Saturday, September 6, 2014

Truth and Meaning: What is Racist?

Regular readers of this blog know that I have several enthusiastic contributors to the comments section. One of them openly supports the Ku Klux Klan and some Midland residents may remember his 2008 demonstration in full Klan regalia at the corner of Eastman Avenue and Saginaw Road here in Midland Michigan. Sometimes, people advise me to ignore his postings because of their extremist slant. I believe, however, that people of faith must try to engage anyone, at anytime, and at any place where the opportunity for spiritual growth presents itself.

I was rewarded for my diligence when, in response to my blog posting last week, this individual asked me several important questions on the subject of race. He posted the questions as they were written in an article titled "The Answer to Crime Among Young Black Males" by Tim Wildmon. I will quote Mr. Wildmon's words exactly and then provide answers to each. Perhaps you will hear your own voice somewhere in the text.

He began by asking, "For example, without knowing skin color, when someone tells me they saw an awesome basketball player I immediately think he is Black. Why is that? Because most awesome basketball players in America are indeed Black. Does that make me a racist?"

Yes, it does! Most basketball players in high school are White and there are awesome White high school basketball players. At the college level, according to the latest NCAA Student-Athlete ethnicity report, there are still more White players than any other racial/ethnic group, and there are awesome White college basketball players. Only at the NBA level does one see a marked dominance of African-American players. And of the NBA’s 49 majority owners, only Michael Jordan of the Charlotte Bobcats is a person of color. And that is because of PRIVILEGE. Predominately White public schools generally get more funding than predominately Black schools. White families can usually afford college more easily than Black families. Blacks have far fewer opportunities than Whites to escape systemic poverty. And Blacks have far fewer opportunities open to them in other occupational sectors. So, yes, assuming that an awesome basketball player is Black is a racist observation.

He continued, "In the same way, when I hear of a convenience store robbery, without knowing the skin color, I immediately think it was a young Black male who committed the crime. Why is that? Because night after night I see the faces of young Black males on the news arrested for crimes. Does that make me a racist?"

Yes, it does! In 2010, the National Institutes of Health published a definitive article on the portrayal of lawbreakers and victims in crime news ( In their conclusion they wrote, “Starting with the results for portrayals of offenders, we would expect Whites to have a higher likelihood of being reported on if reporting reflects offending incidents, because they are the most populous group. We did not find evidence of a significant difference in the number of portrayals of White perpetrators relative to Blacks in our base models. To us, this suggests a relative over-reporting of Blacks compared to Whites. We also found under-reporting of Hispanic perpetrators relative to Whites. We interpret the results for Blacks as consistent with power structure, racial threat and racial privileging arguments.” People are led to believe that Blacks commit more crimes because our media highlight the race of suspects far more frequently when he/she is a person of color. When that presentation is not challenged, we cooperate with the racist portrayals in our media. In 2011, White people committed nearly 250,000 violent crimes in this country, but just because the news shows more Black suspects than White does not make them more prone to violent crimes. So, yes, immediately assuming that a criminal is Black is racist.

He concluded with this question. "Which begs another question: does a stereotype only become racist when it is negative? Or can one have a positive stereotype based on race? What about the idea that “White men can’t jump”? Is that racist?"

Yes, it is! Saying that “all Asians are good at math” is a negative stereotype of what a racist would consider a positive observation. Research shows that perceived positive stereotypes, when brought into the forefront of an individual’s mind, can actually make them do worse at the thing they are supposed to be able to do better. One such study discovered that when Asian-American women were made explicitly aware of their ethnicity (and the expectations attached to it) right before testing their math skills, they were more likely to collapse under the pressure and do poorly in the test ( ANY stereotype reduces the complex humanity of individuals, making it easier to dismiss each person’s inherent worth and dignity. And 'White men can't jump' derives from an evil and ignorant stereotype that somehow Blacks are more closely tied to jungle animals than Whites. So, yes, attempts to compliment a group of people through stereotyping of any kind is racist.

The comments and questions posted by this individual represent classic examples of privilege — of how White, or straight, or male, or American-born people are often oblivious to their privilege and in complete denial of their prejudice. Systemic racism oppresses people of color, just as systemic sexism oppresses women, systemic hated of LGBT folk oppresses gays and lesbians, and systemic anti-immigration laws and opinions oppress undocumented immigrants. And those with privilege benefit ONLY by accident of birth. Those who possess privilege did absolutely nothing on their own to earn that privilege. Therefore, those who choose to take advantage of their privilege and do nothing to level the playing field, ARE racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or xenophobic.

But, here is the most important point. HAVING privilege is nothing to be ashamed of. No one is trying to lay a guilt trip on you for being White, or straight, or male, or a native-born American citizen. But those who accept the advantages of privilege do so at a cost to those who do not have privilege. Thus, those who accept the benefits — and do not work toward eliminating privilege — do so from the suffering of others. I am a White, straight, male, American, too. But I fight to eliminate privilege. I defend the poor, the hopeless, the oppressed, the exiled. As long as privilege exists, there will be oppression. And so long as the oppressors do nothing to stop it, then they are complicit in the resulting discrimination and suffering.