Rethinking Racism

The Andrew Breitbart and Fox News smear of former USDA Shirley Sherrod, and the NAACP and White House’s complicity in her defamation and firing, still has lots of people thinking and talking about race and racism.   Unfortunately, the focus has been on individual racism. This is a proposition we’ve got to rethink.

Racism, as we’ve discussed here and elsewhere, is systemic.  If you’d like to know what systemic racism at the USDA looks like, it looks like this. Black farmers have been systematically discriminated against by the USDA for decades.  They were due assistance – given to white farmers, but not to black farmers – and were denied this because of their race.   Black farmers went to court to get redress for this, won the case, but still cannot get the money that is owed them.   There was another set back for black farmers this week, as the Senate stripped $1.2 billion for the claims from an emergency spending bill, along with $3.4 billion in long-overdue funding for a settlement with American Indians who say they were swindled out of royalties by the federal government.

Rather than focus on this systemic nature of racism, the Breitbart smear and the fall out afterward have people focused on the endless and pointless question about who is/is not a racist.   This is a distraction from the larger and more intractable forms of racism that really plague the U.S.   Rinku Sen has a brilliant post at TruthOut which makes this case.  She writes:

What the right wants us to forget is that race relations are rooted in systems, and that not all racism is individual, intentional and overt. Individual bias plays a role, to be sure, but it’s the institutional rules, written and unwritten, that enable such racism, not the other way around. You can’t “heal” a system; you have to rebuild it.

This is where the left often loses its way on race. I was surprised, for instance, to read the following in Joan Walsh’s column on Wednesday: “People are spending a lot of energy to get folks like the Spooners and Sherrod to think they should be enemies, when the real issue is class.” Walsh, who has a solid history of responsible reporting on race issues, goes on to say that’s what the left should remember from this debacle, because the right wants us to forget it.

I take the opposite lesson: The intersection of race and class is a complicated thing, deserving of more attention, not less. Treating class as the “real issue” means treating race only as a function of it, which amounts to colorblindness for leftists. It’s a highly limited answer to working-class white resentment of working-class black people. Progressives’ over-reliance on the “same boat” argument doesn’t help keep multiracial alliances together. Rather, it stumps us when we need to explain exactly how racism works, not just in the economy, but also in education, prison, health and, yes, agriculture. Liberal silence on race is what allows Breitbart to distort the definition of racism, to strip it of all discussions of power, history, policy or collective responsibility such that the notion of reverse racism has enough merit to be taken seriously in the first place.

Sen is spot on here when she notes that the progressive left’s inability to speak cogently on race is what opens up a space for right-wingers like Breitbart.    She also makes an excellent point about the overlap between race and class.   Perhaps this will serve as a wakeup call for those on the left to get smarter about race and racism so that they aren’t “snookered” by the likes of Breitbart again.


  1. ThirtyNine4Ever

    I think this would apply to everyone who doesn’t understand the issue. I don’t know if I would consider myself left-wing but this is exactly what I have been doing lately. I think now I have a pretty good understanding of what is and isn’t racism and the difference between someone having a racial bias and someone being a racist. Now I can call people out when they say things that are incorrect about racism.

  2. Kasey Henricks

    It seems to me that the game of finding who is and isn’t a racist is like a nasty version of whac-a-mole. As you point out, this game is both pointless and endless. One racist pops his or her head out of a hole and some public figure comes whacks him/her on the head. Then 3 other racists pop their heads out of holes and attention gets redirected to them. And the whacking goes on and on. If this is the futile game that continually gets played when it comes to racial justice, then little progress will be gained. Thanks for changing the focus, Jessie!

  3. cordoba blue

    I, for one, very much appreciate the distinction between institutionalized racism and someone giving someone else a nasty look. As I mentioned in the other thread, nasty looks don’t affect people much. But if you can’t get a home loan, or buy a car, or get monetary assistance due you, like the black farmers above, this is where racism rears it’s ugly head.This is the systemic racism that ruins generations of people, not just one family.
    I also really like Kasey Hendricks’ analogy regarding this absurd game of “racist, racist, who’s a racist?” That’s a ridiculous political game designed to, like Jessie said, take the focus off of the real issues that African Americans face: housing, education, employment, equitable legal representation.

  4. No1KState

    It’s times like these, and the Gates situation, when I become astounded at white denial of and/or complicity with racism. The fact that some many people were willing to believe Sherrod is racist – when even in the editted clip, if you paid attention to what she was saying, you’d know she isn’t – is evidence of widespread racial bias against people of color.

    I think because so much of racism now is unconscious, most whites find it not all that hard to rationalize it. And none of them want to admit to it.

    Plus, you can’t fall back on, “Well, everybody has some level of bias.” The culture and history of our country doesn’t nurture equal bias, does it? Our society isn’t rife with anti-white stereotypes, is it?

    So now, what’s so hard to understand about the phenomenon of institutional racism? Upwards of 94% of whites have some level of anti-black bias (only 6% of the people of any group would have NO bias – sciencedaily). So in a country of 300 million where 200 million individuals will be bias against people of color, what do we really think will happen?

    And as an aside, I think the whole passing of the buck in paying these settlements to black farmers and Native American nations exemplifies why it’s entirely just for reparations to be paid to descendants of US slaves. Cause I’m afraid this country is going to do with these settlements what it did to reparations: refuse to pay out immediately, then after sufficient time has passed, claim sooo much time has passed that it would be unfair to pay out the settlements.

  5. No1KState

    And a question – I feel really incensed about the Republican rationale for not paying out the settlement to the black farmers: the national debt. They weren’t concerned about the debt when they passed all those tax cuts, led us into two wars, and decided to pay private companies more money to do less work less efficiently than if the govt hadn’t been privatized. So why now?

    This can’t even be chalked up to unconscious racism. And it can’t legitimately be framed as socialist wealth-redistribution. So what about this should cause me to believe that Republicans (and some Dems, ie Nelson and Webb) aren’t racists?

    • ThirtyNine4Ever

      At some point in the last couple years, anything that had to do with minorities has been labeled “socialist” no matter how far from actual socialism it is, I assume in order to help white people rationalize racism. Also, the Republicans have somehow convinced a lot of people that they actaully care about our national debt and spending. I’m pretty shocked at all these people who somehow think that once the Republican’s are back in control that our country will get it’s spending and debt in control in spite of the Regan/Bush/Bush years that strongly prove otherwise.

  6. No1KState

    I’m sorry for taking up so much space, but for all the concern white people have about reverse racism, and for all their desire to see it as purely an individuals do intentionally and overtly; where are all the white farmers who’ve been denied govt assistance and settlement pay outs? Where’re all the unarmed white people who’ve been killed by police in the vain of Oscar Grant or Sean Bell? Oh, I know there are some. But 10 murdered white people isn’t the same proportionally as 10 murdered black people.

    Where’re all the white immigrant children who’ve been torn from their parents?


    Where are they?

    They don’t exist because reverse racism doesn’t exist. Stop your whining. Get the plank out your eye and you’ll see,people of color don’t have a piece of saw dust in our eyes. You’ll see it was the 2×4 in your eye all along.

  7. No1KState

    I just remembered: part of the purpose of racism is to obscure class issues and keep working class blacks and whites from joining forces. That makes this whole “it’s class not race” meme all the more detached from reality. If race weren’t an issue, lower/middle class America would be in a much better position economically and socially in this country. Although I can imagine reaching racial justice without necessarily addressing economic injustice, it would be difficult to truly address one without addressing the other.

    It seems to me the swiftness with which many whites race to “it’s class not race” is just one of many reactions whites have to being called out on race.


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