What do you think of when you think of racism? Lynchings? Burning crosses? Jim Crow laws? Discrimination? Racial slurs? Hate crimes? Stereotypes? Republican gerrymandering and voter ID laws? Insensitive sports mascots? These and other outrages have been lumped under the heading of racism; but clearly, it’s a very broad category. Some actions are much worse than others. Some are very overt and intentional. Some are subtle and inadvertent. So perhaps what we need is a better range of terms to describe these things more accurately — in some cases, for example, we might want to speak instead of “racial bias” or “racial disparity”, or some such.
Because here’s the problem with using a blanket label like racism: some people associate it with only the most extreme manifestations. Consequently, they actually underestimate the scope of racial bias and inequity. Many people who are guilty of the more subtle types of “racism” are unaware of it because they think of racism only in terms of its most blatant and extreme flavors. Thus, they may exhibit behavior and attitudes many people think of as racist, but they themselves do not.
You probably know individuals who have a habit of referring to other people with ethnic designations even when such labels serve no useful purpose. You might hear someone, for instance, tell a story about seeing someone fishing at a lake, and add that the person is Hispanic — even though it has absolutely no bearing on the story. In some cases, of course, ethnic designations are useful. If you had a conversation with the man fishing at the lake, and had a difficult time understanding him because of his limited English, then it’s not inappropriate to explain that he was a foreigner. Or if you are pointing out that person to someone else, and there are many people fishing at the lake, it’s useful to single out the one you mean by saying that he is wearing a blue cap, or he is short, or — why not — he’s Hispanic, in contrast to all the tall blond Swedes. But if someone mentions ethnicity with no reason, it’s a signal that this person might view members of other races as The Others. Does this qualify as racism? It may sound harmless in itself, but it can lead to dire consequences.
Chances are the same people who exhibit this attitude toward The Others are the same people who support building a wall to “protect the borders”, and keep out “illegal aliens”. Of course, they probably will deny that there’s anything racist about any of this. Instead, they just couch their attitude in thinly veiled white nationalist terms like “protecting our values and our culture”. And to justify this racially motivated xenophobia, they spread lies about those “illegals” posing a threat by bringing crime, drugs, gangs, and even disease. But the thing is, you’ll never hear them use this kind of language, or express this kind of alarm, over the many white “illegal” aliens from Europe who are residing in the U.S.; it’s all reserved for the brown-skinned “invaders” from down south. There are different standards for white folks in America than for everyone else. Does this qualify as racism?
All of this was brought home in a most tragic fashion by the fatal shooting in Dallas of Botham Jean in September 2018 by his neighbor, Amber Guyger — who entered his apartment and shot him while he sat eating ice cream. He was black and unarmed. She was white. She claimed she believed she had entered her own apartment and thought he was a burglar — a difficult story to swallow, unless she was under the influence of something. Now maybe she was not overtly racist; still, it’s hard to imagine that she would have considered him such a threat if he’d been white. Most people wouldn’t. Research shows that people are more likely to look with suspicion upon dark-skinned individuals. Interestingly, even blacks themselves are more likely to. So it’s not a simple problem with an easy solution. But it’s a real problem. Does this qualify as racism? (Note: investigation did reveal that Guyger had a history of sending text messages that were racially insensitive.)
Guyger was an off-duty police officer, which also adds a troubling wrinkle. There’s been a great deal of controversy about how police forces have treated black and Hispanic suspects in contrast to white suspects. And this criticism is not unwarranted. Research shows that police are more likely to stop persons of color, and twice as likely to use force against them. (Bear in mind that this disparity exists even though many police officers are themselves persons of color.) Does this qualify as racism?
Further outrage erupted when Guyger initially was charged with manslaughter rather than murder. Would that have happened had she been African-American? She later was convicted of murder, but received what many consider a light sentence of 10 years. Would it have been worse had she been black or Hispanic? Quite possibly. It’s been confirmed that blacks receive heavier prison sentences than whites for the same offenses. Doesn’t this qualify as racism of some sort or other?
Many ideologues try to paint a Pollyanna-ish picture of contemporary America as a place where racism is extinct, and people who complain about it are merely whiners. But racism, broadly defined, is very real; and some of its variations have seen a concurrent resurgence in recent times. Heated, hateful, dishonest rhetoric about “illegals” has been accompanied by a rise in hate crimes and discriminatory actions (sometimes based on race, sometimes bigoted in other ways). Racial insensitivity, racial inequity, racial bias — call them what you will — are still very much with us, and it does no one a favor to sweep them under the rug. But we do need a more precise vocabulary for addressing them.