Since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the term “systemic racism” has come into wide usage.
To many people, this term may seem both new and confusing. Yet, if opposition to it can be sustained, it could bring a basic and far-reaching change in attitudes and action on race relations.
Racism itself is obviously a word with negative meaning. But the usual reactions to it have been based on flawed assumptions. Here are examples.
“We have succeeded in ending racism. Obama, an African-American, was elected president.”
The problem with reading too much in his elections is that Obama was not elected by everybody, not even a majority of whites. Obama’s election victories angered some people. While his elections reflected the country’s demographic and political change, it also revealed that the process is not complete.
Besides, some people merely came to understand that they should be careful about revealing their attitudes. Though they dislike it, they are “politically correct,” meaning not saying aloud what they really think about people of different backgrounds.
“Racism still exists elsewhere, but not around here.”
While it is true that racist incidents may not occur everywhere or at least with the same intensity in all places, it is difficult to know about people’s attitudes in everyday, unreported situations. Incidents often occur in unexpected places.
“Well, I am not a racist.”
Many people do not think they harbor racists attitudes. They do not seek to cause inequality as a result of what they might say or do. They judge themselves, but they do not see themselves in the same way as members of those affected by racism. Racism is about effects on others, not a matter of good intentions.
George Floyd’s murder was obviously based on his being black, and his blue-coated killer defined himself as a racist by failing to back off. His death validated for many the claims that previous deaths by black people at the hands of the police had also been abuses of power.
Beyond that, this one notorious event, which has brought attention to many others, revealed how possible petty violations can lead to death if you are black. It forced a focus on routine racism and a recognition that it may always be present and could be random and deadly.
Donald Trump’s campaign rally in Tulsa last week took place as Tulsans were remembering the 1921 Massacre in the Greenwood neighborhood, when whites burned down the buildings, killed hundreds of average people and ejected middle-class black residents.
The problem was not their being different; it was their being successful. They met a classic case of ethnic cleansing.
One local woman tried to attend the Trump rally. The 62-year-old white woman wore a T-shirt bearing the words “I can’t breathe,” the last words of George Floyd. She was ejected, as was the Trump campaign’s legal right, but resisted and was handcuffed and arrested.
Sheila Buck is a schoolteacher with mostly black kids in class. “I have seen how they’re treated when I took them on field trips,” she said. “This was a chance for me to have my voice heard.”
Ms. Buck’s experience is more relevant today than the Greenwood Massacre. It represents the kind of routine racism that pervades more of American life than many people would like to admit.
It is evident in the greater impact of Covid-19 on blacks than on whites. That disparity is not the result simply of the unjust distribution of medical services, but is one of the latest results of centuries of slavery and discrimination, official and unofficial, against blacks.
“Systemic racism” means that racism remains a central part of American life. Political correctness at arm’s length is not enough. Nobody should be forced to fear the police or others in their community as they go about their daily lives.
Why was Sheila Buck’s quiet protest so objectionable to the Trump campaign? Is racism Trump’s fault? He supposedly has made it possible for racists, to shed political correctness, to emerge and act. He used them for his own personal benefit.
It’s unlikely that one day everybody will stop considering themselves superior to others who do not look like them or share their culture. That may be asking too much of human nature.
But, if the American experiment in democracy, the model to the world, is to have any chance of success, it depends on people treating one another as equals.
Americans will remain free to harbor their opinions, however wrong, only so long as their country is free. Freedom is not free, as the saying goes, and the price is accepting equality.