I have read articles by Katherine Kersten since the 1980s. And after reading “Racial justice: The new religion?” (Opinion Exchange, July 25) I believe for the first time I can say we share something in common:
It is clear that we are both racists.
Kersten denies this. In fact, she rejects the existence of “white privilege” and “white supremacy” and rails against the very idea of “systemic racism.” She claims that “racial justice” is a new “secular religion” with followers guilty of “Puritan-style intolerance.” Ironically, her denials illuminate her racism as well as the reasons for my own confession.
My name is Jack. I am a 69-year-old white male. The sad truth is that I am a racist even though I try not to be, and if you are a white person reading this, odds are you are, too.
An alcoholic’s first step in healing is personal and public acknowledgment of the problem. Healing after the brutal death of George Floyd and learning from the rage unleashed by it starts with our admission that our racism hurts Black people and other persons of color. Liberals and conservatives need to understand and confront four dimensions of racism.
Our first problem is that most white people, including Kersten, associate racism with overt, disgusting expressions of hate and bigotry directed at people of color. We don’t own slaves, publicly use the “N” word, burn crosses on the lawns of Black-owned homes or belong to the KKK. We may have a Black person as a friend.
This is progress of a sort, but limiting our understanding of racism to hateful acts and speech of malicious individuals is problematic. It allows white people to deny being racist, feeds illusions of being “colorblind,” ignores institutions and social structures and makes it impossible to argue cases of discrimination before the Supreme Court.
Implicit bias is a second dimension of racism. Sociologist Ian Haney Lopez calls implicit bias “common-sense racism” communicated through “culture and social structures.” We are “predisposed to hold positive associations regarding whites and negative presumptions about minorities … . More than angry bigotry, common-sense racism explains much of the harm race does in our society.”
One manifestation of implicit bias is white privilege. To be fair, in our country where 90% of household wealth is held by the richest 20% and the household wealth of 40% of our population is less than 3/10ths of 1%, many white people aren’t economically privileged.
Black Americans, however, deal with additional negative consequences because of racial profiling. For example, white people do more or less what they want in public settings. Black people can’t walk or drive, shop or play without being treated with suspicion simply because they are Black. They are victims of unwarranted police stops and harassment, and are denied jobs, job interviews and respect. The stress of being Black in America literally takes years off the life expectancy of African Americans.
A third dimension of racism denied by Kersten is structural. Slavery and Jim Crow were racist systems. The Minneapolis Police Department may have good and bad personnel, but all work within a dysfunctional racist police culture and system. Redlining, inadequate health care, low wage jobs, poor schools, inadequate housing, money-dominated politics, militarized policing, an unequal economy and a discriminatory criminal justice system are a few examples of structural racism.
Structural racism explains why Minneapolis has some of the worst racial disparities in the nation and why Black people disproportionately suffer from the coronavirus pandemic. People of color here do significantly worse than white people in every common measure of social and economic well-being, including infant mortality, poverty, life expectancy, homeownership, income, wealth, health, incarceration, and educational opportunities and outcomes.
A fourth dimension is “strategic racism.” Haney Lopez defines strategic racism as “purposeful efforts to use racial animus as leverage to gain material wealth, political power or heightened social standing.” For 40 years, Republican Party leaders have thrown racially coded messages like headhunting fastballs. Instead of the now-forbidden “N” word and other forms of overt hate speech they’ve campaigned against welfare, run commercials about Willie Horton, made up stories about “welfare queens,” exaggerated inner city crime, stoked fears about “illegal aliens,” immigrants, drugs, and gangs, and vilified the “unworthy poor.” Coded language avoids the backlash of direct hate speech while continuing to mobilize voters by fueling resentments and fear.
Donald Trump as candidate and president has stoked white rage and built a faithful political base by resurrecting overt hate speech and by strategically using coded racially charged language. The Republican Party under his leadership has nearly completed a 40-year-plus transition to becoming the angry white person’s party.
I and other liberal white people, however, must acknowledge the many ways we too have tolerated, encouraged and benefited from racism. It was Democratic President Bill Clinton who deregulated Wall Street, turned the war on drugs and the criminal justice system into a system of mass incarceration, and it was Clinton who used coded language to carry out “welfare reform” with the support of many Republicans and Democrats in Congress.
As every person expressing outrage on the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul after the death of George Floyd knows, inequalities have deepened and the killing of Black people by police continued, whether Democrats or Republicans exercised political power.
It is important for me and other liberal white people to acknowledge our racism as a matter of confession, not pride. Each of us needs to listen carefully to Black voices for guidance while examining the roles we play and choices we make within a thoroughly racist society and culture.
Not being bigoted is a low bar. We need to address structural obstacles and counter our own implicit biases in order to begin to address the racial and economic disparities in our communities.
It is clear now more than ever that racism is a problem that goes well beyond people like Katherine Kersten. Liberal cities such as Minneapolis, and the liberals living within them, are not exempt from the disease of racism. And in our present political context we must resist all efforts by those who use implicit and explicit racism to divide us and to mobilize angry voters. Instead, let’s work together to dismantle racism in all its destructive forms.
Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer is professor (emeritus) of Justice and Peace Studies at the University of St. Thomas (email@example.com).