The Elimination Of Racism Has Been A Project In America Since Its Inception

I get a lot of praise, here and elsewhere, for the patience I demonstrate in my conversations. And I really do try my best. But before I give the impression that I always succeed, it’s time to prove that occasionally, I can be just as irrational and reactive as the next person.

In my article Who Cares If America Is A Racist Country?, I criticised the practice of asking philosophical questions when there are real, concrete issues to address. After all, the only people who benefit from debating whether America is a racist country are the politicians and podcast hosts who earn votes or advertising dollars by doing so.

Instead, I argued that focusing on helping people affected by racial inequality would be a much better use of that energy. A regular reader and commenter, named Michael, wasn’t happy to leave the question unanswered:


Michael:

When using their real name no longer puts people of colour at a disadvantage, when neighbourhoods and schools are no longer segregated, when people are no longer murdered for the colour of their skin, on that day there’ll be time for questions like “is America racist?”

Whenever I read one of your pieces I always find myself cringing, then getting angry, then agreeing emphatically, etc., at various points. I don’t experience that anywhere else.

America is not a racist country. Are there racists here? Of course, there are racists everywhere, of all colors. It’s just a fact of human nature, one of those things we have learn to suppress. But the systems in America are not racist and haven’t been in my lifetime.

The problems you cite are ones of individuals behaving in a racist fashion. Those actions are not condoned by our society or our laws, so you cannot claim they are systemic in nature.

The elimination of racism has been a project in America for hundreds of years and we as a country largely thought we’d crossed the finish line in 2008 when we finally elected a black man as our president. Conservatives like me were wary of Obama’s radical left politics, but honestly celebrated that one milestone as turning to a new chapter for our beloved country.

As it turned out, Obama veered leftward and eventually started stoking racial animosity, and now here we sit in 2021 having seemingly reversed all the progress we made in 50 years. There is just no question that race relations right now are far, far worse than they were before Obama was elected.

And they don’t seem to be headed in the right direction, either. Now we have the black community demanding segregated dorms and graduation ceremonies at colleges; openly pushing anti-white curricula at schools at all ages; gaslighting everyone into believing white supremacy — the KKK — is actually a thing in the 21st century; attributing white racism to every bad thing that occurs to any black person or any disparate outcome for the community as compared to other races; etc.

We need to stop automatically assuming that everything is racist. You rightly poke fun at “is cheese racist,” but it seems to me the impetus for such a silly statement is what I just described — everything these days is supposedly racist (when in fact very little is). Even Math is called racist today. That includes the police cases you raised. For every George Floyd there’s a Tony Timpa. Prosecutors in the Floyd case didn’t even assert that Chauvin did what he did with racist intent; people just assume it.

Are there legit cases of police abuse? 100%, and all of us can agree that every single one should be investigated. Regardless of the races involved.

MLK wanted a race-blind society, and that’s all I’ve wanted my whole life. I personally believe that we’re there, if we could just see through all this ginned-up racial animosity smoke.


This reply is almost tailor-made to push my buttons.

First, there’s the trope about how Obama being elected president somehow heralded the end of racism in America. As if this one black man was an avatar for every single black American.

A previously unbroken line of white presidents hasn’t fixed the problems of all white Americans and white people were never discriminated against by law. So why on Earth would eight years of Obama fix all black people’s problems when black people were discriminated against by law until 56 years ago?

Next, there’s the criticism of things that I’ve already spoken out against or haven’t mentioned at all. It’s a pet peeve of mine when people argue with me about the harm “woke” anti-racism activists are doing as if I haven’t devoted a great deal of time to criticising that harm.

The word “policing” appears precisely once in the article (I have no idea what he means by “the police cases you raised”), makes no reference to George Floyd at all (whose murder I don’t believe was racially motivated), and I’m the last person who would say that everything is racist.

But worst of all is the claim that “the elimination of racism has been a project in America for hundreds of years.” This is so preposterous that I honestly think the red mist came down and (as will become clear) I didn’t read anything else he said properly.

I knew that the wise, mature thing to do would be to take a few deep breaths, step away from my computer for a while, and think carefully about how I wanted to respond. Unfortunately, I did none of these things.


Steve QJ:

Whenever I read one of your pieces I always find myself cringing, then getting angry, then agreeing emphatically, etc., at various points. I don’t experience that anywhere else.

Hahaha, I'm a veritable rollercoaster ride. But to be clear, I'm not arguing that America is a racist country. I'm not arguing that it isn't. I'm saying that the question itself is stupid. Again. Who cares?

If it is a racist country, something should be done about that racism. If it isn't a racist country, something still needs to be done about the racial disparities caused by its racist history. Why not just skip the middle man and get straight to addressing the problems?

Your claim that the elimination of racism has been a project in America for hundreds of years is just flat out demonstrably untrue. Well, actually, let me nuance that. People have been fighting to rid America of racism for hundreds of years, but America itself, with the full might of it's legal system and social infrastructure, was fighting to maintain it until, generously, 56 years ago.

