Over Christmas, I spent some time at home, visiting my parents, friends, and other members of my family. Where I'm from, it's not at all odd to encounter open and overt racism on a daily basis. What was unusual about my Sunday, though, was that I ran into two different expressions of racism by two people of different generations, both visiting my parents' home. It didn't surprise me and I wouldn't say that it opened my eyes. It did, however, make me think that human racism has taken on a "friendlier", socially appropriate face. And that led me to think that we've created systems - especially within the justice system - that mirror our own beliefs and desires. Institutional racism today comes with a neutral face but does its work behind the scenes, just as human racism has "developed" enough to try and hide itself from overt manifestations.
It started with a friend of my sister. She's roughly 30 years old and she came to bring her baby to meet my sister's baby. At some point during the afternoon, we told her that we had watched yesterday's games at the new Buffalo Wild Wings in town. She told us that she didn't like Buffalo Wild Wings, an opinion that would have been perfectly reasonable if not for her next sentence:
The service is pretty bad and let's just say it's gotten a lot darker in there.Any veteran of the Deep South would know that she wasn't talking about the track lighting. Instead, she had cleaned up her racism. Where her mother might have said, "I don't like eating with black people," and her grandmother might have said, "I hate n****," she had adopted what she perceived to be a socially acceptable way to communicate her disdain for an entire race of people.
Later that night, my 80-year old grandmother made her way into my house, bringing cakes and goodies for all. She's a sweet lady, and not withstanding her views on race, we have a relationship that most people would want. We began talking about the upcoming game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins. Knowing that she had once been a Cowboys fan, I asked her whether she'd be pulling for her old team that night. Her response came out left field and it sparked an explosive conversation in front of the whole family at the dinner table.
You know I won't pull for Washington because I won't pull for that quarterback of theirs.Her unwillingness to "pull" for black football players is not new, but I had never heard her talk about Robert Griffin III, so I pressed her for an explanation. Why won't you pull for RGIII? He seems like a nice guy. At that point, she looked at me and said, "You know why, you just want me to say it."
It was then that I said:
"Yeah, why don't you just say it? You won't pull for RGIII because he's black and you don't like black people."Her response was not nearly as fulfilling as she thought it would be:
"This is a free country and if I want to be racist, that's my right."After inquiring into whether or not she participated in lynchings during the last century, I left the conversation at, "Yea, it's your right, but it's not right."
My grandmother is old, and she grew up in rural South Carolina. Her opinions are hardened by time, and even an extensive (good) relationship with my mentor, a black man, has not stopped the charge of her prejudice. My conversations with her on race are more for posterity than anything else and I've long given up on changing her mind. This is not to excuse her thoughts. She's still wrong, and she's still hateful. Plenty of people her age have never indulged racist tripe and many others have seen the error of their ways. But for all of her faults, she is at least honest.
To me, the racism of my sister's friend is more loathable and perhaps more troubling. The fact that she took the time to dial down her language proves that she's thought about racism and she understands just how backward it is in modern society. I've explained to people that it's not the language you use that makes you a racist; rather, it's the mindset behind that language. Whether she was throwing around the n-word or talking about the "darkening" of a restaurant, she's the same amount of racist in my eyes. Her version, though, has been cleaned up so that it can last in contemporary South Carolina. And this is dangerous, because it feeds into the insidious mindset that we live in a "post-racial" society. Yes, that statement is uttered often in the Deep South, and if you dare to question it, you are said to be playing "the race card."
In the same way she's fooled herself into thinking that she's not one of those dirty racists, we've fooled ourselves into thinking that our justice system is no longer institutionally racist. Sure, we no longer do what we did to George Stinney, Jr., a 14-year old, 90 pound black boy who was executed in 1944 after a kangaroo trial without another black face in sight. Today, our system's racism is designed so that it's unnoticeable to the untrained eye. It lurks in the shadows of rules that look, on their face, to be racially neutral.
How can they do that? Doesn't our system stop this from happening. On its face, it does, but this is one of those areas where the effects of the racist system lurk beneath the surface. The United States held in Batson v. Kentucky that the defense had the right to object if he believed the prosecution was trying to eliminate minority jurors through the use of preemptory challenges. In practice, this means that, upon objection, the prosecution has to give a race-neutral reason for striking that juror. The trial judge can either accept that explanation or not, and his discretion is a mile wide. What we see in the real world is that almost any race-neutral explanation will do. It would take the most uncreative of attorneys to screw that part up, and the attorneys trying important cases have typically been through a jury selection or two.
Our racism lives in sentencing, especially where jurors are involved. In the death penalty setting, when the jury also gets to decide whether the defendant dies, murderers who kill white victims are much more likely to receive death than those who kill black victims. The Supreme Court has stood directly in the way of any person trying to argue racial discrimination in his or her death penalty case. They have held that in order to show discrimination, a person cannot rely on overwhelming statistics that black defendants are treated differently in these cases. Instead, these defendants must have direct evidence that their trial was influenced by race. On its face, this ruling is racially neutral. It's cleaned up and it suits our desires to have "fairness." In reality, it is a ruling that empowers the machinery to go on with its inequitable treatment so long as the prosecutors are smart enough not to look at the defendant and yell, "I'm seeking the death penalty because you are black!"
Our institutional racism shows its face on the front end, too, where black drug users are locked up at a much higher rate than white drug users. This shouldn't be a surprise, either. There is no policy on the books that instructs police to target black users. We just deploy them into the inner city areas where minorities tend to live, ignoring overwhelmingly white parts of cities where kids might be smoking pot in the basement. It's the direct result of a facially neutral war on drugs that is anything but neutral in application.
In all of these things, what we have done is make a system of facially neutral laws. We have then depended upon the natural biases of the human beings enforcing and prosecuting the laws to enforce racially disproportionate results. This isn't necessarily the fault of the system, as it's impossible to eliminate human failing from a system run by human beings. The system's fault lies on the back end, where we have intentionally designed structures that protect those people who might enforce the law unequally. Instead of looking to ferret out those people who let their racism influence their decisions, we've opted for a system that rewards those people and makes any challenge of racial discrimination both socially unacceptable and judicially untenable.
Yet our system looks good enough from the outside that we are complacent. That is primarily why it is such a dangerous apparatus. We throw up our hands and say, "Well, the laws are fair; they don't discriminate!" As human beings, we have become overwhelmingly alright with racism as long as it doesn't slap us directly in the face in some overt or grotesque manner. And as long as we maintain that mantra, we'll be empowering a system that goes about its business in quiet ways, executing the type of justice we purported to do away with a long time ago.