Race remains a deeply misunderstood aspect of the U.S. Some of this confusion lies in basic terminology, such as being able to distinguish between “racial” and “racism/racist.”
Let’s consider the NFL to unpack that language and its relationship to how racism and being a racist applies to the U.S.
These data are racial, but stating facts such as NFL players are disproportionately black or that head coaches and CEO/presidents are overwhelmingly white are not racist.
Here’s where it becomes complicated. Has racism created these disproportions, and can we at least question if not outright accuse the CEOs/presidents of being themselves racist?
Some times being racist or the fact of racism is blatant—such as the unmasking of former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling or the newly released recordings of Ronald Reagan talking with Richard Nixon.
However, the facts of racism in the U.S. and directly identifying someone as racist remain somewhere between impolite and offensive (often responded to in ways that suggest calling a racist “racist” is more offensive than actual racist behavior).
For example, the current occupant of the White House has once again offered a deeply muddled and delusional refuting of his being identified as a racist (based on his language and behavior):
“I think the word has really gone down a long way because everybody’s called a racist now,” the president said. “Her own party called Nancy Pelosi a racist two weeks ago. The word is so overused. It’s such a disgrace. I can tell you, I’m the least racist person there is in the world, as far as I’m concerned.”
“They use it almost when they run out of things to criticize you. They say, ‘He’s a racist, he’s a racist,’” Trump continued. “In some cases, it’s true, there are people who are racist ― bad people. But with me, they have a hard time getting away with it, and they don’t get away with it.”
While many have focused on his “I’m the least racist person there is in the world,” I would suggest that the “as far as I’m concerned” is nearly as important to address.
First, the sobering truth about racism and being a racist for white people in the U.S.: There are only four options for how white people can be identified in terms of their relationship to being racist—(1) being a racist, (2) being complicit with racism in either a passive (ignorant) role or through denial, (3) benefitting from racism while denying racism exists, or (4) benefitting from racism while actively resisting that privilege.
The very shorthand version of this dynamic is, I regret to explain, that all white people in the U.S. are essentially racist because systematic racism is alive and well in the U.S. and it is the product of disproportionate white power that has accumulated as a result of that systematic racism.
Racism is a combination of race and power, and whites remain the dominant race in the U.S. in terms of wealth and access to power (even those whites who are in poverty and suffer great misfortune have advantages of race over a comparable black person in the exact same situation).
As I have detailed, I was raised in a racist community and home; I very much embraced many ugly elements of racism even as I felt deeply uncomfortable with the most extreme aspects of racism in my community and my family’s ideology.
Since I have actively spent my entire adult life, since college, rejecting that racism and working to dismantle my privileges grounded in systematic racism, I aspire to the fourth condition noted above—but that does not absolve me of the racism I am a part of simply because I am white.
It also doesn’t justify me announcing “I am not racist” or “I am the least racist person in the world.”
First, those declarations too eagerly toe the line of denial (the third condition above).
Second, it is not the role of white privilege to declare if and when any of us have attained the status of “not racist”; it is not an obligation or duty of oppressed people to absolve whites or to carefully identify who of us are racists and who of us are not, but ultimately, when systematic racism ends (a result in the hands of white people), those harmed by that oppression are the ones capable of making that observation.
The seemingly flippant “as far as I’m concerned” is just as damning as the self-declaration of not being a racist.
The current POTUS is blinded by his many privileges and completely incapable of recognizing his own gross qualities as a virulent racist and misogynist; megalomaniacs are not apt to recognize their megalomania.
His supporters and enablers are a much more complicated group, falling among the first three conditions notes above.
White America is the land of racism, the reason racism exists. None of us who are white are without the sin of racism.
Like alcoholics who find sobriety by announcing their alcoholism even as they are sober, white Americans must admit our varied roles in systematic racism even as some of us live daily to avoid being racists.
Racism is the white plague of the U.S. Those of us who recognize that reality, regret the history and current consequences of racism, and seek ways to dismantle racism have much more important things to do than to announce that we are not racist because such shallow self-absorption is easily as offensive and harmful as being the sort of oafish racist that can end all doubt about your racism.