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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.

Our systemic racism lives in the appointment of unqualified and underpaid attorneys for poor people, who, in our justice system, tend to be overwhelmingly black or brown. It comes in our system of jury selection, where prosecutors are allowed, in many places, to use preemptory strikes against jurors for any reason. The result should be predictable for those people who have seen a capital case - a black or Latino defendant ends up with an all-white jury. This is especially problematic when the victim happens to be white.

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.

Originally posted to Coby DuBose on Criminal Injustice, Race, and Poverty on Mon Jan 14, 2013 at 10:15 AM PST.

Also republished by Barriers and Bridges, Black Kos community, and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  So much (yet again) for our post-racial society (7+ / 0-)

    I should bring back my former sig line because it reflects your last paragraph perfectly. It was All it takes is security in your civil rights to be complacent about them. I said that as a gay man, who can be fired for being who I am in more states than I can be married in because of who I am.

    I'm sorry you have to put up with this in your own family, but I'm glad for the dispatch from the field. Don't forget that the disproportional rate of blacks in prison is also a vote-suppression mechanism. The system is awry, and it's not going to change until we get the vestigial racists out of it.

    -7.75, -8.10; Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? . . . and respect the dignity of every human being.

    by Dave in Northridge on Mon Jan 14, 2013 at 12:26:07 PM PST

  •  I understand, and sympathize with (9+ / 0-)

    your attempt to cope with racist relatives.  There are a number of my relatives I haven't spoken to in decades because I find their racism loathsome.  I walked out because they weren't going to change, and because I believed (and still believe) that making rationalizations for their words and their behavior would make me a supporter of racism too.  But walking out wasn't easy, and some days I still miss the people I wish they were.  

    What I do take issue with is the idea that "we" (white people) have "fooled" ourselves into believing that our criminal justice system is no longer institutionally racist. I think that's just a way of letting white folks off the hook -- of pretending "we" aren't outright racists who can and do absolutely see the damage our racism does to nonwhite communities and individuals every single moment of every single day.  We can and do see it, and a frightening number of us are okay with it, or enthusiastically support it.

    There are 3000 prisons in the U.S.  Almost 10% of African Americans are under the control of the criminal justice system. The number of Hispanics is heading up towards 5%. (Though mainstream media portrays black and brown criminals far out of proportion even to the absurdly skewed arrest and incarceration rate.)  Conditions in U.S. prisons are so bad that the words "cruel and unusual punishment" no longer have any meaning.  Equality is a sham -- the cause of "justice" was not served by reducing the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing to "only" 18:1 instead of 100:1!  As Denise Oliver Velez wrote in her front page article yesterday, the War on Drugs is a war on black and brown people, and white people not only know it -- many of them heartily approve of it.

    Not only is this society not post-racial, but it is racialized, quite literally, with a vengeance and with malice aforethought. And I am tired of pretending otherwise and acting like we white folks can somehow successfully "fool" ourselves that we aren't racist.  (This isn't peculiar to the States, by the way.  I've heard the same racist rhetoric applied to the Sinti and the Rom by white people who like to think of themselves as progressive, all over Europe.)  Those who of us who want to make change have to see the situation as it is, and understand the forces we're fighting against.  "Ignorance" is not the problem.  "Fooling ourselves" is not the problem.  The problem is that so many white folks outright embrace racism, and are thoroughly righteous about it.

    "If you fake the funk, your nose will grow." -- Bootsy Collins

    by hepshiba on Mon Jan 14, 2013 at 01:20:56 PM PST

    •  Good comment, but I think there is great ignorance (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      citylights, ImagineOhio

      out there. People like yourself who understand how racism is being perpetuated need to explain it to the people whose eyes are closed to it. That is done just a bit in the media but we need a huge campaign devoted to this.

      "extreme concentration of income is incompatible with real democracy.... the truth is that the whole nature of our society is at stake." Paul Krugman

      by Gorette on Mon Jan 14, 2013 at 08:36:54 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I've spent a lifetime explaining racism, (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        the many forms it takes, and the many terrible effects it has, to people whose eyes are closed to it.  I've done it in the classroom for decades, and in my personal life since I was a preteen.  I'm very effective at explaining, people tell me.  And I think that my explanations have changed how a few -- a very few -- people conduct themelves.

        But... 98% percent of the time that I get through to someone, and see that light go on in their eyes, it shuts off days or months later when they realize the cost of giving up their privileges, and sharing power equitably, with everyone.  The hardest truth for committed antiracists and progressives to accept, and the most painful, is that most people simply do not want to change, and especially do not want to change if change is costly in either a personal, economic, social, or political sense. Nonwhite people have a far better understanding of this, overall, than white progressives.  

        Teaching is clearly not enough.  It's something, and we can't do without it, but it's no more than a small, local and temporary solution.  It's part of the process of political change, and we always need more good teachers, but racism is at heart a power issue, and we -- as progressives -- simply haven't found a good way to persuade people with power to give it up.  And as progressives, persuasion, rather than violent revolution, is our gig.

