You’ve made your social media posts about George Floyd.
You may have even attended a rally or protest.
What will you do now?
Many won’t do anything. Time will go on, the protests and riots will stop, the momentum will fade. George Floyd will no longer dominate the headlines. White people will move on with their lives until the next hashtag comes along and the cycle will continue. Don’t let that be you.
Others are ready to solve racism now. Let me first say, I love this zeal. I am not mocking your ideals as I hear some do. I love this and want to fan this flame. But I also want to give a word of caution, and this is where this blog post comes in:
Don’t try to do surgery when you’ve never gone to med school.
The first step to “solving racism” is to become educated about what racism even is. I hope to provide some really basic concepts for that here. And we can’t “solve” racism, but we can work on dismantling it. You can be on the side of the dismantlers rather than the perpetuators. But I’m already getting ahead of myself. This is going to be a very basic first step to understanding racism.
Most white people would define racism as a negative or derogatory feeling an individual feels towards a person based on their skin color. A lot of this is semantics and is why it’s so hard to make progress or get on the same page, but let’s stop using “racism” as the word for this. Let’s call this “prejudice.” You might be prejudiced toward people with long hair, punk rock pink hair, heavy people, thin people, people who live in the country, people who live in the city, and Ohio State fans, to name a few examples. Or people with black skin or white skin. Prejudice is not good and we should be against it!
But prejudice is different from what I will refer to as systemic racism. It might be helpful to call prejudice individualized racism, differentiating it from systemic racism. It can be very frustrating to both sides if two people are using the word “racism” and one is using the definition of individualized and the other is using systemic.
It’s the difference between being nice to a slave and abolishing slavery. Both are good, but they are two very different things.
Individualized racism or prejudice is when a white person calls a black person the “N” word. It’s the KKK. It’s being mean to someone based on their color. Most people in white society would say they are not racist, based on this definition. When we see former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling with his knee on George Floyd’s neck, suffocating him to death, we say “He is racist! Racism is wrong!” In part we are right. But what we really mean is “That is individualized racism! That is prejudice at its worst! That is wrong!” It’s what allows us to call Derek Chauvin and cops like him “bad apples” and in doing so never have to talk about the larger issue of police brutality, which is a systemic issue. This blog article is not about police brutality. I know that’s a trigger word for some and I want you to hang in there with me. There are a lot of good police officers out there and I’m not villianizing them. I also have empathy for how hard and complex their job is. I’m just using police brutality & the individual example of Derek Chauvin as my first teaching illustration to help us understand the difference in definitions of how we use the word “racism.”
When you hear organizations or individuals calling out racism and lamenting the death of George Floyd, but not calling out police brutality, you are seeing individualized racism be spoken out against, but not systemic racism. So in this individualized mindset, the white person or organization thinks that black people are protesting and rioting for two reasons: George Floyd’s death and the racism of Derek Chauvin.
But they’re not.
As tragic as George Floyd’s death is and as heinous as Derek Chauvin’s racism is, these are not the primary reasons for the protest.
The protesting is about a national justice system that has a long track record of not applying judicial consequences when police officers kill unarmed black people. Historically this has given officers a sense of freedom to do what they want toward blacks, without fear of criminal consequences.
Do you see the difference?
An illustration that is removed from the George Floyd case will probably help. Watch this 6-minute video, which helps explain why most of the nice, affluent parts of town are filled with white people and why most of the poor, struggling parts of town are filled with black people:
I highly recommend watching the 29-minute version of the above video if you have time. It’s one of the best teachings on systemic racism in a condensed format that I have ever seen. I am not hyperbolizing, I think this video will change your life and how you see the world:
Do you remember what the white salesman told the black gentleman who was interested in buying a home? “It’s not me, ” the salesman said, “but the owners of this development have not decided to sell these homes to Negroes.” In other words, “Look my black friend, I’m not racist. I like you. I’d go out to lunch with you. I don’t have any mean feelings toward you. But this neighborhood development, and in fact the laws of the United States of America at the time, will not let me offer you this mortgage to purchase this home.”
That man was not individually racist or prejudiced, but he certainly was complicit within a racist system. Complicit in perpetuating it, as well as certainly benefiting from it.
Redlining is only one of many examples of systemic racism. Police brutality is another. But for now I just want to you to ask yourself if you’ve ever thought about racism as systemic. As something, like redlining laws, that is built into the fabric of our country that has created the inequalities (based on skin color) that we see in our country today.
The last piece to defining racism is that it must involve power. Congregations Organizing for Racial Reconciliation defines racism as:
Race Prejudice + the Misuse of Power = Racism
So in the redlining example from the video, white people were personally prejudiced toward black people, so they didn’t want to live near them. White people also had the societal power to actually do something about this. They misused their power to created a systemically racist and unjust housing system. Black people could have felt an equally strong amount of racial prejudice toward white people, but did not have the power to do anything detrimental to white people’s housing and economic situation. Blacks were in fact powerless to do anything about the housing situation and how it crippled them from amassing wealth equity.
Court systems that let police officers (or retired police officers) go free after killing an unarmed black person who was not posing a lethal threat are systemically racist because they have the power to decide what and when the law gets applied. They have the power to condition police officers that there won’t be repercussions or accountability to their actions when they kill a black person in this context. The police officer has power over the black person to be the judge, jury, and executioner, while the black person is powerless to do anything about it.
Power is what turns prejudice (individualized racism) into (systemic) racism.
In conclusion, when we only define racism as individualized racism, we make systemic racism worse. We allow racist systems to go on unchecked because we think we’ve done our duty by treating black people nicely and by calling Derek Chauvin a racist. We allow for more racism when we only focus on individualized racism.
What we have to do is stand up against and dismantle systemic racism, which is much harder because we (whites like myself) benefit from it every day and are complicit in its perpetuation in our society. How do we do this dismantling? We’re not quite ready to dive into that yet after Racism 101 🙂 — for now, take the passion you feel about George Floyd’s death and the injustices you are seeing and make the commitment to dive into the rabbit hole.
I am warning you now, like Morpheus before me, you can never go back once you enter. And also: the rabbit hole never ends. It only gets deeper and deeper and harder and harder and frankly, more and more frustrating.
But if this path is for you, start reading. Starting watching. Learn learn learn learn.
Don’t try to do surgery when you’ve never gone to med school.
Don’t be lazy and make your friends of color teach you. You can learn a lot of this stuff on your own and be a much more interesting conversation partner later for your friends of color! Listed below are a ton of resources for you to choose from. I have not read or watched them all.
Stay tuned for more Racism 101 articles coming soon. Click “Racial Reconciliation” below to subscribe.
Race: the Power of Illusion
When They See Us
Central Park 5
Eyes on the Prize (PBS)
1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness
Between the World and Me
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism
Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America
White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to be White
The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege
Divide By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America
Stamped from the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America
Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race
A Different Mirror
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
The Color of Compromise: the Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism
America’s Original Sin
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
How to be Antiracist
Rediscipling the White Church: From Cheap Diversity to True Solidarity
White Like Me
Short History of Reconstruction
Raising White Kids