that happened, eventually everyone would be brown, and there’d be no race at all.” She did not like this idea, in fact she seemed very disturbed by it. Because if there was no race, there would be no chance she could be better than her black friends. An even scarier idea, though, and one that has plagued white people ever since we started enslaving Africans, is that someday they might somehow get the upper hand and be in a position to treat us like we have treated them. This was a big fear leading up to and during the Civil War; if the slaves were freed they would surely embark on a bloody rampage of revenge and maybe even become politicians! The former, almost amazingly, did not happen except in a handful of isolated instances. Former slave masters, who tended to focus on the Old Testament, failed to take into account the forgiveness inherent in their New Testament-oriented ex-slaves.

That age-long fear, though, is still alive and well. The election of a black president, instead of “solving” race, has brought it to a boil as more and more Obama detractors have resorted to racially tinged communication. “Obama is not actually American”; he “hates white people” and is a “racist.” To say nothing of the racial epithets and offensive racialized cartoons and jokes floating around. People who engage in this sort of behavior are afraid: afraid that their world is changing, and afraid that they are losing valuable advantages. They are afraid of things being unfairly stacked against them, and –like many whites in the 19th century –afraid that those formerly on the bottom will wind up in charge and take all those advantages for their own group. Obvious facts don’t matter. Of course Obama is a U.S. citizen. He was raised by his white grandparents- of course he doesn’t hate white people.

This country was built on racism. Africans were enslaved and treated as non-human so that the wealthy planter class could remain in power and continue maximizing their profits. As long as workers, white and black alike, could be continually played off against each other by race, that power would remain consolidated. Poor whites from the 17th century on have been told –sometimes subliminally, sometimes directly –“yes, you are poor… yes you endure much hardship. But at least you are not black…. At least you are not one of THEM….so long as that is true, you will always be one of US.” This line of reasoning was effective enough that a minority of white Southerners who were slave-owners could convince poor whites who would never even be able to afford to rent a slave that they should fight and die to protect slavery. Slavery may be gone, but the social structure erected to prop it up is still around, and still being used in the same way. This time it is certain elements of the Republican Party, stoking the racial fears of the middle class in order to gain political leverage over the current administration. And it is WORKING.

If you have found that it is working on YOU- don’t let it. The enemy is not a mysterious black bogeyman, it is the people who use that image to scare you into aggression and into doing what they want. If we all just realized how this system works, we could resist its influence. Disavow power for the few, even if it benefits you in the short run; wake up.