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. 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.
In today’s current context, there are stark differences between racism, prejudice and discrimination. As mentioned, in order for a Black person to be racist, they must first have power over a system, which the second definition of racism refers to. Therefore, African Americans cannot be racist. What they can be, however, is prejudiced; as comedian and host of “United Shades of America” W. Kamau Bell explained, “racism implies power and institutions behind it.” Thus, not only people can be racist or prejudiced, but entire systems can be as well. If a Black person felt that they were inherently better than another person of color or a white person, then that would be prejudiced. If they denied a person of color or white person something because of their race, it would be discrimination.
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 disrcrimination, and rampant violence and even murder, 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. Restricting the civil rights of African Americans seemed as American as any other cultural element of the nation, in the North and especially in the South. De facto and de jure segregation in the North and the South were permitted by society, but not law technically, and by law, respectively. Racism pervaded in many ways: gentrification, redlining, segregation of the military, job discrimination, etc. The enactment of such laws was rationalized by a fear that white supremacy and the white race was being threatened and had African Americans had the opportunity to climb the social hierarchy and surpass white Americans and become equal, it would throw off the natural order of White superiority and dominance. Yet, African Americans persisted, challenging the limits of White privilege and the White consciousness, including but not limited to de facto and de jure laws in an effort to claim their civil rights. “All men created equal” was a statement that did not apply to the African American community and the racial disparities between them and all others, people of color or not, has not ended. Unfortunately, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade set the conditions for the conquest of nations, but set the stage for how African Americans would have to contend with prejudicial, discriminatory and racist institutions that are ingrained in the working of the United States.
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. 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. The post-racial America of which some speak is merely theoretical; it is not realistic. Racism is still just as real, pervasive and ugly as it was in the 1960s. To some, it can be considered even worse than then, when racism was outright and overt; today, racism can be subtle and mechanisms of a system that still insists on keeping like disproportionate. Racial profiling, the school-to-prison pipeline, zero-tolerance policies in schools, the War on Drugs and other social and governmental movements still push intolerance on an entire community. Institutional practices like those previously mentioned, from legalized discrimination and Black Codes that preceded Jim Crow, hindered the social, intellectual and economic progress of African Americans. African Americans did and unfortunately continue to weather the storm that is discrimination, prejudice and racism all into one on several scales.
Presently, we are in a quite divisive state, especially along racial and ethnic lines due in part to backlash from the presidential election campaign cycle, replete with division anti-black, anti-Muslim and anti-Hispanic rhetoric, using fear to play up the anxieties of those who do not want social order disrupted. While the media certainly plays a role in adding sensation to the matter, any true and authentic measure of race relations must take into account history, understanding that racially-charged and inflammatory events did not start with African Americans.
- 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