Not being racist isn’t enough in America

More than a thousand demonstrators protest the death of George Floyd outside of the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday, June 3, 2020. Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
  • For an America that preserves democracy and the rule of law, it is not enough for Americans to simply not be racist. We must be actively anti-racist, and build anti-racist institutions.
  • Institutions inform values and behaviours, and America was founded with huge racist institutions that left us with racist values and behaviours we must work to undo. We’ve known this since the 1790s. Racism is our neutral setting. Only vigorous anti-racist action can change that.
  • The national delusion that we’ve stamped out the worst of racism left us vulnerable to its evils. A vigilantly anti-racist country would not have our problems with policing, and it would not have elected Donald Trump, a white supremacist, as president.
  • Rest in peace, George Floyd.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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The protests that have gripped the nation since the murder of George Floyd – a black man who begged for his life as he was suffocated by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota – are making one truth about our society painfully clear.

It is not enough to simply not be racist in America. It never has been. It’s possible that it never will be. In this country, to preserve democracy as we believe it should be, we must be actively anti-racist.

Racism is a powerful force in America’s historical current. When the republic was built it was built on racist institutions, and those institutions then deeply ingrained racist manners and attitudes in our society. That is to say that unless we actively fight it, the country’s history naturally inclines us toward white supremacy. It is our society’s path of least resistance. Racism is our neutral.

Right now protesters on the ground are confronting racism in our police forces and in the criminal justice system. It will be a difficult fight. Police groups have been clear about the fact that they are not interested in change. But Americans are waking up to the fact that brutal policing against blacks is corroding our democracy.

So to strive to live up to the promise of our founding documents – in which it is written that “all men are created equal” – we must practice active anti-racism. We must do that by building institutions that consider racism as a reality of the American condition, and go on the offensive against it.

If this were not imperative, our nation wouldn’t be crying out from shore to shore as it is right now.

Institutions are power

Racist violence against the black community has taken on many forms since the institution of slavery began here in 1619, but the one the nation is protesting now – excessive and brutal police force directed at black Americans – follows years of pretending that the problem of racism was somehow solved.

This is a national delusion that also helped to elect Donald Trump, a white supremacist. A country that has “solved” racism does not allow that to happen.

Now, if you would like to have the gratifying experience of convincing someone you care about not to be a racist, sure. Have at it, especially if you’re white. In fact that’s a great way white people can help. But simply being “not racist” and convincing other to be “not racist” is not what I’m talking about here, it’s not anti-racism.

Anti-racism is about being conscious of our American bias toward white supremacy. Understanding how it is expressed in our institutions, dismantling them, and then building institutions that actively fight racism – in housing, policing, education, what have you. If you take racism out of institutions, society will follow.

This idea was brought into the popular consciousness by Professor Ibram X Kendi, a historian at Boston University, but the idea that racist institutions inform racist ideology has lurked in the back of our historical narrative since the days of our founding fathers.

In 1781 Thomas Jefferson wrote “Notes on the State of Virginia,” and the most curious chapter of the book is the 18th, the chapter on “Manners.” It is only two pages long, but that is all it takes for Jefferson to predict that the institution of slavery would poison all Americans, master and slave, and bring our country to its knees.

Masters, Jefferson thought, would turn into “despots.” Slaves would turn against their own country with good reason. Jefferson wanted to end slavery but he wasn’t strong enough. He settled for a wish – he hoped that the idea of ending the institution of slavery would force its “way into every one’s mind.”

Of course, slavery did not go away. It was making people too rich, especially in the south where – as Jefferson predicted – it did eventually turn planters into “despots.” American racism crystallised as a way to justify the dissonance between the “peculiar institution” and our democratic free society.

But that justification was not enough in the north, where the institution of slavery was weak and an actively anti-racist abolitionist movement worked hard to dismantle it nationally.

In the south, where slavery was strong, society went in a completely different direction. There, society disposed of the dissonance between our founding documents and slavery by throwing out – not slavery – but democracy and egalitarianism as our founding fathers knew it. They built a new, fascist nation with a hierarchy rooted in racism. They wrote it into the Confederate constitution. Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy, called it the “cornerstone” of his new society.

It took less than 100 years for the institution of slavery to stamp out the notion of equality in the American south and replace it with racism. You know what happened next – a civil war that pitted democracy against autocracy. Where a racist institution was strong, it supported a racist society. Where it was weak, ideas about racial injustice were able to take root and then thrive thanks to the conscious, concerted actions of a small-then-growing number of people committed to anti-racism.

We can do this because we’ve done it before

Of course, people who want to perpetuate racism know all about how it is passed down and around through institutional power. It is why they have always fought to keep blacks and other minorities out of institutions, or to create their own separate racist ones. Those institutions have similarly had to be confronted with anti-racist action. They have no legacy of fixing themselves.

In 1971, racist Evangelical Christian leaders fought hard to keep their segregated private schools tax exempt – an effort to pass racism down to another generation. They lost that battle because of anti-racist action that resulted in the Supreme Court case Green vs. Connelly, which was filed by a black Mississippi family that was justifiably angry that tax benefits were being given to a racist institution.

Yet again a racist institution was only changed through sustained, concerted anti-racist actions – the continuance of an ongoing struggle to diminish the influence of racism in our education system.

The good news is that this hard work works. By taking anti-racist action and enforcing racial equality in institutions, we have done some of the slow, painful work in diminishing its power. We have swum against the current of our history and changed our manners. After hundreds of years slavery was reduced to Jim Crow, after a hundred years of Jim Crow it was reduced to systems like excessive policing and incarceration. That is where we are now.

Historically, we’ve learned that racism is a problem that can only resolved through difficult, active confrontation and conscious policymaking that works against its encroachment on all of our institutions. So that is what we must do now.

The diversity in the current wave protests is a testament to success of this combatant strategy. Today, thanks to the reduction of racist institutions, white (mostly young) people are joining black and brown people in putting their bodies on the line for their democracy. They understand what racism can do when we do not actively attack it where it lives. They have, as Jefferson might say, better manners.

But after each gain Americans have made on racial equality we have, at one point, gotten tired. While black and brown Americans have never stopped fighting, many others have stepped back from the anti-racist work, allowed being “not racist” to be enough, and let our historical current push us back.

The people protesting in the streets in this moment are trying to ensure we once again take up the anti-racist work that has led us forward in the past. They are demanding that we end our comfortable delusion that being “not racist” is enough. And they want us to accept the historical fact our negligence has consequences. Our institutions make us who we are, so we cannot let them keep making us racist.