What is racism?
But the hatred spewed within ignorant racist views are symptoms of a deeper dis-ease. We need to call racism what it really is — something larger than any individual but is an emotion that springs from the individual weakness that is bigotry. First, let’s deal with what bigotry is.
Bigotry is weakness.
Bigotry is a symptom of giving in to the fear of those who are different and choosing to hide behind false views of other people rather than face the reality of how others actually are.
We all have a natural fear of the Other. How we deal with that fear is the difference between maturity and immaturity. A person has bigoted thoughts and feelings because they’ve given in to that fear of the Other. It takes a certain degree of courage to accept people for who they are and how they are. It’s easier to deal with and accept people who are similar to oneself. Differences cause tensions and not everyone has the wherewithal to deal maturely with those tensions. Bigoted actions, including racism, are fearful reactions to others. People hate because they can’t cope with difference.
To cover up our fears and justify our fearful reactions, we make up stories about others. Actually, we usually don’t need to. We can adapt the stories that were made up before us. We use the stories to convince ourselves that we’re right to fear and hate others.
Our stories tell us that those who are different from us are inferior to us. They are immoral. Stupid. Deviant. Dangerous. We invent names to dehumanize them and brand them with these labels that become profanities and insults. Bigoted labels become weapons powered by fear to harm others and deny them human rights. Labels unite individual fearful reactions into institutional structures like racism.
The difference between personal bigotry and racism
Can a Black person be racist? That is an interesting question; much more interesting and revealing than most people realize.
The answer is no, an African-American can’t be racist. That goes against our first impulse to say that of course anyone can be racist, but that misunderstands what racism is. Racism is rooted in bigotry, but they are not the same. There is a difference between personal thoughts and feelings and macrosocial structures.
Anyone can have bigoted opinions because anyone can be ignorant and fearful. But not everyone has the social power to act on their bigoted opinions. Police and politicians can believe that all Black people are inferior and they have the social power to act on that belief. A Black person could believe that other people are inferior but have no social power to act on that belief. An individual can be bigoted but it takes the power of social institutions to be racist. That’s why institutions like segregation and Apartheid can exist far more easily than can movements to oppose institutional racism.
Racism is a social structure
Racism’s structure is composed of a network of social institutions and semantic resources that establish social norms delineating a superior race from inferior races. Everyone is taught from birth norms that delineate who in society deserves recognition and who doesn’t. Misrecognition of racial minorities is embedded in the social fabric, upheld by social institutions, and enforced structurally on all.
Racism is a structure of social institutions that condone and even encourage individuals to be bigoted. In institutional racism, oppression of minorities is recognized as a moral norm. The social norms of racism are enforced by the legal system and spread far and wide by the media. Society teaches false views of minorities to individuals who receive social recognition when they repeat those lies.
For “white”* Europeans and Americans, false views about “non-whites” are so ingrained they are invisible. They can rationalize their fear of the Other as truth and if they act on their fear, they are supported. “Whites” can choose easily to hide behind bigoted views knowing they have little obligation to deal with minorities as equals or challenge the lies told about minorities. Racism empowers the weakness of bigotry.
Racism provides the structure in which fear can flourish. An individual can feel and act in a bigoted manner toward others, but will only benefit if others support these feelings and actions. If people disapprove of bigoted words or actions, individuals will stop. But if others cheer on and join in to the bigoted words or actions, then individuals are encouraged to repeat them.
Back to the question of can Black people be racist: the answer is no. A Black person can hold false bigoted views about others, but because society’s structures do not empower their fears or bigotries, they lack the social power to act on them.
The bitter irony of institutional racism is that it is weakness empowered
Structural racism continues only because it is fed by individuals’ personal bigotry. Social structures didn’t create bigotry, they exploit it and channel it. The social power of institutions and norms survive only because people continue to believe and follow them. When individuals accept false opinions about minorities they perpetuate them. Norms are norms only when people accept them as such. A leader is not a leader if no one follows. In structural racism, norms and leaders emerge and persist when individuals’ weaknesses continue to feed the racism.
