Will America ever have a #MeToo-style reckoning for racism?
#MeToo is a tough social movement to define, but several overarching themes emerge: Perpetrators of sexual harassment are being called out for specific bad behavior, ranging from very explicit to more subtle forms. People are losing their jobs because of it. There is a cultural conversation happening that involves identifying this behavior, once acceptable (or ignored), as unacceptable. And there is a broader conversation happening about the underlying systems that enable this kind of behavior.
What would a similar movement centered on race look like? What consequences would they suffer? What would it take to make this broader conversation about what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior happen? Vox politics and policy writer Jane Coaston, identities editor Michelle Garcia, and identities writers P.R. Lockhart and German Lopez got together to discuss the challenges of a similar reckoning for acts of racism in America. Here’s their conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.
Racists are all too often able to defend themselves by simply claiming that their racism doesn’t count as racism. I think that our history puts the “what counts as racism” bar so high that many believe to fit underneath it renders them “not racist.” “I’ve never burned a cross! I’ve never called anyone a ni**er! I just think that interracial relationships are bad!”
You see that kind of thing with the opposition to taking microaggressions seriously. People really, really don’t like the idea that just making a certain group of people uncomfortable might get them in trouble. They want to be able to get away with it.
Yeah, that’s what worries me about this “politically correct/incorrect” business. For so long people were able to say things, unchecked, that were incredibly racist, or at the very least unkind to other human beings — but being held accountable for those actions is suddenly oh so stifling? Give me a break! Be a human being.
The broader, hurtful impacts of discrimination
Much of the news most recently about discrimination in America has been focused on singular violent acts by police against African-Americans. Aside from these highly visible violent incidents, however, there is another broader issue, often unseen, but very much felt by multiple ethnic and racial groups. That is, we frequently do not recognize the serious long-term effects of various forms of discrimination and hurtful incidents on the health and economic outcomes of millions of individuals and their communities. And, as a nation, it would be for our common good to change how we talk about these broader sets of issues.
My colleagues at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, led by Robert Blendon, have conducted a far-reaching survey, in collaboration with NPR and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, asking people from multiple ethnic and racial groups, including whites, about their experiences with discrimination. This includes the policies of employers, governments, and civic institutions, and also individual behaviors leading to members of minority communities being insulted and facing offensive comments because of their backgrounds.
A striking 60 percent of African-Americans say they have been unfairly stopped or unfairly treated by the police because they were black. Forty-five percent say they or a family member were unfairly treated by the courts. In addition, 32 percent say they have personally been discriminated against at a doctor’s office or health clinic.
David Williams of the Harvard Chan School has shown in multiyear studies that acts of discrimination lead to a type of stress that over the long term causes serious illnesses and even premature death. Other studies have suggested that these experiences negatively impact lifelong economic opportunities for these groups.
This comprehensive range of circumstances in the aggregate — the multiple incidents and institutional behavior — where people feel discrimination must be addressed.
The state of hate in America
It feels like nearly every week, America is rattled by a new incident of hate.
In June, a white man in a Chicago Starbucks was filmed calling a black man a slave, and a white woman in a New Jersey Sears was videotaped making bigoted comments against a family she believed was Indian (they were not). In May, two men on a Portland train were stabbed to death trying to stop a white supremacist’s anti-Muslim tirade against two teenagers.
Hate symbols are showing up around the country: nooses in the nation’s capital, racist graffiti on the front gate of LeBron James’ Los Angeles home, a banner with an anti-Semitic slur over a Holocaust memorial in Lakewood, N.J. On Saturday, the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan rallied in Charlottesville, Va., less than two months after white supremacist Richard Spencer — who coined the term “alt-right” — led a similar protest in the city against the removal of a Confederate monument. Several white nationalist groups are planning another rally for Aug. 12.
In June, a white man in a Chicago Starbucks was filmed calling a black man a slave, and a white woman in a New Jersey Sears was videotaped making bigoted comments against a family she believed was Indian (they were not). In May, two men on a Portland train were stabbed to death trying to stop a white supremacist’s anti-Muslim tirade against two teenagers. Hate symbols are showing up around the country: nooses in the nation’s capital, racist graffiti on the front gate of LeBron James’ Los Angeles home, a banner with an anti-Semitic slur over a Holocaust memorial in Lakewood, N.J. On Saturday, the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan rallied in Charlottesville, Va., less than two months after white supremacist Richard Spencer — who coined the term “alt-right” — led a similar protest in the city against the removal of a Confederate monument. Several white nationalist groups are planning another rally for Aug. 12.
Welcoming Immigrants and Refugees from Around the World
The basic idea of welcoming immigrants to our shores is central to our way of life — it is in our DNA. We believe our diversity, our differences, when joined together by a common set of ideals, makes us stronger, makes us more creative, makes us different. From all these different strands, we make something new here in America.’
President Barack Obama, July 4, 2014
Our proud tradition of continually welcoming immigrants and refugees from around the world is part of what makes America exceptional. We’re bound together by the power of a simple idea—that everyone willing to work hard and play by the rules is welcome.
On November 21, 2014, the President established the White House Task Force on New Americans—a government-wide effort tasked with better integrating immigrants and refugees into American communities to get more details about the Task Force’s recommendations? Read the strategic action plan here.
Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, was shot eight times in the back while running away from Michael Slager, a white police officer. Slager was arrested and charged with murder. Article after article and news report after news report focus on the act of one white officer urging us all think that justice this time may get served.
Just weeks ago Four Florida police officers were found to be exchanging texts and videos with KKK hoods and talking about “killing n*****s.” One texted, “I had a wet dream that you two found those n*****s in the VW and gave them the death penalty right there on the spot,” one wrote. Another wrote, “We are coming and drinking all your beer and killing n*****s.” These and more were uncovered during a five-month investigation. The result: three officers were fired, one resigned.
As much as it serves justice that these officers were held to some level of responsibility, let us not turn a blind eye to the fact that many officers know of their peers’ bigotry and do nothing about it. The problem is the particular offending officers AND the problem is systemic. It is akin to the unfolding of the sexual abuses discovered within the Catholic Church — there were offending clergy as well a system complicit in keeping these attitudes and behaviors in the shadows, protecting the perpetrators, ensuring further victimization.
Racism in America: Americans’ Complicity, Denial and Naiveté
American psychology, by which I mean the way Americans think about themselves and our collective social dilemmas, is painfully naïve. We are like children looking for the bogeyman or watching a movie where the ‘good guys’ get the ‘bad guys,’ returning all to a sense of safety.
Regarding race, and many other of our deepest and most intractable problems (e.g., addiction, depression, and domestic violence), getting the bad guys, identifying and eliminating a few bad apples, is wholly insufficient. The truth is that we are the system — we are all complicit and we all carry a certain responsibility for America’s original sin: racism.
Don’t get me wrong, there are bad guys, but it is also our psychological naiveté, our cultural blinders, that allows this kind of infection to grow unchecked; it is our collective complicity that is most problematic. Our denial of racism in America is a form of racism in and of itself.