Talking about and understanding issues related race is tough for some people and some organizations. News organizations, like the Associated Press, recently changed the way it will address race, which has the potential to impact news outlets across the country. How do explain ongoing racial problems? What do we call the system that serves as the engine for the race-based train that has passed through every American epoch, including contemporary times?
Call it what it is: racism.
Much has been written in scholarly works and in the popular press about how racial disparities in America have over the past several decades been increasingly explained in non-racial terms. Colorblind racism, new racism, and the New Jim Crow are all terms that seek to describe how the dominant racial group in America, en mass, changed expressions of anti-Black sentiments from overt to covert expressions due to social and political changes. However, recent events involving the targeting of symbols associated with the Jim Crow era point to the enduring power of racism.
What is striking about the attacks on these symbols of an era gone by is that many of the perpetrators of these cowardly acts were not even alive during the Jim Crow era and undoubtedly never learned about it, especially from the perspective of Black people.
How do we explain this white rage? Understanding racism for what it is and what it is not is an important step forward. Racism is a multilevel, multidimensional system of oppression whereby the dominant group scapegoats racial minority groups.
When we understand racism for what it really is then we can see how, why, and in what ways misery is heaped upon Black people and other people of color. We see the manifestations of misery not only in the embers of 150-year-old churches in rural Louisiana, or on a legendary civil rights training ground, or in the glare of tiki torches, but also in persistent racial differences in wealth and access to a quality education.
We can see clearly how race continues to matter in outcomes associated with interactions with the criminal justice system, including who lives and who dies, and which lives truly matter to whom, how—if at all.
We can better understand why investments are disproportionately made in some areas, while others remain chronically underdeveloped. We can more easily comprehend why access to an emergency room and other health care routes is hard and adequate transportation systems and housing remains elusive.
Let’s be clear. Racism is dangerous. Racism has been aptly described by many, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a cancer. Anyone who has the unfortunate experience of watching a loved one suffer through any type of cancer knows how the disease can take over, attacking the basic building blocks of the body.
Racism in America is at once a fundamental and foundational building block of society and one of the greatest threats to itself. Much like many auto-immune diseases, it attacks itself.
It is important that we understand racism for what it truly is. While functioning much like a disease, racism is not about biology.
We must understand the myriad ways racism manifests in the lives of individuals, communities, groups, and in the nation as a whole.
The nation can not afford to lull itself into a false sense of security with claims that the nation is not where it should be on matters about race, but the nation is not where it used to be. There is an abundance of evidence to the contrary.
Let us agree not to disagree on this one. Racism is what it is. There’s no new racism. There’s no new Jim Crow. There is just racism and the evidence of it is all around us.
We should express the same degree of indignation at public policies and private practices that consistently place black people at a disadvantage in virtually every area of life as when historic symbols are attacked.
Dismantling America’s racialized social system is no easy task but generations of Black people have slowly chipped away at it. We owe it to them, to ourselves, and to future generations to make our own marks however insurmountable the task may seem and irrespective of how bleak our pace of progress might seem.
Professor, Department of Sociology and African & African American Studies Program