As the result of a recent Facebook post, which caused some controversy among my friends, I am forced to admit that I was a racist for the first half of my life. I had no clue that I was one. Like most people, I equated racism with bigotry, and I had certainly never been a bigot. However, I almost always gave preference to white people, Catholics, heavy drinkers, baseball players, funny people, and writers—people just like me. It was easy, comfortable, and predictable to have people like me around me. That took no effort. That took no risks.
In 1991 I was in a college class with a wonderful African-American professor. The name of the class was, “Class, Race, and the Civil Rights Movement; it was named after a book we used for the course. The book was written by a well-respected sociologist named Jack M. Bloom. He looked at Racism and Civil Rights in a new way—from a political, economic, and social/class outlook. Briefly, his conclusion (in my humble opinion) was that the most predominant color in America is not white, black, brown, or yellow—it’s green. Yes, economics and class structure are what drive the American people, and racism is often underpinned by class. Class is the true dividing line in America. Because we threw off the yoke of a very class-conscience mother country in the Revolutionary War, we vowed that we would be a classless society. However, this desire to be classless was held largely by the American aristocracy of the time. The merchant class, laboring class, and the black slaves and the white bond-slaves had no such hopes. They merely existed from day to day.
Not much has changed in the last 240 years. We are still a class-divided, class-driven society. No, we have no royalty, but if we did it would be the 2-percent, and they sit back and watch us all scramble for the remainder of the economic crumbs. The rest of us struggle to get ahead the best way we can. As George Carlin famously joked, “The rich keeps all of the money and pays none of the taxes; the middle class pays all of the taxes and does all of the work; and the poor are there just to scare the shit out of the middle class.” That sure seems to be true.
So, what does it mean to be a racist? Well, it might not mean what you think. We throw that word around a lot these days, and most Americans have no idea what it really means. Racist is a word that is often confused with the word “bigot.” When most white people hear the word “racist” applied to them they get angry and defensive, because what they are really hearing is that they are being called a bigot.
Racism, at least the way it was taught to me in college and the way it is acted out in this country, is showing preference to people of your own race (or religion or social status) in areas like friendship, business practices, employment, criminal justice, and other social settings. These preferences are not necessarily intentional or pernicious. Generally speaking, members of minority groups are not deliberately excluded from majority social circles, minorities are just less noticeable and less favored for membership in these groups. Surprisingly, such behavior is fundamentally normal human behavior; we tend to favor and associate with people who are more or less just like us.
Bigotry, on the other hand, is disliking, denigrating, or excluding people of another race, religion, or class specifically because they are members of that other race, religion, or class. They are often judged as being less-than, undeserving, or inherently inferior to another race or class. When you see protesters with signs that read: “Obama is a Nazi,” “Obama is a Kenyan,” “I want my country back,” that’s racism—it’s also bigotry. All bigots don’t wear sheets and pointed hats. Some wear suits, some wear dresses, some wear work clothes, some dress up like Revolutionary War patriots with tea bags dangling from their hats. Most fear their economic and cultural heritage is being destroyed by people who are forced to depend on the government just to have housing and enough to eat. Poor people scare and anger bigots.
Racism, by definition and practice, is usually the result of ignorance (which is another word misunderstood in America and simply means a lack of knowledge); bigotry is usually the result of learned hatred and judgmentalism. No one is born into this world a bigot.
I have learned through education and experience that most white people are not bigots—but most white people are racists. They don’t intend to be racists, they don’t want to be, and are horrified at the thought that they might be. In twenty-first century America, white people are being racist when they refuse to look honestly and objectively at race relations in this country today. Many whites become angry or indignant and try to explain away their racism by saying, “I don’t dislike anyone because of their race,” or “I never say unkind things about minorities,” or “I’m not a slave owner nor did my family own slaves,” or “I’ve never abused anyone of another race.” All of those statements would likely be true, but we Americans are left with a conundrum. Because of the legacy of centuries of slavery in America and one-hundred years of discrimination against African-Americans after the Civil War (remember Jim Crow laws?), we must look at racism with more understanding, sympathy, and with higher expectations. In our long, sordid history of race relations in America, whites are not granted the ability to say the above statements as though that will absolve them from our collective past. Scripture says the sins of the father will be visited on the sons for generation after generation. That’s what’s happening right now in America.
In my college course back in 1991, I discovered I had been racist in my past. I was devastated when I realized it and accepted it. My political convictions, already in upheaval because of my experiences in the health care field, were shaken to the core. I told this to my professor one day after class was over. I was determined to change those behaviors and beliefs. Seeing my distress, he gently put his arm around my shoulder, smiled, and said, “Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’ve just made a wonderful discovery. Now you can go forward with new understanding and change your life. That’s all anyone can do; that’s all anyone can ask of you.”
I left that class with a new attitude toward racism. Mostly, I became more aware of its subtleties and vowed that I would try to be more open-minded and understanding, and that leads to compassion. That has worked for me.
America has a terrible legacy, a terrible sin, because of the perpetuation of slavery and the mistreatment of minorities, and that legacy will not just go away because we all try to make things better. It will certainly never go away as long as we blame the people who came before us. We have to acknowledge those sins, over and over, until they don’t hurt so much anymore and until racism is truly a thing of the past. We’re all still paying for racism whether we like it or not, but if we accept this fact, that will be one more critical step toward the elimination of racism. It takes courage and determination. It takes willingness to think and act differently. If we can just admit that racism still exists, we can work to eliminate it. Once we do that, racism (and religious, social differences) will be a memory.