To root out racism, academics and activists say, talk of healing is not enough: the bias at the heart of American politics, policing and society must be addressed
This article titled “Oppression in America: ‘To root this out we need a movement against racist policies'” was written by Jamiles Lartey in New Orleans, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 6th June 2018 10.00 UTC
It seems as though every single day, the list grows.
Waiting in a coffee shop while black. Selling real estate while black. Moving in while black. Napping while black. Working out while black.
Ever since a Starbucks in the Philadelphia area came under national scrutiny for calling the police on two black men waiting for a business associate in one of the company’s coffee shops, new attention has been focused on the long list of mundane activities that black Americans can’t confidently engage in without being treated as suspicious or having the police called.
“It’s just part of daily living. It’s what you expect as a person of color when you head out the door in the morning,” said Jeff Chang, the author of Who We Be: A Cultural History of Race in Post-Civil Rights America. “A moment like this just sort of galvanized folks to be able to express all the different ways in which they’ve been impacted by daily racism.”
In many ways the newly energized conversation parallels how Black Lives Matter emerged as an ideological clearinghouse for the problem of racialized police violence several years ago. Neither phenomenon was new, but in both cases a stream of high profile incidents managed to snowball into its own trope, in part thanks to social media and smartphone videos. In this case that’s the trope of “everyday racism”.
For experts, the genesis is clear. While the US has ended the formal, legal codes of enslavement and segregation that stood for most of the nation’s history, little has been done to change the minds of too many about the racist ideas that those structures rested on.
“There has not been a society-wide and intensive challenge to racist ideas in the US,” said Ibram Kendi, the director of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center at American University. “You’ve had people saying we need to have ‘national conversations’, You’ve have people calling for ‘healing’, because in their minds it’s just that people are hateful and they need to start loving … But in terms of a national, widespread effort to reorient Americans’ racist ideas – that has never happened before.”
And those ideas run deep, said Jamilah Lemieux, a cultural critic and writer. “Non-black people in this country have been fed a steady diet of propaganda from their parents, their schools, their churches, and from the media that tells them that people of color, and particularly black folks and Latinx people are not to be trusted.
“They’ve been taught that we are criminals, that we are violent that we are predators and think we need to be monitored.”
Hope and change
Barack Obama’s 2008 election was seen by much of white America as the dawning of a new, post-racial age. The logic held that, if a black man could attain the highest office in the land, then no goal could be considered out of reach for an individual black person in modern America.
This post-racial framing, of course, belies not just the inherited and institutional disadvantages black Americans face in housing, education, wealth, and other socioeconomic concerns, but also the emergence of what some have described as a “newer, slicker” form of racism. After the 2008 election, the anti-racist activist and writer Tim Wise described it as one where whites “hold the larger black community in low regard” but “carve out acceptable space for individuals like Obama who strike them as different”.
And insofar as Obama’s eight years in power fueled a renewed sense of purpose and organization among white nationalists, and triggered what the CNN pundit Van Jones famously described as a “whitelash”, some, including Obama himself, have wondered if his presidency actually set the project of racial equality back – at least temporarily. “Maybe we pushed too far,” Obama worried aloud to an aide shortly after the election, according to a forthcoming book. “Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.”
That racial tribalism is part of what propelled Trump’s victory, despite the fact that he would go on to repeatedly describe himself as the “least racist person”. Trump’s popularity with unabashed white supremacists stems from things like his frequent ill-informed tweets and comments about inner city violence, and his reported use of the the phrase “shithole counties” in speaking about immigrants from black and brown nations.
‘Personal racism valet’
After the Starbucks incident, numerous other examples quickly emerged via news reports and social media. In New Jersey, two black men had police called on them by staff at a gym after being falsely accused of working out without proper memberships. Police in California swarmed three black women leaving an Airbnb when a neighbor concluded they were in the midst of a robbery. A woman in Oakland called the police on black residents for barbecuing in a park, and, at Yale University, a white woman called police on a black fellow student for falling asleep in a dorm common area.
The presence of police is not the defining factor for everyday racism, or what some call “microaggressions”, but it is one of the harshest escalations. For Phillip Atiba Goff, a leading researcher on racial bias in policing and the president of the Center for Policing Equity, part of this has to do with the fact that black people and white people often share space in places like a university campus or a rapidly gentrifying city such as Oakland, California, but don’t always share bonds. “When you have people living close to each other who are not in community with each other, that breeds fear,” Goff said.
He worries about what it means that in cases where officers functionally become “deputized as a kind of personal racism valet” – armed respondents to unfounded suspicions by white Americans. But from the perspective of law enforcement it’s a hard circle to square.
“You can’t very well instruct your 911 operators to be like ‘yeah Mrs Smith, I know you said there were gangbangers but we know you’re probably just racist,” Goff said.
Police have to respond, and are trained to treat every scenario as though it could become dangerous. “So they’re going to show up, and they’re generally going to be aggressive,” Goff added. “And by the time they figure out that you are not the issue, your dignity has been so assaulted that it really is difficult to have a pleasant conversation. For the cops and for the resident.”
Thus, more than anything, what needs to be challenged to make real progress on everyday racism is racial bias, whether conscious or unconscious. “The only way we actually win, is to change the social norms,” Goff said.
And for Kendi, like many race scholars, an important part of that is paying closer attention to social, economic and political policies that have a biased impact, rather than case by case negative exchanges individuals have with one another. “Policies are the cradle of the racist ideas circulating in people’s minds that are leading to those interpersonal situations that are negatively affecting people,” Kendi said.
“If people are really serious about being able to live freely and black in the United States, then the way really to do that is to be a part of the movement against racist policies.”
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