From the Editor’s Keyboard

Why does racism persist when most people know it’s bad?

6 June 2016 at 22:42 | 2028 views

By Dr. Charles Quist-Adade, Guest Writer, Vancouver, Canada.

In a recent conversation with my family about the ongoing Democratic Party and Republican Party primaries in the United States, my 15-year old son asked me: "Daddy, why is it that many Americans are supporting Donald Trump when he is saying all these bad things about women, Mexicans and Muslims? Are they as bad as Trump is?"

My answer was that the overwhelming majority of Trump’s supporters are good people and Trump himself may be a good person. My son was confused. I tried to explain: Both Trump and his followers are slaves to a system that is built on a cultural ethos that values competition, material wealth and personal aggrandizement and advancement. This cultural ethos is the ethos of neo-liberal capitalism and is built on the principle of Each for himself or herself and the devil for the hindermost.

Many of Trump’s followers genuinely feel threatened by what they perceive to be competition for jobs and state resources, but they wrongly blame new immigrants and other minorities for every single problem in American society.

Which brings me to the question: Why does racism persist when most people know it’s bad?

Many people know that racism is bad, yet they do nothing to end it. In fact, their inaction contributes to and reinforces racism. Racism persists not just because people are powerless to challenge and end it, but because it is seen as legitimate in the eyes of many.

As Myers notes, in spite of its oppressive nature, oppressive structures, including racism are considered to be legitimate because people see them as unchangeable, a fact of reality that just is. Arguing that racism is hegemonic, Myers states that many people adopt a colorblind attitude toward racism because they have no viable alternatives, and they do not recognize that American society as inherently unfair. When a system is hegemonic, it is so pervasive and taken for granted that people are unable to step back, see it for what it is, and challenge it.

The theory of positionality sheds further light on how racism persists notwithstanding the fact that most people acknowledge its pernicious effects. The central premise of positionality is that people’s positions affect their identities, access to resources, and a range of possible actions. Giddens posits that people carefully negotiate power and privilege in their everyday interactions via reflexivity. Thus, people benefit from acting in ways that insulate rather than threaten their privilege.Myers points out that, privileges are made possible by one’s position in the structure.

Thus, people act rationally when they reinforce structural power differentials, even though such actions help not only to reify but also support and reinforce racism.

Racism persists because of real or imagined threats to dominants’ material standing, through competition for jobs, housing, schools, etc.

Myers argues that White Americans have historically fought to insulate and protect themselves from outsiders. The outcome, she points out, was racist oppression. Racism persists because the sense of threat persists. She argues that racism is dialectical, existing at three levels: structural (hierarchical), interactional and ideological.

Structural racism allocates differential opportunities on the basis of race. For a hierarchical structure to persist and affect people, they must buy into and subscribe to its procedures. People act; thus racism operates on the interactional level at which they engage in racist practices, both knowingly and unknowingly. People may not view their racist behavior as problematic even if they recognize it. This lack of anti-racist-consciousness is explained by ideological racism, which is a belief system that legitimizes racist structures and practices. People are born into or migrate to this society in which racism has existed and mutated over centuries.

Over time, differential treatment of people of color becomes normalized, expected, and de rigueur.

Thus, racism, Myers explains, is hegemonic, in that it is so much part of the fabric of people’s past and present lives that it is often invisible or appears to be inevitable. The hegemony of racism makes it difficult to recognize, discuss, and challenge it. Bigotry is learned through the various agents of socialization (e.g., family, peers, the educational system, mass media, etc.). Individuals are products of the socio-cultural systems into which they are born.

Marx reminds us that Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.

The French Philosopher, Denis Diderot suggested that Nature did not make people evil; it’s bad education, bad models, bad legislations that corrupted people. Thus, racism is learned in the social context. It is a social construct; it is not innate or biologically predetermined.

But while bad education makes people racist, it is important to mention that people are not powerless to resist or unlearn racist teachings. People do possess and often exercise agency or free will. While individuals may be socialized through the afore-mentioned areas, they are capable of unlearning racism through the usage of logic.

Berger and Luckman and Giddens propounded the theories of the duality of structure and agency to demonstrate the "dialectical tango" between human agency/free will and social structures, arguing that while individuals act on things, their actions take place within the context of social structures and that at the same time individuals are not hopelessly dis-empowered by social structures. They posit a dialectic between individual powerlessness in the face of powerful social forces and human agency; the ability to innovate, create, challenge and resist.

Long before Berger, Luckman and Giddens, Marx had astutely noted the dialectic of structure and agency when he wrote: "While men are changed by circumstances, circumstances are changed precisely by men."

How do people make the systems of social injustice and inequality, such as sexism, racism, and homophobia, happen? People perpetuate systems of social injustice by adopting what Johnson calls paths of least resistance, one of which is silence. To perpetuate a system of oppression and privilege, we do not have to do something consciously to support it.

Our silence is enough to ensure its future. No system of social oppression can continue to exist without most people choosing to remain silent about it. Johnson posits that if most Whites spoke out about racism, it would be the first step toward a revolutionary change. Unfortunately, many individuals simply choose the paths of least resistance and remain silent on racism, and it is easy for ethnic/racial minorities to read their silence as support for the system, Johnson concludes.

To be Continued