European Racism vs. “Underground” Racism in the U.S.

There’s an interesting discussion happening about European racism versus “underground” racism in the U.S. that I thought readers here might be interested in.

Creative Commons License photo credit: jsayer

Matt Yglesias writes at Think Progress:

My casual-ish impression is that in 2010 racism is generally a bigger problem in Western Europe than in the United States. We’re obviously far from perfect in this regard, but progressives can I think legitimately count substantial progress in fighting bias as a major achievement and the European experience as illustrating the fact that the challenge is a non-trivial one.

I love that Yglesias refers to fighting racism as “a non-trivial” concern.   Understatement, much? I appreciate it when anyone at the more general political blogs like Think Progress decide to take on racism head on.  It’s refreshing to see the topic addressed, yet it’s hard not to be frustrated by Yglesias’ “casual-ish impression” about racism when there’s so much actual research about the subject, much of it discussed on this blog.    Yglesias’ lack of interest in reading any of the scholarly research on racism, combined with his rather privileged (white, heterosexual, male, upper-middle-class, well-educated, elite liberal) perspective make his impressions, well, the opposite of non-trivial.

Riffing off Yglesias’ post Jamelle Bouie writes at The American Prospect:

… because racism is almost exclusively identified with Bull Connor and the Ku Klux Klan, discussions of institutional racism are incredibly difficult, if not impossible (see: nearly any discussion of affirmative action). That said, I can’t help but prefer “underground” racism to its above ground counterpart; as someone who has been the target of overt racism, and who will probably encounter it in the future, I kind of prefer a world where racism is banished from polite society, even if the result is a hard fight against systemic bias.

Bouie here is one of the few that point to systemic bias which is an ongoing, current, and important issue here in the U.S.   The problem here is with accepting the frame that racism is “underground,” which is really to cede to a white racial frame of this issue.  While it’s true that it’s no longer ok to say the n-word in some mixed groups, there’s plenty of evidence that racism – even the crudest forms, and alongside some new forms – still abounds in the contemporary U.S. in plenty of above ground.


  1. Blaque Swan, previously No1KState

    Bouie would be one of few in two aspects, I suppose. The first you name, of course. The second being her preference. If there’s a strict choice between the two, where as “above ground” racism is no indication of something underneath, most people of color I know would prefer “above ground.” It’s easier to point out (and get white Americans to acknowledge even if the perpetrator doesn’t, ie Aryan Snowman) and eventually shrug off. Emphasis on eventually. Whereas research indicates blacks have to expend an extra “25 ergs” of mental energy dealing with Lord James Crowe II.

    That is, assuming violence is still prohibited legally and socially, many I know would prefer overt racism. Tell me up front you don’t want me eating at your restaurant rather than have me waste time waiting for service that’s not coming, for example.

    And speaking of Joe Feagin articles, I’m nearly halfway through “Documenting the Costs of Slavery, Segregation, and Contemporary Racism,” which is where I got the number/notion of “25 ergs.” I just started it late last night, and probably could’ve finished it but didn’t for the same reason I’ve only seen ROSEWOOD once. Great, great stuff. Great, great stuff.

    But I digress. Is there any reason people like Rep. King of IA haven’t read this info, if not this specific article. I don’t mean idiotic racists, I mean Congresswomen and -men, regardless of idiocy. And to return to the point of the post, the refusal to read or even broadcast such information – what’s that? Racism, yes. Overt even? I’m asking sincerely rather than rhetorically. I understand that people usually only read/listen to what supports their preconceived ideas. But shouldn’t there be requirements for joining Congress or becoming SCOTUS chief justice that people read this stuff, even if they only have to claim they did? And especially if they give some self-righteously indignant speech on the floor of the House?

  2. island girl in a land without sea

    thanks for pointing out that the notion of racism being “underground” is really a white racial framing. i had given myself a headache to wrap my head around what kinds of actions would be considered “underground,” and which would be “above ground.” i’ve concluded that what’s underground depends on where you’re standing. in my experience of the world, what a white american might call an underground racist utterance or deed would, in fact, look very much above ground to me and probably to some others who have also experienced surface and subterranean racism. moreover, it’s it an act borne of unquestioned privilege and unmitigated gall to think that, as a white male elite, matt yglesias apparently feels qualified to categorize the experiences of people of color.


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