American Racism

American racism is getting more coverage on the mainstream news than it has since the Civil Rights era.   And, that’s not surprising given antics like this image included in a mailing from the Chaffey Community Republican Women, a regional arm of the GOP in California (more on the story and image source here).  For her part, the group’s president, Diane Fedele, draws on the rhetoric of “race-blindness” to defend her actions.  She reportedly said that she received the illustration in a number of chain e-mails and decided to reprint it for her members in the group’s newsletter because she was offended that Obama would draw attention to his own race. She said she doesn’t think in racist terms, pointing out she once supported Republican Alan Keyes, an African-American who previously ran for president. She continues this “race-blind” rhetorical strategy when she says:

“I didn’t see it the way that it’s being taken. I never connected,” she said. “It was just food to me. It didn’t mean anything else.”

Now, the somewhat encouraging news is that lots of people are pointing out this overt racism and calling it what it is, including those on rather mainstream (albeit left-leaning) blogs and cable news networks.

However, the way stories like the one about the circulation of this image of “Obama bucks” are overly focused on individual racism, rooted in psychological explanations.  For example, Fedele made the top of Olbermann’s “Worst Person” list on his nightly broadcast, as have others in this political season who’ve been guilty of engaging in the most overt racist tactics.  And, in a perfectly fine piece at the Huffington Post, Peter Wolson has a thorough discussion of the psychology of “othering.”   I don’t disagree with either of these. Indeed, I welcome more discussion of American racism in as many venues as possible.  The problem with these is that the focus on the individual and psychological aspects of racism within a larger political discourse of “race-blindness” elides the way in which racism is systemic, built in, institutionalized, and structural.

The focus on the individual expressions of overt racism and the psychological roots of such expressions also forestall any sort of discussions about responses to racism by society as a whole. To illustrate this, note the contrasting response to individual racism in Denmark recently.  A 33-year-old woman was convicted under Danish laws against racism after posting racist remarks on her personal web page (she was given a fine).   Unfortunately, in the U.S. we seem reluctant to adopt such a societal-level response to overt expressions of racism, even in this political season and even when many, many people see such expressions as wrong and immoral.   Instead, there is a knee-jerk, libertarian response to any call for accountability under the law for such expressions in the United States.  In point of fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has made a number of decisions that restrict certain types of racist speech that don’t make a contribution to the public sphere.    Yet, prominent figures such as Rush Limbaugh, get away with what amounts to enciting racist hatred with their speech, such as this recent tirade against black children allegedly “raised as militants.”

Identifying individuals who engage in overt racism is important, and understanding the psychology of such expressions is valuable, but coming to terms with American racism takes much more than that.  And, dealing with it will require a broad-based political will and systemic social change.   We’re not there yet.


  1. Samantha Jones

    I never thought of a fine for racist speech – that might actually work, but again is a individualist approach. And with evolutions of language, it would be hard to define. I do think it interesting that most people on the Republican campaign refuse to acknowledge the racist ideas and language that are out there, and say that they don’t think that race is a part of the campaign. I think that if McCain wants Obama to say that John Lewis was out of line, he also needs to come out with it and state that he does not want the support of racist people and groups, and that if you are choosing him simply because Obama is black, he doesn’t want the vote. And while John Lewis may have exaggerated, I am afraid of what the “fringe” people at McCain rallys are saying and what actions they may take.

  2. Jessie Author

    Hi Samantha ~ great to see you here! Fines and other legal penalties for overt racism is a common strategy in Europe, Australia and many other nations. The U.S. really stands alone among other nations in our reluctance to consider such remedies, despite our claims that we object to such speech. I actually don’t think it’s *that* difficult to define. I think what it requires is an acknowledgment that racist hatred exists and an agreement that inciting racist hatred is wrong. But, like I said, we’re not there – as a nation, regardless of political party.

  3. adia

    I had a big problem w/ Wolson’s article at huffington post. I think it’s grounded in this assumption that racism is “natural” because we’re all taught to hate the other, and that we all implicitly assume that our race, nation, religion, etc. is superior. This seems to me to be rather obviously written from the perspective of someone in the dominant group. Many black Americans grow up well aware that not only does most of society *not* consider our race superior, but that often members of our own racial group even internalize these same messages. (For a heartbreaking example of this, look at Kiki Turner’s film “A Girl Like Me,” where she revisits the Clark doll tests in a modern setting. She finds that when asked to compare, most young black kids still believe that the white doll is nicer, smarter, prettier, and better than the black doll.) Wolson’s argument is one of those that tries to make the case that racism is natural and inherent in all minds (look at the part where he tries to make the case that it can go in either direction–from whites to blacks or vice versa), but this ignores the fact that blacks and whites don’t begin on or maintain equal footing in this society. Part of whites’ advantage–and the way racism is reproduced–is that THEY definitely learn racial messages about their inherent superiority that are reinforced in virtually all social settings. People of color unequivocally DO NOT have this experience. If you’re in a subordinate position, you don’t get the message or the general reinforcement that your race is superior…just the opposite. I think downplaying this fact really weakens his analysis and actually contributes to some of what you’re discussing here, particularly the unwillingness to discuss racism as a systemic phenomenon.

