Obviously, a lot of the talk in the news over the past week or so has centered around the Confederate Battle Flag, and whether it should be flown from State Houses, sold in stores and generally held up as a worthy symbol. Equally obviously, a lot of the discussion, as it always is, has been side-taking, extreme views, and fairly thoughtless faux-debate.
This morning, Charles Blow has a wonderful op-ed in the New York Times. It's clearly partisan, but it's thoughtful and measured (which I think is almost always true of Blow). And, in a relatively short space, he really addresses two related but different issues.
First, the question of the flag itself. For a few days, there was a lot of (digital-)ink being spilled on the need to take down the flag (as well as on defenses of the flag). Then, the conversation seemed to turn to whether all of this focus on the flag was really just an attempt to hide from the larger, more difficult questions about race in our society:
And yet, there is a part of me that still believes we are focusing on the 10 percent of the iceberg above the water and not the 90 percent below.
When do we move from our consensus over taking down symbols to the much harder and more important work of taking down structures?
I worry much less about individual expressions of racism than I do about institutional expressions of racism. And we live in an age where people are earnestly trying to convince us that institutional racism doesn’t exist.Do we focus on the flag so that we can win (or lose) a battle and then walk away feeling righteous (or righteously indignant), but then never have to have the very troubling, nuanced, frustrating but oh so important discussion about what race really means in 21st Century America, about what racism still exists in our society, and about how it is allowed to persist and, in some places, flourish, and so on? Is the flag-debate a part of a larger discussion, or a distraction from it?
It seems pretty clear to me that the only way to answer that is to see what happens next. I think that arguing over symbols can be a very important, worthy effort, if the argument doesn't begin and end with symbols. To use his metaphor, there's nothing wrong with focussing on the visible 10% of the iceberg; it's only a danger if we do then ignore the hidden 90%. I'm not overly optimistic about this (mostly because it's rare that any of these large, systemic discussions happen on a large scale; they're just too hard to pull off and stay focussed on), but I do believe that there's a real chance that we've got an opportunity to talk seriously about race in this country. Time will tell.
But, he then points out that this question leads inherently to an even more difficult discussion--the discussion about whether we even have a conversation that needs to happen. Whether there really is systemic racism in our country. Because, there are many who claim that we are living in an essentially post-racial society. Yes, there are racists. But, they are individuals--society itself is no longer racist, so there's nothing to fix on a societal level:
On Fox News’s “Hannity,” after the contributor Deneen Borelli said of the president, “I have dubbed him today Rapper in Chief,” the guest host David Webb posed the question to another guest: “Is America institutionally racist, that’s racism which requires codified law, a social acceptance, societal acceptance — and we know that racists, racists will always exist. Bias, prejudice in some form, black, white, in any form will always exist. Is America institutionally racist or are there racists in America?”
As if the two are necessarily mutually exclusive.
Webb later answered his own question: “I say we’re not.”This is the part of the conversation which I find mend-bendingly frustrating, and I know I'm not alone in this. Of course enormous progress has been made in race equality over the years. Of course most (all?) of the laws which explicitly favor whites over non-whites are off the books (we do not live in the Jim Crow era anymore, thank God). But, I find it hard to believe that anyone can look out into our world and see one where people of color are treated the same as white people. We see daily depictions of black people being treated by police differently from whites. We have studies which show that people of color get harsher penalties for identical crimes committed by whites. We hear testimony after testimony of parents from one community who have to have the "how not to get shot if you get stopped by the police" conversation, while most members of my community would never even think to have to have that conversation. Sometimes, it's so subtle that it's hard to see, such as research which shows that resumes with "black sounding" names get less response than identical "white resumes."
Racism is still real, and it's still pervasive, and it's still systemic. I can't believe that's a controversial statement.
Having made substantial progress is not the same as having solved the problem. Having an African-American President is a wonderful sign of an improving world; it simply does not mean that racism is dead, or even that systemic, societal racism is. Racism, even systemic racism, doesn't only exist in official laws and policies. It can, and does, continue to exist in much more subtle, but no less pernicious, ways:
But institutional racism will not be limited in that way. Institutional racism is often like a pathogen in the blood: You can’t see it; you have to test for it. But you can see its destructive effects as it sickens the host.
Furthermore, institutional racism doesn’t require the enlisting of individual racists. The machine does the discriminating. It provides a remove, a space, between the unpleasantness of racial discrimination — and indeed hatred — and the ultimate, undeniable and, for some, desirable outcome of structural oppression.
I prefer the Aspen Institute’s definition: “Institutional racism refers to the policies and practices within and across institutions that, intentionally or not, produce outcomes that chronically favor, or put a racial group at a disadvantage.”I doubt that I'll live long enough to see a world which is free of racism. But, I know that if we pretend we already live in one, then we never will.