What is racism?
But the hatred spewed by 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 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 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.
To cover up our fears and fearful reactions, we make up stories about others. Actually, we usually don’t need to. We can adapt the stories 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 misrecognize and harm others. Labels unite individual fearful reactions into institutional structures like racism.
The difference between personal bigotry and racism
Can an African-American person be racist? That is an interesting question. 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 is racism. Racism springs from bigotry, but they are not the same. There is a difference between the personal and the macrosocial structures.
Anyone can have bigoted opinions because anyone can be weak and fearful. But not everyone has the social power to act on their bigoted opinions. Cops and politicians can believe that all African-Americans are thugs and they have the social power to act on that belief. An African-American person could believe that all other people are thugs 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
That structure is a network of social institutions and semantic resources that establish social norms delineating a superior race from inferior races. Everyone is taught from birth the 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 when social institutions 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 bigoted words or actions, individuals are encouraged to repeat them.
Back to the question of can African-Americans be racist: no, an African-American can hold false 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 survives only because the foundation of racism is personal bigotry. Social structures didn’t create bigotry, they exploit it. The social power of institutions and norms survive only because people continue to believe and follow them. Individuals accept false views of minorities and perpetuate them. A leader is not a leader if no one follows. Norms are norms only when people accept them as such.
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. Racism is a perverse social structure that consolidates and empowers weak, fearful people. It says “believe these stories and you don’t have to think, 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 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 how strong are 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 accept the false stories and just go along. “Whites” have to overcome their own fears to not follow the norms. 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. “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 its existence 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. Until we deal with those fearful reactions and the weakness surrounding it, we can’t hope to stop the cycle of hate and ignorance the fear and weakness creates.
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 controversial 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. 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 bigotry. See “scientific racism.”