“Why Didn’t I Learn that Before?”: Confronting Systemic Racism

I recently had the honor of being the invited speaker at the first meeting of the new Hunterdon County Anti-Racism Coalition. Hunterdon is a predominantly white county located in central NJ and is often referred to as one of the wealthiest counties in the country. I was asked to speak about the issue of colorblindness, so I decided to step back, look at the big picture, and frame my presentation around 3 central questions: What is race? Why was it invented? How is colorblindness a problem today?

To begin, much of the way I approached this workshop was based on my experience teaching “Race in American Literature and Popular Culture” (at Raritan Valley Community College in NJ), my research (especially in critical race theory), and on my participation in various conferences (Facing Race) and trainings (Undoing Racism). At the end of my fall course, many students identified the idea that race is not biological but rather a social construct as the most profound thing they learned that semester. Even though most scholars take this idea for granted and there is ample evidence to support it (see my “Recommended Resources”), we are still bombarded daily with messages indicating that race is innate. These messages come from a variety of systems (education, media, criminal justice, etc.) and spin into a vicious circle.

If we can recognize that race is not biological but rather a social construct, then we can have a conversation about why it was created. If we can understand this, we can create the tools to take apart this creation. While scholars don’t agree about every detail regarding why race was created, one important common understanding is that race was invented in the 1600s to divide and conquer laborers and maintain the status quo of white, wealthy landowners.

If race was invented more than three centuries ago, why is it still so powerful today, and what do we do about that power? Ever since I saw the PBS documentary Race: The Power of an Illusion, I’ve found this statement really powerful: “We made it; we can unmake it.” In other words, if humans had the power to create race, then humans have the power to un-create it. However, in order for this to happen, as the film later says, we must “first confront its enormity as a historical and social reality.” Furthermore, I would say race is still so powerful today precisely because we have not confronted this “enormity.”

That’s where I think we can see that colorblindness is not the solution. We can’t simultaneously be colorblind and also “confront” the “enormity” of race “as a historical and social reality.” I think well-intentioned, often white, people have been misled to believe that colorblindness is a path to justice when in fact colorblindness is a major obstacle to justice. While colorblindness has an appeal and was originally used in early civil rights work, it has been co-opted over the past several decades by those who do not see racial justice as the goal. Ian Haney López, legal scholar and author of Dog Whistle Politics, does an excellent job of providing this exact history. For example, see his Jan. 20, 2014 article “How conservatives hijacked ‘colorblindness’ and set civil rights back decades” in Salon.

Racism is not just about individual beliefs and perceptions; it operates through systems that perpetuate discrimination, systems like the media, the criminal justice system, education, politics, housing, banking, and more. Again, if we are to “unmake” race, we need to tackle systemic racism. So, what exactly would that look like? That’s where I’d like to turn to the Hunterdon meeting’s Q&A.

The questions and comments echoed those of my students: Why don’t more people know this? How come I wasn’t taught this? How can we make more people aware of this?

Those are extremely important questions, and interestingly, I think those are questions that are especially important for white people to think about. If whites learn about this history and focus just on feeling guilty, that’s not necessarily very helpful. However, if they channel that response into these kinds of questions, that can actually take us somewhere.

For example, if we really start to think about the creation of race and the history of the idea of race, we can see that there’s a lot of history we are not often taught. Once we recognize that, then it’s important to think about power. Who does it benefit when most people don’t know that race is a social construct and that race was invented? Doesn’t it still benefit the same elite class that invented it in the first place? I think we need to connect some dots here. Consider the following:

  • Students in K-12 education generally do not learn civics; they don’t learn much about how local government works and how it relates to state and federal government. They don’t learn about the range of elected political positions (like county government, for example). By the time teenagers turn 18, shouldn’t they be empowered to not only want to vote in order to have a voice and participate in democracy but also understand how the political system works so they can make an informed decision?
  • You might be familiar with Paulo Freire’s critique of the “banking model of education” (in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed) where students are treated like depositories of information. He instead advocates a “problem-posing” form of education where students are empowered to ask questions and think critically. This relates to the need to both empower students inside the classroom to learn what’s really going on and to help them develop the confidence to become empowered outside of the classroom.
  • It’s not just 18 year olds who hesitate to vote due to feeling disempowered. Adults of all ages question whether we actually have a democracy. That brings us back to power. Does the average citizen really have a voice in elected government given the current relationship between money and politics?
  • I’ve already talked about young people not learning the history they need to learn, but what about when people are out of school? If control of the media is so consolidated and there is very little opportunity for public control of the media, is it any surprise that adults often remain ignorant of the history I’ve been describing? If they remain ignorant of this history because they have limited access to alternative media, then they are vulnerable to the kind of divide and conquer messages and stereotypes that allowed race to be created in the first place.
  • Also, if people don’t have access to good local news media coverage, they are not well-informed about local politics, and that feeds the lack of attendance at local government meetings and persistent low voter turnout.
  • Even when people are more informed, they often don’t speak up when they witness an injustice either in local government, the media, or in another system; they feel powerless and don’t feel like they have a way to express that voice.

There are so many systems working to maintain the power structure, whether it’s the media, government, advertising, housing, education, or criminal justice. When people realize the systemic nature of racism, it can be overwhelming. A common response can be, “I’m just one person. What can I do?” If everyone became paralyzed with that attitude, then we can’t accomplish much, but I would like to think that, as they say, knowledge is power. If we’re going to move toward justice, then people must learn to see how these powerful systems operate. We also need to help people become empowered to take action based on the knowledge they’re gaining about systemic racism.

While the following examples will not solve everything, they are a step in the right direction, and they are tangible ways of helping people connect the dots between systems of power. When you see something offensive in the media, you have the power as a consumer to contact the FCC to file a complaint. (Thanks to an audience member at the Hunterdon meeting for recommending this.) If you think a particular TV show is reinforcing negative racial stereotypes, contact the Diversity Officer in charge of that media company. (This advice comes from the organization Color of Change.) Also, check out the research reports created by Race Forward that analyze the representation of race in the news media to learn what to look for. Support efforts to get money out of politics; consider these specific recommendations from Bill Moyers. Start attending local town council meetings to find out what’s going on. If your interests aren’t being represented, speak up during the public comment session. Attend Board of Education meetings.

In a nutshell: 1. Get educated 2. Keep getting educated 3. Share what you learn with others 4. Take action.

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