Colin Kaepernick and the Denial of Racism

There ain’t no white man in this room that will change places with me — and I’m rich. That’s how good it is to be white. There’s a one-legged busboy in here right now that’s going: ‘I don’t want to change. I’m gonna ride this white thing out and see where it takes me.’ — Chris Rock

Colin Kaepernick has received a tremendous amount of (racist) backlash because of his refusal to stand during the national anthem. In his words, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told the media after the game. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way… There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.Personally, I find the negative backlash against Kaepernick indicative of the fact that we live in a white supremacist society. Let us be clear here: racism is about “whiteness,” it is about “white people.”

From my perspective and, I would venture the perspective of many African Americans and Latino, Kaepernick is speaking out about a factual aspect of life in white America. Racism exists. State-sanctioned violence against Blacks and other people of color exists. Racialized social control, which is the underlying factor in the historically unprecedented mass incarceration of mostly blacks and Latino, is a fact of life in the United States. For people to find Kaepernick’s stand against these realities serves to uncover the latent and explicit racism of this country. Of course, the irony is lost on the fact that the national anthem was written by a slave-owning racist who considered blacks inferior and was about as pro-slavery, anti-black, and anti-abolitionist as you could get.

There’s a dicho (saying) Puerto Ricans are fond of using. It translates roughly to, “No matter how hard you try, you can’t cover the sky with your hand.” And it addresses the very human tendency to deny uncomfortable truths. While at first, denial may work well to buffer us from trauma, eventually, as with all psychological defense mechanisms, denial is as futile a coping strategy as trying to cover the sky with your hand. Not only does it not work, but often compounds the issue.

This denial of racism is a racial contract that uses a proactive, pernicious form of “ignorance.” I’m speaking here of an ignorance that isn’t merely the opposite of knowledge. I am speaking about a militant, aggressive ignorance that is active, dynamic, that refuses to go quietly — not at all confined to the illiterate and uneducated but propagated at the highest levels of the land and unabashedly presenting itself as knowledge. This is what Colin Kaepernick is standing up to and I fear he will pay a steep price.

I conceptualize racism in structural and institutional well as individual terms. My definition of racism describes a system of oppression of African-Americans and other people of color by white Europeans and white Americans. There is no black racism because there is no centuries-old system of racial domination designed by African Americans that excludes white Americans from full participation in the rights, privileges, and benefits of this society. Racism requires not only a widely accepted racist ideology but also the systematic power to exclude people of color from opportunities and major economic rewards.

While there are blacks and other people of color with anti-white prejudices and scattered instances of people of color discriminating against whites, these are not central to the core operations of this society. Or, as a poet friend says, “I’m not a racist, I don’t have the resources.”

colin_kaepernick_racism_1_670xIt is a well-worn clichè that the last thing a fish notices is the water. Similarly, we take the air we breathe for granted, just as European Americans take their race as a given — as normal. While it is true that white Americans may face difficulties in their lives — with finances and family, for example — race is not one of them. Whites can afford to be nonchalant about race because they cannot see how this society produces advantages for them because these benefits appear so natural they are taken for granted. They literally do not see how race permeates America’s institutions and how it affects the distribution of opportunity and wealth.

For blacks, Latino, and other people of color in the U.S. the same culture, laws, economy, institutions, and rules of the game are not as automatically comfortable and legitimate. In a white-dominated society, with color come problems.

Big problems.

What’s more, if as with Kaepernick, people of color cry foul, if they call attention to the way they are treated or to racial inequality, if they try to change the way advantage is distributed, if they try to adjust the rules of the game, white Americans see them as trouble makers as asking for special privileges.

