In 2008, the argument that race has declined in importance became the crystallized “post-racial” thesis upon the election of President Barack Obama. By his re-election in 2012, some had offered clarification that race still exists, but it is racism that has disappeared – the “post-racism” thesis. There it sits, almost as a sense of relief — “whew, now we can stop tip-toeing around people of color, and supporting these race-related causes like Affirmative Action.”
On day 2 of George Zimmerman’s trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin, the supposed reality of post-racism contrasts with that of the hyperrelevance of race and racism. A young Black man was killed because his race made him a suspect.
Today, Blackness is still a crime, and whites are charged with the task of policing Black people. The harshness of law enforcement and the criminal justice system is magnified for Blacks, from the use of excessive force to longer sentences to denial of justice all together. Even those who are not police officers, judges, and lawyers serve to police Blacks; the days of lynching Black women and men has merely evolved into a calmer form of extralegal vigilance.
My blood boiled as I watched this video. I posted it in various places on Facebook, expecting similar outrage. The video was widely shared, but often introduced with concerned, but surprisingly calm notes: “watch this”; “wow”; “this is messed up.” Those were comments mostly comments from white people.
But, even some Black folks articulated concern, but little surprise. In fact, a few people seemed to think that it was problematic that I was surprised, and that they are superior in some way for being unmoved. The unsympathetic response of “why are you surprised?” stung, playing on my fear that I am “not Black enough” or “too white” to fully comprehend the severity of contemporary racism. I suppose the anonymity of the internet is a dual-edged sword, where hostility is widely expressed and, absent of an in-person connection, there is little expression of empathy and solidarity.
Racism Is Worse Than We Realize
As I further processed my reactions to this video, I realized that my surprise and anger are warranted. Yes, in the self-confident sense where I do not need to justify my feelings, or shape or suppress them according to others’ opinions. But, also because the sheer pervasiveness and severity of racism cannot be fully comprehended by one person. Even as a researcher, I am unable to see every instance, manifestation, and consequence of racism in every corner of the world.
Like this video, racism that hides behind seemingly race-neutral interactions, laws, and practices is harder to see, and near impossible to prove exists. Today, we are dealing with consciously suppressed and unconscious racial prejudice — both which shape behaviors. Few racists openly, proudly identify themselves as racists, and most racists do not even know that they are racist.
Racial discrimination, too, is harder to identify, particularly absent of outwardly expressed racial bias. It is no longer limited to exclusion at the entry point or first contact. The “whites only” sign has to be implied since it cannot be hung from the front door. We may be hired, but then harassed on the job or denied opportunities to advance. We may receive a loan, but are offered one that is economically risky.
On the ground, we cannot see other interactions to “accurately” assess whether we have been discriminated against. (This speaks to the importance of research to look at the broader patterns!) Like the racial profiling video above, Black people may suspect unfair or differential treatment driven by racial prejudice, but rarely can we compare the same situation experienced by a white person. Even in some of the recent audit studies that demonstrate racial discrimination in the labor force, some of the participants were unaware of the discriminatory treatment they faced until they compared notes with others and the researchers.
In reality, racism and the pervasiveness of racial discrimination are likely far worse than we can imagine. So, I stand by my surprise because it is a reasonable reaction to such harsh reminders of the everyday consequences of racism. But, also because I much prefer to hope for something better than resign myself to accept the world as it is.