On Racism, Part 2

Opinion by Adam Johnson
May 16, 2013, 12:48 a.m.

In February I wrote “Everyone can be racist,” a column that took aim at the somewhat-popular saying in today’s activist communities that “only white people can be racist.” I granted the definition of racism as equating to power plus privilege, but given this starting point I argued that people of color are also capable of being racist.

My piece generated a fair amount of criticism on campus, and while much of the negative criticism was unhelpful in challenging my perspective – a handful of comments on The Daily website went no further then noting that my piece was “problematic” – others engaged with my piece through comments or email; my colleague Kristian Davis Bailey ‘14 even wrote a column in response in which he encouraged me to continue the dialogue. Today’s column is my attempt to do so.

I will start by saying I stand by my original assertion – that all groups can be racist under the definition of racism as prejudice plus power. In his column, Kristian agreed with that claim, conceding that “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.” Examples abound. Take Malaysia, for instance, whose Constitution entrusts power to the King to “safeguard the special position of the Malays” over other Malaysian citizens, notably those of Chinese and Indian origin.

In America, too, there are inter-minority relations that can qualify as racist. One commenter on my original piece likened race relations in America to that of a hierarchy. I am of the opinion that a group’s position in this hierarchy is largely dependent on context; perhaps whites are inevitably on top, but I’m not convinced that any one racial group is always at the “bottom.” In Chicago, for example, African Americans hold a significant amount of political leverage compared to Hispanics, whereas in a city like Miami the opposite is the case. And there are other forms of power – religious and economic, notably – that must be included in the equation. So even if race relations can be broken down into a hierarchy, I still believe that all groups can be racist, albeit perhaps at different moments and in different ways. If Kristian agrees with me here, as his quote above would seem to indicate, perhaps he should have found a better title for his piece than “Everyone cannot be racist.”

That aside, I think Kristian’s most thought-provoking point is his argument that “systems and institutions are not, and cannot be, racist against white people in the United States.” My original piece never provided an answer to this question; my argument was that everyone can be racist, not that everyone can be victims of racism. Here, then, I think there is a discussion to be had. Perhaps one counterexample to Kristian’s claim is K-12 education. It stands to reason that Asians, often labeled as the “model race,” are advantaged in the education system compared to white students if only as a result of what one UC Berkeley sociologist labels as “stereotype promise,” or the “promise of being viewed through the lens of a positive stereotype that leads one to perform in such a way that confirms the positive stereotype.” This “stereotype promise” is likely perpetuated by white teachers, but as Kristian and others note, it is not uncommon for a race to be racist against itself.

I think there are two more points worth mentioning. First, Kristian claimed that I conflated racism on an individual versus structural level. If I did confuse the two, though, that likely stems from the fact that those to whom I was originally responding – the people who argued that “only whites can be racist” – all too often failed to distinguish individuals operating in a system versus the system itself; in other words, critiques were not isolated to institutions and their origins but instead included denigrations of white individuals. I have no control over my skin color, yet people who look like me are blamed for creating institutions they did not construct, blamed for not recognizing privilege that they are supposed to be oblivious to, blamed for being especially prejudiced when members of all races possess bigoted thoughts, and blamed for consequences that arise as a simple result of America being a majority white (non-Hispanic) country.

While these highly critical attitudes in all likelihood stem from righteous indignation, they are not altogether productive. First, they are not necessary; if the injustice is salient enough, there should be little need to cast blame on individual people. Second, as I mentioned in my previous piece, these attitudes are divisive and disempowering for minorities. And third, solely directing contempt and notions of culpability at whites assumes that racism is an issue where whites are fully autonomous actors who are also the sole beneficiaries of racism, both of which are inaccurate assumptions.

More productive and more accurate, in my opinion, would be to approach race from the perspective that a tendency towards racism is a universal feature of the human condition, engrained through thousands of years of evolutionary pressure wherein we have been advantaged by favoring those who look like us, and cemented in institutions still in operation today. The answer, then, is not to target any one group – or members within that group – but to be critical of institutions that privilege one group over others and widespread prejudices that serve to further, not ameliorate, racial tensions.

What are your thoughts? Email Adam at [email protected].

Adam is a senior from Illinois. He is majoring in Biomechanical Engineering, although his intellectual interests span dozens of departments. This is his second year writing for the Daily (you may remember him from his work last year on the Editorial Board). Outside of writing, Adam enjoys acting, skiing, making music, and thrift-store shopping.

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