What can we do about racism?

Editor’s note: I’m a man who benefits from white privilege. In the wake of the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, my wife broke into tears as she struggled to comprehend the enormity of the problem and her perceived powerlessness to affect it. The key piece that affected her most profoundly was that the white vigilantes for Ahmaud Arbery, white police officers for George Floyd, and white female caller for Christian Cooper all acted, knowingly and ON VIDEO, as if what they were doing was the right thing. To her that demonstrated both white privilege and the systemic racism still endemic in the U.S.

Difficult conversations: We have to have them. These conversations cannot simply be about how bad a recent incident of racism is. Few viewers looking at the videos of the killings of George Floyd or Ahmaud Arbery would argue there was any justification for the deaths of those men. Yet, those events are symptoms of much deeper problems that we rarely take the time to discuss – let alone take action on.

Recently, my wife and I came across a marker in the woods in southern Germany signifying the mass grave of 66 Jews killed sometime during World War II. These markers abound across Germany.

Germans deal with their Nazi history much differently than the U.S. has dealt with slavery and racism. The facts and realities of the Nazi rise to power are discussed openly, if somewhat clinically. Conversely, slavery, its causes and effects, its details, post-reconstruction backlash, and white supremacy are mostly written out of U.S. history and education. This historical and educational void lead to a significant misunderstanding of racism and the structural disadvantages faced by non-whites in America.

So what do we do, both collectively and as individuals, about racism?

  1. Get educated about racism, the ideas surrounding it, and the views of those affected by it.
  2. Confront and accept the idea that all humans (but especially the privileged) have the responsibility to fight for the rights of others.
  3. Fight for institutional changes necessary to demolish systemic racism.

Get Educated

There are a number of resources that you can and should access. You can find a growing list of resources here.

Education is fundamental to engaging effectively in the fight against racism. We must understand systemic racism, its causes, and its history to effectively dismantle it. First, though, we need to understand some basic terms.

There are many definitions for the following terms, so read these skeptically and simply as a way to start the conversation.

Racial biasimplicit biases, that are part of our subconscious due to cultural programming, about behaviors we associate with the external biological features we connect with the social construct of race.

Said simply, racial bias is the way we process the behaviors of people who look like they fit into certain racial categories – also known as unconscious racial stereotypes.

We all have racial biases. we can’t be “colorblind” because we are programmed by our culture to see color and race. Saying we all have bias is not a condemnation, but a critical realization to accept and overcome.

Racist acts – to act on racial biases whether consciously or unconsciously (e.g. crossing the street from a group of black people, calling the cops on black men in a gym or a black man in a park, different customer service standards, racial profiling, etc.).

Racist – A person who is prejudiced against or antagonistic toward people on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized.

It has also come to mean wholly evil, particularly to white people. It’s much like labeling of something as Nazi. Constructive conversation stops at the point someone is called racist. We’ll discuss why more below.

Read more about how the term racist has changed.

There are two types of racism – individual and institutional.

Individual racism – the personal belief that groups of humans possess different behavioral traits corresponding to physical appearance and can be divided based on the superiority of one race over another.

Institutional or systemic racism – the existence of systematic policies or laws and practices that provide differential access to goods, services and opportunities of society by race.

Institutional racism is distinguished from the explicit attitudes or racial bias of individuals. This is an important distinction because systemic racism is not simply the accumulation of individual racism or racist acts.

Racial discrimination – “any distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin that has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.” – 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination

False equivalence of racial bias, racists, and racism
One of the challenges we face in confronting racism is how we use these words to communicate. Often, participants perceive these conversations take on an accusatory tone due to misunderstandings about the explicit and implied meaning of these terms.

For example, if a white person acts on their racial bias, then that is a racist act. In many conversations, labeling an act as racist gives the perception of labeling the actor as racist and, therefore, an evil person. However, the definition for racial bias is a subconscious bias meaning they aren’t aware of it. It does not absolve them of the racist act and its consequences, but it also doesn’t make them an evil person.

Said another way, committing a racist act due to a subconscious racial bias doesn’t make you an evil person, but you do still have to take responsibility for your action. Acting indignant because you think you’ve been called a racist isn’t constructive and prevents you from taking responsibility for your racist act. Until we (white people in this case) can overcome this defensive reaction, we are unable to be allies in this fight against racism.

This false equivalence conflating racial bias and racist acts with evil racist leads us to examine white fragility.