  4. It’s all well and good to clamor vaguely for systemic-level instead of individual-level change. But then, maybe it’s not all well and good, since so often such clamoring is, well, vague. So I like that you propose at least one concrete possibility for systemic-level action here, fines for hate speech.

    I do think words like those of the incredibly vile Rush Limbaugh amount to incitement, but then, cause-and-effect of a direct enough nature is tough to prove. Also, it’s hard to imagine the idea of such a fine getting much traction in the U.S., with its love of “free speech” and the widespread disdain, largely driven by the ingrained iconicity of “free speech,” for “political correctness.” So, as they say, good luck with that.

    I have my own disdain for one part of this post, which it’s repetition of a fairly common point made in antiracism discussions. This is a point built on the dubious foundation of a false binary between individual and systemic/institutional racism, and the point being repeated here is that a focus on the former is a waste of time because the latter is so much more important. However, institutions are made up of individuals–so for me, that means that working to change individual hearts and minds and subtle psychological associations is an effective mode of antiracist work at systemic/institution levels, because retooling the functional innards of the operative actors in the various institutional and systemic engines and machines fosters more equitable policies and practices.

  5. Jessie Author

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment, macon d. I think you’re probably correct about such fines not getting much traction in the U.S., but my rather more modest goal is to shift the debate so that at least that’s an option that people are thoughtfully considering. And, that’s actually connected to the larger point that you’re taking issue with in this post – about the individual vs. the institution, and which of these is the more appropriate, and effective, target for antiracist action. I think this is clearly a case where “both/and” is the correct response. Of course, it’s important to change hearts and minds and individual behavior. One of the more effective ways to do that is through informal sanctions, like shaming people for their bad behavior. My point is that this sort of strategy alone is not only enough, it’s misleading about where the real problem lies. If, as Wolson and Olbermann and just about everyone else talking about racism in the U.S., understand and frame the issue of racism as primarily, perhaps even exclusively, as a form of individual psychology, then all other discussions about racism as a structural issue which requires institutional redress are completely shut down. So, yes, we need both the individual approach and the institutional approach – not one or the other.

  6. Nquest

    Yeah, Macon, but it’s hard to “change individual hearts and minds and subtle psychological associations” when you, yourself, espouse them.

    Racism is systematic in nature right down to the prevailing historical narrative. Wanna change hearts and minds on a systematic level? Seriously reconsider and revamp American history and the whole educational pedagogy with rooting out racism as the aim.

    Want to address racism in so far as our government is concerned? Have a Constitutional Convention. Redo the American social contract.

    The country has been playing this change individuals hearts and minds game for a while now yet one thing is undeniable:

    The greatest change in hearts and minds came only after movements for social change caused them.

    The changes in the views people had and expressed openly with little or no social punishment or ostracism a little over a half-century ago didn’t come individual by individual. The movement at that time confronted the whole nation, not just mere individuals one at a time. The whole nation was confronted and had to come to terms with a change that was not going to wait for each little individual White person to get their head/hearts right:

    “None of the civil rights acts of the 1960’s were supported by the majority of whites. Neither was desegregation via the Brown v Board decision. And needless to say, neither was abolition of slavery. But interestingly, after laws were changed, more and more people (though admittedly not enough) came to accede to the new norm, and actually reduced their opposition to such laws and changes. Keep in mind, most people are conformist. They assume the laws are legitimate, and the state is legitimate. As a result, when activists force changes, over time (sometimes a very short time), most people come to at least passively accept those changes, and many even come to support them outright.” — Tim Wise

    But answer me this: How much more time do we have before we call this idea of changing hearts and minds, one person at a time, what it appears Dr. King did (“Justice too long delayed is justice denied”)?

    What does it sound like after hundreds of years the victims of racism have endured for those who say they are concerned about racism and working towards working against it to promote the idea you do that essentially tells them(us) that we will endure it because you (the collective you) still need more time? Some indefinite, With All Deliberate Speed (as in very slow) amount of time which, again, is complicated, slowed by your own issues with your heart, mind and psychological associations.

  7. Thank you for the clarification, Jessie. “Both/and” does indeed seem the best response.

    So it seems that we’ve reached a point of agreement! And can thus sally forth that much more smoothly into our respective weekends. I hope yours is a good one.

  8. Nquest


    I meant to indicate how Macon “espouses” or, rather, says things that indicate his own race issues and “changing” people’s mind to be like his is problematic in itself. Indeed, the kind of “individual by individual” mindset, IMO, works to maintain the status quo for as long as possible.

