Key #1: Racism Without Racists … Is Still Racist!
To truly engage in a meaningful conversation about race in America today, we urgently need to understand how racism happens without self-professed racists. We have to understand how someone can fervently say “I am not a racist,” but still engage in racist behavior and beliefs. We have to understand how even non-white people can hold racist beliefs that at their core uphold white supremacy. We have to understand how having “black friends” or being “part-black” doesn’t make any of us immune to the influence of a pervasive cultural racism in America.
In “Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America,” Eduardo Bonilla-Silva traces four key frames that people use when perpetuating racism in everyday life:
- Abstract liberalism is when people express ideas of economic or political liberalism, such as equality and freedom of individual choice and personal responsibility, in an abstract way to oppose or deny the realities of racial inequality and oppression.
For example, people will oppose affirmative-action policies as a matter of abstract principle, because they think that such policies are somehow unequal and unfair and a kind of “reverse racism.” Such a belief dismisses the realities of racial inequality, choosing instead to borrow the language of equal opportunity to claim an imaginary “level playing field” for white people.
Disturbingly, white supremacist movements also use this same logic to claim that they are not being racists but instead are simply fighting for “equal rights for the White race.”
- Naturalization of racial differences is when people dismiss racial issues as “natural” human behavior.
For example, people can claim that racial stereotyping is just a “normal” thing that happens in any society where one group is in an overwhelming majority, and thus it’s just “how things are.” This is also key to why white people will sometimes describe an experience where they were in the minority and felt like an outsider, and generalize from that experience to claim that it is simply natural for outsiders to feel singled out in any society (thus ignoring the realities of systematic institutional racism). Or, people can claim that racial segregation is not a sign of discriminatory housing policies but rather just a natural tendency for people to live close to others of “their own race.”
By making racism seem “natural,” any attempt to address racism thus gets dismissed as being a waste of time and money.
- Minimization of racist discrimination is when people believe that overt acts of racial discrimination either don’t happen anymore or are so rare that they don’t affect minorities very much.
This belief allows people to assume two separate things: (1) to adopt an all-or-nothing definition of racism, where racism is restricted to a purely individual act involving absolute violent hatred of minorities; and (2) dismiss any instance where people of color experience anything less than outright violent bigotry as simply “playing the race card.”
Such a view means that people will often respond to any critique of cultural racism or institutional discrimination or systematic inequality or even actual bigoted encounters with either “it’s not as bad as it used to be” or “that has nothing to do with race, you’re the one bringing up race.” People will also dismiss outright any historical analysis of racism, saying things like “slavery ended 150 years ago, get over it,” as if long-standing patterns of racism simply disappeared overnight with the passing of a law. In combination with abstract liberalism, this also means people will dismiss critiques of “white-on-black” crime by often bringing up instances of “black-on-white” crime as a way of abstractly equating the two without considering deeper contexts.
This is also a key factor in how people defend themselves from any involvement in racist practice: they will often say “I’m not a racist” and proceed to provide examples such as “I have black friends” or “I am part Hispanic” and so on, to demonstrate that since they clearly are not absolute and extreme racists then they cannot be racist at all.
- Cultural racism is when people believe a prejudiced cultural story about a minority group to explain that group’s behavior while allowing for individual exceptions. Bonilla-Silva highlights this frame as the key shift from the more biological-based racism of Jim Crow to a culture-based racism that is “as effective in maintaining the racial status quo” (25).
For example, instead of believing that every black male is a criminal, or that every Muslim is a terrorist, cultural racism allows people to believe just-as-racist myths that most black males are criminals or that most Muslims are terrorists. Then they can say that of course they don’t judge all black males, that they are perfectly willing to recognize that some black men may indeed be law-abiding citizens, that they may even have the one or two black friends who are “good guys,” and hence they are not being racists.
Cultural racism also means that people can judge an entire minority culture as morally inferior rather than just judging minority individuals to be genetically inferior. So for example cultural racism allows people to believe that “black culture” is to blame for all kinds of “problems” that black people have to deal with, and that their few black friends who are “good guys” are the exceptions that prove that individual black people can indeed “transcend” the challenges of “black culture.” Thus cultural racism reinforces a kind of white supremacy, where black/brown cultural values are considered inferior to cultural values held as morally supreme by white people (values that white people themselves tend to fail on a regular basis).
These frames shape the beliefs and storylines that even non-white people adopt when perpetuating racism while claiming staunchly that they are not individually racists. To really understand our contemporary conversation on race, we must recognize that these ideas are not exclusive to white people: these frameworks inform a broad cultural pattern that a variety of people across color and class and gender pick up and repeat. This broader cultural pattern is a process of whiteness, which is a system that assumes the best of character traits for white people while suspecting the character of non-white people.
This broader process explains why Zimmerman, a white Hispanic, can profile, suspect, pursue, confront, threaten, eventually kill an unarmed black teenager and then have a broad range of people claim in his defense, variously, that he’s not a racist because he has black friends, that he’s Hispanic and not white (therefore this cannot be a “white on black” crime), that he didn’t engage in racial profiling (only regular ‘profiling’), and most absurdly that HE was the one threatened by Trayvon’s allegedly aggressive male blackness. In those storylines we can see how a “racism without racists” connects powerfully with a long-existent cultural racism against black males, where a dominant cultural narrative about young black men assumes and condemns the content of their character outright.