The Essential Truth of Racism

The world just got wackier. The NAACP was way out of line. And Obama proved in the most blatant way that he’s the white man’s black president. At least the NAACP has retracted its criticism and apologized to Shirley Sherrod. They admitted they were snookered by Andrew Breitbart, a conservative blogger and confirmed serial liar. He edited the tape to make it appear as if the U.S. Department of Agriculture official was discriminating against white farmers. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it’s because of Sherrod’s efforts that the white farmer kept his land. And that was twenty-four years ago, years before she worked for the Department of Agriculture.

It would be nice if the NAACP would release the full tape they admit vindicates her (as if she needs vindicating from the tactics of a right-wing provocateur). Indeed, the white family whose farm she saved is shocked by the way she is being treated. Her story is one of understanding – that white people are just as screwed by capitalism as black people are.

Suppose we believe what we are being told to believe, that this is racism. But racism is a social system in which one racial group benefits systematically at the expense of another. It has never been true in the United States than blacks have benefited systematically at the expense of whites. It follows that her comments cannot be racist. To call this racism is to falsely reduce racism to race prejudice. Racism doesn’t even require race prejudice, and, these days, racists prefer its absence. This is a decades old project to change the meaning of racism to legitimate the false concepts of “reverse racism” and “reverse discrimination.”

That Obama caves every time the right wants him to participate in the white power project to dissimulate racism tells us the reason his election to office was desired by the powers that be.

The end goal of this political project is to make any form of racial consciousness equivalent to racism, no matter whose consciousness it is. It is, in essence, a project to cloak group power in egalitarian rhetoric in the absence of actual egalitarian arrangements. It is a manifestation of racist ideology.

This is the source of these terms “colorblind” and “postracial.” Colorblindness turns the struggle against racism into racism itself; if you accept the propaganda that racism reduces to race prejudice or individual acts of discrimination then you can falsely portray any individual as capable of being a racist.

Colonizers design ideological systems to rationalize oppression. Different rhetoric works at different times. Instilling in everybody’s mind the idea of black inferiority is one strategy. This has two dominant phases: The first is religious, where black skin is depicted as a curse from God. The second is scientific, in which blacks are said to be less evolved than whites. When people rise up and convince enough of their brothers and sisters that the prevailing ideology is a myth, then the oppressor is forced to develop a new strategy. But the myth is always structured in a way that rationalizes the power of the colonizer over the colonized. This is no less true of colorblindness. Beneath all these phases is the material fact of structured racial inequality.

Critical race theorists call these phases reflections of the “perpetrator’s perspective.” Because the oppressor commands social structure and shapes dominant ideology, the perpetrator’s perspective prevails in our institutions, law, education, etc. This is why, in law these days, one has to prove intent – and a very narrow conception of intent as the knowing purpose of an individual – in order to prove discrimination. Law school in most places is a system of indoctrination in which the perpetrator’s perspective is taught as the only legitimate perspective. 

There is another perspective: the victim’s perspective. Those who are on the disadvantaged end of society’s hierarchy cannot usually point to a specific individual who has purposely put them in the ghetto or in a job serving white folks. The facts that they are disproportionately poor, sick, undereducated, unemployed, arrested, and imprisoned relative to whites are rationalized by the perpetrator’s perspective as not the fault of all those who are affluent, healthy, educated, employed, and free from harassment and jail and therefore the fault of the victim. We are all just individuals, after all, and there is no such thing as group power – so the mythology goes. Even some members of the oppressed group (Obama rarely misses a chance to) blame the victim for the crimes of the white establishment.

Equalitarian rhetoric masks inegalitarian arrangements. This is because racism is fundamentally a problem of the unequal distribution of power  – and power has a direction. MLK argued that the problems of racism and colonialism will never be conquered without “a radical redistribution of political and economic power.” 

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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