Civil Liberties

We're Not a Post-Racial Society: We're an Innocent-Until-Proven-Racist Society

When you encourage white people to be blind to race, they become blind to racism.

Why are we so reluctant to refer to racist incidents as “racism” when we see them happening? It’s not even just the obvious right-wing political incidents, like rancher Cliven Bundy, a man some people couldn’t identify as racist. Katy Perry’s history of racist costuming is supposedly just appreciating other cultures. Shock jock Anthony Cumia, who was fired by Sirius XM in July for a racist tirade, has fans who claim he’s not-racist, even when he says things like, “blacks aren’t people” in a since deleted tweet. There are even Donald Sterling apologists, like Gene Simmons of Kiss, who think the former Los Angeles Clippers owner’s racist rant about not wanting his girlfriend to bring black people to his games was nothing more than a joke unfairly caught on tape.

It’s often not enough to point out specific examples of racism; people of color are requested to write a graduate-level thesis to prove it.

When Gawker pointed out the inherent racism of apps like Ghetto Tracker and the new SketchFactor app, both designed to help users avoid “sketchy” neighborhoods in major cities, some of the site’s commenters failed to see the racism, instead preferring to think of these apps as helpful ways to avoid becoming crime statistics. Racist cultural traditions contributed to increased crime in those areas to begin with, including segregation, racially restrictive covenantsredlining and violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that improperly allocate funding in areas where there is a high percentage of minority students.

Even when individuals point out their own experiences of racism, people find ways to frame the experience as anything but racist. Writer Roxane Gay recently recounted her experience of being racially profiled by a cashier at Best Buy. Then, on Twitter, she fielded questions and comments from total strangers who came to the defense of the security person who racially profiled her. (A manager at the store told USA Today that the cashier’s mistake wasn’t racism, but “not communicating what was happening.”)

Gay responded to her detractors:

I’ve seen this “innocent until proven racist” framework in my own life, too. I once explained to a classmate that a librarian at our school constantly asked to check my bag when I entered the graduate stacks section, even when I was with other students, because I “didn’t look like a graduate student.” My classmate said, “Maybe it’s just because you look young!” as if that would explain away just how much this librarian was targeting me.

It’s difficult not to see this problem as the inevitable result of the politically correct push during the 1990s for colorblindness: when you encourage white Americans to be “blind” to race, they also become blind to racism. The idea that we could somehow eliminate racism by ignoring race to some extent stopped people from talking about either, and allowed the systemic effects of racism to flourish in a space where no one wanted to admit it existed at all.

Racism is not just part of our shameful past (as many would like to think): it’s a vicious factor in the gulf of inequality that still plagues us today.

People of color still suffer the effects of racism on a regular basis: statistics show that we incarcerate African Americans and Latinos at disproportionate rates; white people then strongly support continuing criminal justice policies that target Latinos and African Americans when given information about the rates of incarceration. 

Our schools still expel and suspend black students at “triple the rate of their white peers.” People of color are more likely to be arrested for drug-related crimes, even though whites use and abuse drugs at similar rates. Once arrested, they get longer sentences than white people arrested for the same crimes. Unemployment is consistently twice as high among black Americans compared to white Americans, and black Americans have to search for work longer than white ones. African Americans pay more for car insurancehome loans and access to credit.

Having tons of money is no panacea: even though they make up 65% of the NFL, black players receive 92% of the penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct. A store clerk in Switzerland refused to show a $38,000 Tom Ford handbag to Oprah Winfrey, whose net worth is $2.9 billion, because it was “too expensive.”

People still hold on to the belief that we live in a colorblind system where nobody is a racist, despite obvious examples of persistent racism. The “post-racial” society is an intellectual refuge for white Americans, who largely benefit from racism even when they’re unwilling or unable to admit it. White Americans need to wake up and recognize just how complicit they have become in a system constantly perpetuating false notions of equality.