It’s easy to recognize—and to dismiss—the obvious racism of a reality television star turned presidential candidate who laughed off the harassment of Black Lives Matter supporters at his rallies. It’s also easy to recognize the racism of a young white man who gunned down members of a historically black church.
But this obvious, overt racism is but a fraction of the racism in America, which happens all around us, and which Americans let happen, which should lead them—including you—to ask: Might you be racist, too?
Before you answer, “No, of course I’m not,” consider this: Research finds that more white Americans than black Americans believe that we live in some long-sought post-racial era, where racial bias doesn’t exist. Still, data points heralding the improvement of race relations often belie something that won’t come as a news flash to many people of color: Racism doesn’t have to be overt to be systemic.
Our schools provide flagrant examples of this. The 2013-14 Civil Rights Data Collection, a biennial survey conducted by the US Department of State, points out that school administrators suspend black students at more than three times the rate of white students. Observers call this trend the school-to-prison pipeline because it ramps up the odds that black students, often penalized for even minor infractions, become tethered to the criminal justice system. Indeed, I need only look at my old school district, where a white school resource officer thought it appropriate to toss a black student from her desk to make an arrest, to see how schools criminalize students of color.
But it doesn’t end with the school bell. Other studies highlight that blacks are 3.7 times more likely than whites to be arrested for possessing marijuana, though both groups use the substance at about the same rate, and that Latina attorneys may be more successful at advancing their careers if they cover up any traces of an accent, thereby warding off racial stereotypes. If you think that these are the only ways in which people of color face systemic racism, you’re probably not alone.
The list, however, goes ever on.
To root out these and adjacent problems, people of all political persuasions need to dramatically shift the ways in which we think about how race can, and too often does, matter.
Official channels are one place to start such crucial, helpful change. In June 2015, the Supreme Court sent a quiet but powerful message on institutional racism. A 5-4 ruling stated that the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs had exacerbated “segregated housing patterns by allocating too many tax credits to housing in predominantly black inner-city areas and too few in predominantly white suburban neighborhoods,” the implication being that while blacks aren’t welcome in some public spaces, we are welcome in public housing.
In short, when it comes to the fraught issue of housing discrimination, plaintiffs need only show that some practices have an outsized negative effect (“disparate impact,” in legalese) on minorities rather than prove that there was some sort of discriminatory intent motivating the, perhaps, unintended outcome. This was key to bringing attention to the fact that, despite this year’s debacle regarding the Oscars abject lack of diversity, rarely is racial discrimination as clear-cut as the silver screen leads us to believe. And that impact, however disparate, isn’t the same thing as intent.
Yet attempts to change national policies ought to be coupled with equally powerful initiatives to change national culture. Students are already making moves in this direction. On campuses across the country, the status quo has touched a raw, national nerve: White students and students of color can face radically different realities, even on the same campus. Students have made many demands in recent months, ranging from requiring diversity training to hiring more faculty members of color.
Some of these movements have had their fair share of missteps, but most of them have contributed to continuing while also reshaping the arc of America’s civil rights movement.
Indeed, Tomiko Brown-Nagin, professor of constitutional law and history at Harvard Law School, wrote for Slate that “students are asking society to engage diversity at a deeper level: inquiring not merely about how campuses should look, but what diverse campuses should do in terms of classroom and community dynamics,” what she calls qualitative diversity.
These pushes to shine a light on how privilege and oppression are propped up by invisible structural forces mustn’t be limited to our campuses, though, because racism doesn’t always take the form of protesters beaten at a rally with a candidate’s consent or of a man shooting up a church. It can also be heard in the dismissal of those who protest after yet another unarmed black man or woman is shot, and in the justification of those murders. It can be seen in the tweets claiming that Oscar nominations go to white people because they’re based on merit. It can also be seen in the practice of "redlining" that sustains the myth that there is a "good" and "bad" part of town.
And I’m sure that those perpetuating it in these more insidious ways don’t think that they’re fanning any racist flames in America. They may even be the first ones to insist that ours is a post-racial society. I’m also sure, however, that they’re a part of the reason that it’s not.
The past few months have made plain that individual actors can still contribute to glaring racism. But for those willing to see and to learn, it has also opened up an uncomfortable new chapter in American racial politics, and in the reality that, if society is to reckon and to repair, it’s time—past time—to start seeing a color line that, while silent, still orders society according to skin tone.