Here are some thoughts about racism in America in the wake of the Ferguson, MO, grand jury decision not to indict the officer involved and the protests and destruction in response.
Everybody knows the particulars by now: a white officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager in disputed circumstances. Some people, mostly white, saw it as a justified if regrettable response to a violent threat. Others, mostly black, saw it as part of a pattern in which white majority police forces target blacks unjustly and are too quick to shoot when things go wrong.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that racism is effectively over in America, at least as voting laws are concerned. I don’t believe that, but if racism no longer exists, “racialism” is alive and well.
Racialism is denying racism while looking at events with race in mind. It’s what happens when one side has no understanding whatsoever of the other. Sorry to say, this is mostly a white problem.
White people – I’m one -- have no idea what it means to be black. Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly not long ago debated whether “white privilege” is real. O’Reilly, predictably, said no. He went on to say he meant that if black people applied themselves and followed the rules they could achieve anything white people can achieve.
That may be true, but it’s also ignorant of what white privilege means. Barbara and I recently went to a Chinese restaurant in Queens that turned out to be closed. We met a Chinese couple in the parking lot who told us of another place close by, and when we got there we met them again. They were a pleasant couple about our age with a common interest in dim sum, and we began to talk. The husband was a cab driver, now retired. Without prompting, he said he never picked up black people if he could help it. “I’d turn off my light so they’d think I was off duty,” he said.
He just assumed another light-skinned guy would agree with him. That’s all anybody needs to know about what blacks are up against. White privilege means a cab will stop for you.
On election day I posted on Facebook that I had voted without having to show ID and that democracy was alive and well in New York City. One of my conservative friends responded, “Well done, Nick. Any Panthers around to encourage you?”
Where did that come from? I guessed – correctly, it turned out – that this had something to do with Black Panthers but I had no idea what. I searched the Internet and learned that two guys from the anti-white New Black Panther Party had yelled at white voters at a Philadelphia polling place in 2008. They wore paramilitary gear and one of them carried a nightstick. I would have known all about this if I watched Fox News, which turned it into a story of white voter intimidation, then morphed it into a story about the Obama administration’s anti-white bias when it didn’t pursue the case. One party member showed up at the polls, again in Philadelphia, during the 2012 election and produced fresh wails of indignation on Fox News.
This, as Media Matters put it, was a tempest in a teapot. But another conservative friend chimed in with her anger about all things Obama: “Please, the Black Panthers are allowed to threaten voters and the only problem with this action is because Fox reported it?”
When a Facebook post about simply having voted triggers responses about two marginal black crackpots harassing whites at a single polling station, that’s racialism at the very least. It’s the prism through which we see things in this country. It’s responsible for the hateful views many whites hold of President Obama. Of course their views aren’t racist, they’ll insist. They just think he’s incompetent, or don’t like his policies. But as the conversation goes on, race pops up as surely as done toast.
We can’t escape it. I really wish we could.