Notwithstanding the broad appeal of Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama and despite widespread acceptance of racial integration, racism continues to thrive. Skin color may not mean as much to individual citizens as it used to, but in key social institutions like entertainment, law enforcement, advertising, education, and health care, skin color defines stark distinctions among human beings, with consequences–principally, violence and disunity–for the whole society.
Some people think that racism is personal: some of us, maybe most of us, just don’t like people of other colors. If the predisposition to discriminate isn’t inborn, says this logic, it’s learned early, and it’s almost impossible to shed. I’m not persuaded. I think racism is mostly social and hardly personal at all. I’ve known too many people who, once exposed to humans of all colors, outgrew their racism completely. Some of them are still narrow-minded bigots, but skin color isn’t an issue with them.
Even as individual people of various colors got thrown in together and found communion, what didn’t happen was any sort of corresponding institutional change. Educators, as part of a mass dumbing-down, kept academic expectations low for dark-skinned kids. Police agencies continued to equate dark skin with suspicion of wrongdoing. Commercial interests continued to exploit skin-color differences for profit.
A visible underclass is a windfall for our controllers, reminding us all of what’s in store if we don’t toe the mark inscribed by the authorities. Those authorities can be expected to preserve stereotypes based on skin color as a convenient means of getting their compliance message across. And some number of us can be expected to respond accordingly, regardless what the rest of us might think.
Since the elevation of Barack Obama, who is neither white nor black, I’ve argued that we should stop citing racism as an explanation for misconduct. I’m confessing now that my arguments were, at best, premature, and maybe just plain wrong. A day will certainly come when various ethnic groups on this continent will be so completely integrated that people won’t be able to distinguish races, but that day isn’t here yet, and a battery of institutional forces is arrayed to postpone it.
George Zimmerman, who shot and killed a 17-year-old boy in Florida a few weeks ago, is a case in point. He made a practice of patrolling the streets of his gated “community” in Sanford, armed with a pistol and a cell phone. He was in frequent contact with the local police, more than once complaining about “suspicious” non-whites in the neighborhood. Recordings of some of his 911 calls reveal that he used racial epithets to describe those he stalked. The police let him continue his patrols until he finally killed one of his targets. At this writing, a month after the shooting, he hasn’t been charged with any crime, and for all we know he’s back out on the streets with a full clip of ammunition. Same with Sergeant Bales’ accomplices in Afghanistan, aggressive Israeli settlers in the occupied territories, and the cloistered assassins in American uniforms who launch missiles from remote-controlled aircraft, all deployed for mayhem against dark-skinned innocents. That’s institutional racism.
The problem may be that light-skinned people will soon be outnumbered. Even without melanoma and interracial marriage, people of European stock aren’t reproducing at a rate sufficient to maintain their plurality, especially if all the other races are combined into one population. Some “white” people don’t want to give up their numerical advantage, and so they resort to racism. It’s not inborn in these folks, and it’s not even hatred. It’s what Zimmerman would call–and did call–self-defense, and the Sanford, Florida, prosecuting attorney agreed with him. Trayvon Martin, the child Zimmerman shot, was on his way home from the store when his innocent life came to an end. To credit the Sanford authorities’ self-defense rationale, we must believe that the child’s mere presence in a white neighborhood made him a mortal threat to Zimmerman. That’s racism.
People of all colors are lodging protests over the Sanford authorities’ failure to arrest Zimmerman. If we hadn’t been through a general dumbing-down in recent decades, there might be a mass movement to oppose stereotyping, profiling, incarceration, and discrimination based on skin color, even in the face of institutional pressure to preserve these longstanding injustices. We can only hope that our social institutions will someday reflect the sensibilities of the people that maintain them. Leaders will have to speak out in defiance for that to happen. Don’t hold your breath.