Racism in America hasn’t disappeared
I’m a good liberal. I listen to NPR, vote Democrat, eat cage-free eggs and drink fair-trade, organic coffee. Living in Durham for the past 12 years, it has become easy to think that most people tend to see things as I do.
So when I ran across last week’s “Daily Show” interview with Don Yelton, the former GOP precinct chair for North Carolina’s Buncombe County, a number of his statements were not only shocking, but strangely foreign. Talking about “lazy blacks that want the government to give them everything,” Yelton’s comments seemed so egregious that they appeared farcical.
Immediately, my reaction was to write him off as a bigot, an ignorant old man, a specimen of a past time, a racist anomaly.
As Chief Justice John Roberts stated this summer in the Supreme Court’s majority position to strike down a provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, “Our country has changed.”
We have come such a long way since the Civil Rights Movement. We, as a country, have made real progress in the area of race. Yelton simply didn’t get the memo.
Yet, I’m beginning to wonder whether my knee-jerk response is, in fact, not an indication of social progress, but part of the ongoing problem of racism in the United States.
It’s easy to dismiss Yelton as a backward thinker, part of a small remnant of past ways of seeing the world. It is much harder to accept the stereotypes that Yelton articulated as still very much a part of the societal landscape. We see them constantly in mainstream media – the black criminal, the Middle Eastern terrorist, the spiritual American Indian.
Such stereotypes, regardless of whether we believe them to be true, impact people. They filter into real life. A quick look at the disproportionate rate of incarceration and severity of sentencing between black and white men illustrates the power of the image of black male violence and criminality.
As an Asian American woman, I’ve experienced the oppressive weight of racial expectations and assumptions. Some feel trivial, like the belief that because I’m Asian I must know kung fu, play a musical instrument or be good at math. Others feel heavier, like that of the exotic and sexually available Asian woman.
Racial stereotypes are not simply held by a few backward thinking people. They are wide reaching, showing up in the institutional structures of society – in the prison system, in our schools, in our job market. They become a part of the fabric of American social sensibility and, at times, find a way into our public policy.
North Carolina doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to racial discrimination and public policy. From the 1920s through the ‘70s, the state sterilized more than 7,500 poor and, often times, black citizens. According to North Carolina’s 1929 law on sterilization, this was done “for the public good.” These people of color were seen as unproductive and degenerate. They threatened the progressive trajectory of society.
Now, less than 40 years later, the state’s black citizens are being sterilized again, but this time through unfair voting laws. Identified as unproductive or “lazy” citizens, they are being strategically deprived of their ability to affect the trajectory of society through the right to vote.
The point I’m trying to make is not that all Republicans are racist. My point is that racial prejudice isn’t a thing of the past. It colors our present reality. And, even though we often fail to realize it, it’s present in structural elements of society.
Thinking that we are beyond the problem of race or the Don Yeltons of the world are anomalies only functions to obstruct progress. It prevents us from dealing head-on with prejudiced policy and social inequality.
I’m a good liberal. I don’t agree with stereotypes about black laziness or promiscuous Asian women or any number of ill-conceived notions
Yet, as important as it is to acknowledge the fallacy of such stereotypes, it isn’t enough. We need to recognize that these images and stories form us and our society. Racism isn’t a thing of the past. Justice Roberts may be right – our country may have changed. Racism may have changed, but it certainly hasn’t disappeared.
Jessica Wong is a Ph.D. candidate in theology and ethics in Duke University’s Religion Department.