This paper will address one of the largest ills of society: racism, and how it has been a consistent force in American history since the inception of the country. Moreover, the paper will distinguish the differences between prejudice, racism and discrimination as an explanation as to why African Americans and other people of color cannot, actually, be racist. Racism is more than just a belief in superiority, but a systemic and institutional force that is ingrained in the fabric of the United States. Despite significant progress in the decades since the Civil Rights Movement, racism persists and continues to have the influence in changing the past, present and future of American history. The paper will also explore the myth of living in a post-racial society, one in which prejudice and racism are no longer a part of discourse. This myth is as pervasive as racism itself, a blatant attempt at revising the history of a country that prefers to pretend as if the systems that enabled racism never occurred.
Racism is and has been present in the United States since the colonial era. However, at several points in time throughout history, racism and its societal impact seemed to reach its peak. This time in particular was 1960s America, the era of the Civil Rights Movement. African Americans fought hard against systems that denied them basic human rights, despite the “separate but equal” law that accompanied Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which allowed segregation of public facilities (Godsil, & Richardson, 2017). During this time, America saw monumental changes for African Americans as they struggled for rights that had been denied to them. Although other life-changing events on behalf of civil rights’ activists occurred, as well as the election of an African American president, there is a myth perpetuated that today we are living in a post-racial society without prejudice, racism and discrimination. This is a dangerous myth that has allowed many people to ignore the serious ill in society that is racism and the institutional and systemic discrimination that persists to this day. The post-racial myth is just that: a myth that does not accurately reflect life after the Civil Rights Movement.
To understand how these conditions came to be, one must understand what racism is, as well as its relation to prejudice and discrimination. The basic definition of racism is the belief that race is the determinant of human inferiority and superiority, both of which dependent on traits and capacities inherent to a race that make one better or worse, more civilized or less civilized, etc., than another. Another explanation of the term is a doctrine or system that is inherently ‘racist;’ a system can also refer to a program or set of rules founded on racism. There have always been differences between prejudice, racism, and discrimination. Some have even gone as far to say that African Americans and people of color cannot be racist, and the reason lies in those differences. In order for an African American person to be racist, they must first have power through a system, such as the justice system. However, it is apparent that African Americans have not had the privilege of having any type of institutional or systemic control and power. This is the premise for African-Americans not having the ability to be racist—because they have no power.
Unfortunately, there has never been a time in American history where the advancement of African-Americans, or even the possibility of it, did not inherently mean the loss of a white person’s status or place in society. Through centuries of slavery, decades of Jim Crow, intentional disenfranchisement, and rampant violence, it has been shown that when whites are at risk of having their status as the dominant force of society threatened, they will do whatever it takes to ensure that it does not happen. Even as former president Barack Obama hoped to bring the country together through his historic presidency that was campaigned on hope and equality, it stands that race itself remains a point of difference in every person’s individual life experiences. There is no hope of a post-racial society, nor should there be; to expect this would be intellectually and morally dishonest, as well as naive. A post-racial society cannot come through racial or ethnic diversity and it is such because the nation should have to contend and reckon with the actions of centuries of people that allowed racism to set the tone for the rest of time to come for no reason other than racial anxiety and an inflated, undeserved sense of superiority. Nevertheless, according to Merton’s theory, unprejudiced non-discriminators conform to the concept of equal opportunity for everybody and are not prejudiced or discriminate against others. The hope for a post-racial society is an attempt at revisionist history, ignoring centuries of disenfranchisement and mistreatment of an entire people so that those who bear indirect responsibility feel better about the past. According to the social learning theory, people learn from others, hence, many will not want to do to others what they saw or learnt in the previous years, in order to correct the historical injustices.
- Godsil, R. D., & Richardson, L. S. (n.d.). Racial Anxiety. Iowa Law Review,102(5). Retrieved November 8, 2017.
- Rao, S. (2016, May 13). Watch W. Kamau Bell Explain Difference Between Racism and Prejudice to Stephen Colbert. Retrieved November 08, 2017, from http://www.colorlines.com/articles/watch-w-kamau-bell-explain-difference-between-racism-and-prejudice-stephen-colbert