        "If you fake the funk, your nose will grow." -- Bootsy Collins

        by hepshiba on Tue Jan 15, 2013 at 09:40:46 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Another great lesson for me. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          Although I can see the power aspect when you point it out, I have not thought of it that way as a distinct cause for perpetrating racism (aside from the way people like to have someone to put down, someone they believe is "lesser" somehow than they are).

          As a white teen during the 50's my dad and I argued about racism. I'm one of seven siblings one of whom had a black father. But I've brought that up here many times.

          It must seem at times quite a thankless task explaining all this to whites. Our education system did a terrible job of teaching us the history of it all, but am guessing our teachers were also unaware. I admire you for sticking with it. Thank you.

          "extreme concentration of income is incompatible with real democracy.... the truth is that the whole nature of our society is at stake." Paul Krugman

          by Gorette on Tue Jan 15, 2013 at 03:36:26 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  Racism has always been with us, but (5+ / 0-)

    it wasn't nearly so bad until the start of the African Slave Trade in the 1500's.
      Racism was used to justify blacks being enslaved.

     Now we are still living with the legacy.

      Before the middle ages slaves could be any color because they were usually the victims of losing a war.
      During the middle ages slavery nearly vanished from Europe.

    ¡Cállate o despertarás la izquierda! - protest sign in Spain

    by gjohnsit on Mon Jan 14, 2013 at 02:24:11 PM PST

  •  I call it "polite racism" (5+ / 0-)

    Your sister's buddy's version, anyway. And I've noticed a justification that gets offered pretty consistently. A polite racist redefines racism - in his own mind, anyway - as being strictly that enraged, violent, stereotyped hatred that anyone can identify as such. Soft-pedalled comments like the one you quote are mildly stated, not passionate at all, therefore not "racist," just a personal preference.

    I have (mildly) confronted polite racists with the real definition of the word, the presumption that all members of a "race" share the same, basic qualities, whatever they are, no matter with what emotion this error is expressed. They push back hard, because, of course, that IS racism, and it is, on its face, illogical, even silly, indefensible, so long as we conduct our disagreements out loud. Ad I tell you something: a polite racist is already retreating from the argument. He knows he's lost it.

    To your Gran, if I were to engage her, I would remind her that free speech is also the right to be regarded as ignorant and vile, and does NOT include the right to be respected or taken seriously.

    •  I've encountered that type (0+ / 0-)

      the "it isn't racist if I didn't say the N Word" type. They are certainly out there. I'm not sure who is worse, them or the "I said the N Word but I'm not a racist" type. They tend to overlap though, oddly enough.

      "I wish you luck on not hating your parents for mixing up such an unthinkable person." --The frickin´ HP--

      by McWaffle on Wed Jan 16, 2013 at 08:12:51 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  IMO the election of Obama has radicalized racism (4+ / 0-)

    And not all Republicans are racist but if you are racists you are probably a Republican.  This political polarization of racism started with Nixons's Southern Strategy and reached it's peak in 2008;

    The strategy was first adopted under future Republican President Richard Nixon and Republican Senator Barry Goldwater[6] in the late 1960s.[7] The strategy was successful in many regards. It contributed to the electoral realignment of Southern states to the Republican Party, but at the expense of losing more than 90 percent of black voters to the Democratic Party.
    Hopefully things will get better as younger Americans become less racist;
    The gap between Millennials and other age groups is evident for all of the individual groups asked about, though the size of the gap does vary as Americans ages 50 to 64 and 65 and older are less likely to accept marriages to members of some groups (in particular, African Americans) than others (in particular, white Americans).

    Daily Kos an oasis of truth. Truth that leads to action.

    by Shockwave on Mon Jan 14, 2013 at 03:05:22 PM PST

  •  My dear Grizzard, I have so much to say. (7+ / 0-)

    I looked at your profile,
    and I'm so happy for you:
    You're young,
    and you're new to Daily Kos,
    and yet your most frequent tag is:

    I'm green with envy!

    But happy for you.

    Next thing I noticed,
    jumping out of the computer screen,
    is that you,
    so far,
    us few commentors
    are all white folks.

    One gay man,
    who has his own bigotry to deal with,
    but the rest of us
    are not victims,
    of the racism we're discussing.

    I'm an indirect victim,
    since I married a black woman
    over a year ago,
    and since she feels at home
    in her old neighborhood,
    she asked me to move in with her,
    instead of the other way around.

    now I'm living in a black neighborhood,
    living with a black family,
    since we live in a big house
    with my Tonia's brothers and her uncle.

    The house was built in 1950,
    and it has no eves,
    so a little glitch
    at the drip edge of the roof
    allows water to flow into the wall,
    and rots the lumber in the wall.

    No insulation.

