Motive and Opportunity: The Difference Between White and “Other” Racism

Published as a ZNet Commentary, February 12, 2001

“Why don’t you ever talk about black racism?” Of all the comments I receive in the course of my work, this is the most common. Conservative white folks, tired of hearing about the vagaries of institutional racist inequity — which tends to elevate us relative to people of color — offer this rejoinder in what they consider the ultimate response to antiracist commentary. Forgetting for a moment their favorite mantra for the black and brown (namely, how they need to stop focusing on whites and take “personal responsibility” for their lives), my pale-skinned brethren turn quickly to focusing on the “other,” personal responsibility be damned. Oh well, consistency was never our strong point.

For many of my colleagues in the civil rights and antiracist community, the answer to the above-mentioned challenge is a no-brainer. Perhaps you’ve heard it before: the argument that only whites can be racist, because racism is a power relationship, and only whites have institutional power, at least in the United States. Frankly, I’ve never bought into this notion, at least not in the strictest sense. For while it is true that racism is a systemic framework of oppression and privilege, to which only the dominant group has access, it is also, as an “ism,” an attitudinal mindset of racial supremacy to which anyone can adhere. Yet, having said that, I do think the power aspect of racism should be most prominent in discussions of the subject, and that the white racism that has the backing of said power should be the principal area of antiracist concern. But even that simple notion proves too much for some. The idea that white racism should be seen as different from the “racism” of people of color is one many find hard to defend. After all, they say, prejudice is prejudice, and should be equally condemned.

Having long tried to explain with the help of quantitative data why white racism is more problematic, and ultimately the racism issue, I was relieved a few months ago, when a news event in my home town developed that made clear — far better than I had been able to — why we must give priority to the racism of the pale and privileged, over and above the possible racism of those of color.

You probably didn’t hear about it, as it was considered barely noteworthy, even in the town where it happened. I refer to the recent decision by a surgeon at Nashville’s St. Thomas Hospital to abide by the bizarre wishes of a patient’s husband: namely, that no black man be allowed to assist in her heart surgery; one without which she would have died. Previous doctors having refused to honor the racist request — made because the husband didn’t want a black man to see his wife naked — the man continued searching until he found someone to accede to his wishes. Though the doctor has announced his regret for collaborating with the exclusion of a black doctor from the O.R., the lead surgeon touched off a firestorm of controversy when word got out of his decision. Putting aside the ethicality of the doctor’s decision, this incident illustrates a number of important points.

First, the incident indicates that racism on the part of whites, even when fairly disempowered in economic terms (and this family was low-to-moderate income at best), can often carry enough weight to be enforceable, by institutions and powerful individuals. Though the doctor was appalled at the request made of him — as he no doubt would have been had it come from a black man asking to keep whites out of the OR — the fact remains that his ultimate acceptance of the demand stands in contrast to what he likely would have done had the man been black, seeking to keep white folks like himself from being involved in the procedure. No black person, no matter how bigoted or financially powerful could make such a demand and expect to have his or her wishes carried out. Whites are not likely to go along with requests to limit our own freedoms and opportunities.

Just as we can not imagine the black-bashes-white equivalent of The Bell Curve being published, being reviewed respectfully by mainstream media, or becoming a best-seller (since the majority won’t buy a book claiming they are genetic defectives), it is hard to imagine people of color demanding the exclusion of whites from any setting, and getting their wishes fulfilled. Such is the nature of potent racism, versus its impotent counterpart, and such is the difference between the racism of the majority, and that of everyone else.

Secondly, and more importantly, is what this incident says about the importance of institutional racism and inequity in making individual racism meaningful and harmful in real world terms. Simply put, the doctor in this case went along with the demand to exclude blacks from the operating room because he could. Given the history of discrimination in access to the medical profession, including medical schools, and the barriers to professional practice faced by too many people of color, there exists today a limited number of such professionals from which to draw. As such, excluding them from a particular hospital or procedure is hardly a huge burden for the institution in question.

