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What is racism in the post-racial America of the 21st Century?

Monday, February 6th, 2012

I am a race scholar, in the sense that I theorize race with the hope that such theorization might help eradicate racism. More specifically, I am a straight WASP, with more social than economic capital, who tries to make sense of racism as it intersects with (and emerges out of) many Western religious beliefs and cultural expressions. I am also a graduate student, narrowing down my theories and methods, and asking myself a vexing question: Just what is racism?

The classic civil rights formula for defining and spotting racism—Power + Privilege = Racism—has a number of problems. One of which is the changing social, cultural and economic cartography of the United States where simultaneously the African American middle class is larger than ever meanwhile a growing percentage of the population lives in poverty across all races. This definition does nothing to address the way geography, sexuality, gender or education contributes to such a disparity. This “old” definition simply does not take into account the web-like nature of oppression (or privilege), preferring to understand oppressed and oppressor as locked in a racialized binary from which both sides’ steps are arranged. Though this definition once may have been politically expedient, it has never been very analytically helpful. What’s more, through an induction fallacy it tends to ontologize whiteness and white people as fundamentally “racist,” as it creates the analytic category of “white racist” and applies it to whites regardless of other demographic markers like class, gender, etc. This presupposes contemporary moods, motivations and actions of whites based on historically improper conduct.[1] It makes whites into sole perpetrators of racist violence and operates under the assumption that all whites are equally guilty for the racism perpetrated by other whites historically and today. The history of anti-black racism may cause some to feel such an assumption is warranted, but induction is nevertheless a fallacy.

I have a more pressing pragmatic challenge as a white antiracist scholar speaking to a white audience. If I want white people—the racial group which disproportionately benefits from a structurally-constructed ideology of domination that produces a variety of unjust social practices—to address and redress their thinking about race, then I cannot begin my work with the accusation that they are hopelessly racist or guilty for history’s past injustices. Yet, the awful irony is that redefining racism from the perspective of (and for) whites might reinforce the faulty logic of the old definition by controlling the discourse and proving the old definition not so “old” after all. But quite simply, if I am to have white audiences buy into my arguments about eradicating racism, then paradoxically, it behooves me to rescue these white readers from the rigid, ontological implications of the old definition that leaves little reason for whites to work against racism.

Then I read this! [Take a minute to read it, and then come back.] Originally, I wanted this post to swiftly and efficiently point out the perils of the old definition of racism (there really are many) while simultaneously redefining the term in a way that was palatable to my white audience. Such was my intent. Instead, Rev. Melvin Thompson of the Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church points out the difficulty of redefining racism for the 21st Century. The old version is not so old, and is alive in the 21st Century!

Aside from operating as a clear example of how race and religion intermingle to perpetuate the hate and fear experienced by so many in the United States, Rev. Thompson offers a powerful teaching moment. Instead of redefining the term, we might be better served by recognizing that multiple racisms operate in the 21st Century and consequentially, so should multiple definitions. Reflecting on my own privilege as straight, middle-class WASP leads me to think that this multiplicity of definitions takes shape when analytic assessments of different types of racism (operating in any given field, i.e. data) filter through the analyst’s social context.

As to what this looks like from my context, here are a few types of racism operating in the 21st Century and inchoate comments for each: (1) there is overt racism. Rev. Thompson’s decision to bring to vote whether or not to allow membership of multi-racial partners into their church is a perfect example of this. Think Bull Conner—He wasn’t racist, either!?! But even as Thompson’s claim, “I am not a racist,” is laughable to most (as it betrays its own proposition), he believes what he is saying. Then there is what I call (2) dispositional racism. Dispositional racism happens when I am viscerally more fearful of a black guy walking towards me on the sidewalk than occurs for his white counterpart (unfortunately, this is not merely hypothetical). And even as I, a race scholar, realize what is happening when it happens (fortunately, these instances are rare), I cannot do anything about it in that moment because the racism is physiologically and psychologically motivated. Not all racism is volitional nor can it be corrected in the moments when such dispositions emerge, though we wish that it could be. How to correct the embodied, racist dispositions of one’s habitus should constitute much antiracist work moving forward. Finally there is (3) institutional racism. Institutional racism is found in the extremely disproportionate numbers of black and brown individuals who face poverty, prison, death row, lack of adequate education or housing, etc., etc. Institutional racism is much discussed, but in my opinion there has been a failure from scholars to address the relationship between dispositional and institutional types of racism. When we find ways to offset dispositional racism, much institutional racism might be avoided. But it also seems necessary that scholars pay closer attention to other forms of oppression, like poverty and education level, because all of these factors shape the individual dispositions of legislators, judges, prison officials—and their victims.

To conclude, these types overlap and bear the weight of history in such ways that this typology does not make antiracist scholarship easier; it makes it more difficult! Furthermore, this typology is open-ended, and many more definitions are surely to be added to it—including forms of racism perpetrated against white people. For those committed to work that is both analytically sound and ethically advantageous for the victims of racism then such shift towards an open typology of multiple definitions of racism offers the analyst and activist greater conceptual dexterity for continued scholarship and dialogue across individual social context and disciplinary parochialism.

I ask that you contribute to this dialogue by posting other definitions that should be added to the list, or comments about how contexts not my own might agree, disagree, rebuild or modify the typology started here.

[1] This might amount to a “hysteresis effect” for the antiracist scholar, where strategies learned in one socio-historical context create problems once that socio-historic context comes in contact with another.

Asad, Talal. Genealogies of Religion.
Bourdieu, Pierre. The Logic of Practice.
Hartigan, Jr., John. Odd Tribes: Toward a Cultural Analysis of White People.
Some works that address the idea of multiple racisms include: Tariq Modood. Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea. 44.; Mairtin Mac an Ghaill. Contemporary Racisms and Ethnicities.

Bio: Christopher Driscoll is a third year graduate student in the Religious Studies department of Rice University. His work addresses the intersection of race, religion and culture. Currently, he serves as Co-Chair to the Critical Approaches to Hip Hop and Religion Group held at the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion and recently Guest Edited a collection of essays included in Bulletin for the Study of Religion Vol. 40, No. 3. He can be reached at chrisdriscoll@rice.edu