Just one day after a successful student movement forced a college president to resign, the “collective white” is playing the racial innocence game and blaming people of color for the racial climate on college campuses across the nation. Whether at Yale or Mizzou, most whites believe that students and faculty of color are “hypersensitive,” playing “the race card,” and censoring (mostly) innocent white students and administrators. Yesterday morning, for example, Joe Scarborough savaged two black journalists from the Washington Post who are regulars in his MORNING JOE show. He demanded they explain to him why the President of Mizzou had to resign for two “isolated incidents” (he actually used this phrase). Scarborough argued that there is no evidence of “systemic racism” at Mizzou and that the ousted President had agreed to the demand of establishing an ethnic studies requirement (faculty reading this post know these requirements have been in place in many colleges since the 1980s or early 1990s). Since Eugene Robinson and Jonathan Capehart did not answer Mr. Scarborough’s questions in a cogent way and since Mr. Scarborough’s questions represent, in my view, how most whites interpret events in college campuses, I want to take some time to explain how systemic racism operates in HWCUs (historically white colleges and universities).
First, whites need to understand that most colleges and universities in the USA are white-oriented and white-led. This is why I call them HWCUs and, as I have argued many times in my FB (Facebook) posts, these institutions reproduce whiteness through their curriculum, culture, demography, symbols, traditions, and ecology. The white innocence game begins with the assumption that these spaces are racially neutral, but that assumption is false! HWCUs were 100% white institutions until very recently and that white history shaped them in profound ways. The admission of a few people of color in the late 1960s and 1970s into HWCUs—and I must point out that their admission was because people of color protested and demanded inclusion—did not lead to their “integration,” a concept that involves much more than spatial cohabitation. In fact, many ways whites, the W in HWCUs, have remained central to their organization and culture. We were brought into these places as guests with the expectation that we would not ask for anything else—we have been for a long time but few dots of color in otherwise white canvasses. (As an aside, part of the white innocence game is the belief by whites that we are ungrateful for all they have done for us; for all they have given us over the years. To this “white sincere fiction” (Feagin and Vera, White Racism), given that we fought for our freedom and partial inclusion in America, I say, “Thank you massa!”)
Second, whites were not, and are still not, happy with our presence in universities. They think (and some even tell us to our face) that we are all “affirmative action babies.” We all know how horrible the first black and Latino folks who “integrated” (they were just the firsts guests in white canvasses) were treated in these places, but what many whites outside and inside the academy do not know—or pretend NOT no know–is that people of color are still treated as second-class members in the academy. We still do not feel as equal members of the academic club and all the reports on campus racial climate in HWCUs across the nation bear this out. Mr. Scarborough and whites in general, please check out the manifold reports that clearly show how we feel in these places.
Third, Mr. Scarborough and members of the “collective white,” racism (racial domination) is as SYSTEMIC in college campuses as it is in the nation at large. For example, college admissions are based on tests that are not reliable measures of the capabilities and likelihood of success of students of color. Faculty are hired based on their records, but no one discusses how race (racism) affects the productivity of whites (positively) and of non-whites (negatively), a situation that gives whites systemic advantages. The statues, names of buildings, and traditions in HWCUs are emblems of whiteness which makes us feel like we do not belong! And most of the localities in which HWCUs are located, reproduce and reinforce whiteness. Please liberal whites reading this post, do what you seldom do: talk to faculty and students of color and they will tell you how hard is to go out at night in their college town; how hard is to deal with campus and city cops; how hard is to go to a bar in your bucolic white town. And although I believe racial domination is accomplished mostly through subtle and institutionalized practices, WE ALL have experienced in college campuses what Dr. Elijah Anderson calls “the nigger moment”; we have been called names, mocked, or harassed in old-racism fashion.
Fourth, classrooms are hostile zones for most of us. If as students we raise concerns about the material used by our professors in the classes (“Professor Blanco, why are you not including African artists and artistic traditions in your WORLD ART HISTORY course?”), we are accused of trying to politicize things (“You folks always want to talk about race!”). If we are professors and dare suggest that racism is as American as apple pie (i.e., that it is structural), white students say we are calling them racist and making them feel bad (“You don’t know ME….I am a good person.”). We are disrespected and unappreciated as professors and suffer in our evaluations because of racism.
Fifth, if Scarborough and other whites asked us open, rather that accusatory questions, such as, “How do you feel in the college in which you work?” they would be surprised. They would hear about how often we experience microaggressions perpetrated by professors, students, staff, and the campus police. They would hear how we feel like most white colleagues (faculty and students) do not understand, care, or appreciate our work. They would hear about how alienated and tired we are in these institutions. They would hear about how the racialized stress we endure day in and day out is literally KILLING us. Yes, racism experienced in low but constant intensity is, as the work of David R, Williams clearly shows, a silent killer.
So Mr. Scarborough and whites in America, racism in the academy, like racism in the nation, is indeed systemic! Although it no longer operates primarily the way it did 50 years ago, the new “killing me softly” way in which racial domination is carried out is effective in maintaining the white house WHITE. So please, please, please STOP the racial innocence game; stop saying that you play no part of the American racial game in America because some of your “best friends are black” (you don’t know their names, but they are your very best friends); stop accusing people of color of dividing the academy (NEWSFLASH, we have been divided forever!) and “censoring” you (are you kidding me?); stop proclaiming that because you do not use the N-word and are a “good person,” that this is enough (you still receive the “wages of whiteness” so your claim to racial innocence is not credible)!
Finally, If you want protests on college campuses to cease and want racial peace in America, then admit that race matters, admit that racism is real and systemic, and work with us towards the transformation of society in general and HWCUs in particular. But if you just keep saying “I don’t see race (or racism),” if you continue the white innocence game, then we will continue believing wholeheartedly that you are part of the problem and will keep SHOUTING as loud as we can “No Justice, No Peace!” It is time for you, Mr. Scarborough and whites in America, to step up to the historical plate and, as Spike Lee would say, “Do the right thing!” The ball is on your court.
~ Eduardo Bonilla-Silva is Professor and Chair of Sociology, Duke University. This post originally appeared on Facebook and is re-posted here with the author’s permission.