Racism in the Bloodstream


A couple of months ago, I posted what I thought was a “bite-to-the-bone” precise critique of racism in this country to my Facebook page.  The Atlantic article penned by Ta-Nehisi Coates was called, “On the Killing of Jordan Davis by Michael Dunn.”  Coates argues that, “We cannot protect our children because racism in America is not merely a belief system but a heritage, and the inability of black parents to protect their children is an ancient tradition.”  He says he would rather be thought insane than respect the lie of one of the most duplicitous phrases: “black-on-black” crime.[1]  He addresses the deepest systemic problem in the bloodstream of this country: that the same consciousness that propelled Michael Dunn to pull the trigger at a car full of black boys is the same consciousness that redistricted cities and isolated people of color into ghettos.

Of course I received a comment from one of my “friends” on Facebook that went something like this: “Mr. Coates is the one out of touch with racism in this country, and actually he is creating it.”  Doesn’t this sound strikingly similar to what Chief Justice John Roberts said controversially in 2007 about racism, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”[2]  And so, this logic is now the logic being used to ban race-based affirmative action, most recently in Michigan on April 22nd, as the Supreme Court ruled 6-2 to uphold the state’s ban.

Although the court did not rule on the constitutionality of affirmative action, it did rule that Michigan voters had a right to ban the use of race in the college admissions process. Justice Sotomayer delivered a searing dissent by saying, “[the history of racism in this country] demands that we continue to learn, to listen, and to remain open to new approaches if we are to aspire always to a constitutional order in which all persons are treated with fairness and equal dignity.”[3]  She continued, “As members of the judiciary tasked with intervening to carry out the guarantee of equal protection, we ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society.”[4]

I read many articles reporting on Sotomayer’s dissent, and over and over again I kept finding critical comments to her opinion that referenced Martin Luther King’s, “I Have a Dream” speech.  What does everybody quote from King?  This: “People should not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  I saw this exact quote or variations of it all over the comment boards, but this is a misquote—just as King has often been misquoted (I guess they’ve finally fixed the distorted “paraphrase” on the King monument in D.C.).[5]  Here’s what King really said: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”[6]  What is the key phrase here?  “One day live in a nation…”  Have we ever, do we now, or will we ever live in a country where a person of color will not be judged by the color of her skin?  Isn’t this what Coates is so eloquently trying to express?  If it’s in our country’s heritage—our bloodstream—doesn’t it remain just a dream, even all these years later?

No, we can’t pretend racism doesn’t exist or that by talking about it, we’re helping perpetuate the problem.  We can’t tell people that if they hate it here, they should leave the country and live somewhere else (which is also what my Facebook “friend” said).  This logic is barbaric.  It’s emblematic of a kind of privilege and consciousness that’s under the illusion that we live in a post-racist age.  What this Supreme Court decision has done is help set-up an institutionalized way of reversing all of the gains from the Civil Rights era and Brown vs. the Board of Education.  We’re going to see a re-segregation of high schools and colleges in this country.  In fact, it’s already happening legally in places like Tuscaloosa, Alabama where it looks like Brown never happened.[7]  And hasn’t it always been happening?  Sure, there may not be any legally “all White” schools, but there certainly are mostly Black schools and mostly White schools.  This race and class separation is made possible by intentional drawing of district lines.[8]  So, isn’t Coates right when he says, “the irrelevance of black life has been drilled into this country.”

Affirmative action is needed to help create more equal opportunity.  And if racism is in the bloodstream of this country, is it fair to have voters decide, based on “reverse-racist” rhetoric, whether affirmative action is just or not?  I’m afraid my Facebook “friend,” Michigan voters, and our Conservative Supreme Court proves that the “one day” King spoke of in his 1963 speech is not here yet.

Joshua Zelesnick is a Visiting Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Pittsburgh.
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