From the Editor’s Keyboard

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

17 July 2016 at 22:55 | 2831 views

Editor: This is part two of Dr. Charles Quist-Adade’s article on racism. Dr. Adade is a Vancouver-based sociologist; he is an authority on racism as a field of study. We published Part I of this interesting piece of scholarship not too long ago.


By Charles Quist-Adade, PhD.

So why do most Euro-Americans either engage in racial discrimination themselves or remain silent by choosing the path of least resistance? Let me again reiterate that most Euro-Americans are good people, infused with loving kindness and empathy for their fellow Americans of colour.

Most choose the path of least resistance for a number of reasons:

First, the system (the government and the corporate world) is too powerful to confront, hence they look for scapegoats whom they know are powerless and lack the resources and ability to strike back to blame for their woes. This behavior is explained by psychologists with the aggression-frustration-scapegoating theory, which posits that there is a tendency for individuals, when frustrated or unhappy, to displace aggression onto groups that are disliked, visible, and relatively powerless.

For example, for years, Western governments, in pursuit of their neoliberal agenda, have given away billions of tax dollars to corporations as incentive to create jobs for the local economy, only for these corporations to move their companies to the so-called Third World countries in order to exploit cheap labour in these countries to maximize their profits. Year in year out, the corporations keep feeding fat on government corporate welfare to the detriment of workers, who not only lose their jobs, but also see cuts in government social assistance programmes. Governments justify corporate welfare by invoking the trickle-down economics doctrine by contending that giving tax breaks to corporations is a way to grow the economy, as corporations will plough back that money in creating more jobs. But instead of creating more jobs, a good chunk of that money goes into offshore accounts and or line the pockets of owners and Chief Executive Officers.

In many instances, workers are aware of these facts, but find the government and corporate America too powerful to confront, so they look for vulnerable targets; powerless, vulnerable, defenseless, undocumented immigrants and other minorities to vent their anger on.

Second, governments and corporations are led mostly by the kith and kin of Euro-American workers. In other words, the commanding heights of the government corporations are controlled by their parents, uncles, and other relatives. Combine this with the power of the power/ruling elite to use the media and other channels to buy workers’ acquiescence or exact compliance through the process of hegemony. Remember what happened to the Occupy movement? The power elite unleashed a whole range of arsenals, including the media and law enforcement agents to nip the movement in the bud. The overwhelming majority of the leaders and implementers of their orders are the kith and kin of the Euro-American workers.

Third, it is a human tendency to seek to advance and protect self-interest. In our attempts to meet our basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing, we inevitably find ourselves locked in competition with others for the resources these needs demand, which are always relatively scarce. Winners in this struggle must create social institutions, such as banks or the economy as a whole to protect their resources. They also develop ideologies to justify why they won and the losers lost. Of course, the winners portray the losers in dismissive, demeaning, and degrading terms. They are written off as genetically inferior, lazy, deficiently endowed, and so forth. Whenever a crisis threatens the status quo, the winners must look for scapegoats, and the more powerful groups in a competitive environment resort to prejudice and outright discrimination for preserving their privilege.

Fourth, it is a universal human impulse to use stereotypes to rationalize primitive fears and suspicions. People, irrespective of race or ethnicity, use stereotypes as rules of thumb or mental templates as they try to navigate the complex world. Thus, stereotypes and prejudice, while universal, cut across racial and ethnic lines and are not the real problems. The real issue is ability to translate prejudices and stereotypes into acts of discrimination at the personal, the state, and the systemic levels.

Feagin and Vera rightly insist that racism is more than a matter of individual prejudice and scattered episodes of discrimination. Arguing that there is no black racism in the USA, Feagin and Vera contend that there is no centuries-old system of racialized subordination and discrimination designed by African Americans to exclude white Americans from full participation in the rights, privileges, and benefits of this society.

Thus, for example, while African Americans may harbour anti-White American prejudice and stereotype all Whites and even act out their race prejudice or exhibit race animus from time to time, it is largely White Americans who are in a position to discriminate systematically against their African American compatriots. While White American racists generally speaking have a panoply of supporting institutions and agencies like the state, the judicial system, the law enforcement agencies, the media, the educational system and indeed the general culture, African Americans do not have sufficient resources, power or otherwise, to act out their race prejudice on a systematic basis. The system simply crushes those who try. But racism transcends stereotypes and individual prejudice. It is systemic, built into the culture, social institutions, and social structures.

French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau said that man is born free but is everywhere in chains. Infants not yet smitten by the racist bug tend to freely relate to and play with other children across the colour line. But the children learn too quickly the danger involved in playing and interacting with children beyond their racial pale. All too soon, the children’s innate freedom is constricted with chains everywhere.

Thandeka alludes to the Rousseauian chains in her book Learning to be White. Calling the process abuse, she explains the socialization processes that children, particularly Euro-American children, go through to avoid the racial other. Thandeka begins with the premise that Euro-American children learn to be white and asserts that the learning process is a form of abuse. White America’s racial victim is its own child, (p. 50) she writes caustically, noting that most very young Euro-American children, for example, have not yet learned to avoid making African American friends or to think of such people as inferior. They learn how to think of themselves as white in order to stay of out trouble with their caretakers and in the good graces of their peers or the enforcers of community racial standards.

