Friday, March 8, 2013

Thoughts on "good people" and racism

Earlier this week Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a piece on Forest Whitaker being frisked at a deli. As a progressive white person I'd like to think this kind of thing doesn't happen anymore, and in New York?But it does, and that in this day and age that a person's humanity can be so denied is so depressing. Part of Coates larger point was the idea of institutional racism versus individual racism. Individual racism is between people, and any person can not like anybody else for any reason, color of skin or otherwise. Because people tend to see society as simply a blown-up model of their own individual reality there is a tendency for "good" people to assume that since they and the people they know are not racist, neither is society. Isolated incidents are just that, isolated incidents. But in this country that is simply not the case as Coates points out in a blog post :
"If Forrest Whitaker sticks out in that deli for reasons of individual mortal sin, we can castigate the guy who frisked him and move on. But if he-and other like him-stick out for reasons of policy, for decisions that we, as a state, have made, then we have a problem. Then we have to do something beyond being nice to each other."
I grew up in the era of the Rodney King beating, of the OJ trial, of Spike Lee. I remember after the King incident several news shows attempting to replicate the essence of the incident--that is a black man being stopped by the cops where a white man would not--and succeeding. It was not a shock to me but it was not knowledge I had before. I did not follow the OJ trial very closely, I saw it early on as more of a class issue. OJ was black but he also had money and people with money get off all the time. I felt sadness for his victims but I did not begrudge the many African-Americans who celebrated the fact that for once the black man got off, which is not the norm in a country where the vast majority of victims on death row are black not white. "Do the Right Thing" was controversial when it came out, Spike Lee was considered something of a radical for putting on the screen what was well known to be reality, at least among some people. I remember hearing a commentator stating that Spike Lee said in an interview that "blacks couldn't be racist." I knew when I heard that there was more to the story, and when I went to the Newsweek article there was, what he was referring to was institutional racism. What he actually said was that blacks could not participate in institutional racism since they did not have institutional power. It made sense to me then, it makes sense to me now, but what did not necessarily occur to me was the idea that racism is a creation and "If we accept that racism is a creation, then we must accept that it can be destroyed . . ." (from Coates blog).
What would destruction look like? Well it would be attempting to dismantle the structures that keep people of color from full equality, specifically economic equality. It would mean specifically in Chicago (and Philadelphia for that matter) to keep all public schools open, recognizing they are an important part of the community. It would be putting resources in those areas of the city, the south and west side, that have never seen it. Finally, there would be a real attempt, at a multitude of levels, to address the prison industrial complex that targets people of color. If we are really good people, shouldn't we be doing this?

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