I am fairly certain that the vast majority of people who read this will misunderstand me. Some will hate me for denying that there is racism in America (which I do not). Some will cheer me for blaming racial inequality on the victims (which I also do not). My wife will roll her eyes and shake her head as I go on about it. This is not a conversation about white guilt, black pride, or yellow fever. It is not about black people, yellow people, red people or white people. It is a conversation about people. This is particularly geared towards the left. …by geared toward I mean you folk on the left will likely trot out a boatload of academics and highly qualified powdered wigs to pontificate about how pitifully wrong I am, pat me on the head and suggest I run along and play. The folks on the right will cheer and huzzah until they realize that I am not in their camp either, then they will bring out their own academics and we can watch them all fight.
We have long heard, and for good reason, the tale of the institutional racism that is rampant in American society. People of color (I am transparent, apparently) are systematically steered towards certain neighborhoods, certain career paths, etc. I remember talking to a friend of mine that I worked with who had a bank deny him a house loan in a predominantly white neighborhood only to approve on one of the same appraised value in a predominately black neighborhood. Black parents that I know teach their children how to comport themselves when confronted by law enforcement for DWB, how to address white school administrators, the way to maintain the proper level of contrition during job interviews, the list goes on. Black mothers have to legitimately sit up and worry of a Saturday night when their sons are late getting home. Where my white mother was worried that I drove my car into a ditch, the mothers of my black friends were worried that their sons had been pulled over, reacted wrong and were bleeding out of gunshot wounds in a ditch. The white folks reading this are scoffing, the black folks are nodding their heads. Black folks, Asians, Hispanics, you all know the drill, know the feeling. Walk into a store and nobody looks at you but….everyone is looking at you, is aware of you. They range from polite and smotheringly distant to cold and aloof, but there is no question that you are there, even though eyes never meet.
There are the ones who won’t even acknowledge you exist. That slight flash of anger you feel at being subtly treated as if you are not even human, then you swallow it and move on, a tiny rage inside contained because you are afraid of what will happen if it shows. You know that justice has a color code and your tone falls on an uncomfortable end of the spectrum. …and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it. But it sits there. It builds. It ferments and distills in the back of your brain and eventually it is 190 proof lightning in a bottle and someone makes a comment that hits some long forgotten trigger and you fire back….and they sneer at that angry black man and under their breath you hear “typical…” You want to scream out the injustice but know that they will only sneer a little more and call you a cliche.
Then Michael Brown is dead in the street for stealing some cigars and some white cop is telling everyone that he brought it on himself and it just explodes. Most everybody knows that burning the whole city down won’t bring him back and it is making some nasty headlines and all that but it just blows up. The fire that has been smoldering from the stores and the comments and the feelings just flare and everyone knows it isn’t all right but fire doesn’t care about the fuel. Like all those holy rolling white folks that hate murder but they are a little less than mad when the abortion doctor gets his place tore up. It isn’t really about the details of Michael Brown anymore, it is the principle. It is the screaming voice inside that says “I AM A HUMAN BEING! YOU WILL RECOGNIZE ME! YOU WILL SEE ME!”
All of it created, produced and directed by the institutional and systematic racism that has been built into the system. It is hardwired and innate and touches everything around you. Now for the part where I make the rest of you mad. That institutional racism that is the genisis of so much angst, that has caused so much death and disillusionment…..
…is an illusion. It does not exist as an identifiable unit. It is a manufactured concept that is used primarily as way to insulate the unaffected from owning their complicity. It is the smoke for the mirrors.
Have you ever watched a flock of birds? Not a few dozen, I mean one of those flocks of thousands that are wheeling and turning and look like giant, dark amoeba in the sky. You would swear they all share the same mind, they are communicating through some telepathic bird link and are carefully choreographing the wheeling and waving. They are not. What you are seeing is the illusion of coherence. It is an optical illusion that is the emergent property of a bunch of individuals acting in a predictable and loosely programmed way. Any one bird could opt to fly a different route and, if enough birds opted to do so, the whole illusion would collapse. Institutional racism is just such an illusion. It exists as a phantasm of our limited perception. It is not group think at all, it is a bunch of individuals independently choosing to think the same thing. There was no grand conspiracy driving my friend to a certain neighborhood, there was an unethical jackoff at a bank. It was not a nebulous, cloud based consortium that regularly pulled one of my other friends over as he drove to work through a white, affluent neighborhood nor was it the mind altering influence of the collective that resulted in my eighteen year old butt getting pulled over at 2AM with a bowie knife on my front seat and getting off with waiting for a ride home and a polite dismissal from the courtroom. All of these things were the results of individual decisions by individual people.
Here is the thing. The left likes the idea of Institutional racism because it creates a psychological buffer. It allows one to feign deep and profound concern while projecting the blame on some concept that is relatively vague and far enough removed to absolve one of responsibility. That is really what it comes down to. Ownership. Really, it is easy for me to jump to institutional anything as a scapegoat. I can rail against a concept, get my vitriol out against it but never really implicate anyone. It is an institutional thing. Systematic. Oh me oh my, whatever can we do to face this narsty bugger! What an easy criticism to make! I can blame it on the boogyman in the ivory tower and never be in danger of pissing off the guy at the bank who flagged my buddies loan app. I can stand tall on my soap box but not upset that officer who said “HEY! There’s a BLACK guy in West County! Probably up to no good…” See, nobody will fuss at you for eviscerating a concept that it is popular to hate. Folks get a little uptight when you start asking them why they fired the guy who missed a day but just slapped the hand of the other guy who everyone knows isn’t worth a damn on any day that ends with “Y”. …and don’t think you are off the hook. What about if I ask why everybody got quiet and stopped the conversation when I walked my white ass into the crowd downtown and was a little out of place. What if I ask you, personally, why I was asked what I was doing here, here on a public street in the USA?
We all have our demons, do we not, and they are not institutional. They belong to us. The hard questions are not for the ether, floating silently above and housing the ethereal monsters we blame our lives on. The hard questions are for us. They are for me. Why do I feel this way? Why do I act this way? Am I really ok with the (fill in your own ethnicity) race being more important than the human race? I have been marginalized, I have been looked at with scorn. Is it really ok for me to hate someone else for feeling the same way it made me feel? Is it ok for you to hate me because I may not understand you, and vice versa?
We will never address racism by denying it exists. We are fools if we think we will do any better by acknowledging it but relegating it to some lofty and ill defined conceptual Neverland. Racism is not what society does, it is what I do. Bigotry, bias, prejudice, these are not collective actions, they are individual choices. We will move the needle when each and every one of us owns our part and starts to take positive steps to change it. Not just the white folks, not just the black folks, all the folks. It may only start with one bird, but soon it will be two, then four, then ten, then fifty. Before we know it, what we thought was a juggernaut that could not be changed becomes us all moving towards where we need to be.
“Be the change you want to see in the world” – Mahatma Ghandi