What is Racism?
By NAVID FARNIA
Contrary to popular belief, editorial writing is more complex than academic writing. I can say this because I have firsthand experience with both. Producing a scholarly paper is by no means easy, but journalism holds you more accountable for your work. When you are limited to a small amount of space – often the case in journalism – every sentence and word becomes precious, and anything wasted is an injustice to your audience.
Lately, I have put considerable thought into writing a relatively short article about one small and yet, extremely complex question. That question: What is racism? Without writing too much or fluffing the article up with unnecessary jargon, how would I properly engage this question? Racism is such a broad and complicated concept that no matter how much I say, it will never be enough. But even knowing full well that I could not possibly do the question justice, I still felt the need to take up this challenge.
Why would I even try it? Put simply, I think it is important, both to me and to you, reader. I believe it to be important because the process of writing unearths another essential and unavoidable question: How do we talk about racism? This is my way of figuring that out. Thus, knowing I cannot possibly provide all the answers to these questions – nor would I even claim to have all the solutions – I move forward with this demanding task realizing that humility is necessary.
So, what is racism? Racism is an ideology, an ideology of oppression that is put into practice. In other words, racism is not just an idea or belief; it is a belief system, which makes it an ideology. Furthermore, I am not simply referring to racism in everyday life, but rather, a structure our world (structural) type of racism. It is in the very fabric of society. Acts of prejudice or discrimination (what we even call acts of racism) are systematic, but these acts all fall under a greater system or structure in which we live.
In this sense, racism has everything to do with power. Racial oppression as a system is in place because of white power and domination over other racialized groups. This is white supremacy. Structural racism exists to ensure white supremacy.
Put into practice, perhaps the most familiar example of structural racism is slavery in the United States. Slavery was a legalized system of oppression, and its practice was on the basis of race. Its existence revolved around the ideology of white domination over Black people. Because of this, slavery was an economic system that exploited Black people for the benefit of whites. During this same period, the U.S. government was also forcefully removing Native Americans from their lands (another practice that was a product of white supremacy).
Slavery ultimately fell, but the end of the legalized system of bondage did not suddenly result in a society where wealth was equally distributed and racial discrimination ceased. Instead, slavery’s end saw white supremacy reformed and resurrected through Jim Crow apartheid.
The racial institution of slavery not only affected everyone in society at the time, but its legacy also continues to shape the world today in terms of poverty, segregation and other processes. Racial profiling is one such example of contemporary racism, and it is an issue that effectively demonstrates the difference between everyday acts of racism and structural racism. We know that the police stop (profile) everyone at one point or another, regardless of whether or not a person has done something illegal. These instances of profiling may be viewed as isolated situations that happen on an everyday basis. However, when a person gets stopped or arrested repeatedly due to the color of their skin in a society where police routinely target Blacks and Latinos for the same reason, these acts are anything but isolated. Such targeting is part of something larger and more systematic, racial profiling. Racial profiling functions like a part within a larger machine or system, that system being racism. Stop and Frisk is a form of legalized racial profiling, and so are Arizona’s SB 1070 law and surveillance of Middle Eastern and Muslim communities.
Structural racism does not have to be legal in order to survive though. Segregation is illegal and yet, America is still extremely segregated. And despite the previously mentioned legalized procedures, racial profiling was actually deemed unconstitutional long before these programs were in place.
These cases and examples show us that racism is very concrete and real. It is not some abstract concept that we magically poof in and out of our lives. Unfortunately however, the prevailing idea of our time is that if we just stop acknowledging race, we can wipe out racism. This naïve and dangerous view only considers everyday acts of racial discrimination and fails to recognize racism as structural oppression. White supremacy through structural racism is a fundamental truth in this world. We cannot avoid it. And attempting to evade or unlearn our truth only worsens the problem.
Silence surrounding racial issues reinforces racism. White supremacy’s modern-day project is to sell the notion that if society is colorblind, racism will stop. Because of this, colorblind ideology is today’s racism. In effect, colorblindness only really blinds us from white supremacy itself and its continued expansion. Dodging the reality of racism merely strengthens it on an institutional level. Thus, in challenging ourselves to understand what racism is, we should also be thoughtful of how we can talk about it in our “colorblind” or “post-racial” society.
Colorblind ideology grew directly in response to the civil and human rights gains in the 1950s and 1960s. Its emergence is the product of white backlash to that era. The recent Supreme Court ruling to gut the Voting Rights Act of 1965 stands on the argument of colorblindness; this is evident in the language of the decision.
Colorblind arguments also lend support to the attack on affirmative action. Some even say the program causes “reverse discrimination” or “reverse racism.” But of course, if we understand racism as structural, we know these notions have no basis in reality. Those who use the “reverse discrimination” argument employ their (white) privilege to undermine the true meaning of racism as it relates to institutions of power. “Reverse discrimination” is also the primary argument applied to make a case for colorblind policy. These examples show us though, how colorblind ideology is used in practice to eliminate or drastically weaken barriers to racial oppression.
In addition to racial issues in America, racism’s reach travels across borders. The U.S. and Western Europe’s increased involvement around the world is on the basis of racism, which is evidenced by the fact that their influence is most deeply felt in the Third World (which many in the West disrespectfully call “the developing world”). Moreover, when politicians from the West speak of issues and conflicts in the Third World, the language and tone is noticeably condescending. These undertones of Western (white) superiority occur even despite the reality that American and European involvement has historically caused or worsened these issues and conflicts in the first place. Racism is at the root of this unstable and imbalanced relationship between the West and the Third World.
With all this information in mind then, how can we combat racism, especially in a society that claims to be colorblind? I do not claim to have an answer, but building race consciousness seems to be a solid starting point. If silencing discussions about racism only drives us deeper into the abyss, then perhaps confronting each other with questions like, “What is racism?” is the best place to start climbing out. Additionally, the fact that race conscious programs like affirmative action are applied to challenge institutions provides proof that race consciousness is an effective foundation of resistance. Learning, talking, debating and even arguing with each other about racism and other forms of oppression can be a self-liberating practice. Racism will not end today or tomorrow, but the more questions we ask, the more we may hope to answer.
Navid Farnia received his Master of Arts degree from the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University in New York. He is an Iranian American who was born and raised in Oklahoma.
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