On June 3, 2020

Two definitions of racism

By Sen. Dick McCormack

Note to readers: This isn’t the Covid/Economy related article I’d planned to submit for this week. The economic fallout of the shutdown is terrible and people want an accounting of how their legislators are responding. There are reasons for me to not write about racism. We’re the whitest state in the Union, and our few people of color are mostly in counties other than the one I represent. It’s presumptuous for a white man to hold forth on race, speaking as I do from a comfortable position of privilege. But, as a bumper sticker says, “silence is complicity.”

I think America’s centuries’ long discussion of racism is confused by the use of one word with two different definitions, resulting in a discussion of two different things while we think we’re talking about the same thing. “Who’s On First?” One definition views racism as a collection of racist emotions and opinions, an attitude. Another definition recognizes racism as situational, as a collection of racist circumstances.

The attitudinal definition

I think white people, of whom I am one, see racism as involving one or another negative emotion about a racial group, ranging from extreme hatred, through fear or dislike, to mild annoyance. It also includes acceptance of various stereotypical racist superstitions. “Black people lack ambition…are less intelligent than white people…are violent…etc.” In the past, such racism was common and acceptable. Even today we all know white racists. Sometimes they’re dear old friends. Sometimes they’re relatives. Often, aside from their bigotry, they’re otherwise nice people.

But, one hopes, the majority of white Americans feel no such animosity and believe in no such superstitions. Nor is such bigotry socially acceptable. Though, admittedly, white people who know better will let a racist remark go unchallenged to “be nice,”when the bigot is a pal. Still, most (many?) white people can examine themselves and, finding in themselves no negative emotions or opinions. They can say in total sincerity, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”  “I don’t care if you’re white, black,or PURPLE! People are people to me!” Such a declaration of one’s “color blindness” is a not guilty plea of racism. IF racism is defined as an attitude. But it is a renunciation of civic and ethical responsibility if we define racism, not as a set of emotions and opinions, but as a set of circumstances.

The situational definition

People of color sometimes experience racism as a matter of white people’s emotions and opinions. Bigots often hurt people of color with rudeness, insult, smug patronizing, presumption. But people of color experience racism, as well, as a pragmatic fact of existence. To be black in America is to experience America one way, and to be white is to experience it another way. By so many criteria, prenatal care, school preparedness, childhood trauma, education, all the way through health and life expectancy, statistics show people of color have a less enviable situation than white people.

Are there exceptions? Of course, millions. There is a large and successful black middle class, indeed there are black billionaires. Are there poor white people? Plenty. Many right here in Vermont. Each individual’s fate, each subgroup’s fate, results from a complex mix of factors. Race, per se, is not the sole determiner of fate. But statistically, race is a factor. To be black in America, all else being equal, is a statistical disadvantage. The worst of this is violence, and the worst kind of violence is violence at the hands of government officials whose job it is to protect citizens from violence.

When Dr. Martin Luther King condemned color awareness, color awareness meant, “back of the bus, no trial before we hang you, no punishment for your rapist.” Today color awareness means noticing the racial disparities in wealth, justice, safety, and we demand that they stop. In particular we notice the disproportionate frequency of young men of color murdered by the police.

When a white person cheerily congratulates him/herself for not caring if you’re white, black or purple, because people are people, s/he is declaring indifference to the the disparities between the black experience and the White experience. S/he is also declaring that white people get to decide what the issue is. Unilaterally! White people need to learn that racism is less about our feelings and our opinions than it is about the facts of black people’s reality.

Sen. Dick McCormack from Bethel represents the three-member at-large Windsor County district in the Vermont Senate.

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