    Ironically, the “individual by individual” idea is the very thing so many conservative espouse. It’s like there are some folks who’d prefer White Supremacy die of “natural” causes… That’s what’s communicated when, after centuries of racism in this country, the sense of urgency regarding ending it (eradicating its impact on POC who, otherwise, don’t give a damn what dwells in the minds of individual whites) places the expiration date several more centuries ahead of us as some of our White “antiracist” brothers and sisters insist on addressing racism one person at a time.

  9. jwbe

    Under German law there is restriction of certain kinds of hate speech, punishment is from fines to prison.
    Racist speech is not just inciting racial hate but is also a threat to democracy. Racism isn’t an opinion but a crime and should be treated as such.

  10. jwbe

    However, institutions are made up of individuals–so for me, that means that working to change individual hearts and minds and subtle psychological associations is an effective mode of antiracist work at systemic/institution levels, because retooling the functional innards of the operative actors in the various institutional and systemic engines and machines fosters more equitable policies and practices.

    Combatting racism is not about integration of PoC into a system of white supremacy, and this would your approach of changing hearts and minds mean. Combatting racism means combatting white supremacy and the very essence of it, Eurocentrism.

  11. Ashley


    It is so refreshing to see another individual outraged about the overt and covert racism in this campaign and in this country. The worst part about this whole, “I’m not a racist” movement in White America, is that the racists really believe they aren’t racists. They rationalize their racism and biases. They ignore their double standards, and magnify anything anyone does to help the black community. One of the women commented that she thought Obama was against White America! What?! Because he’s black? Oppressors are angry, and they cannot stand to lose an iota of power, even if they are still essentially in power. I will say this: I think there is one thing that the black community could learn from right-wing conservatives. Be angry!! We can be angry at injustice. I am reminded of a Harriet Tubman quote: “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” Black people have got to get angry, so that we can be motivated to change our communities for the better.

  12. Ashley

    One more thing. I am not sure about criminalizing racist remarks. Who will get fined? Those who make comments in their homes? Who will decide what is racist and what is not? The current power structure? Will discourse involving racial disparity be deemed racist? Will caucasians be able to fine African Americans for remarks that they find racist? Will any racial remark be deemed racist? I do not believe that free speech should be infringed upon in that matter. I do believe that people in law enforcement and those in the criminal justice system should be investigated for racist remarks/behavior. I also think that institutions themselves, schools, private businesses, can get tougher on how they handle racism. But the problem is, how can one determine what is racist? I do not trust these institutions to address covert racism–they may be able to address overt racism.

  13. As deplorable as racist comments on the part of any one are, whether on the internet or wherever, fines and other things such as jail time are not the answer.
    In fact, they are hust censorship of free speech, will just open up the slippery slope to the loss of our freedom.
    And they will not stop racism but only cause racists to be made into martys by the worst in society.
    And they also open up the slippery slope towards the setting of arbitrary and subjective standards of what offends certain people.
    We must learn to put up with despicable statements by bigots; that’s all they are; statements. As long as people do not harm others, they must have the right to free speech.

  14. jwbe

    there have always been words before whites started their genocides. The German Holocaust was built on words, on the powerful rhetoric of one single man. His words didn’t kill, but the actions which followed and it is naive I think to underestimate the power of words, most of all in times of an economic melt-down.

  15. jwbe

    And they will not stop racism but only cause racists to be made into martys by the worst in society.

    So what do you think, when a Neo-Nazi magazine puts a picture of Obama on its cover together with “Kill this N*****”. Free speech? Just a statement?

    Hate speech laws are not just to stop racism but to protect victims of racism together with the possibility that governments/police etc can act and intervene before somebody will be injured or killed.

  16. jwbe

    and I forgot white power music, a tool with which according a statement of a former Neo-Nazis, white supremacists are able to recruit many young people, he called it the most powerful tool.
    White power music is prohibited in Germany and there are also no white power propaganda radio shows etc.

  17. Seattle in Texas

    I think one of the ironies is that many people I know do not believe that a person who has never experienced poverty (not low-income, but poverty) at least at some point in their lifetime, is simply not qualified to be the U.S. president. During the last debate Obama spoke of the time his mother was on foodstamps–thereby all the more only legitimating his credibility to be our next president for many people. So, while the Obama thing above is intended to be offensive, and it is to the supporters, I think it may have a double negative impact–but one that may allow some folks to see how racism ties in with classism and/or all the other “isms”. Maybe. With that, being even more of a turn off and having the opposite effect. Not a laughing matter. And a friend told me a few days ago there are also McCain bucks–I haven’t seen them and don’t want to, but I suspect they could not possibly have the same effect regardless of how offensive they were intended to be.

    And I find it ironic that McCain can be so open when campaigning, even with frusteration, at the idea of “sharing the wealth” or “taxing the rich”–creating a “national welfare program”…I genuinely hope he keeps singing that same tune over the next week. And in terms of the increased hostility? It occurred during the primaries too and didn’t work…hehe

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