I don't think I'm stirring up racial animosity at all. I have no idea why you mentioned George Floyd. I certainly didn't. And I've never claimed that his murder was racially motivated. I've spoken about Tony Timpa and Duncan Lemp and others. I've pointed out numerous times how ridiculous the "maths is racist" lot are. In fact, I'm speaking out against these idiots. I'm actually putting my neck on the line. The entire reason I speak out against them is that they cause the kind of "race issue fatigue" you seem to be expressing here.

But let's be clear, things weren't better for black people pre-Obama. In fact, in many ways they were worse. Your discomfort, your desire to return to a time when we just didn't talk about that stuff, is selfish. It's not progress except for you. And it's not at all comparable to MLK's dream of a race-blind society. To be fair, what on earth makes you think that there's a race-blind society anywhere or that you're in a position to notice?

MLK talked about race you may have noticed. He talked about it a lot. But he didn't resort to divisiveness and race-baiting. That's what I try to do. MLK and his peers made great progress, but a lot of things were left broken. Those things can't be fixed without taking about race.

So a) please don't take your frustrations with the woke crowd out on me. Just because I'm black doesn't mean I think that way. That should be obvious. And b) just because there are stupid people saying stupid things about race doesn't mean racism no longer exists or impacts people's lives. If that makes you uncomfortable, just imagine how it makes them feel.


Reading this reply back, it’s as if the last three paragraphs are a response to somebody else. I’ve certainly spoken to many people for whom every word of them would be true. Just not Michael.

And while, describing Michael’s claim that “the elimination of racism has been a project in America for hundreds of years” as “demonstrably untrue” instead of “f***ing stupid”, demonstrates a heroic level of self-control, you can tell I’m not thinking clearly here, because I react to a bunch of things that he simply hasn’t said:

He doesn’t accuse me of stirring up racial animosity, he simply points out that there are people doing it. Something which is impossible to deny (though I’m not sure I’d agree that Obama was one of them). He doesn’t claim that things were better for black people pre-Obama, he says that race relations were better. A statement that’s completely accurate (though it’s dangerous to conflate race relations with overall racial progress. Race relations were arguably at their worst in the 1960s when the most racial progress was taking place).

But perhaps the most unfair part of my reply is the bit when I talk about his desire to “return to a time when we just didn't talk about [racism]”. I build a fair amount of those last three paragraphs on the assumption that he’s saying this, and he doesn't actually say it at all.

In my defence, anybody who would make the claim that America is now a race-blind society is, at the very least, oblivious to a degree that could be described as selfish. I’m sure society feels race-blind for him, but he’d need to think very carefully about the experience of people who don’t look like him before claiming that this is true for American society in general. I’m not convinced he’s ever bothered to do that thinking.

But a failure to think clearly about a problem isn’t the same as a desire to ignore it. And my attacking him certainly won’t encourage him to do better.


Michael:

The question is relevant because if racism is the cause of the black community's problems then if we deal with that we will solve all those problems. If, as I think you and I might agree, racism is not the root of all those problems then the remedy requires a totally different approach. We actually need to be looking at other potential causes.

The elimination of racism has been a project since the country's inception. The Constitution guaranteed equal rights for all but it took 90 years and hundreds of thousands of white lives sacrificed before we could even rid ourselves of slavery. Another hundred years of incremental wins before the Civil Rights Act. More enforcement mechanisms put in place after that. It was a long slog but we did it. And we elected a black president in 2008.

I didn't mean to equate your police comments with George Floyd, I only used him as an example because his case mirrors Timpa's so closely, and yet the reactions and the outcomes are so different. The problem in so many of these cases is not one of race but of police conduct in general. I also don't think I suggested you personally are stirring up racial animosity. I said Obama did that.

At that point you kind of launched yourself at me for some reason. Your fifth paragraph is dizzying. I've read it several times and I'm still at a loss as to what you're trying to say; then you kind of continued along that rant until the end, where you claimed I treat you like you're woke and that I think racism doesn't exist, neither of which is remotely true (for Pete's sake read the second and third paragraphs of my original response).

As always, thank you for taking the time to engage!


I go into this in my next response, but this sentence really is breathtaking.

The Constitution guaranteed equal rights for all but it took 90 years and hundreds of thousands of white lives sacrificed before we could even rid ourselves of slavery?

I mean, sure, it’s true that public sentiment (at least in the North) turned substantially against slavery. It’s true that many white people gave their lives in the fight against slavery. It’s true that the Constitution says all men are created equal.

But to ignore the white lives “sacrificed” to preserve slavery. Or to overlook the impact slavery had on black people during those 90 years (note that he talks about ridding “ourselves” of slavery as it were a problem that affected everybody equally). Or to pretend that the notion that black people were only three-fifths of a human being wasn’t written into the same Constitution he refers to, is a lot to deal with.


