Yeah, We Need to Talk About Racism

Minneapolis is on fire right now, as I write. Protests are spreading to other cities. Our President has tweeted threats of violence as his response. Already, on cue, American racism has started to devalue the legitimacy of the peaceful protests that first followed the killing of a black man during his arrest for passing a counterfeit twenty dollar bill and, instead, focus outrage on protests.

In this moment we must, as a nation, recognize who gets teargassed for protesting and who, just a week before, got to brandish AR-15s in state capitols across the country, including PA. Who gets tear-gassed and what kind of protest we call violent is how racism works. How we get angrier at riots than at racist murders is how racism works. We have to recognize, as MLK put it, that “a riot is the language of the unheard.”

Last weekend here at home, some dude went full on racist in Meadville, threatening to burn down a new restaurant, shouting epithets, demonstrating unambiguous hatred and clear unfettered bigotry. Wednesday, someone asked a direct question of our incumbent state rep, if he would stand with the victim and denounce hatred. The response began with a suggestion that the victim would have been better off had they been carrying a concealed weapon, then dismissed the notion that racism is a problem in Crawford County. Just two people, he said, doing something everyone else in the area would not.

While it is certainly true that most Crawford Countians would not threaten to torch a business while shouting racial epithets, the just two people line misses the point, completely, and the response is directly related to the frustration and anger that has ignited in Minneapolis. Here’s the thing: America has a problem with racism. Pennsylvania has a problem with racism. Crawford County, as is true of all locales in our nation, has a problem with racism.

For too many people, however, the only racism that counts is the kind that burns crosses, shouts the N-word, threatens to murder, acts out in palpable, clear, obvious, antisocial ways. Since most people don’t do those things, there’s no racism problem.

I want to be clear about this: racism is not just about the craven boldness of violent individuals who don robes and blare their vile trumpets. Racism is pernicious and deeply-seated. Racism, often, manifests as an inability to see the racism that surrounds us, everywhere. It manifests as a refusal to see it. And that refusal allows both subtle and overt racism to continue. Whether we mean to or not, we allow space for violent racism when we try, over and over, to pretend that racism is not an issue.

Heck, many don’t even want to see racism in the blaring trumpets, in the Confederate Battle Flags flying along Route 6, the Grand Army of the Republic Highway, a road literally named in honor of Union veterans who fought the racism that flag has always represented. Many don’t want to believe the reality of what a black woman told me earlier this year, about the time she was waiting to cross the street in the Diamond, and a truck waved her to pass, and she stepped into the crosswalk, and the truck drove up and gave her a nudge with its bumper, a leering laughing face inside, race baiting and threatening her with vehicular violence. Many don’t want to see the deep, racist threat percolating when we fail to push back against racist jokes, or when we ridicule those who do push back for being “too sensitive” or “politically correct” or a “snowflake.” When they are told to “lighten up.”

Racist jokes are a form of hate speech, perhaps not as obviously vile as direct threats of violence, but in fact they are the soil within which racism flourishes. They are a step away from “nudging” someone with your vehicle, which is a step away from threatening to burn down someone’s business. And I shouldn’t need to say this: carrying a concealed weapon will not break that chain of racial violence.

Let’s put this to rest before anyone decides to try to use it as a gotcha: riots are not good. But recognizing that long frustration is a root cause of rioting is not to defend the riot itself. Instead, I’m saying that we have to listen to the words we use when we talk about race, when we blithely claim racism is not a problem in a town where non-white residents consistently report experiencing small and not-small acts of hostility and racism. We have to listen when people share these experiences, and we have to respond in ways that take seriously the reality of race in America.

It is too easy to say, let’s just be nice to each other, which is what so many people say, because it’s the solution we wish would work. If only it were that easy. It’s not. Easy answers, or empty non-answers, simply let racism hide in plain sight. Until we can’t ignore it, because someone commits a felony in threatening racially-charged terroristic violence.

We have to hear this, too: many politicians don’t want to acknowledge the inequities of poverty, of healthcare access, of infant mortality, of predatory criminal prosecution, all of which plague non-white communities. Or recognize that the disproportionate death rate of black and brown Americans from Covid-19 relates directly to racial division in the allocation of resources. Or acknowledge that in Meadville PA physicians of color and professors of color and students of color and lifelong residents of color experience racism, regularly.

Look, make it economic if you want to: businesses threatened, even run out of town, because of racism. New neighbors who won’t move here because they fear racism. Professionals who move here, are made to feel unsafe and unwelcome, and leave. If you need to think about every problem as a matter of dollars (and, too often, it seems like politicians only want to think that way, reducing human experience to numbers in a spreadsheet), then think about the economy that’s not here because of racism. The people who leave. Or never come. The perceptions of businesses who don’t want to set up shop in a place too easy to dismiss already. Fine. Think about the dollars lost.

The issue of racism is not economic, though. It’s moral. It’s about dignity, justice, equality, the things that our patriotism is supposed to champion. It’s about civic pride and neighborliness and godliness and human decency.

In an important book called Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison writes about the erasure of race in so many pieces of literature, the effect being that whiteness seems unraced, and all other racial positions are nothing but race. That’s the problem. One of the ways racism works is to define whiteness always as “normal” or as the default. Everyone else has a race. Therefore, racism is viewed only as a problem of the non-white, and we tend to only really see the racism when it is impossible to ignore. But racism functions in the many mechanisms that work to maintain the “normality” of whiteness as default. School funding. Drug laws. Poverty. Healthcare. Stereotypes. Political rhetoric.

It’s hard to see systemic racism when you’re brought up not to see it. It’s difficult to realize that being nice, and being polite, is not enough. It’s painful to start seeing racism, and the part we all play in it, and harder still to resist slipping back into the shared, comfortable blindness that makes it so easy to want to believe things like, racism is not a problem in Crawford County.

Most of us legitimately care. Most of us are legitimately nice. Most of us are not racists. But the sad, hard, difficult truth is that being a racist is different than living in a culture of racism. Racism is not just about individuals who do hateful things. Racism is the inescapable structures of our culture that allow racial inequity to persist.

Race, as you know, is not actually a thing, biologically or scientifically. It’s an invention of culture, used always to sort out who gets to have power. It’s about who, in fact, gets to determine whether or not racism is a problem.

Put another way: even if we were to miraculously stop every overt racist act, racism would still exist in the system. In who gets to wear their hair as it grows and who has to cut it off to be “respectable.” In who gets called “illegal.” In who gets to be the butt of the joke and who gets to tell the joke. In who is seen as threatening just for existing. In whose frustration is considered violent and whose is not. On and on.

Racism’s greatest power is its invisibility. We have to acknowledge that power. We have to see how racism functions, everywhere, including Crawford County. We have to understand that being a racist is different than racism itself, and that it is our duty to dedicate ourselves to active justice not quiet acquiescence. We all have to call out racism, in all its forms. We all have to recognize that saying, maybe concealed carry would help is just another way to willfully refuse to recognize that all legislators, all people, have a responsibility to do everything they can to bend the arc of history toward equality and peace.

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