We as a nation have become really good at punishing casual racism. Casual racism, you know, using the N-word, or saying overtly cruel things about black people in the presence of a recording device.
Robert Copeland, an 82-year-old town police commissioner in New Hampshire, resigned this week after he unapologetically described President Barack Obama as the N-word. There’s not an equivalent thing to call a white leader of the free world. There’s just not. After Copeland’s resignation, Board of Selectmen Chair Linda Murray told reporters, “The town is pleased. This gives us the opportunity to move on.”
And public land grifter Cliven Bundy blew his chance to be a mainstream right-wing militia star when he uttered the sentence, “I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro…” He went from hero to “who?” in the right-wing echosphere in about two seconds.
When Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was caught on tape telling his mistress not to take black people to his games or have her picture taken with them. Sterling was banned from the NBA for life and ordered to sell his team (at a profit).
So we’ve grown adept at being disgusted when hearing racist things. Our corporate images are those of diversity. Sponsors flee from a hint of casual racism. Dr. Laura Schlessinger dropped a couple of N-bombs and was booted out of terrestrial radio, landing at XM Sirius.
We’ve gotten really good at denouncing the N-word.
We’re less willing to talk about or even acknowledge institutionalized racism as a real thing. A word is easy to rally and tweet against: the long-term systematic subjugation of a people based on their skin color is…well…not as easy to solve with a catchy hashtag.
It’s like global warming: If we admit it’s real, suddenly there are a bunch of uncomfortable realities to face. Instead, we opt to teach the controversy and stall.
The Sterling example in particular illustrates my point: The Justice Department sued Sterling’s company in 2003 for refusing to rent to African Americans in Beverly Hills. That’s institutional racism: the billionaire had to shell out a measly $3 million yet took no hit to his reputation. What hurt him was his casual racism played back for all to hear.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ seminal piece in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations” (one of the few magazine articles you’ll ever read with chapters) paints a vivid picture of institutionalized racism: Race-based government policies conspiring with private interests, what Coates describes as pirates with their plunder.
“Having been enslaved for 250 years, black people were not left to their own devices. They were terrorized. In the Deep South, a second slavery ruled. In the North, legislatures, mayors, civic associations, banks, and citizens all colluded to pin black people into ghettos, where they were overcrowded, overcharged, and undereducated.” He writes, “Businesses discriminated against them, awarding them the worst jobs and the worst wages. Police brutalized them in the streets. And the notion that black lives, black bodies, and black wealth were rightful targets remained deeply rooted in the broader society.”
And strangely 12 Years a Slave winning Best Picture, doesn’t change that. And electing Barack Obama doesn’t change that. And banning Sterling from the NBA doesn’t change that. Coates writes, “In 2012, the Manhattan Institute cheerily noted that segregation had declined since the 1960s. And yet African Americans still remained—by far—the most segregated ethnic group in the country.”
Look, I’m not belittling the ease with which we organize against casual racism. (I am a little.) I think if we have agreed that using a word as ugly and dehumanizing as the infamous N-word means you lose credibility in public discourse then we can also see the policies which have contributed to continued inequality in the same way.
To quote Coates: “To celebrate freedom and democracy while forgetting America’s origins in a slavery economy is patriotism à la carte.”