Friday, December 23, 2016

Five kinds of racism

Once when I was in high school, after a theater production, I was helping to take pieces of the set to storage when I walked by my sixty-year-old history teacher.

"You're striking," he said.
"Thanks," I mumbled, creeped out.
"How much money are you all asking for?" another student asked.

This story makes no sense, right? That's because the word "striking" has three different meanings and we were all using them differently.
  1. striking: dismantling a theater stage
  2. striking: dramatically beautiful
  3. striking: stopping work until demands are met
Now take that confusion and multiply it by a million, and you get the word "racism."

A lot of White people think that "racism" has one meaning. Racists hate anyone not White, they won't hire them for jobs, they don't want them in their schools, they don't want to live near them, and they think they are all on welfare. Basically this woman. So when White people say, "I'm not racist" or "I'm tired of being called a racist" - comments I saw a lot around our recent election - they mean, "I'm not like that person."

This is the first definition of racism: explicit racism (I will call this Type 1 racism). The good news is that a lot of White people are right; they are NOT Type 1 racists. The bad news is a lot of White people ARE explicit racists; witness the recent rise in hate crimes as Type 1 racists are emboldened. The further bad news is that there are four other kinds of racism, and between them, they cover every White person in America.

Here are the remaining definitions of racism:

Type 2 racism is institutional racism. A perfect example is my kids' school district. Ninety-seven percent of the teachers are White, in classrooms where about 60% of the students are children of color. The schools are not run by Type 1 racists, so how did the district end up like this? Well, our schools usually hire new teachers out of the sub pool, and the sub pool is made up of people who can afford to not work every day, and that means White people (White households have 13 times the wealth of Black households and 10 times the wealth of Latino households), usually married White women. Perhaps no one intended to create a racist school district, but the only thing people have to do to perpetuate a racist system is... nothing and the system will perpetuate itself. Now, you can't call an individual a Type 2 racist because by definition the word describes institutions. But you can say that a White person benefits from Type 2 racism, and we do, overwhelmingly. Longer life expectancy. Better healthcare. Better education. Higher salaries. More lenient sentencing. (And yes, poor White people benefit from institutional racism too, when compared to people of color of the same socioeconomic class. For example, when 95% of clinical trials use White people, health risks unique to people of color are ignored and White people of any class benefit.)

The third definition of racism goes back to the personal level, but this time it's below the surface: subconscious racism. I'll give an example of it that came out of my own mind. On the train riding to work, I saw a poorly dressed Black woman and assumed her to be homeless. I saw a White, blond woman in similar disarray and thought, How European! What a free spirit! I didn't consciously act on those thoughts - I was disappointed when I realized I'd had them - but in some tiny way, they influenced how I interacted with those women. Maybe I smiled at one and not the other. Maybe if I had noticed a belonging missing, I would have suspected one and not the other. These tiny reactions add up. Type 3 racism is death by a thousand papercuts.  It comes directly from Type 2 racism: we are so thoroughly steeped in a racist history, racist government practices, racist housing patterns, racist educational systems, and a racist media that I doubt there is any White person in America who isn't some kind of Type 3 racist.

Type 4 is strategic racism. Ian Haney López (Dog Whistle Politics) explains strategic racism as "purposeful efforts to use racial animus as leverage to gain material wealth, political power, or heightened social standing." This racism is a tool used to achieve a goal deemed more important than not being racist. The book is mostly about politicians who use coded words like "welfare queen," "thug," and "states' rights" to appeal to both explicit and subconscious prejudice in voters, but really, it could be about the entire history of the United States. How do you get millions of White people to support a system that enriches a tiny minority while doing tremendous damage to everyone else? Create a myth of racial superiority and many poor White people will side with the exploitative White capitalist over their Black neighbors, every time, from slavery through Trump. Strategic racism can also be directed inward. White people who refuse to see that they benefit from racist institutions or to consider their own subconscious racism are employing strategic racism as way of protecting their own self-image as good and moral people. Self-directed strategic racism is the decision that our own comfort is more important than acknowledging hard truths about the world.

Finally, Type 5 racism is what Haney López calls "common-sense racism." He includes this with Type 3 racism, but I think they are a little different. To me, subconscious racism is about emotional reactions but common-sense racism is about simply getting the facts wrong. Take, for example, the fact that Black people commit crimes at a higher rate than White people. Is it because they are inherently criminal? Do fewer educational and job opportunities breed crime? Does Black culture glorify "thug life?" Actually, it's none of these because Black people DON'T commit crimes at a higher rate than White people. Black people are arrested for crimes at higher rates, they are prosecuted at higher rates, and they are given longer sentences, but crime rates themselves do not vary by race. Type 5 racism is when "everyone knows" common-sense facts that are wrong. 

I didn't go back to my history teacher and tell him that I had figured out what he was saying because it really wasn't that important. Getting the word "racism" right, that's important. White people, we can't just say we're not racist and be done. We need to figure out which meaning people are using and we need to acknowledge that we, all of us, me and you, are some kind of racist.