Even the most perfect system breaks down. Tomáš Sedláček

Rooted in Reality

The persistence of racial discrimination in America is only news to those of us who have never been on the receiving end. For many African-Americans and other minorities, it’s a pervasive reality.

The persistence of racial discrimination in America is only news to those of us who have never been on the receiving end. For many African-Americans and other minorities, it’s a pervasive reality rather than a newsworthy aberration. Yet for some time, and especially since the 2008 election, the rhetoric of the “post-racial age” has provided some comfort to liberals for whom civil rights are the stuff of history lessons. With a black president, it appeared to be merely a matter of mopping up the last residue of the country’s ugly past. In some circles, the focus has already shifted towards dismantling the legislative instruments of the civil rights era – affirmative action is increasingly framed as outdated, and as a mechanism of reverse discrimination – or towards a framing of social problems as the result of an indigenous culture of poverty that can be separated from the legacy of segregation and racial prejudice. Statistically, being older, conservative and white makes you significantly more likely to see racial discrimination in the criminal justice system as non-existent.

But let’s not kid ourselves: The idea of a post-racial society is not only factually misleading, but amounts to a collective denial of the realities of contemporary America and to a thinly veiled defense of the status quo. Everyday discrimination happens to a substantial minority of the American population, often in plain sight. It is not something that has to be “discovered”, but something that has to be consciously “unseen”. Ask any African-American, and they will probably have a story to tell about sour interactions with police officers, about being told by parents to never throw away shopping receipts (lest they be accused of stealing) and to never wear a hooded sweatshirt after dark (because police might stop-and-frisk them), about being mistaken for the valet attendant at an upscale restaurant, and about the justified anger they might harbor as a result of those experiences. (Claudia Rankine chronicles many of those quotidian manifestations of racial bias in her excellent poetry collection Citizen: An American Lyric.)

The fight for collective vigilance against systems of power and privilege

Indeed, what’s so outrageous about Ferguson is not the fact that a single police officer escaped indictment, but that being young and black still makes you 21 times more likely to be killed by an officer of the law. What’s so upsetting is not the rioting by angry crowds but the persistence of discrimination and disadvantage that becomes a fertile ground for anger. This is not to deny the progress that America has made since the days of Jim Crow. But to confuse reality with the lofty ideal of a post-racial society amounts to a of denial of the present that threatens the achievements of the past. The fight against racial prejudice is always a fight for collective vigilance, and against entrenched systems of power and privilege.

One of the tasks for White America today is to confront the Black experience and the “frustrations rooted in reality” (Obama) instead of falling prey to familiar tropes about young Black men (as Isabel Wilkerson recently wrote in The Guardian, “the ‘savage’ of history has become the ‘thug’ of 2014” in mainstream popular imagination). Such a confrontation requires navel-gazing over one’s own privilege, but it also requires an engagement with voices from the Black community. There’s still an unfortunate and pervasive tendency to sideline the voices of African-American writers and thinkers – many literature and sociology syllabi still throw together all Black writers in dedicated weeks on “race”, as if racial issues did not permeate most of American history and culture –, and to examine the experience of being Black from the vantage point of white privilege. That’s stupid. Many of the most compelling, insightful, and urgent accounts come to us from the pens and pulpits of people for whom discrimination was (and is) a fact of life. Here are eight pieces of writing worth reading – with the sad realization that the fears and frustrations of past decades still ring true today.

Zora Neale Hurston, 1928:

“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background. […] Among the thousand white persons, I am a dark rock surged upon, and overswept, but through it all, I remain myself. When covered by the waters, I am; and the ebb but reveals me again.”

Martin Luther King, 1963:

“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season’.”

Ralph Ellison, 1964:

“Prefabricated Negroes are sketched on sheets of paper and superimposed upon the Negro community; then when someone thrusts his head through the page and yells, “Watch out there, Jack, there’s people living under here,” they are shocked and indignant. […] One of the most insidious crimes occurring in this democracy is that of designating another, politically weaker, less socially acceptable people as the receptacle for one’s own self-disgust, for one’s own infantile rebellions, for one’s own fears of, and retreats from, reality.”

James Baldwin, 1966:

“[The police] are, moreover—even in a country which makes the very grave error of equating ignorance with simplicity—quite stunningly ignorant; and, since they know that they are hated, they are always afraid. One cannot possibly arrive at a more surefire formula for cruelty. This is why those pious calls to ‘respect the law,’ always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer.”

Martin Luther King, 1968:

“I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non­violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

Lawrence Otis Graham, 1992:

“I’m a 30-year-old corporate lawyer at a midtown Manhattan firm, and I make $105,000 a year. I’m a graduate of Princeton University (1983) and Harvard Law School (1988), and I’ve written eleven nonfiction books. Although these might seem like good credentials, they’re not the ones that brought me here. Quite frankly, I got into this country club the only way that a black man like me could—as a $7-an-hour busboy.”

Toni Morrison, 1993:

“Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek — it must be rejected, altered and exposed.”

Ta-nehisi Coates, 2014:

“Black home buyers—even after controlling for factors like creditworthiness—were still more likely than white home buyers to be steered toward subprime loans. Decades of racist housing policies by the American government, along with decades of racist housing practices by American businesses, had conspired to concentrate African Americans in the same neighborhoods. […] These neighborhoods were filled with people who had been cut off from mainstream financial institutions. When subprime lenders went looking for prey, they found black people waiting like ducks in a pen.”

Read more in this debate: Karthick Ram Manoharan, John A. Powell, Jesse Van Mouwerik.

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