Recalling several interviews she conducted with White Americans, Thandeka concluded that Euro-American children suffered abuse, physical and psychological, from their caretakers and other significant others, because as children they were proscribed from playing with children outside their racial community. As children, Euro-American children have to obey their parents or face the consequences: the risk of emotional abandonment and even physical abuse. The child thus learns, layer by layer, to stay away from the nonwhite zones of its own desire. (p.53)

Thandeka concludes that the internal nonwhite zone is the killing fields of desire, the place where impulses to community with persons beyond the pale are slaughtered. The child develops antipathy toward its own forbidden feelings and to the persons who are the objects of these forbidden desires: the racial other. The child and then the adult learns how to suppress such risky feelings of camaraderie with persons beyond the community’s racial pale in order to decrease the possibility of being exiled from his or her own community.

From the discussion above, it is clear that any hope of fighting racism must begin with the future parents, workers, chief executive officers, politicians, teachers and journalists. For, as the first victims of racism, they are also the easiest to redeem. It is important to expose them very early on to the social policies and institutional practices that advantage some groups at the expense of others.

As part of my Racism and Inequality and Racial Diversity and Media classes taught to predominantly White first and second-year students in Michigan, USA, I asked the students to write a final essay about their overall impressions about racial and ethnic relations in their country. Many wrote riveting accounts about their personal upbringings and primary socialization experiences and how these affected their view of "Americans of Colour" and their resolve to help end the system of racism in their country. Many suggested that courses such as mine should be taught in grade schools, and many wondered why this has not been done all this while. Almost invariably, I was also intrigued, but not surprised, by the similarities of their experiences. The majority had only fleeting encounters with Americans of Colour. The majority took pains to point out almost apologetically that either they or their parents were not racist. Many blamed racism on skinheads, Neo-Nazis, and simply on "bad people." Few saw themselves as part of the problem. A few reasoned that racism was a sin of the past, no longer a serious problem in the 21st century.

After moving back to Canada in 2005, I gave the same assignment to my Canadian students, and, not surprisingly, their responses were no different from those of their US counterparts. In fact, the responses of the students reflect the culture of denial and neglect in North America. For sure, to be branded a racist these days does not generate pleasant feelings, to say the least. So it is understandable that most North Americans go to great lengths to deny they are racist and part of the problem. A few complained of reverse discrimination. For example, one student claimed in his reflective essay on Peggy McIntosh’s article, Unpacking the Knapsack of White Privilege that his being White "almost kept" him from getting his current job at the Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. Here is my response to his essay:

You must count yourself lucky indeed. For the legions of unemployed African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, willing and able to work, the color of their skin "absolutely" keeps them from being employed on a daily basis.

For you, white privilege exists somewhere in America. It affects only some White people. Just as men find it hard to admit that they enjoy special advantages on account of their maleness in a patriarchal society, many Whites find it hard to admit they enjoy special advantages in a White-dominated society. By stating that your father achieved whatever he has today by dint of hard work, you are implying without saying it that ethnic and racialized minorities who benefit from affirmative action are not hard-working.

Let me ask you a hypothetical question: Suppose you were black and this country were to be predominantly black with blacks in power, would you be a beneficiary of black privilege? Put in another way, will you trade your skin color if you think your whiteness does not confer benefits on you?

Lastly, it is easier for you to claim that white privilege is a "little exaggerated" because you do not suffer its negative consequences. But for the millions of your Americans of Colour compatriots, white privilege is huge and often catastrophic; it is life and death. It means dying younger, receiving poorer quality education, paying higher prices for cars and auto insurance, etc. The evidence is all there, in volumes upon volumes of research findings. Such flippant dismissal of white privilege as a "little bit exaggerated" displays a profound insensitivity to the plight of the legions of fellow Americans who are denied their fair share of the American dream for no sin other than that they are not white. It also makes it difficult to tackle the problem.
The reason why some Whites oppose affirmative action is that they know it will eventually level the playing field and ethnic minorities would sooner or later be chipping away at, if not contest the same privileges they have been enjoying all along.
You made exactly the point the author made. White people do not see white privilege, because it is unmarked. You will not see it until you empathize, put yourself in the shoes of ethnic minorities or until that privilege is taken away from you or is threatened to be taken away from you. White privilege is like fish and water. The fish takes water for granted, until it is out of water. For you, white privilege exists somewhere in America. It affects only some White people. As Bernard Boxill points out, the power of the race idea to corrupt is based on a habit of deliberate disregard of what we all share with each other. Boxill goes on to note: The danger to others comes when we develop a habit of repressing what we share with them and of accentuating how we differ. Such a habit develops into a habit of not seeing what we share with others, and if we do not see what we share with others, we will not see ourselves in them, and we must see ourselves in them to have sympathy for them.