    Cardboard sewer lines.

    The cardboard sewer lines
    may have been universal
    for working class housing
    back in the post WWII house building boom,
    according to research I did online.

    But no eves,
    no insulation,
    was that a case of,
    "good enough for those colored folks"?
    (I think that was the common term in those days.)

    I'm almost done
    insulating the attic
    of the added on room
    at the back of the house
    where Tonia and I live.

    It's a very cold day,
    here in Wichita, Kansas,
    but it's warm in our room,
    since we put in the insulation,
    Pink Panther,
    9" thick,

    I need to put up some sheetrock,
    to replace what was damaged,
    two years ago.

    I'm rambling,
    but my wife, Tonia, told me a story,
    of a time she was in court,
    on charges,
    never mind the details of her charges;
    while she was waiting her turn,
    she saw and heard two other case,
    a white boy,
    who had killed someone,
    and a black man,
    who had stolen something,
    to sell,
    to eat,
    to survive.

    The black man was sent to prison,
    for nine years.

    The white boy was released.

    That's the story Tonia just told me.

    I'm supposing there were lots of details involved,
    in each case,
    that made it seem within the law,
    but I'm just telling you,
    what Tonia told me.

    By the way,
    to report political news
    from my new neighborhood,
    in case you wonder
    if our large black neighbor hood
    here in Wichita
    is represented in our state capital
    by a black person,
    it is.

    My wife's aunt,
    State Senator Oletha Faust-Goudeau,
    represents our state Senatorial district.

    But Republicans are putting plenty of money
    towards trying to defeat her.

    They have failed so far,
    but they spent a lot of money,

    The Republican challenger
    is also black,
    also female.

    It was still a landslide victory
    for Aunt Oletha,
    but the Kenya Cox campaign office
    is still a prominent storefront,
    with a big sign,
    in the neighborhood.


    Great diary.

  •  Excellent thoughtful diary from a different (4+ / 0-)

    perspective. I congratulate you for contributing this piece which is one of the more original on racism that I've read here.

    I appreciate how you presented your family and their views here and agree with your assessment about the venality of that friend's comment and the danger of allowing such racist remarks to go unchallenged.

    Have you seen the Abolishionists series on pbs? It is very well done and worth watching. This is something that should be shown in schools, like every year. Students and citizens as a whole mostly do not know much about what slavery was truly like and the aftermath, which was not that far back.


    "extreme concentration of income is incompatible with real democracy.... the truth is that the whole nature of our society is at stake." Paul Krugman

    by Gorette on Mon Jan 14, 2013 at 08:32:50 PM PST

  •  In Purkett v. Elam, this challenge was deemed (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bigjacbigjacbigjac, Oh Mary Oh

    sufficient to strike the only two black jurors in the pool by the US Supreme Court:

    "I struck [juror] number twenty two because of his long hair. He had long curly hair. He had the longest hair of anybody on the panel by far. He appeared to not be a good juror for that fact, the fact that he had long hair hanging down shoulder length, curly, unkempt hair. Also, he had a mustache and a goatee type beard. And juror number twenty four also has a mustache and goatee type beard. Those are the only two people on the jury . . . with facial hair . . . . And I don't like the way they looked, with the way the hair is cut, both of them. And the mustaches and the beards look suspicious to me."


  •  Excellent diary, as always. Whenever I see your (3+ / 0-)

    name, I know the post will be worth reading. Your posts are informative, articulate and relateable. Thanks!

    "In politics stupidity is not a handicap." Napoleon Bonaparte

    by citylights on Tue Jan 15, 2013 at 07:38:11 AM PST

  •  Obviously you are right (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    that racism continues to be a serious problem, and people have learned to make it less readily apparent without really improving the situation very much.

    On the other hand, it is a good thing that people at least see that they need to downplay it.  That is an improvement from the way things used to be, and I have the hope that downplayed racism will not be transmitted to the next generation in such a virulent form.

  •  Good diary! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    A good and subtle analysis of the racism which surrounds us every day. It's so easy to go along with it; it's harder to stand against it.

    We need more whites to do just that.  And it's not always easy--as you acknowledge in dealing with your grandmother.

    But we need to expose the myth of a "post-racial" society.  It's just another white sheet for the racists to hide behind.

  •  Driving through Tennessee a few years back (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    with a buddy of mine.  We stayed at some EconoLodge outside of Knoxville on our way to New Orleans.  We made small take with the clerk, an older white gentleman, while we ate our free breakfast.  The Tennessee/Vanderbilt game was on that day and he mentioned that the game used to be competitive, until Tennessee "changed colors".  My immediate thought was some uniform change, but it took all of five seconds to figure out what he meant.  Its the kind of statement that is just neutral enough to not place any value judgements, "just making an observation"

    There is truth on all sides. The question is how much.

    by slothlax on Tue Jan 15, 2013 at 04:05:40 PM PST

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