These are especially difficult times in the United States when it comes to matters of race and ethnicity. In part because of former President Trump’s disgraceful and cynical tolerance and encouragement of white supremacists, race-based hate crimes have spiked in recent years.
Attacks on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in particular – like the horrific murders that occurred in Atlanta last week – are up dramatically.
Repeated and erroneous references by Trump and his minions to COVID-19 as the “China virus” have clearly made things worse.
But, of course, racism in American predates and will long outlive Donald Trump.
Law enforcement officers were killing Black people long before George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and members of the AAPI community were being subjected to hate crimes long before last week.
In other words, wretched as Trump’s actions have been in fanning the flames of hatred and intolerance, in many ways, they’ve merely brought things that have long plagued the country more clearly into focus.
Indeed, if there’s any hope to be gleaned from the spike in overtly racist violence that has swept the U.S. in recent years, it might just be the light it has helped to shine on some hard truths with which all Americans need to come to terms.
Here are five:
1. America is not unique. Though the U.S. stands out for the degree of hypocrisy it regularly displays in purporting to act as the globe’s moral paragon, even as it maintains a grossly unequal society rooted in its original sin of enslaving Black people, it is not unique. Racism – not to mention many other forms of invidious discrimination based on ethnic heritage, gender, disability, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity – is a cancer that one can find in various forms all over the world. The pressures brought on by the pandemic, population growth, mass migration and the global environmental crisis only add to this challenge.
2. Racism is about more than what’s in people’s hearts; it’s also about systems. Dawn Blagrove, executive director of Emancipate NC, and Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry brought this truth eloquently to light during a recent online NC Policy Watch event, when they noted that ending systemic racism is about more than simply electing people of color to public office.
While more diversity in leadership is great, the real change we need will require fundamentally rethinking important societal structures – systems of law enforcement and incarceration, immigration, housing, voting, taxes, the social safety net – that are all deeply rooted in the nation’s dark history of racial oppression.
3. Self-declared “color blind” people (including white progressives) are a part of the problem. While it’s certainly positive that a lot of Americans – probably most – profess not be “racists,” it will take much more than that to successfully tackle the problem. Ultimately, the challenge of assuring human rights and equality for all is bigger than a) merely ending overt and evil actions of white supremacists, or b) white people striving to treat everyone they encounter equally going forward. In other words, “racism” is about more than bad people behaving badly; it’s also about well-meaning people acting in an oblivious fashion toward destructive societal structures and norms that have their roots in racism.
4. All of us have much to learn. As the good people at North Carolina Asian Americans Together reminded us in a powerful statement issued last week in the wake of the Atlanta killings, racism takes many forms. For Asian Americans, it can involve violent attacks, but it can also involve “the dual misogyny and racism that Asian women face,” “the long history of fetishization of Asian women and sexual violence against body workers” and the “model minority myth.”
Black and Latinx people, as well as several religious minorities have their own burdens to bear – some similar and some unique.
It is precisely because of these challenging complexities that our public education system must double down on its commitment to spotlight such issues, rather than retreat as some would have us do. Unless we empower our children to truly grasp the flaws in the world they will inherit, it’s hard to see how they can succeed.
5. Intentional and sustained public action is necessary. There once was a time in the U.S. in which many of us thought, naïvely, that our racial divides could be overcome through sheer force of will and good intentions. Unfortunately, however, the ongoing march of events makes clear that warm and fuzzy TV commercials, heartwarming pop songs, integrated sports teams, platitudes about brotherly and sisterly love, and electing people of color to office won’t be enough to get the job done.
Ultimately, to have any real hope of getting a handle on this chronic and debilitating condition that plagues us, our state and nation must also embrace a sustained commitment to a raft of important policy solutions: punishing hate crimes, reviving our commitment to genuine school integration, ending housing discrimination, reforming our criminal justice system, fundamentally altering immigration policy, addressing environmental racism, guaranteeing health care access, reducing income and wealth inequality and providing reparations for slavery.
As Prof. Ibram X. Kendi, founder of the Antiracism Center, has argued persuasively, “racial inequity is a problem of bad policy, not bad people.”