Oftentimes, how political leaders become leaders is by manipulating and exploiting people’s fears and bigotries. That leaders can exploit fear to manipulate people into a social force doesn’t negate the reality that it is weakness that is being manipulated and channelled. Racism is a perverse social structure that consolidates and empowers weak, fearful people. The structures of racism says “believe these stories and you don’t have to deal with your fear.” Structural racism says “it’s okay to be afraid of the evil Other, you don’t need to treat them as equal human beings.” Racism is a social structure that empowers unthinking cowardice.
What are called “populist” movements are actually weaponized rabbles of weakness. Give a coward a big enough gun and the coward will feel empowered. Give people afraid of those who are different from them a good enough story about the Others and they will feel empowered. Yes, social structures give bigots the social power to act on their bigotry, but they remain under the control of fear.
Bigotry is a choice
No matter the strength of the social structures of racism, bigotry remains a personal choice. Most people follow the norms but that is not a given. An individual can choose to not follow the norms. The problem is that going against the norms of structural racism is not an easy choice. Much of that is because of peer pressure, but a great deal of it is because people do have the fear of the Other. It is easier to unthinkingly accept the false stories and just go along. That is not an excuse. It is always wrong to mistreat others. It is the moral responsibility of all “white” people to reject the false views of minorities taught to them.
Is overcoming bigotry and racism possible?
Not easily. To not follow the norms “whites” have to overcome their own fears. “Whites” who try to go beyond the racist stereotypes and treat minorities as full human beings will often find themselves shamed for doing so. That’s nothing compared to the constant shame heaped on minorities who are told continually to accept the false views society has of them, or else.
Society recognizes racist behavior by supporting “white” fear of minorities, supporting discrimination of minorities, but refusing to recognize that minorities have legitimate grievances about the lies and injustices perpetrated against them. Social norms perpetuate racism, but we can choose to recognize truth rather than lies. Instead of recognizing the false views of bigotry, we all need to recognize the voices of minorities.
Racism is a structure built on weakness. It is powerful because its norms are embedded in our social existence, but it is based on lies. The structure is rotten and needs to be torn down. Yet, railing at the structure doesn’t succeed because those who have fearful reactions to the Other have a vested interest in maintaining the structure. Structural racism gives cowards cover under which to hide. We need to deal with causes, not symptoms. Until we deal with those fearful reactions to difference and the weakness surrounding them, we can’t hope to stop the cycle of hate and ignorance created by the fear and weakness.
Overcoming fear and bigotry takes courage and communication among individuals. Overcoming racism requires a widespread, sustained effort from many individuals. There are no easy solutions. It will take much more than courage, but it begins there.
* “White” and “non-white” are social constructions tied to value judgments–in other words, tied to racism. The highly dubious stance of racialism declares that humans can be divided into biologically distinct races. The upshot of racialism is that individuals are determined by biology. Africans can’t not be inferior to Europeans and so on. Racialism is a total fabrication, but because the false views of racialism are supported by social institutions, it has been widely accepted. Racialism is held even by scientists who falsify science to justify their personal bigotry. See “scientific racism.”
I agree with your sentiment but I quibble with your usage of words. Racism is not just a structural reality. The hair you split between bigotry and racism confuses both terms. Racism is a form of bigotry. Structural and institutional racism is just that. Structural and institutional. If someone’s bigotry is based on race it is racism. Whether or not they have power to forward their agenda or beliefs is not relevent in this regard.
I should say that I am a Japanese and European person who has been beaten and spit on by whites growing up. I could present as white because my skin is pale but I would tell people I was Japanese because my grandmother who was pure Japanese taught me to be proud of my origins and they would treat me as they did subsequently. If I today were to retaliate against a random white person this would be a racist move.
If you were to retaliate against a random white person that would be an act of bigotry. It would be a personal act of cowardice, but it is still a personal act, not a political act much less a governmental act. It is vitally important that we make the distinction between individual actions and social structures if we are to have any hope of combating both personal bigotries and structural oppression.
Having the structural power to act on bigotry is extremely relevant. To take an extreme example: anti-Jewish bigotry was common, but it took the structural power of the Nazi regime to engineer the Holocaust. Before World War II, anti-Japanese bigotry was common, but it was the structural power of the U.S. military that incarcerated Japanese-Americans in concentration camps.
Seldom do I come across an online magazine that’s equally educative and enjoyable, and let me tell you, you have hit the nail on the head. Racism is a problem that not enough people are speaking intelligently about.