Racism is not solely an American phenomenon, but we have a special relationship with it. It has been a central feature of ours from the very beginning; it is inextricable from our institutions and our character. One could even say, without irony, that racism is America’s oldest, most valuable business partner.
Lowlights of our centuries-old relationship with racism include the genocide committed against this continent’s indiginous peoples and the systematic theft of their land; state-sanctioned reliance on chattel slavery to establish and develop our economy; and the post-Emancipation enactment of numerous laws designed to deny or insidiously undermine Black Americans’ status as human beings deserving of equal rights, protections under law, and fair access to economic opportunities.
Such policies made America. The moral principles and frameworks that legitimized them are the same that birthed our founding, and many subsequent, laws and codes. Far from being a painful relic of a less civilized era, these ancient injustices continue apace today, albeit in altered form, to ensure the ongoing subjugation of Black people in America.
Each generation of American political leaders has played a role in advancing institutional racism in manners befitting, and reflective of, the anxieties of the White ruling classes: Reconstruction Era policies that reneged on promises of reparations for freed Black Americans and indulged the revanchist impulses of former slave owners and their ilk; Jim Crow laws; New Deal codifications of housing discrimination; “Urban Renewal”; the War on Drugs; Welfare Reform and the Crime Bill; No Child Left Behind; etc.
These various political actions have not only materially disadvantaged Black Americans through time, they have fostered the concomitant maintenance of mainstream prejudices and attitudes about Black people that would hold them as inherently inferior -- i.e., deserving of the various politically engineered social, economic, and even physical maladies that disproportionately affect them in American society.
The pursuit of material wealth has been the guiding force of human history, and especially so in America. Amusingly, we peddle a myth that because we do not have a monarchy, or a caste system, or an oligarchy (ahem), or a planned economy, anyone can be wealthy here if only they work hard enough. The moral center of this myth -- weaponized Puritanism -- is that each of us is solely responsible for the material outcomes of our life and deserving of what we get, good or ill.
In fact, we know that the material circumstances, and even the very ZIP code, into which one is born are strongly predictive of the socioeconomic status “outcome” of one’s life; in other words, odds are that you will remain roughly as well or as badly off as you were when you were born. This (among other things, including common sense) further reveals the existence of a class system in America that suppresses social mobility and exerts an inexorable, if not omnipotent, influence over the material circumstances of our lives. It indicates that the various institutions of the United States are pitched heavily in favor of the wealthier classes’ efforts to consolidate their fortunes -- just like in the monarchies, planned economies, and oligarchies we of the mainstream deride.
One imagines that a society actually invested in the ideal of equitably fostering the talents of all its people, regardless of the station of their birth, would organize its systems so at the very least, every child is provided with everything they need to thrive, self actualize, contribute the fruits of their talents to society, and reap the benefits in kind.
The meritocracy myth is particularly insidious -- and effective -- in the ways it serves to justify the ongoing subjugation of Black Americans: if the conditions of our lives are entirely of our own making, then there must be something wrong with “those people” who, collectively, haven’t benefited from the American bounty as other groups have. “Those people” must be uniquely lesser and undeserving. “Those people” who disproportionately end up under the boot or knee of a police officer, or on the receiving end of a taser or nightstick or bullet, or in prison, surely must have done something to invite such treatment.
The perpetual motion machine of racist attitudes providing cover for racist policies that reinforce racist attitudes afresh is baked so deeply into our system that one wonders if otherwise well-meaning Americans truly understand the lengths we must go to if we are to actually confront and dismantle institutional racism. The first obstacle, it should be noted, is that racism is highly profitable, with interests on flip sides of the issue rather highly invested in (consciously or otherwise), and handsomely rewarded for, the status quo: there is a lot of money to be made in holding the boot to Black Americans’ necks, and so too is there a lot of money to be made in nominally anti-racist book sales, diversity and inclusion workshops, and woke advertising campaigns for big brands.
That we have kept alive our special, profitable relationship with racism for 400 years and counting is an indictment of our national character; but it is perhaps inevitable and unsurprising given the nature of our state religion and its insatiable need for exploitation (read: human sacrifice). Destroying racism, or at the very least rooting out the conditions that perpetuate it, will require us to rethink our ideals, fundamentally restructure our institutions, and distribute new resources. Are we willing to expand and render universally inclusive our concepts of justice and human rights? Do we have it in us to imbue our social, economic, and political systems with those renewed humanistic ideals?
As long as Black people are made to be the scapegoat for America’s myriad social problems, White Americans will fight to keep them out of their neighborhoods, institutions, and clubs -- out of sight, wherever that may be. Our laws, our culture, our very nation is designed to promote and capitalize on the impulse to feel superior to others. Until that changes, our society will remain marked by inequality, injustice, alienation, segregation, and, yes, racism.
I'm not going to surmise what it feels like to be a Black person in this country, because that would be hollow and performative. But I will say that I know that one can only take so much of being pushed before they push back. It is normal and healthy to do so. It is the spark of life refusing to be snuffed out.
Black Lives Matter.