When Anti-Racism Strikes Out: Understanding the Difference Between Individual and Systemic Racism

Published as a ZNet Commentary, February 26, 2000

When it comes to discussions of racism, or any other “ism” for that matter, often we miss the forest for the trees. Such was the case recently, when it was reported that Atlanta Braves relief pitcher, John Rocker, had cut loose with a string of racist, xenophobic, sexist and homophobic slurs during an interview with Sports Illustrated.

Rocker, driven he says by “competitive zeal,” said among other things that Asian women can’t drive, and that he wouldn’t play for the New York Mets, because he’d have to ride the subway with “queers with AIDS,” and career criminals. He went on to offer that he “doesn’t care much for foreigners,” and asked, “How the hell did they get into this country?” All this, shortly before referring to one of his Afro-Caribbean teammates as a “fat monkey,” and then — just to make sure he hadn’t been misunderstood — explaining that he was “not racist or prejudiced.”

Now don’t get me wrong. I personally think Rocker should be fired. “Free speech” notwithstanding (and this concept has no applicability to the private sector anyway), the fact remains that if folks are still getting fired in this country for trying to organize unions, then an asshole like Rocker should certainly be kicked to the curb for such expressions of outright bigotry.

But is that really the point? And do the Atlanta Braves really have much wiggle-room when it comes to condemning racism? I mean, these are the same folks who call their mascot, “Chief Knock-a-Homa,” who proudly display a grotesque caricature of an American Indian on all their merchandise, and have popularized the stereotypic and offensive “tomahawk chop” as a fan pick-me-up. The Braves have ignored the protests of large segments of the indigenous, first people’s communities for years on this score, as have other teams with Indian mascots in assorted sports leagues, and yet now they try and position themselves as champions of tolerance and respect? Pardon me if I’m just not buying it.

And to send Rocker to psychological counseling, as commissioner Bud Selig did recently, only further indicates the degree to which many folks still don’t understand what racism is. Or maybe they do get it, but would rather not talk about the real deal. Racism, as with sexism, heterosexism, and other parallel forms of oppression, are not about maladjusted personalities, disordered psyches or repressed ids. Rather, they are logical adaptations for members of dominant groups in society, to very real institutionalized inequities: inequities that reward dominant group members, so long as they go along with the program, either overtly, or at least passively, accepting the privileges that come with being a man, or white, or heterosexual.

For Rocker to say the things he did, and believe them, is not aberrant in the least. It’s all too common. For Rocker to articulate his bigotry so openly may be rare, but less so because the beliefs are infrequently held, than that most folks — especially those getting paid as well as star athletes — know when and how to keep their mouths shut.

If Rocker had been paying attention these past few years, he would have learned that the way to bash gays is not to call them queers and trot out the old AIDS-phobias which are so passe in the era of red ribbons, but rather to talk about the “homosexual agenda,” and “recruitment” of children to the “gay lifestyle.” He would have learned that the way to bash Asians is not to criticize their driving, or to call Asian women “bitches,” but rather, to prattle on about how they’re “buying up America.” He would have learned that immigrants are best attacked not by saying you “don’t much like them,” but rather, by saying you love them, so long as they come to the U.S. legally, learn English immediately, and don’t suck up too many welfare dollars. Had Rocker stuck to this kind of script, he could have lost his job with the Braves, and yet waltzed into a very lucrative career as a radio talk show host, best-selling author, or perhaps a Presidential candidate.

The handling of the Rocker incident illustrates society’s general inability to address racism at its institutional roots, as opposed to trying to “heal” individuals one at a time through things like sensitivity training. Rocker can meet with Andrew Young; he can go through a dozen or more workshops; he can do that and a lot more, and still, the larger issues will remain. Like why are professional sports franchises so quick to exploit the talents of black athletes, but so reluctant to hire persons of color to coach or manage the teams? And what is the racist impact of a sports industry that holds out the pipe dream of big money to poor kids of color, while encouraging cities to vie for their own team (and give away public money for the purpose), thereby undercutting school budgets, and these same children’s educational opportunities in the process? These are questions that remain unasked as we go looking for individual villains to sooth our own consciences and assure us that the problem lies with someone else.

This individualization of racism has become something of a favorite pastime for the President lately. Since 1997, Bill Clinton has apologized for a number of wrongful military courts-martial against black soldiers during World War II, and for the Tuskegee Syphilis project, which resulted in the manipulation of scores of black men in Alabama over 40 years: told they were receiving treatment, but in reality being denied said treatment and observed as medical guinea pigs. In all these cases, the President could assure the nation that these wrongs had specific and identifiable perpetrators, and similarly specific and identifiable victims. As such, the apologies came easily, for they portended nothing broader: no accounting for, let alone apology for, let alone reparations for enslavement over a 260-year period. No accounting for, nor apology for, let alone material atonement for post-abolition apartheid. Not even a serious commitment to maintain something like affirmative action, at least not if such a defense might involve discussing the legacy and ongoing reality of institutional racism. In fact, when the President’s Advisory Commission on Race recommended that his final report on the matter delve into the issue of “white skin privilege,” Clinton’s displeasure scuttled publication of the report altogether.

The most unfortunate thing about all this is that by failing to address institutional racism and other structural inequities, it becomes all the more difficult to adequately confront the individual-level attitudinal biases about which we hear so much. So long as our society is one in which certain people (say, white, heterosexual men) are disproportionately found in prominent decision-making positions, and certain other folks (say people of color, women of all colors, and gays and lesbians) are mostly found in subordinate positions, it will be seen by many as quite obvious — or perhaps not thought of at all, but simply internalized — that those straight white guys must be smarter, or harder working than the rest. Thus, it is likely to be believed that they must “deserve” their position, while those without power must likewise “deserve” their subjugation thanks to one or another genetic, cultural or moral flaw. This is how the myth of meritocracy works with regard to class, and it works just as well with race, gender, or sexual orientation: inculcating the mindset that the winners won because the losers are, well, losers.

So long as identifiable inequity is allowed to exist to any significant degree between socially-constructed groups, this stratification, alongside the subjective propaganda which holds that “individual initiative” is the key to success or failure, will continue to produce racists: those like John Rocker, and those like the millions of other folks who agreed with what he said, differing only on the style of delivery.

It’s time we got busy addressing the problem itself, rather than merely its occasional, highly public, symptomatic manifestations. Sound advice: and you didn’t even have to check yourself in for therapy to get it.

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