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The Catch 22 of Denying Racism

7-08212012-5034382a52dccThe Donald Sterlings of the world are few and far between in this day in age. It isn’t the fact that he’s a billionaire real-estate developer or an NBA team owner that makes him so unique. And it’s not that he’s a racist who has used his power and wealth to affect the lives of some of the people he clearly finds inferior that makes a person like him so hard to find. Hell, it’s not even the fact that this man who didn’t want his girlfriend to be seen “associating” with black people was somehow able to overlook the fact his girlfriend is half black herself (I guess there’s at least one part of his body that is colorblind). No, what makes this hypocritical bastard unique in this day in age is that he got caught, and that he got caught saying things that were so blatantly racist no one can deny the inappropriateness of his comments.  In fact, his comments were so beyond the pail there has been no attempt on his part, at this time, to even try to spin them.

Contrast this, however, with Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who is stealing money from the public and who was recently made into a folk hero for doing so by conservatives and Fox News.  He publicly pondered during a televised interview whether or not black people were better off being slaves. (Just to be very clear, the answer is no.) While conservatives and Fox were quick to back away from Bundy after he made these remarks (and let’s save the issue of why this kind of thing keeps happening to conservatives for another article), Bundy himself didn’t see what the problem was and has continued to give interviews to try to explain what he “really meant.”  Believe it or not, I think I know where a man like Bundy is coming from, and I don’t think he’s a racist. I think he’s a modern racist, which is to say a racism denier. He does not believe race is significant factor in modern America and, therefore, the bad situations blacks and other minorities find themselves in in largely disproportionate numbers isn’t an issue of racism, but one of their own making. This belief allows him to sincerely ask if blacks weren’t better off as slaves and to seriously believe he’s not saying anything offensive or racist. He’s just looking at the numbers.

downloadWhile Bundy’s remarks were poorly veiled, and he appears to not be sophisticated enough to hide or even recognize the racism that underpins his ideas, beliefs and opinions, he is far from alone in having these thoughts and considering them to be not racist. I would argue this kind of thinking is endemic in the Republican party and much of the party’s policy positions and rhetoric are in line with the views and thoughts of Bundy and people like him. The Republicans have just touched up these opinions and beliefs in such a way that makes it harder to call them racist mostly because so much of their racism centers around the argument that racism is no longer a major issue in America.  It’s what the conservatives on the Supreme Court have said recently in rulings on voter protection and affirmative action, and it is the belief the Republican party is actively trying to push in America.

So what’s wrong with thinking racism isn’t a significant issue in America anymore, Brian? I’m glad you asked, reader, and please allow me to explain. As Jeff Winger, one the characters from NBC’s quirky comedy, Community, asked, “Could not seeing race be the new racism?” While he asked this in response to two other characters’ overly PC attempt to create an image of a Human being with no distinguishable racial characteristics, I would argue the statement equally applies to the denial of the role racism plays in modern society.  This is because to have this point of view requires ignoring numerous statistical disparities that exist along racial lines in our society. (This is to say nothing of America’s long and tortured history of racism that many race deniers seem to think was completely reset once black people got to start drinking out of the same water fountains). To see examples of this denial, one need do nothing more than read the comments that follow any news article that documents certain racial disparities in American society like incarceration rates or wealth inequality. They usually go something like this:

“I’m sick and tired of hearing black people saying racism has anything to do with (insert issue here). Everyone knows the reason for (stated issue) is that black people/ the black community are (insert negative characteristic here). But I’m not racist; this is just what the stats show.”

images (1)While many people look at statistics like the incarceration rate – one out of 15 African-Americans are behind bars vs. only one out of 105 whites – and see quantifiable proof that racism still exists. Racism deniers look at this same information and don’t see where racism has anything to do with such grossly disproportionate numbers of blacks being jailed. But here’s the logical fallacy, either these numbers are proof of a racial bias in our society and our criminal “justice” system in terms of the way it targets, arrests and punishes blacks (See New York City’s Stop and Frisk policy), or blacks are just significantly more likely to commit crimes. Many of you reading this might have just realized the catch 22 racism deniers are caught in. If there is no racism involved on the system’s part then the only explanation left is that blacks, on their own accord, are much more likely to commit crime than any other racial group. But hey, this idea isn’t racist. It’s just what the stats bare out.

Similarly, recently released census information shows that the wealth gap between blacks and whites is larger than ever. The median household income of white families is 20 times higher than that of black families, along with a ton of other equally stark economic inequalities. But none of this is because of present day racism or the remnants of a system that was, for centuries, built on committing injustices and acts of terrorism towards black people. After all, that ended almost 50 years ago and certainly wouldn’t still have an impact in the present day world where most millionaires earn their wealth the old fashion way: through inheritances. Instead, according to racism deniers, it’s because black people are still complaining about America’s racist past and waiting for a handout instead of pulling themselves up… whatever, whatever. All of which gets to the same point which is that black people aren’t working hard and that’s what explains their lack of wealth. Again, these are not racist statements, according to race deniers like Bundy, just statements of fact. So again, we see eyebrow raising stats that are explained away by race deniers as not being the fault of a discriminatory economic system that was recently shown to favor white ex-cons over middle income black families with no criminal records when giving out loans, but the fault of black people who, more so than any other race, it would appear, don’t work hard.

Fox-News-Racist-SimpsonsNow, let’s tease out the thoughts of the nonracist folks who see no real evidence of racism in modern society. Let’s call them Fox News viewers since in a recent study 68% of them said they think reverse racism is a more serious problem than (forward?) racism. Fox News viewers, who do not think racism against minorities is a problem, think that stats like the ones I presented earlier are not the result of racism. Rather, they result from people in the black community being disproportionately lazy and criminally minded. Now, given that the stats alone, with no other context taken into consideration, do support such a conclusion, and, therefore, make it simply a factual statement to point out that black people are disproportionately likely to be arrested and punished for committing crimes, and to be poor, are any of these Fox News viewers going to hire a lazy black person with a predisposition to commit crimes? I know I sure wouldn’t if that’s what I believed. And, thus, we arrive at a second catch 22 where a “nonracist” would feel perfectly justified in discriminating against black people when in a positions of power. Why take the chance on hiring a black person when white people are statistically a much safer bet. In fact, this could go some ways towards explaining why the black unemployment rate is the highest of all racial groups in America, and why multiple studies have shown resumes with black sounding names on them are much less likely to be called in for an interview while literally-identical resumes with a racially non-distinctive name did. But, using Fox News viewers’ logic, it probably just means black people are trying the least hard of all the racial groups to get work, and again, who wants to hire someone who doesn’t try hard or whose name is Jamal.

If wealthy, powerful people like Donald Sterling, and people with the mindset of Cliven Bundy and Fox News viewers, and statistics like the ones in this article have nothing to do with the racial discrepancies seen in our economic and criminal justice system then characteristics that can be found disproportionately among black people are the only explanation left. But, and I hate to tell some of you this, the latter is the argument of a racist, or a racism denier. But, like I said, they are actually the same thing. But hey, there’s no need to take my word for it. After all, I’m just an angry black guy playing the race card and people like Donald Sterling and Calvin Bundy don’t really exist anymore. 

Brian M. Williams
Brian is the author of the recently published travel memoir "Stranger in a Stranger Land: My Six Years in Korea." (Click this profile for more information.) He's also a law school grad with Southern charm and Virginia roots. He recently returned to America after nearly seven years traveling and working abroad. He loves dive bars, international travel and foreign accents. He's particularly good at small talk and was the first person to notice there's no "I" in "team."

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