The Two Things about Racism Most Americans Don’t Understand

There’s only two — so far as I can tell from this particular vantage point in my life. But they explain everything.

1. “Racism” is not identical to “prejudice.”

I talked about this in another article already, but I’m just going to review it because it bears repeating: “Racism” is not identical to “prejudice.”

If you’re at a Togo’s Sandwiches in California and you see a person of Chinese descent there and you give him a dirty look because of COVID-19, that’s prejudice. You don’t know anything about him; you haven’t heard him speak, you don’t know if he has an accent. You certainly don’t know if he’s been to China recently. (In point of fact, the last time he was there, it was 1997 and he hadn’t even started high school. Not that this example comes from real life or anything.) But you see his skin color and his eye shape and you assume, merely because of those features, that he must be the architect of all your pain. That’s prejudice.

That is not racism.

Racism is when you call the cops on him because you know they’ll shoot first and ask questions later. (Thankfully, we are now out of the realm of “real life example.”) Racism is when you exploit the fact that some forms of prejudice are written into law: the War on Drugs, stop-and-frisk, even the fact that schools draw their funds from the district’s income taxes — meaning that the poor are deprived of education, their best and most powerful weapon for escaping poverty.

Prejudice is a personal action. Racism is a legal structure. They are not identical.

This is why white people can’t complain about the system being racist. It isn’t: it’s not rigged against them. (Well, except for affirmative action. But when you consider how much the system is rigged against BIPOC, it seems only fair to rig it in favor of them at least once. The wise understand that Affirmative Action is a necessary evil; the ignorant claim it unnecessary.) Now, if you were a white person in China, where — I assume, if for no other reason than the fact that humans tend to be corrupt, and Chinese people are in fact human— there is institutionalized prejudice against guilao, you could most certainly be the victim of racism. But you can’t in America, because American laws do not, by and large, victimize white people.

Racism is not identical to prejudice.

2. It is possible to be racist without being prejudiced.

The truth is that America is coming along. Prejudice is becoming more and more unfavorable, and (Trump’s renaissance notwithstanding) more and more Americans are realizing that judging other people without having the whole story is bad. “I should not judge people by the color of their skin,” people are saying everywhere, and it’s definitely progress.

The problem is that a lot of people think that judging others by skin color is the only possible evil they can do, and it’s not.

How many times have you griped about how blacks tend to be less educated, more prone to trouble? These are, unfortunately, facts: crime rate, drug abuse, physical and emotional abuse, sexual abuse: all these things correlate with lower education, something which — as we’ve already covered — black people are disproportionately unable to access. But if you judge them for it, you’re being racist, because you’re ignoring how the system forces African-Americans into poverty. Acknowledging that the victims of a broken system are victims does not make you a bad person… but it doesn’t make you a good one either.

And then there’s the question of dismantling it. It’s, unquestionably, a huge task, daunting to contemplate, but it’s not your place to turn away. It’s something we need to do — and, more importantly, it’s something we need to do, to atone for the sins of our fathers, the ones who set up the broken system in the first place. (I mean, it’s not like they’re going to rise from the grave to do it.)

And yet we keep having people — of all races and colors — who don’t seem to want to do that. Because they know the broken system benefits them… and they don’t want to give up those benefits. They would never treat someone poorly because of the color of that person’s skin, but they’re okay if someone else treats them poorly.

Which is why I say it’s possible to be racist without being prejudiced. And why people have to stop being racist without being prejudiced.

It also explains some other things going around the interwebs these days.

  • #ACAB: “All Cops Are Bastards.” On the surface, this seems, well, prejudicial; and, on the surface, it is. I may be going out on a limb somewhat when I say this, but I do believe it and I stand by this belief: There are good apples in our law-enforcement agencies. “Not all cops,” to co-opt the slogan. This being said, the distinction I made above — being racist without being prejudiced; refusing to engage in a corrupt power structure but also refusing to dismantle it — applies here too. If you are a cop and you see a fellow cop abuse their power, and you don’t say anything, are you guilty of a crime? Yes. Are you as guilty as that other cop? No, absolutely not; but you are still a non-zero quantity of guilty. You are still a non-zero quantity of bastard. All cops must be bastards because that’s the only way corruption could have penetrated America’s police departments as thoroughly as it has. Even if you aren’t prejudicial, even if you aren’t a bad cop, you are still a bastard. And that’s something every law-enforcement officer in the nation will have to face in the mirror some day.

Because that’s the thing. Edmund Burke didn’t say this — it’s a bastardized John Stuart Mill quote — but it’s still true: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” And if you are a good person, doing neither good nor evil, doing nothing… then you aren’t helping. It’s why everyone is saying it’s not enough to be non-racist, you have to be anti-racist: because that’s when you stop doing nothing.

And besides, John Stuart Mill was wrong: a person who neither helps nor hinders is not actually a good person. Remember, the Good Samaritan didn’t just keep walking.

So, with all this in mind, what are you going to be? What choices do you plan to make? Because you can be the good person who does something… or the bad person who does nothing.

Only you can choose.

We don’t have the right to live in a world that satisfies our moral sensibilities. We DO, however, get to CREATE one. Here’s how we do it.