I’ve been thinking about my colleague Adam Johnson’s column “Everyone can be racist” since I read it in February, but until this week I had been at a loss of words on how to respond to it.
On Saturday, an article popped up on my Facebook newsfeed from a blog that a friend of mine runs called Black Girl Dangerous that offered the most coherent critique I have yet found.
“How To Be A ‘Reverse-Racist’: An Actual Step by Step List For Oppressing White People” is a satirical piece that outlines the list of structural and systemic injustices that are impossible for people of color to wage against white people – or even each other – in a Western context. Enslavement, land theft, erasure of history, and perpetuating negative stereotypes in the media are just some of these items.
The point of the piece is to critique anyone who claims we live in a post-racial society; namely that the historical traumas systems of white supremacy have brought against people of color persist to the present day.
The main opposition I have to Adam’s piece is this: sure, any individual has the potential to be racist against somebody else, but on a systemic and structural level, racism in the United States only exists against non-white people. And since Adam largely cites structures (the White House, the Supreme Court, the business apparatus of the United States), it remains surprising to me that he uses individuals to extrapolate to statements about the structures they represent or the systems in which they participate.
In other words, to offer an intervention to Adam’s piece, I concede: yes, the phrase “only white people can be racist” is false. People of color can be racist against themselves, members of their own race, or against others. But the fact that remains is that systems and institutions are not, and cannot be, racist against white people in the United States.
Having a black person in the Oval Office or two minority individuals on the Supreme Court does not mean that the black community (as a group) has any power in the United States, or that the Supreme Court is suddenly supportive of minority interests. It just means that two individuals now have to work within the constraints of an institution that has otherwise served to legitimate white power (and occasionally make the tiniest of concessions when maintaining this power becomes unfeasible.)
Brown v. Board of Education is what I consider here, righting as it did the outrageously wrong ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson nearly 60 years after the Court allowed Jim Crow to take over the country. “With all deliberate speed” did very little to integrate schools – as we saw three years later with the Little Rock Nine. And today, we accept the de facto segregation of our schools (and general underdevelopment of resources based on race and class) since it’s not codified into law.
I’m operating from a “liberation versus rights” perspective, wherein things like gay marriage, for example, do nothing to address the underlying issues of homophobia, violence and lack of resources that queer people (especially women, transpeople, people of color, the disabled and the structurally poor) face. Civil rights were not and are not enough.
Studying in Cape Town helped me see ever more clearly that, while you can give people “rights” by ending apartheid or Jim Crow, the underlying structures of labor exploitation, the underdevelopment of community resources, and the internalized ideology of white superiority all remain. A survey whose results were published in the University of Cape Town newspaper last week, in which respondents cited whites as the most attractive race and blacks as the least (in a country where blacks are 80 percent of the population and whites only 10 percent) is a very extreme example of this last point.
So while I agree with Adam’s diagnoses – that people of color can be racist towards others (though usually more towards other minorities than towards white people), and that iterations of feminism can alienate men when the ultimate goal of the movement is gender liberation for everyone – the prescription that I and my closest friends work with is “So…we need a revolution!”
I present this column as a call to hear my colleague’s thoughts are on structural racism vis -a-vis his February column. Readers can see more of my thoughts on structural racism here.
Kristian welcomes your thoughts on racism, structure, and this column at [email protected].