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Jun 15, 2020

Racism, the Old Deluder

One can slice racism in several ways, but at a minimum, it has the overt and the covert parts. The former includes explicitly racist policies and practices, as well as openly discriminatory behaviors. That is what Martin Luther King called “social sin.” It is the most outrageous, but also most easily identifiable plane of existence for racism. Because it is so open, eliminating is is actually not difficult once the political will exists to change racist policies and laws. Despite an occasional flair up, most progressive communities in this country have been fairly successful in beating it down.

Th covert racism is much more difficult to pinpoint. It includes laws and policies that may look neutral, but in fact affect minorities disproportionately. For example, in NYC, only 9-10% of those subjected to the “stop and frisk” were White (and let’s not forget, almost 90% of those stopped were innocent). In 2011, NYPD stopped a whopping 686 thousand people; in one year, Carl! But those who invented and implemented the policy had never admitted the policy was racist, and most of them are probably still convinced it was not. If you look at policy’s consequences rather than stated intent, it is no doubt racist. It is very difficult to read the minds of those who design and implement these kids of policies and practices. None of them will admit the intent was racist, but the effects speak for themselves. The wide spread practice of de facto immunity from prosecution bargained by police unions is one of those weird racist-by-effect outcomes. Designed to protect Black and White police officers equally, it disproportionally and intolerably affects the Black communities. Yet if there is a specific policy, it is possible to track down its effects, and change it. He diddle stratum of racism is like that – still very visible if you look the right way.

And now we get to the lowest stratum of racism that operates on the periphery o human awareness. Those include implicit biases and acts of micro-aggression. Sometimes perpetrators are aware of them, sometimes they are not, and very often it is somewhere in between. This stuff is still all over the place, even in progressive places like Sac State, in the most progressive state like California. The only real way to control these is a kind of self-discipline, a habit of checking one’s own words and deeds for bias. Like music or martial arts, it takes daily practice for years, and trained awareness. I know many White people who have mastered it, and even more of those who did not. I am definitely still an apprentice.

The unconscious or semi-conscious covert racism is very difficult to eradicate through the instrument of explicit policies. People quickly learn to comply formally, check all the boxes, and go on with their unaware lives. Moreover, formal compliance breeds complacency and resentment. Solutions must match problems, or else some hasty solutions may unintentionally make problems worse.

The covert racism is difficult to deal with, because its roots go deep, all the way into the fundamental human nature. It is an old, old disease. Those who expect a quick fix do not know much about the human kind. Christians call it the original sin, Freudians call it Id, and evolutionary biologists may call it innate xenophobia. Our civilization already took thousands of years to overcome it. One kind of resolve is to go to battle right away. Another kind is to plan and execute a long siege. Depending on what we are dealing with, we need both.

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