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June 6, 2017


The 2014 blog piece by writer Reni-Eddo Lodge has been receiving increased attention on the Guardian's site. The essay, entitled "Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race," is a meditation on structural, systemic racism. And one worth reading. (The original blog piece comprises the first dozen paragraphs of this newer, longer piece by Lodge.)

I feel it pairs well with Newsweek's recent cover story on the ongoing problem of school segregation. In contrast, this report provides an investigative analysis of a very specific aspect of structural racism.

And while reading these two essays, I kept mentally returning to the Oscar-nominated documentary 13th, directed by Ava DuVernay, which was released last year and is streaming on Netflix. The film is an incisive and intense exploration of the US prison system, who's in it, and why. The late film critic Roger Ebert said that the film Crash (2005) was one of the few movies that had "the possibility of making their audiences better people." I would say the same applies to 13th.

These three items work well together, and encourage one to consider a reality that frequently doesn't present itself if you are white. Being white and male for 45 years now, I have some experience; there is a long list of things I don't have to think about. This is not to suggest that white people don't have problems or suffer hardship. An appropriate analog would be realities that exist for women, but that are out of sight and/or out of mind for men. A man isn't necessarily sexist because of his obliviousness—an obliviousness that women cannot afford. But by being more conscientious, men can improve the lives of women, bringing to bear a responsibility.

Racism is not limited to explicit language and white supremacy. It can be quite subtle: eye contact, a knowing grin, silence, the sound of car-door locks. And with overtly racist language increasingly frowned upon, racism among whites has in large part gone into a kind of silent mode. Among educated, upper-middle-class whites (to choose a demographic with which I'm familiar), racist language is commonly viewed as being ill-mannered, as being blue collar, and being "low class." Being a racist, the thinking goes, is fine; but one should tend toward refinement.

A corollary to this genteel racism is that it encourages the mindset that "I'm not a bigot." If one doesn't speak or act or comport oneself as such, then one isn't. Complicating this picture further is the fact that people (pick a hue) tend to view themselves as being virtuous, regardless. The result is an admixture of bad-faith mentalities.

Hence the "I work with a black guy" testimony.

Hence the proud avowals of colorblindness, frequently deeming blackness as something akin to being in a wheelchair: "I don't see Kevin as being black."

Hence the fact that I have never personally heard Barack Obama criticized because of his color, when I strongly detect that many whites, especially my age and up, are resentful that an African-American made it to the White House.

Hence "anti-racist" tactics such as asking "Why are they called African-Americans? I don't call myself a German-American. We're all Americans." The intended message: everyone should be equal. "All lives matter." The actual message: "See how they are?" (Note: Obama is precisely a Kenyan/African-American; and the black students I've talked with, mostly college age, don't care, are fine with "black," and would just prefer to not be treated like dirt.)

Hence the age-old axiom that there are black people and there are those deserving of derogatory classification. The mechanism at work here is clear enough: by drawing such a distinction, the racist gives himself an out, and now cannot plausibly be labeled as a racist on account of his finesse. And underlying his argument is the assumption that racism is wrong, or at least vulgar and crude. The unapologetic racist, on the other hand, is also virtuous. And the evidence is his racism: he knows good from bad, and he (good) is not like them (bad).

Non-white frustration with racism among whites—and the corresponding social, political, and economic structures—is understood. Many whites don't know what racism is or how it works. And the degree to which they do, they are either innocent of it or righteous participants.

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