Some of my students were desperately defensive and ashamed about racism in their country and their unwitting participation in it. It is these feelings and sentiments among my students that prompted me to organize a final debriefing lecture at the end of each semester at which I explained to them that the problem is not of their making. They are not responsible for the existence of racism in their country and they are not responsible for harboring race prejudice. They were socialized, brought up, that way. However, that does not absolve them from responsibility if their actions and inactions perpetuate racism.

I explained that the socio-economic and political system works in their country to sustain, service, support, and promote the inequitable race relations through the processes of legitimation, hegemony and positionality. Racism exists in North America not because it is run by mean-spirited, evil-minded White bigots. It is not the nature of Whites, but the logic of the system, the rules of the game, if you will, that produce racism. In other words, it goes with the territory; if the tables were turned and African Americans were the dominant ethnic/racial group in the USA, for example, they would probably act in the same way Whites are acting now.

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 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 colourblind attitude toward racism because they have no viable alternatives, and they do not recognize that North 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.

Racism persists because of real or imagined threats to dominant material standing, through competition for jobs, housing, schools, etc. Myers notes that, historically, Whites have fought to insulate and protect themselves from outsiders. The outcome, she points out, was racist oppression. Racism persists because the sense of threat persists.(p. 24)

Myers suggests that racism is dialectical, in that it exists at three levels: structural, inter-actional and ideological. Racism at the (hierarchical) structural level 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 inter-actional level at which they engage in racist practices both knowingly and unknowingly. People do not view their racist behavior as problematic even if they recognize it. (p.22) This lack of anti-racist consciousness, Myers writes, is explained by the third level of racism: racist ideology, 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. By becoming members of this society, people learn the ropes slowly and without fanfare. Over time, differential treatment of people of color becomes normalized, expected, and de rigueur. (p. 22).

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 (Gramsci, 1932/1975); Myers, 2006).

I remind my students that no one is born a racist bigot. In other words, racial bigotry or racial prejudice is not genetically or biologically determined. People learn racial bigotry through the various agents of socialization: the family, peers, the educational system, the mass media and so on. People 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. This is precisely what the French Philosopher, Denis Diderot had in mind when he wrote: Nature has not made us evil; it is bad education, it is bad models, it is bad legislations that corrupt us. Thus, racism is learned in the social context; it is a social construct; it is not innate or biologically predetermined.

However, that does make people slaves to the system either. People possess and many frequently exercise agency or free will. While we may be victims of circumstances, we are, at the same time, captains of the ships of our destinies. While we are products of the systems into which we are born, we are not entirely powerless. While we may be victims of our parents’ upbringing, we do not remain puppets in our adult lives; we are capable of unlearning the unhealthy lessons of childhood. This is what Berger and Luckman had in mind when they proposed their theory of the duality of structure and agency, 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. These scholars 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.

Johnson used the game of Monopoly to illustrate this point very poignantly. Monopoly is a game of ruthless competition, a zero-sum game in which the winner takes all. According to Johnson, the point of the game is to ruin everyone else and be the only one left at the end of the game. A player does not even have to be a greedy person to wish to ruin his opponents in a game of Monopoly. The rules of the game, the logic of Monopoly, make players ruthless. Even an angel can be turned into the devil incarnate by playing Monopoly. But Monopoly players also have agency. They can stop simply playing Monopoly.

Thus, Johnson urges us to think of Monopoly as a social system; as something larger than ourselves that we participate in. The game of Monopoly demonstrates how systems and people come together in a dynamic relationship that produces oppression, power, and privilege. People, he explains, make social systems happen by virtue of their participation in them. If no one plays Monopoly, it is just a box full of stuff with writing inside the cover. The problem is that when people open it up and identify themselves as players, however, Monopoly starts to happen. In such a system, it is the actions, and indeed the inaction, of the individuals which perpetuate the system.

How do people make the systems of social injustice and inequality, such as sexism, racism, and privilege, 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. Just our silence is crucial enough to ensure its future; the simple fact is that no system of social oppression can continue to exist without most people choosing to remain silent about it. If most Whites spoke out about racism, it would be the first step toward a revolutionary change, Johnson declares.

Sadly, though, the vast majority of good people simply choose the paths of least resistance and remains silent on racism, and it is easy for ethnic/racial minorities to read their silence as support for the system, Johnson concludes.

Silence, as the saying goes, is golden. However, in matters of social injustice, silence is as deadly as the sayings of these individuals, whose reactions to man’s inhumanity to man in different circumstances attest:

"Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted, the indifference of those who should have known better, the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most that has made it possible for evil to triumph."
- Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia.

"In Germany they came first for the Communists and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist,
Then they came for the Jews and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew,
Then the came for the trade unionists and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist,
Then they came for the Catholics and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant, Then they came for me and by that time no one was left to speak up."

- Martin Niemöller 1892-1984 (Nazi concentration camp survivor).

"It doesn’t matter how strong your opinions are. If
you don’t use your power for positive change, you
are indeed part of the problem, helping to keep
things the way they are." -Coretta Scott King