June 24th, 2015

Am I A Racist? - A Culture of Racism

I am from South Carolina, or at least I can say that I spent enough of my formative years there that it shaped me. Yes, that South Carolina. The one in the news. The one that has become the latest poster child for a virulent strain of southern racism. 

Growing up in South Carolina you learn there are many kinds of racism. There is institutional racism of the kind that resulted in the death of Walter Scott at the hands of a police officer. There is the violent kind illustrated by Dylann Roof’s mass murder at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. There is the stubborn and boastful kind that put the Confederate Flag atop the Capitol Building in Columbia in 1961, in the midst of the civil rights movement. And there is the casual kind that enables, for now, the Confederate Flag to still fly on those same grounds. I am disgusted and ashamed that people still find ways to express those beliefs in my home state and that the Flag they have taken as their symbol flies in a position of reverence there. There is no doubt to me that racism is alive and well in South Carolina.

I was raised by liberal parents who lived their own American dream, rising from childhoods in rural poverty to a middle class suburban lifestyle. They hoped for the same for anyone who wanted it, no matter what color they happened to be or where they came from. They truly believed that all of us are created equal—men, women, black, white, gay, straight or otherwise. They believed that no matter our differences we are the same. And they helped me develop those values as well. But let’s be clear, that doesn’t mean I’m free of racism. 

This is not because I am from South Carolina, nor even from the South. Despite their best efforts to convince the rest of the country otherwise, racism is not confined to the South. I am this way because I am from America.

I live in New York City. The city where Eric Garner was killed by a police officer. Unlike the murder of Walter Scott in South Carolina, this police officer was not charged with a crime. This was not simply an act of unnecessary force, it was also an act of institutional racism. It happened in a neighborhood that has been singled out—where minor crimes get significantly more police attention than many other neighborhoods. A neighborhood where selling loose cigarettes may cause an altercation that can end your life.

Being from the South, I have frequently been questioned about racism by friends and colleagues from other places. There is a common assumption that the South has somehow preserved a strain of racism that is unthinkable in the rest of the country. But there are many different kinds of racism. The overt and violent kind that gets media coverage may shock us briefly out of our complacence but all types are hateful and all deserve our attention. 

Usually the questioners begin in a casual but curious way. What has been my experience? Maybe I’ll share the story of when some of my high school friends came over to hang out and my neighbors called my parents to report that “a black man was entering our house.” This always elicits the sort of surprise and disgust that ignorance like this deserves. Sometimes I share the anecdote about how African Americans couldn’t play golf for my high school team because the country club where that team practiced didn’t allow them on the grounds unless they were employees. This usually results in a sort of horrible fascination in the questioners, the kind you may have when witnessing a car accident. You don’t want to see it, but you can’t look away.

Now that I have my audience’s attention, I’ll share a bit from a routine by comedian Dick Gregory, quoted here from a 1971 Ebony editorial.

“Personally I’ve never seen much difference in the South and the North. Down South, white folks don’t mind how close I get, as long as I don’t get too big. Up North, white folks don’t mind how big I get, as long as I don’t get too close.”

These ideas are proven out today by segregation statistics like these from Five Thirty Eight, citing a wide variety of cities (including many northern ones) as highly segregated. The North has its own types of racism, in many ways more covert than that of the South. Both are deadly. An undercurrent of racism can be as damaging in the long run as a militant like Dylann Roof.

When you spend any significant time in the South, you come to terms with various forms of racism. They are a fact of life there, and you deal with them. You begin to understand racism’s taxonomy. You sometimes confront it, and those who espouse it. You have a responsibility to do so, lest you perpetuate it through your own inaction. That’s another type of racism. 

Despite the Wall Street Journal’s recent statement to the contrary, there is a type of institutional racism present not just in the South, but throughout the country—a cultural racism. It’s not often expressed as the kind of hatred that caused last week’s tragedy in Charleston. Usually it is more insidious. It takes form as a set of false assumptions about the people you interact with and what your expectations are of them when you do. It it expressed in subtle ways—repeated in cultural patterns. It gets perpetuated by blithe acceptance and by nearly everyone’s acquiescence to the status quo.

When I return to the South and am again exposed to the overt racism symbolized by the Confederate Flag, I realize how happy I am that my own children will not be immersed in it as I was. But I have come to believe that the cultural racism needs to be addressed too. And that only way to change it is to own it. To openly admit to it and make a commitment to work against it. That’s why I am writing this. 

Therefore, I am coming to terms with my own racism. I admit to making assumptions about others and forming expectations based solely on race. Whether those assumptions are good, bad or indifferent, I believe this implicit bias is itself a form of racism. This admission doesn’t mean it won’t continue to affect me, so I will need to continue to push against those ideas. But I accept them as the result of my exposure to cultural ideas about the meanings of race. I am thankful that my parents and my time in the South have given me the tools to recognize racism. I commit to be mindful of its effect on me and on those I interact with. That mindfulness will help me be purposeful about the character of my interactions with people of all backgrounds. It will help me not perpetuate this cultural problem. 

The Confederate Flag is an obvious symbol of racism. Dylann Roof’s act of racially motivated violence has revived the cries to remove it from the Capitol grounds in Columbia. A New York Times article quotes South Carolina State Representative Norman D. Brannon to say.

“The flag is kind of like algae in a lake, It’s just barely under the surface, everybody knows it’s there, but unless something like this happens, nobody talks about it.”

Taking down the flag will be a powerful symbol, but by itself it will do nothing to change the culture of racism that surrounds it, just as scooping a cupful of algae stained water out of a lake will not change the lake.

I was moved by President Obama’s words on the subject.

“The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives, you know, that casts a long shadow, and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on. We’re not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘n——-’ in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. …Societies don’t overnight completely erase everything that happened 2-300 years prior.”

I do not believe that “all members of a race possess abilities or characteristics specific to that race,” but am I a racist? Are you? Whether or not we fit the definition, these kinds of snap assumptions are a part of our cultural heritage. They are difficult to avoid. This does not excuse us. We can choose to embrace those assumptions or work against them. Like a chronic disease, racism is incurable but survivable. But that takes effort and purpose. We have to acknowledge it and work against it or nothing will change. 

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“It’s not rocket science. It’s social science – the science of understanding people’s needs and their unique relationship with art, literature, history, music, work, philosophy, community, technology and psychology. The act of design is structuring and creating that balance.”
– Clement Mok