Ryan Williams-Virden & Ian McLaughlin
Oumou Kanoute was eating her lunch and minding her own business. The next thing she knew Smith College police were present. An employee had called the police because Kanoute looked “out of place.” This is the latest in a string of white people calling the police on Black people for simply living their lives. Without fail, social media assured us no white person in these instances are racist. This should be obvious due to the lack of bigotry so many white people outwardly display. They do not act with overt hate and therefore cannot be racist. But racism does not require bigotry. No, all racism requires is an acceptance of society as it currently exists.
At another end of the spectrum, were the responses to Morry Matson a few weeks ago. While at CVS in Chicago, Camilla Hudson posted a video of Morry Matson calling 911 after challenging the validity of a manufacturer's coupon Hudson was attempting to use. Another in a string of viral videos documenting how white folks use the police to protect their comfort, sense of ownership, and power over the lives and opportunities of Black people. This led to a wave of white folks decrying racism as a mental illness and a sickness that needs to be cured as opposed to the conditioned and socialized response to centuries of white supremacist policies and practices. Racism is a not a mental illness held by a select few of “others”, it is systematic, calculated, and often made invisible, even when placed directly in the public's face.
The constant in both examples is white people avoiding responsibility and fundamentally obscuring the reality of white supremacy and racism.
Every day race and racism make the news. In many ways that’s a good thing: white folks can no longer avoid the conversation. In other ways it’s maddening. We have such a subverted understanding of white supremacy and the systems that prop it up that we continuously confuse feelings, intentions, and bigotry with racism. This sophomoric frame leaves the public discourse clumsy, contradictory and, in most cases, counterproductive.
We have all heard the go-to retort “You don’t know what’s in his heart! I know him, he is not a racist!” or some iteration. It comes from the left and the right. It comes from those of us considered white as well as people of color. It’s an invite to derail any meaningful conversation about race. When we fall into the trap the conversation becomes a personality debate. I’ve fallen into it plenty of times. Somebody will defend Trump and I will respond with the laundry list of racist comments he has made. At that point we are debating whether Donald Trump is a bigot or not. That is not productive. At a systems level, it doesn’t matter if Trump, his supporters, your auntie and uncle, or anyone else is a bigot, what matters is that their bigotry has access to systemic and state power to influence the lives of others. That is racism. That is what the conversation needs to name and stay focused on. Donald Trump is a bigot. His bigotry combined with his access to power is what makes him a racist.
Let’s apply this articulation to another commonly derailed conversation: Trump supporters. Are all Trump supporters racist? This question is a setup from the jump. Either - we are really asking are all Trump supporters bigots? To which the answer is probably not, but we don’t know because we don’t know all Trump supporters. Or - we are asking a rhetorical question, because all white people aligned with power in America (Democrats and Republicans alike) are racist by definition as the system is inherently oppressive and white people benefit from this. Where the conversation needs to orient toward, is why do bigoted white nationalists feel emboldened by Trump's presidency? The answer: his policies. And this is what unites all of Trump supporters and Republicans across the country. Trump’s policies—that is to say the way his bigotry combines with power—is appealing to them. No other president in history, with the exception of Bush post 9-11, has enjoyed such a high approval rating within their own party as Trump does. What does that tell us? It tells us that no matter the level of bigotry publicly displayed, Trump supporters and Republicans in general support the racist ways Trump governs. But this is not just limited to Republicans. Democrats love to keep the conversation focused on individual feelings and bigotry rather than explore the ways their own policies withhold access and opportunities from communities of color.
The truth is that racism doesn’t stop when white people fail to name it. Nor is it a mental health issue. It is a conscious choice. In a rather famous clip Jane Elliot asked a room full of white people to stand up if they would be happy to change places with a Black person. Nobody stood up. Those of us considered white, know racism is real and we choose to act powerless in its wake. We accept cop-outs like “we don’t know what was in their hearts” or, my favorite, “we will never change how people feel.” The good news is we don’t have to. We have to change our policies and how our institutions interact with the citizenry. In his work Stamped from the Beginning, Ibram X. Kendi makes the point that people’s feelings and worldviews actually shift with policy changes. If we are actually interested in ending bigotry we should, then, start with legislating racism out of existence. This will happen when we stop derailing the public conversation.
Our fundamental failure to grasp the workings of white supremacy is not accidental. White supremacy has survived because it is not meant to be on front street. It is meant to be the background, the landscape, the norm. It is the shared foundation from which everything else diverges. By mystifying and obscuring the conversation, conservatives and liberals alike are given the space to disagree while the general order is maintained. It is crucial, then, to demystify white supremacy while concisely articulating its manifestations. This work begins in our schools. Just as important as the Pythagorean Theorem, APA conventions, or the capital of all 50 states is the workings and nuances of white supremacy in our society. Classrooms across the country should commit to a concise and honest articulation of the difference between bigotry and racism. The media must also follow suit. No more sensational panels and headlines debating the obvious. It’s time to level up. Quite literally the future of the country depends on it.