Steve QJ:

If, as I think you and I might agree, racism is not the root of all those problems then the remedy requires a totally different approach.

Yes, we're in complete agreement here. I don't think that racism is the root of all the black community's problems. Nor do I think it's behind all disparities. But I do think it's a significant factor in the disparities I mention in the article. That's why I mentioned them.

But come on man. "It took 90 years and hundreds of thousands of white lives" to get rid of slavery. Do you really not see the problem with your framing here? I'm not minimising the efforts and sacrifice of white people. I've written about the abolitionists numerous times. But how do you talk about the end of slavery as if white people are the heroes of that story without recognising that they were also the villains?

No mention of the hundreds of thousands of white people who gave their lives to maintain slavery? No mention of the fact that the elimination of slavery wasn't about the elimination of racism but the maintenance of the union? No mention of the fact that racist laws remained in place for a hundred years after the abolition of slavery and indeed many new racist laws were created specifically to make sure black people were kept down?

It's your desire to look away from the uglier facts of this history, facts that make your claim that "the elimination of racism has been a project since America's inception" obviously ridiculous, that is so frustrating. I have never and would never claim that all white people are complicit in any of this. But some of you sure do like to ignore the bits that don't make white people the heroes of the story.

As for me "launching myself at you", it's the accumulation of this denialism that pushed my frustration into overdrive. I often keep that frustration in check in the name of productive conversation, but invoking MLK after claiming thtat America has been trying to eliminate racism for centuries just really hit me the wrong way.

The only reason you know MLK's name is that this is not true. I don't know how old you are, but if you're claiming that the systems in America haven't been racist in your lifetime, then you'd better be younger than 56. And even if you are, you'd have to believe that the lives of black people who were discriminated against by those racist laws transformed overnight as soon as the ink was dry on the Civil Rights Act. This is obviously not true.

Ultimately, the problem I think a lot of conservatives have is that they take an "attack" on America as an attack on them personally. I put attack in quotes because I'm absolutely not attacking America. Nor am I attacking you.

America has a deeply racist, fairly recent history. This isn't an attack. It's a fact. All I'm interested in is suggesting productive ways to more forward from that. The woke crybabies make that more difficult which is why I call them out. People who want to deny this fact or look away from the ugly parts make that more difficult, which is why I call them out too. Electing a black president was a big moment for America. No doubt. But the way some people act as if that fixed everything is infuriating.

Obama's election could definitely be argued to mean that America has reached a point where the colour of your skin doesn't flat out prevent success. But that's a long way from saying that we’ve reached MLK’s promised land. Do you honestly think that the colour of a person's skin makes no difference to the way they're treated or their chances of success in 2021 America? All the people I refer to in this article would disagree with you. Do you honestly think that past racist laws have no impact on the present? People who live in ghettos and poor communities that just happen to have been formerly redlined areas would disagree with you.

This isn't your fault. You're not the bad guy in this story because you aren't affected by these things. But you're being asked to look at the people around you instead of just your own life before arguing that society is race-blind. You're being asked to consider that your experience has been wildly different to that of some other people for no reason other than the colour of your skin. And though this reply is getting very long (sorry about that), let me just make one last thing clear.

What I'm saying here doesn't apply equally to all black people.

One of the most infuriating things about our current dialogue on race is the way that some black people talk as if the full weight of 400 years of racism rests on their shoulders. This is obviously bullshit. Most of the people writing their articles about microaggressions and the "7 Ways You're Secretly Racist" live happy, comfortable lives precisely because America has made a lot of progress with regards to race.

The people I try to spotlight in my articles aren't writing on Medium, they're trying to survive in circumstances that they shouldn't ever have had to deal with. They're trying to succeed from a starting point that is far behind everybody else. Those people are overwhelmingly black. I put all of those links in my articles because I want people to see the data on people whose lives are very different to theirs. I want the whiners to shut up so that the situation those people are dealing with can be seen more clearly. And in your case, I want you to stop acting as if truly recognising that injustice is an attack on you or America.


Racial discourse is hard. And one of the reasons it’s hard is that it’s easy for unrelated frustrations to come bubbling to the surface. Those pre-existing frustrations make it tempting to jump to conclusions or to ignore the parts of a story that don’t fit the narrative we want to focus on.

Michael reveals some pretty colossal blind spots here, and he clearly doesn’t know his history as well as he should if he’s going to make claims about America’s relationship with racism. But I’m annoyed with myself for allowing my frustration to make me react to words that weren’t there. If Michael wasn’t already familiar with me and my work, he probably wouldn’t have bothered to reply after my first comment and the chance to say something more productive would have been wasted.

As I’ve said many times, these conversations require patience and empathy and good faith. They require a willingness not to demonise those who disagree with us. And if they’re too infuriating for that, at least try a few deep breaths before replying.