What this means is that people’s perspectives on race reflect their experiences on one side of the color line or the other. Whites routinely misperceive the reality of black lives. For example, though blacks are about twice as likely to be unemployed, 50 percent of whites say the average black is about as well off as the average white person. Conversely, blacks tend to be more realistic in their perceptions of their economic status as compared to whites. My point being that if whites in the U.S. make no effort to hear the viewpoints and see the experience of others, their awareness of their privilege suffers. Whites can convince themselves that life, as they experience it on their side of the color line, is the objective truth. This is the error that poses serious problems for conservatives’ (both black and white) analysis of racial inequality.

any perspective that is uncritically locked inside its own experience is stunted, and this is even truer when that perspective reflects a white dominant culture. It is the failure to understand that they take whites’ racial privilege for granted that leads conservatives to ignore the way in which race loads the dice in favor of white Americans while at the same time restricting African Americans’ access to the table. White privilege, like water to the fish, like the air we breathe, is invisible in their analysis.

But you can’t cover the sky with your hand.

Apostles of the conservative perspective on race insist that racism is a thing of the past. The reason why they come to this conclusion is because they operate from a very narrow (culturally blind), outdated, and discredited definition of racism as intentional, blatant, and individual — causing them to filter out evidence and judgment.

Many U.S. institutions, including the current Supreme Court majority, share these misconceptions. Because racial conservatives ignore the range of racial reality in America, they are unable to see that racism is lodged in the very structure of society, that it permeates the mechanisms of the legal, economic, political, and educational institutions of the United States. The problem is that without that recognition we will continue to attempt to resolve the disease of racism by attempting to cover the sky with our collective hands.

The problem with racial conservatives’ is that they, like most whites, use a specific, narrow understanding of racism. This is the concept that racism is motivated, crude, explicitly supremacist, and expressed as individual bias. Racism, for racial conservatives, is a form of “prejudice.” Some racial conservatives, for example, define racism as “a consistent readiness to respond negatively to a member of a group by virtue of his or her membership in the group, with the proof of prejudice being thus the repetitiveness with which the person endorses negative characterization after negative characterization.”

It’s no surprise then, given this narrowly defined concept of racism and the use of opinion surveys to measure it, that many people believe racism is a thing of the past. In fact, the Supreme Court has used just such a definition when hearing cases of discrimination. As a result, no one goes to prison for discrimination. This narrow definition, which erroneously conflates racism with prejudice, severely restricts what counts as bias or as evidence of bias. This definition tends to exonerate whites, blame blacks, and naturalize (make seem natural) the reality of racism in America.

In addition, this definition of racism is empirically and conceptually flawed. It depends almost exclusively on data uncovered by opinion polling. By relying on survey questions constructed in the 1950s, this research ignores possible changes in the character of racism and incorrectly measures the modern manifestation of it. As two social scientists concluded, “A new form of prejudice has come to prominence, one that is preoccupied with matters of moral character, informed by the virtues associated with the traditions of individualism. Today, we say, prejudice is expressed by the language of American individualism.” In other words, statements about individual failure are racially coded expressions of negative stereotypes.
The fact is that there is abundant evidence documenting the persistence of widespread racial prejudice 40 years after the civil rights movement. Interestingly enough, racial conservatives using polling data to show the decline of racism cherry pick among the surveys and omit this evidence. Some of the most compelling evidence of persistent, tenacious racism comes from studies of residential discrimination. The Detroit Area Survey, for example, found that 16 percent of whites said they would feel uncomfortable in a neighborhood where eight percent of the residents were black, and nearly the same number said they were unwilling to move to such an area. If the black percentage rose to 20 percent, 40 percent of all whites indicated they would not move there, 30 percent said they would be uncomfortable, and 15 percent would try to leave the area. Were a neighborhood be 53 percent black, 71 percent of whites would not wish to move there, 53 percent would try and leave, and 65 percent would be uncomfortable.

People will attempt to pooh-pooh what I have written here, or dismiss racism as one “small part” of a larger global dynamic. Or, that all this is common knowledge, blah blah blah… Bullshit!

Racism in the U.S. is an overriding factor in the lives of all of us living the U.S. with dire consequences for people of color. It influences almost every arena in U.S. social life. The ugly, racist, and racial denialism contained in the responses to people such as Colin Kaepernick and those involved in the Black Lives Matter movement should be proof enough. Unfortunately, for too many white people, it isn’t enough. I will say this much, it takes a lot of effort to attempt to cover the sky with your hand.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…