Why There Is No End To Racism In The U.S.A.

Having come to the reluctant acceptance of the permanence of racism and the simultaneous liberation that acceptance has brought to my involvement in the struggle against racism, [1] I have been asked often to indicate the reasons which lead me to the assumption of “permanence.” Sometimes the questioner seems rooted in stubborn resistance, sometimes in puzzled inquiry, sometimes in defiant incredulity. The question begs both my mind and my heart for an answer.

Three large categories of what seem to me to be factual observations, become the headings under which I cluster my response to the question. Here is an outline of some reasons which lead me to conclude that racism is permanent in our nation.

First there is massive ignorance about race/racism in white America. Andrew Hacker has said that every one of us could write a book about race. That is true. Almost everyone I meet regards themselves as an authority on race. That common assumption makes it doubly hard to make my point about ignorance. Yet the almost daily experience of talking with whites leads to a conviction that the lack of basic information is appalling.

The ignorance of which I speak is never an excuse for inaction to end racism. In our society, ignorance is never an excuse; we are surrounded by information sources which can provide understanding beyond our ability to act on it. The will to pursue the information is frequently lacking (that’s my next point!); the willingness to act on what is known lags even behind the knowledge, but the vacuum of “not-knowing” remains real.

When I consider evidence for the “ignorance,” the questions and comments which have assaulted me almost daily for years flood my memory:

A distinguished professor of law wondering why I speak of African civilization, because he knows of none such!

Public debates about Affirmative Action by people who do not know about the history of what brought it into being.

The worn-out question asked about black people in particular, “What do they want, anyway?”

Why do they destroy their own neighborhoods? – asked after every riot of the century.

What do Asians think about… (insert any topic you care to)?

Why all the complaints about Columbus?

Why can’t Hispanic people learn to speak English?

Don’t talk to me about slavery; that was hundreds of years ago!

At this point, you can expand the illustrations to your own satisfaction. Then we could engage ourselves in a l-o-n-g discussion about whether the list is an illustration of ignorance or a more subtle form of psychological denial. The answer to that question will depend very much on the particular situation or persons involved. Still, at one level it seems to me often to be simple ignorance – there is a lot which many people do not know about race/racism in the United States. Apart from those who know but just don’t want to do anything, apart from those “knowers” who are tricked by their own psyches, I am appalled by the numbers of people whose conversation is laced with not-knowing when it comes to race/racism.

The educational job is MASSIVE, and needs addressing at every level where communication takes place in our society. Ignorance is never an excuse for inaction, but action based on ignorance will produce no good. The educational job will always leave HUGE vacuums of ignorance out of which will come actions which are not solutions, but which are barriers to change.

Second, there is no sustained national will to end racism. Underline in your thoughts the words, “sustained,” “national,” and “will.” Dr. King said once that we are a “seven-day nation”; his reference was to attention given by media to major events representing societal problems. Something cataclysmic is featured on the front pages or at the “top” of TV news for a couple of days, recedes to the inner pages, and then disappears about seven days later. My completely unscientific observations affirm that King was just about right. The attention span given to some of our major problems is measured in column inches and sound bites; racism seems particularly prone to this treatment. The “color line” emerged as the great problem of the twentieth century; the unresolved issue now projects itself into the new century.

After the “L.A. riots” of last year, I spoke at a rally here in Boston. A “cub” reporter sought me out, hoping that I would respond to her question about what would happen because of the rally with an assurance that there would be some real changes made. My answer, born in a history she did not understand, told her that the primary good which would result was that the people who came out in the rain would feel better. That was important-I asserted, but history taught me not to expect much else from rallies. Sustaining the energy and the concern that propels people to come “out” is never easy and, unfortunately, the attempt encounters the lack of will to address racism, even among well-intentioned people.

During 1992, when we were organizing around Alternative Quincentenary efforts to de-mythologize Columbus, there were about seventy people involved in planning and actions; the “fad” of that year-long “moment” dissipated shortly after October 12th, and only a few were left to continue the on-going struggle for indigenous rights. Staying power is minimal; absent is the will to engage in the long haul!

To recognize the truth of the absence of a sustained national will to respond to racism is not defeatist; it is acknowledgment of reality, and can be the impetus to invigorated determination to continue the struggle. That determination engages the hard work to create that national will, to continue to hope in the face of hopelessness.

You can complete this beginning list too. You will have instances from your own experience illustrating the failure of a sustained, national will.

Third, the economic-political system which regulates our life in this nation is built on conserving principles, guided by controlling interests concerned to protect and extend a past which has served them well. The political system is designed to allow for change, but that change is managed by those dedicated to expansion of policies which clearly work for their benefit and profit, while believing or pretending that the system serves all people. That system has worked steadily to empower some and to impoverish others. Economic-class disparities flourish, and in that context racial divisions are created, exacerbated, and exploited. History teaches that clearly.

Racist views and policies put into practice have built a nation on the backs and labor of enslaved Africans, of dispossessed indigenous peoples, of Asian, Latino, and European immigrant groups. That is not rhetoric, but demonstrable fact. In the context of that development we built race into the social compact in such a way that closed to groups of color avenues of escape and advancement available to whites. Progressive attempts to remove the barriers for people of color are met with resistance and strategies to undermine and subvert every gain. We need only to watch what is happening to Affirmative Action, undertaken only a few short years ago as a conservative and modest step, now attacked both because it has worked for some and has not worked for others. Similar evidence is rooted in the history of progress and regression in our nation. There is little which makes me think that the future promises more than the past when it comes to race and racism.

It is your turn now! If you agree, please add to my comments. If you disagree, say that too. If you think me wrong I hope you are right! Even better, I hope I live to see that day when you have proven me wrong, not in discussion, but in the places where ideas become reality.

[1] See Seldon’s essay, “On the Permanence of Racism,” October 1992.