As protests continue in Ferguson, New York, and many other places across the country over the recent controversial police killings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner, it is clear that we have a problem. In addition to the issue of excessive police force, these stories have sparked widespread debates on a multitude of race issues. There has been strong push back from a lot of defensive bros (and anyone who watches Fox News) who view the protests as an overreaction to an issue that was resolved decades ago: racism. We have reached a point where most people understand and accept that racism is bad. The problem is, we still haven’t reached the point where most people understand the nuances of what racism actually is. And in order to reach that point, we must first be able to break down the defense mechanisms that prevent so many of us from recognizing the presence of racism in our daily lives.
Growing up white in America, I never had to worry about things like being racially profiled by police or dealing with racism in general. As a young kid I mainly thought of racism as a shameful part of American history that had essentially been eradicated by the civil rights movement. In school we were taught about how Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech and Rosa Parks’ single act of civil disobedience paved the way for the civil rights act and the desegregation of black and white America. It all seemed very clean cut and uncontroversial, which allowed us to put these struggles for justice in our rear view mirror and say “mission accomplished.”
This was a very comforting thought to have: to think that we now lived in an America that no longer had the burden of dealing with centuries of systematic oppression based on race. It was easy to feel great about how much we had evolved since those assholes in the not so distant past who refused to let black people go to the same schools, have the same jobs, or live in the same neighborhoods as the rest of us. This all served to validate the rosy American narrative that we had successfully purged ourselves of racism.
Needless to say, this naive image of a modern day, post-racial society quickly began to break down as I got older. As much as I wanted this to be true, it didn’t take me long to realize that we were still a long way from achieving racial equity. Sure, slavery was over and Jim Crow Laws were no longer legally permitted, but the residual effects from centuries of slavery and segregation were not going away over night. I mean how could they? When our country was founded less than two and a half centuries ago, black people were considered property, not human beings. They were not entitled to any of the unalienable rights described in our constitution, and the phrase “all men are created equal” just added insult to injury. To be specific, they were counted as three-fifths of a person. And even after this ridiculous legal discrepancy was changed, they were still treated as sub human in most parts of the country, especially the south. Many (but thankfully not all) white folks have pushed back against every step of black progress by rallying against “big government” forcing them to free their slaves, integrate their schools, and get rid of Jim Crow Laws. But even though we have gotten to the point where it is no longer socially acceptable to be overtly racist, many of the same racial prejudices remain deeply ingrained. Racism did not go extinct, it evolved.
We have replaced the blatantly obvious prejudiced policies with more sophisticated, less obvious methods of discrimination. Instead of using poll taxes and literacy tests to prevent black people from voting, some states have enacted restrictive voter ID laws that serve the same purpose. In the 1980s we created the “War On Drugs,” which led to strikingly disproportionate incarceration rates for people of color, even though they are no more likely to use or sell drugs than white people. One reason is because the sentencing for crack possession is 18 times more severe than the sentencing for powder cocaine, which is more commonly used by wealthy white folks. And prior to recent federal reform laws, the sentencing for crack was 100 times that of powder cocaine. This means that you could be caught with 100 grams of powder cocaine and earn the same criminal sentence as the getting caught with 1 gram of crack cocaine, even though it’s made from the same drug. It would be like making the criminal sentence for smoke able marijuana 100 times as severe as edible marijuana. And speaking of marijuana, even though blacks and whites use it at virtually the same rate, blacks are arrested at three to four times the rate as whites for the same crime. To be perfectly clear, this is not a comprehensive list of racial discrepancies, just the tip of the iceberg.
A basic bro might respond defensively to these discrepancies by saying something like “no one is forcing black people to do drugs; if they don’t want to go to jail they should stop doing them.” Good one bro, you have completely missed the point. I bet most of you have least tried at least one of these drugs and never had to worry about the possibility of going to jail for it. That’s called privilege. The privilege of being able to do something illegal while having a significantly lower chance of being caught and punished for it than another group of people doing the same thing. Until you recognize this basic privilege, you cannot possibly understand the legitimate grievances of the black community that have built up to the recent explosions of protests across the country.
But okay bro, if you are still unable to empathize with the ongoing struggle for justice & equality in black America, hopefully you can at least understand this sports analogy: Imagine running a marathon where you are forced to wear a 50 pound weight vest and 10 pound ankle weights. After several miles you are allowed to remove the weight vest, but are still hindered by the ankle weights. After a few more miles you are finally allowed to remove the ankle weights as well. At this point you are told that you no longer have an excuse for how far you have fallen behind; you need to forget about the fact that you started out at such a huge disadvantage. And if you fail to catch up to the front runner, it’s not because of all the extra weight they forced you to carry from the start line, it’s because you’re lazy and don’t believe in yourself. After all, those weights were taken off two miles ago, why can’t you just get over it?
To be perfectly clear bro, the runner represents the entire black community overall, not one individual black person. It is entirely possible for an individual black person who grew up poor and disadvantaged to become rich, successful, and shit, maybe even the President of the United States. But it is harder. It is harder to get a good education and go to college when you go to an underfunded school in a poor black neighborhood. It is harder to get a job, let alone a good job, when employers are 50% less likely to call you back if you have a black sounding name rather than a white sounding name, even if you have a better resume.
Whether these prejudices are intentional or completely subconscious, the only way we will ever be able to address them is by acknowledging that they exist. Because seriously bro, time alone is not going to fix something this deeply rooted and fucked up.