Other important terms to know

White Fragility – a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.

White privilege having greater systemic access to power and resources than people of color.

White privilege is not something one can gain, nor is it something one can give away. If one is white, privilege is extended by society in ways it is difficult to see. For example, white people do not tend to expect to be killed by police whereas black people do. Statistics of police involved shootings show black people are more likely to die than whites per capita. White people receive more call backs than minorities (shown both in the US and the UK).

Both of these phenomenon are invisible to white people because they happen outside our awareness (and often our neighborhoods). To help better understand what it is like to live a different experience, instead consider how women are taught to avoid sexual assault.

Ask nearly any woman what she does on a daily basis to protect herself from sexual assault, and she will likely list a number of things – park in lit areas, don’t go out at night alone, have car keys out and ready, etc. Men generally don’t think about those things. That is a privilege we have. White privilege is the same. We don’t have to take extra precautions to protect our lives from police, whiten our resumes, combat institutionalized generational poverty, overcome the effects of redlining, and so on.

Does this mean white people alive today are to blame or should walk around feeling guilty all of the time?

Human Responsibility

No. Guilt and blame aren’t useful motivators nor do they fix our current situation. However, we the privileged have the responsibility to make our world more equitable for our fellow humans.

One silly (and not fully comparable) way I think about this is tall privilege. Some of us are privileged to be tall. We can reach things others can’t. Many things in life are easier for us. Here’s where we face a dilemma. Do we use our privilege to build a system that caters to us by building everything taller so only we can reach it? Or, do we use our privilege to help those who aren’t privileged and build a system where everyone can reach their needs?

I choose to help. When my wife needs something that only I can reach without a ladder (that I likely put up there), I go help. Yes, it takes some of my time and energy that I could have kept only for myself (the “greed is good” mindset). But, I realize that she’s part of my team and investing in my team ultimately helps every person on the team in the long run.

Tall privilege isn’t equivalent to racial privilege as there is no natural racial advantage. However, white people have built a centuries-long social advantage based on race. Historically, we’ve put all of the things of value higher and higher so only we can reach it as the height of our power and wealth grew. While society has made some small concessions to remove obstacles for minorities, those we’ve disadvantaged don’t have benefit of the same starting position to reach what we consider the standard – the American Dream.

It’s as if we white people built a ladder for hundreds of years, put everything of value only in reach of those with a ladder that tall, prevented anyone else from building a ladder during that time, and wonder why those without a four-century ladder can’t reach anything valuable now that we can all of the sudden build ladders.

Fight for Systemic Change

Speak Out

Speak up for the disadvantaged, the downtrodden, the unprivileged. Be a part of the conversation even if you’re white. But first, really listen to other humans’ experiences.

White people’s voice is most valuable when we talk to our in-group in favor of protections for minority rights which are ultimately human rights.

Know how to identify logical fallacies and gently help those who use them think and speak more clearly.

Realize that you can’t change minds overnight. The best you can do is to calmly instill doubt by speaking up for what is right, listening to opposing opinions, and helping them see where they might be acting contradictory. Learn more about how to do this in our previous service on being a humble humanist.

Fighting Institutional Racism

After the protests and speaking out is when the real work happens to make a difference. Institutional racism isn’t just a small group of racists doing racists acts. It is a system of laws, standards, cultural values, and obstacles that prevent minorities from accessing power and resources. That means we have to examine institutional policies and transform those systems to be more equitable. These institutions include police, finance and wealth, jobs, education, community zoning, social support, health, justice, incarceration, and more. 

Affirmative Action

A quick note about affirmative action. We all have equal rights under the law, but are not treated equally by those who wield the power to enforce those laws. Affirmative action helps to counterbalance the centuries of oppression faced by minorities.

Without affirmative action, we tend to revert back to the past status quo – where minorities are less represented. Said another way by a friend of mine, “the Fourteenth amendment protects whites too, but that’s not why it needed to be written.”

Be a part of team human

As we move into the future where, I hope, we continue to be more conscious of racial bias and systemic racism, we have to be there for our fellow humans.

  • when the protests are over
  • at city council meetings
  • to get educated on racial disparities and issue
  • to change police procedures
  • to write legislation
  • to use whatever privileges we have for the benefit of all versus the few

To fight for the rights and equality of disadvantaged groups is to fight for human rights. After all, if we can send humans to the moon to look back and see we’re all one species on a speck of a planet in all the universe, then we should be able to overcome racism.