Is America “Racist”?

The institutions and systems in this country have, since its inception, used a belief that races were different to enable disparate treatment  running the gamut from segregation and separation to slavery and death.  This is what puts the —ist in racist. 

This week Tim Scott set back the fight for racial justice by doubling down on the deniers favorite song—America is not a racist country.  Despite the fact that he shared a story about his family experiencing systemic racism two sentences before, he looked straight to camera and declared on behalf of the GOP that the United States in not a racist country.

Blink twice if you need help, Tim.

The country woke from its usual slumber of silence around race last summer to admit that given the failures of the justice system, the disparate support structures of the health care system and continued economic inequality we are looking like a pretty racist place, and that was without even adding Trumpism to the mix. We had a moment when many Americans were ready to recognize and reconcile America’s shitty record on race. And then came the racism deniers.  Trump and his 78 million supporters fought back hard against those that would identify and address racism. The White House put out communications attacking the schools of thought that spearheaded structures for studying race. The right wing media beats now a daily drum of misinformation and ad hominem attacks on anyone who dares to call out systemic racism, calling them whiners and haters instead of scientists and historians.

Saying the United States is racist doesn’t mean that this country is full of big meanies or that America is intrinsically bad—that’s a different argument.  Too often resistance mistakes feelings for facts—people criticize those critiquing the country by saying they hate America. They claim any desire to identify racism is born of emotion and aims to taint history.  In fact the reality is the opposite—the feelings and experiences that we have are a function of the systems of power and privilege that we use to organize our society, not the cause of it.

Race is a social construct that organizes humans into sub-categories according to but not bound by factors like ancestry, heritage, culture, and color.  We should note that the lines of race are fuzzy.  We are not simple sweet peas where mixing a red and a white give you a pink.  The categories of race fall along clear lines—white black asian latinx and indigenous—that fail not infrequently to truly capture the human tapestry of a nation of colonizers and immigrants.  The lines themselves are apples and oranges, comparing color, to country of origin, to continent to who was here first. The categories of race adhere much more to the needs of those in power than they do to any natural or biological grouping. Funny, not funny, how that happens.  

We used to be more science-y about proving race was a real thing.  Scientists in the 19th and 20th century spent oodles of scienc-ing measuring heads and casting questionable and ahistorical aspersions as fact.  Science, shaped by scientists who were “people of their time (aka racist), sought out to prove that white people were smarter and more moral than other grouping of people. And prove it they did with junk science like phrenology and demonstrably false theories riddled with bias like the bell curve or broken window policing. These theories supported decades of disparate treatment in education, employment and every other aspect of American life.

At the turn of the century, scientists finished mapping the human genome and proved once and for all there is no gene connected to race.  Yeah, race is not a real biological thing. Period, full stop. Tracing mitochondrial DNA shows the all humans share common ancestry—African ancestry for those of you who are unsure about who the original OGs were.  Even skin color is created by a set of eight genes that do not break neatly along racial lines.  The truth is race is not a biological fact, it is a social construct, made up by humans.

History shows us that race isn’t an ancient concept but is in fact a more modern invention.   Sure the human has always been obsessed with the boundaries between tribes, territories and nation states, but race as we currently conceive of it along its white-at-the-top framework was born alongside the United States. Yes, Europeans had all kinds of intergroup hate in the middle ages—they were tough times for Jewish people, or Roma—but the concept of ‘white” didn’t show up in language or thinking until 1400’s just in time to spin a story that Africans are not humans, and therefore ripe for the picking of an exploitable labor force to build the “new world.” Apparently, slaughtering indigenous people and creating the economic engine to catapult American onto the world stage was too much work.

In order to build the United States from a few colonies to the powerhouse it soon became, there was a need for lots and lots of labor that the fledgling country could ill afford to pay competitive wages for. The US trafficked nearly 400,000 humans from Africa, and over the next century, kidnapped, enslaved and trafficked 1.2 million African Americans within our borders for 8 or more generations.  These enslaved people built the very foundation of American, creating an economic engine as well as the literal buildings themselves.  Enslaved people brought craftsmanship, artistry, cooking and in exchange were tortured, raped, murdered, their children sold off generation after generation all supported by the lie that White people are human and black people are not.

The One drop rule, the 3/5ths clause. Dred Scott, Jim Crow, redlining, the prison industrial complex—for hundreds of years America has created laws, practices and policies to control Black bodies and Black freedom.  Even today the plaintive cry to stop killing Black people is met with a no. The institutions and systems in this country have, since its inception, used a belief that races were different to enable disparate treatment  running the gamut from segregation and separation to slavery and death.  This is what puts the —ist in racist. 

The suffix —ist means holding an ideological belief in something, in this case an ideological belief in the social construct of race. So yes, America has taken an ideological position that there are different races and has organized power, practice and policy to that end.  That makes America a racist country. Now you can look at the evidence yourself and judge if that is good or bad(spolier alert: not great), but what you cannot argue is that race is not a primary organizing ideological and social structure in this country.

You can’t fix what you can’t recognize. The utter denial of what is historical record, the cynical position declaring there is no racism here without reconciling what we can see with our eyes, what we can know through research and excavation of the historical record, what is evident in the data tracking of our justice, education and financial systems even today: this is what is blocking this country’s ability to evolve.  Without acknowledging how power is structured, we run the risk of enshrining for yet another generation harmful—and yes, racist—practices.

Tim Scott got some surprising support from the first Black and Asian Woman to hold the office of Vie President. Vice President Harris likes to remind us that she was that little girl so I gently remind her that that little girl was being victimized by systemic racism right here in America.  The impetus for the VP to fight for justice is born from the racism of the US. I hope she remembers that now that she is in an elevated position of power to fight the system that tried to stop that little girl. Tim Scott also seems to hold the power of his family overcoming racism injustice in one hand and the power to deny it on the other. Anyone of either party or any race can deny racism, but those with power have added responsibility to take the side of justice.

It’s time to stop attacking the messengers and open up the letter America has written to itself in the blood of generations of black and brown people. Let’s name it so that we can see it. Let’s look at the truth of our history in all its splendor and shame so that we can reconcile the horrors of our past and present with who we want to be tomorrow.  

Author: Susan X Jane

Susan X Jane is a diversity educator, speaker, and trainer. A former professor and youth worker, she now consults with organizations looking to make sense of our current cultural shift. She thinks a lot about media and race…a lot, and writes and speaks about media…and race... and generally encourages everyone she meets to think about the way our identity shapes our experiences, ideas, and beliefs about the world. If you're reading this, she wants you to think about it too. Want to talk about it? Let's go.

One thought on “Is America “Racist”?”

  1. PHENOMENAL. THANK YOU THANK YOU. You’re writing again! HURRAH! Found one teeny typo: Tim Scott got some surprising support from the first Black and Asian Woman to hold the office of Vie President. LOVE YOU FOREVER AND EVER xox

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