Despite U.S. Census projections indicating that whites will will no longer be the majority of Americans by 2042, racism will continue to be a definitive force in American politics.
Why? A growing body of research indicates that an increasing number of whites believe racism continues to plague us, but that whites, not people of color, are the new targets. That brand of racial denial appears to be inspired in no small part by the perception that people of color are taking over. And if that’s the case, white racial denial is likely to be reinforced as whites are relegated to minority status.
White people will also continue to be the largest racial minority group long after the mid-century mark. Moreover, they will be over-represented among voters as long as voting rights continue to exclude many new immigrants, the majority of whom are non-whites.
And never estimate what a minority of voters can accomplish. Keep in mind that conservative evangelicals in the U.S. have never been a majority of the electorate. Regardless, they were critical to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and their influence in the Republican Party continues to keep opposition to marriage equality and LGBTQ rightsfront and center on the Republican policy agenda, even as poll after poll indicates that, at least for younger voters, the sun is setting on these issues.
If that’s not enough to convince you, new research indicates that while the millennial generation seems less prone to paleo-racism (by which I mean overt racial stereotyping and discrimination), they also appear to be strongly committed to a neo-racist love-sees-no-color view of race that reduces racism to overt acts of individual bigotry rather than a basis of broad based institutional and structural inequality.
And, as colorblind racism trends up, the 1% continues to be almost exclusively white, and white elites continue to dominate just about every aspect of public life and commerce in the U.S., including the media.
We can’t just wait on the world to change, regardless of what John Mayer may have to say on the matter. If we want to end racism, we need to make it visible and expose its structural and institutional dimensions and dynamics. And given the corporate domination of media, a big part of that effort will have to occur in our public squares, at the mall, and on our neighbors’ doorsteps.
In this struggle we can’t give up on white people. I know this will disappoint some more militant (or maybe just sick and tired) readers, but unless we can move more whites onto our side, we will never end racism.
With that in mind, here are four tips for talking about racism with white people.
1. Don’t fall into the good v. evil trap. Racism is a moral issue, for sure, but we should reject the idea that racists are monsters.
We racial justice advocates have a relatively easy time accepting the notion that race is not natural; that it is, instead, a political construct created to serve a profit motive. What seems tougher for us to swallow is that, for that very reason, racial prejudice can be held by anyone, regardless of race. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a very real difference between white racial prejudice and ordinary bigotry. When racial prejudice is expressed by whites, their inclusion in (or at least relative proximity to) powerful institutions gives that prejudice enough force, especially when expressed collectively, to create and maintain the deeply rooted structural racial disadvantages faced by people of color that are indicated by significant gaps in wealth and income between us and white people.
But, whites’ relative proximity to power doesn’t make them evil, just more influential. This point is important because labeling people as evil who are ordinary in every other aspect of their lives except on the question of race creates a credibility gap among their peers that gives racists more ammunition to use against us.
2. Racial justice advocates often talk about the harm that’s done to people who are excluded from institutions of power in the U.S. However, we rarely talk about the effects of inclusion in those same institutions on those on the inside.
Racially conservative whites in the U.S. have been convinced that their personal, family, and community security relies upon the exclusion of people of color. And they’ve been convinced of this not just by right wing groups like the Tea Parties and the Klan; they’ve been convinced of this by the past practices of our government.
The white middle class in the U.S. rose from the rubble of the Great Depression as a result of an economic stimulus package of programs and policies that was won by the Roosevelt administration. But winning that package of programs required cutting a deal with racially conservative Southern legislators that made Roosevelt’s stimulus racially exclusive.
That massive, mid-twentieth century government investment in white families gave white people a stake in the maintenance of white supremacy that was (and is) material, concrete, and consequential. When white people fight against busing and other efforts to integrate public schools, oppose affirmative action programs that provide access to public universities, government contracts, and public employment opportunities to people of color, they’re fighting for exclusive control of institutions and opportunities that were created either directly or indirectly through those racially exclusive government subsidies.
We need to remind people of this history. Those government programs that created the white middle class were paid for by every worker, including workers of color.
3. We can’t win the fight for racial justice by labeling all white people haters. Race is a cage that keeps all but the most powerful among us trapped in perpetual insecurity, fighting against one another for privileges rather than with one another for power. But the bars of that cage are tempered not just by privilege but by fear. When whites resist demands for full inclusion of people of color, they’re responding to that fear.
Years of divisive racial politics in the U.S. have convinced most of us, regardless of race, that there isn’t enough opportunity and institutional protection to go around. Those on the inside of institutional protection and opportunity believe that if they let those who have been excluded inside, some of them will be pushed out. White resistance to including people of color is rooted in love of family, concern for community, and the fear that including us will push those beloved families and communities out. Calling those outside undeserving is, at least in part, nothing more than a rationalization for succumbing to that fear. We need to approach the project of winning racial justice as a struggle against fear.
And that brings me to my last tip.
4. In order to win against racism, we need more than criticism of those who appear to be hoarding the goods. We need solutions that make room in our still far from complete democracy for all of us so that none of us need fear exclusion, exploitation, and the humiliation of being denied basic human dignity. And isn’t that what justice is all about anyway?