The Center for Public School Renewal

NOTE: Published in slightly different form by UTF Action, 1/28/72.

Racism Lives Today
by Barry McGhan

WHITE ONLY . . . used to be a common legend on signs in many parts of the country a few years ago. Most of these signs are gone now, but the racism they advertised lives on.

Use of the word racism upsets people. Whites get uptight when charges of racism are made, and blacks get uptight when the importance of racism is belittled. Almost every discussion of the subject generates more heat than light. We need to overcome the emotionalism surrounding this problem and develop a wider understanding of its nature, a task especially important for teachers, because the racism practiced (or allowed to go unchecked) by schools affects virtually every person in the country.

After the riots of 1967, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders caused widespread antagonism and dismay among whites by stating that "white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it." This blanket indictment was too much for most whites to accept.

One major reason that many whites rejected the charge was just plain ignorance. The amount of racial isolation in our society is high, and most whites have little or no close contact with blacks, and consequently know little about the ways black people suffer discrimination. Ignorance of the true conditions of life for blacks thus enables whites to believe that things are getting better--when in fact, recent surveys show that for most blacks poverty, unemployment, segregation, etc, have all increased. Such ignorance also permits gross generalizations like "those colored people can get away with anything nowadays."

Another reason for rejecting the charge was that some whites agreed that discrimination occurs, but did not feel personally responsible for it. It is true that one can't often govern the actions of other persons or institutions, but when one does nothing to reduce racism, one gives tacit approval to its continuance. Bigots who commit racist acts against blacks do so with the knowledge that most whites will not be sufficiently affronted to take action against them. A recently popular slogan sums up the situation: "If you're not part of the solution then you're part of the problem." The controlling factors here are apathy, self-centeredness, and superficial commitment to justice for all.

Less honest and rational defenses were employed also. Some tried to downplay the Commission's findings about white racism by saying that black racism was an important problem too, or by claiming that blacks wanted to move too fast, or by dismissing the whole thing as the product of "pointy-headed liberals" and "bleeding hearts."

In order to come to a better understanding of this problem we need to pin down what we mean by the term "racism." Racism is that phenomenon which includes the thoughts based on assumptions about, or stereotypes of, racial groups, and the actions (stemming from the assumptions and stereotypes) which work to subordinate those groups.

Racist thoughts and actions are founded on the antediluvian myth that people of color are "naturally" inferior to white people. This myth came into full flower in the U.S. during the days of slavery, when slave owners needed to rationalize and excuse their economic exploitation and subhuman treatment of blacks. Since then, the myth of inferiority has gained a life of its own, and now supports the rationalizations of whites who hold economic, political, or psychological advantages over blacks, chicanos, and native Americans.

Following the Civil War, the racist institution of slavery gave way to a multitude of lawful and unlawful overtly racist practices in all parts of the country. While most legal forms of racial discrimination have now been outlawed, other forms of racism are still very much with us.

For instance, the continuance of overt illegal racism can be seen in incidents like the one where a black girl was shot down by whites following her high school graduation last June [There seems to be no shortage of such events even 30 years later]. In some cases, overt racism has simply gone underground. For example, realtors don't advertise "white', and "colored" homes in The Flint Journal anymore, but some of them still sell homes on that basis.

One of the most important effects of overt racism is that it has caused inequality to become institutionalized and self-sustaining. For example, until recently, the hiring policies of many companies were openly discriminatory, forcing blacks to take what they could get from among the lowest paying jobs in the work force. Consequently, many have low incomes which, coupled with discrimination in housing, has placed them in environments where they and their children have little chance of becoming trained for something better. Now it is no longer necessary to practice job discrimination against blacks per se--all one has to do is maintain "reasonable" standards of training and deportment, and institutional racism will do the rest.

The often-subtle underground and institutional forms of racism are aggravated by the even more subtle incidental racism that exists in society.

Most people in the world seem be ethnocentric, that is, they think their group's way is right and every else's is wrong. Often, the standards of the majority group are treated as if they are universal standards (although many of them are not). Naturally, behavior not conforming to the "universals" is considered undesirable, so, in a hundred different ways society casually tells minority people that their behavior is inappropriate and/or inadequate.

To summarize, although slavery was destroyed, its accompanying myth of the natural inferiority of people of color and the concomitant matrix of attitudes and stereotypes became well established, and now provide the white majority with a rationale for automatically relegating colored people to the lower strata of society. While much of the legally permitted overt racism of slavery, housing covenants, political disenfranchisement, de jure school segregation,etc., has been swept away, the underground, institutional and incidental forms of racism continue to subordinate and oppress people of color.

One of the major roadblocks to ridding our society of racism is that many whites think that the disappearance of legal racism has solved, or will solve, the problem. But, although we have largely ended the driving force of legal racism, our social system has an inertia which will cause it to continue dealing with people of color as it has in the past. It will not be enough to merely stop some of our former practices--countermeasures must be enacted.

Over a long period of time our society has been shaped into a racist society, with oppressive characteristics which are now automatic. The racist structure has been deliberately cultivated by some bigots, and incidentally (or accidentally) allowed to form by others who are insensitive to the need for a pluralistic society. Racism, now firmly entrenched, is maintained by the ignorance, apathy, and self-centeredness of most people.

Until whites--who have the power to bring about change--agree on the nature of the problem and have the courage to admit that it is one which calls for extraordinary countermeasures, our society will continue to be for white only ....


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