The headline asked the right question: “Are We Bigots?” But the story wasn’t about the George Zimmerman “stand your ground” trial, and it wasn’t even about Americans. It was in the July 18 KOREA TIMES here in Seoul and reflected on whether Koreans discriminate against people from other countries.
What struck me was that “Are we bigots?” is a question most Americans don’t ask themselves. Americans seem to have given up on introspection and concluded that they aren’t bigots, aren’t racists. The U.S. has moved beyond racism and its Jim Crow past, the thinking goes, and as the United States Supreme Court concluded in its recent case gutting part of the Voting Rights Act.
Merely suggest to an American that he might be racist, and you’ll get responses such as, “I’m sick of being called racist because I think Zimmerman is innocent! I’m sick of being called racist just because I hate Obama! I AM NOT A RACIST!!!!”
The strong denials come because we’ve been conditioned to recognize that racism is awful. It’s one of the worst things one can be in America 2013. If you admit to it, you’re cooked –just ask Paula Deen. Racism ranks among child molesting, cockfighting, and blowing second-hand smoke in a baby’s face.
No wonder Americans get so defensive and stand their ground so strongly when they feel attacked in this way.
The widespread attitude among Americans that racism is evil is a sign of great progress. But ironically, the strategy that made us see racism as so terrible is now keeping us from making further progress. We’re stuck, standing our ground in an America that refuses to recognize just how racist it is.
What’s happened is that our racism has been driven underground, into our unconscious minds. Many if not most Americans harbor some unconscious racism. As Michelle Alexander wrote in her stunning book about how our criminal justice system disproportionately targets blacks, “the fact that you may honestly believe that you are not biased against African Americans, and that you may have black friends or relatives, does not mean that you are free from unconscious bias. Implicit bias tests may still show that you hold negative attitudes and stereotypes about blacks even though you do not believe you do and do not want to” (The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age Of Colorblindness (2010), p. 107, emphasis added).
It’s already hard enough to recognize unconscious racism in yourself. It’s even harder if you refuse to look for it. After all, who wants to devote effort to finding out if he’s a racist, the lowest of scum, a monster?
So if we want make further progress against racism, especially unconscious racism, we have to adopt a new strategy. Strangely, we have to make racism less of a dirty word, not more. We’re going to have to denounce it less.
Because the more we denounce racism and racists, no matter how well-intentioned we are, the more difficult we make it for people to ask, “Am I racist?”
We need to make it widely understood that unconscious racism isn’t a reflection of a person’s evil character, that it isn’t a “choice”; it’s an affliction, a disease, an infection from the wider culture, including ghosts from the past.
Think alcoholism. The recent practice of seeing alcoholism as a disease rather than as a moral failing has made it easier for alcoholics to seek help. Support and understanding are more effective than denunciation in getting an alcoholic to take that first step: admitting he has a problem.
It’s time for an amnesty of sorts for racists, an attitude of truth and reconciliation such as helped South Africans begin to recover from apartheid. South Africans realized that denial would keep them stuck, so they brought the racism and all its consequences out in the open. Perpetrators faced their victims – and their own racism.
We may not have to do anything so drastic. Instead, we can start by making it acceptable and indeed laudable for Americans to admit they’re racists – and that they’re working to understand and overcome their racism. Why not create self-help materials and form support groups? Why not Racists Anonymous? If people are honest, the meetings will be crowded. That would be a sign of progress.
Making it OK to admit that we’re a nation of racists would be a huge step toward eradicating racism and fostering true justice. Let’s try this strategy and turn the tragic “stand your ground” case into an opportunity to move forward.
Brian J. Foley is living in Seoul this summer. He’s a law professor and author of the satirical financial self-help book, A New Financial You in 28 Days! A 37-Day Plan (Gegensatz Press 2011). Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org