Now imagine what would happen if the situation were reversed, and a racist black man had demanded the exclusion of whites from the OR. Even if there were a doctor willing to agree to such conditions, it would be virtually impossible for him or her to follow through, because whites — having received the opportunities needed to enter the medical profession in large numbers — are hard to work around. “No whites” policies would result in a lot of empty operating rooms, whereas “No blacks” policies require only a small administrative headache at best, so few and far between are such professionals in the first place.

In other words, institutional racism is akin to the gasoline, allowing the otherwise stationary combustion engine of individual racism to function: the former gives the latter life, and the ability to impact others in a meaningful and detrimental way. Without the power to enforce one’s racism, or expect it to be enforced or enforceable by others, that racism is largely sterile.

Much the same would be true in other realms of life, beyond medical and hospital settings. Blacks who wish to avoid whites in their neighborhoods will typically find themselves limited to the poorest, most crowded areas of town — places whites long ago abandoned — since finding Caucasian-free zones in more prosperous suburbs can be a tough task. Whites can more or less live wherever we wish. If we are not to be found in a particular census tract you can bet it’s because we’ve chosen to be absent. Such cannot be said for why blacks are often absent from more affluent areas, however. Money or no money, good credit or bad, millions face discriminatory barriers in residential opportunity every year.

Once again, even if people of color despise whites and seek to avoid us, their ability to do so will be directly constrained by the larger opportunity structure that has skewed power and resources in our direction. Whites seeking to avoid blacks and Latinos on the other hand, can do so readily, with the help of mortgage discrimination, redlining, zoning laws and so-called “market forces” pricing many blacks out of the better housing markets (even though we only got into those markets because of government subsidies and preferences, both private and public).

Now of course some would argue that blacks and other people of color can indeed exercise a form of power over whites, if by no other means then certainly by way of racially-motivated violence. And to an extent they have a point: hate crimes after all can be perpetrated by anyone, against anyone, regardless of race. But since racial violence is also a power that whites have and can deploy against people of color, the power that might obtain in such a situation is hardly unique to non-whites, unlike for the most part the power to deny a bank loan for racial reasons, to “steer” certain homebuyers away from living in certain “nicer” neighborhoods, or to racially profile in terms of policing. Those are powers that can only be exercised by the more dominant group against the less dominant group as a practical and systemic matter.

Additionally, the “power” of violence is not really power at all. After all, to exercise this power, one has to break the law and thereby subject themselves to possible legal sanction. What kind of power is it that can only be exercised illegally? Power is much more potent when it can be deployed without having to break the law to do it, or when doing it would only risk a small civil penalty at worst. So discrimination in lending, though illegal is not going to result in the perp going to jail; so too with employment discrimination or racial profiling.

There are plenty of ways that more powerful groups can deploy racism against less powerful groups without having to break the law to do it: by moving away when too many of them move in (which is something one can only do if one has the option of moving where one wishes, without having to worry about discrimination in housing.) Or one can discriminate in employment but not be subjected to legal penalty, so long as one makes the claim that the black applicant was “less qualified,” even though that determination is wholly subjective, and rarely subjected to open scrutiny to see if it was determined accurately, as opposed to being a mere proxy for racial bias.

It reminds me of something a New Orleans-area skinhead said about ten years ago to a reporter, when trying to explain why black racism against whites was the “real problem” that needed attention. He noted that “thanks to black racism,” whites wouldn’t feel safe, standing on a street corner in the inner-city for six hours at a time, so certain would they be to become the victims of violent crime. And perhaps he was right. Though black-on-white violence is fairly rare (only four tenths of one percent of the white population will be victimized violently by a black person this year), black racism against whites, to the extent we can call it that, probably does limit the ability of whites to stand around in certain black neighborhoods for six hours at a time. But seeing as how there aren’t a bunch of us fighting for that particular privilege, its absence hardly indicates a general state of disadvantage suffered by us white folks.

That such an example of disadvantage was the best this “angry white man” could come up with, is all the proof one should need that indeed, white racism, though perhaps not the only kind out there, is certainly of a different nature, both quantitatively and qualitatively than that of others. And ultimately, it is the kind of racism that should preoccupy persons concerned with slaying the beast for good.

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