Why You May Be a Racist (Even Though You Don't Feel Like One)

I don’t understand. I just don’t.

I’ve watched the Eric Garner tape for what seems like the hundredth time, and I don’t understand how we not only tolerate, but go to great lengths to make excuses for, a system that disproportionately kills young black men. I saw the tape. And while I realize that video tape isn’t a panacea, in that it is the product of a series of framing choices that doesn’t always allow for a full understanding of context, still, I saw that man killed. I heard him say, “I can’t breathe.”

And I don’t understand.

Should the fact that the police have chosen a vocation rife with peril offer that much latitude when it comes to violence? Shouldn’t the fact that we extend that latitude in acknowledgement of the danger they face mean that they should be more rather than less accountable--which is to say, more prepared to defend that latitude when they exercise it?

The reason I ask those two questions is because, to the extent that you issue an expanded license to inflict violence, you automatically raise questions of abuse when you fail to account publicly for each use of it. A social contract cannot retain the ties that bind it together when part of the population always seems to draw the short straw when it comes to the application of power.

Because, here’s the thing: Racism isn’t just people intending other people harm because of the color of their skin. Racism is toleration of (and, therefore, participation in) a system that routinely disadvantages people because of their race. In other words, it’s entirely possible to be racist without intending to be. That’s why we so often encounter racist statements that begin with “I’m not a racist, but … " --which then go on to use racist placeholders like “thug” or “inner city” or “you people.”

And I take (most) people at their word--that they don’t consider themselves racist. But whether you feel like a racist is largely beside the point. If you prop up a system--either actively or passively, through silence--which regularly negatively impacts non-white people, you’re a racist.1

That you don’t belong to the KKK, or sport a Confederate flag license plate, or call people appalling epithets is a step in the right direction.

That you have a friend of a different race is laudable.

That you like Martin Luther King, Jr., and have a soft spot in your heart for his “I Have a Dream” speech is wonderful thing.

But none of those things get you off the hook.

Because you can do all of those things and still make excuses for a system that repeatedly refuses to hold white police officers accountable for abusing, and too often killing, people of color.

Because you can talk all you want about being “color blind,” while still unconsciously assuming that middle class white lives are the standard against which all other lives are to be measured.

Because you can feel sympathy in your heart for Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and their families, but still assume that if they were killed, the bulk of the blame must lay with them--since they had obviously questionable elements in their past or in their character, since they shouldn’t have questioned their treatment at the hands of someone with a gun who was (or claimed to be) in a position of authority, since maybe they shouldn’t have been where they were looking all menacing with their hoodies and scary giant man-bodies.

Because you can talk about how everyone gets the same fair shake in our “post-racial” society, but still give the benefit of the doubt to a system that incarcerates African Americans at six times the rate of whites; a system where African Americans and Hispanics comprise 60 percent of the prison population, while comprising only 25 percent of the total population; a system that is three times more likely to arrest an African American person than a white person; and where estimates suggest that two African American people per week are gunned down by white police officers.

Feeling strongly that you’re not a racist isn’t enough. Avoiding using overtly racial stereotypes and epithets isn’t enough. Not being “prejudiced” isn’t enough.

Whether or not it’s intended, if the practical effects of a system over time continually disadvantage one race to the benefit of another, it’s a racist system. If you think a system that’s obviously weighted to keep those in charge … in charge … is fair, and that any fault in it can always be traced to poor choices made by individuals, whether you feel like it or not, you’re a racist.

Now, me calling you a racist under that description of racism isn’t a value judgment about you personally (I don’t even know you); it’s merely an observation about the criteria necessary to establish that racism exists, and that otherwise nice folks (Christian or not) are up to their eyeballs in it.

But here’s the thing that keeps occurring to me: If you find that you’re continually defending yourself from charges of racism, maybe it’s you who needs to reexamine your relationship to race, and not a demonstrably disproportionately disadvantaged group of folks who need continually to reexamine their relationship to you.


  • 1. Look, I take no pleasure in pointing this out, since it means I also have to contend with my own grievous complicity in a racist system.  ↩