My teenage daughter startled me with a Big Question out of the blue while I was working in the kitchen.
“What do you think causes racism in society?” she asked while warming up leftovers in the microwave. We hadn’t been discussing any related topic, and rarely has my opinion been sought so directly from her. So I tried to answer as quickly as I could, unsure how long I would have her attention before someone more interesting texted her.
“Fear, competition for resources, power structures that exploit difference,” I said. A bit later, I texted her that the way people are raised also causes racism to persist.
I’ve spent the past week thinking about her question. I posted the question on Facebook and received nearly a hundred replies from thoughtful friends. Their most popular response was that ignorance or isolation from people of different backgrounds were the root causes. But I’m skeptical about this. If education and personal relationships could end racism, why does it still persist among people with plenty of knowledge and exposure?
I turned to the work of scholars who study these issues.
Ibram Kendi is a historian and author of “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2016. He is also the founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. He makes the strong case that we cannot educate and love our way out of a racist society. The root cause of racist thoughts and policies is self-interest, he argues. The group that benefits from the way society is set up resists making it more just, so racist thought is used to justify racist behavior and policies. He shares many historical examples that bear this out: Slave owners needed to justify their economic interest in subjugating other humans, so they claimed Africans were less than human, less civilized. Racist practice supported by racist thinking.
Kendi defines a racist as a person who expresses a racist idea or supports a racist policy. A racist idea suggests that one racial group is superior or inferior to another racial group. A racist policy is one that leads to unequal outcomes, he explained recently on the podcast “To the Point.”
When you look at modern America, you can see evidence of unequal outcomes in wealth, employment, housing, education, health, policing and the criminal justice system among racial groups. Do you believe it’s something innate in blackness that leads to these worse outcomes? By definition, that’s racist.
The nonracist explanation would be to look at which policies lead to those outcomes and work to dismantle those to create a more fair society. In order to do this, we have to be able to hold two competing views in our heads at once. A person can believe in equality and still have some racist beliefs. A country can make racial progress and still have racist policies.
Anti-racist progress in this country has always been met by racist progress, Kendi says. Even those of us who say we believe in equality and are disgusted by those who march in white hoods or with Tiki torches can have unexamined racist views or support policies that uphold racist outcomes. Even the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, who abhorred slavery, for years held the view that blacks should be freed to leave America and set up colonies elsewhere. His thinking about racial equality changed over time, as evidenced by his speeches.
This is where hope lives.
“A racist is not who a person is. A racist is what a person is, what a person is saying, what a person is doing,” Kendi wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times. Once we recognize our self-interest at stake, confront our own biases and counter that thinking, that’s when we move toward a more fair and just society.
I shouldn’t have been so surprised about my daughter’s question. After all, we have recently heard the statement, “I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed” from the highest officeholder in the land, in response to multiple claims that he referred to African nations as “sh-tholes.”
It’s a good time to help our children sort out what these sorts of contradictions really mean.
It will take more than education and love to challenge deeply embedded racist thinking and actions.
It takes honesty.