by Mark Curnutte
“I am not a racist. I don’t use the n-word.”
“I have some Black co-workers and a few Black friends.”
“ I think, ‘All Lives Matter.’ I don’t see color.”
As national conversations about race and racism continue unabated for the first time in more than 50 years, some white Americans are using these and other explanations to distance themselves from the uncomfortable topic. Yet this personal and direct type of racism, which Stokely Carmichael labeled as “overt,” is just the first of a two-part equation. The civil-rights activist gave name and definition to the second kind, institutional—systemic racism—in the 1967 book, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America, that he co-authored with Charles V. Hamilton.
“The second type originates in the operation of established and respected forces in the society, and thus receives far less public condemnation than the first type,” wrote Hamilton and Carmichael, who later changed his name to Kwame Ture. “But it is institutional racism that keeps black people locked in dilapidated slum tenements, subject to the daily prey of exploitative slumlords, merchants, loan sharks and discriminatory real estate agents. The society either pretends it does not know of this (second) situation, or is, in fact, incapable of doing anything meaningful about it.”
Yet it is this more insidious institutional form of racism that Black Lives Matter activists and protesters are looking to dismantle. Calls to “defund the police” and reduce military spending seek to redistribute money from deep-pocketed local law enforcement and Pentagon budgets into job training, education, affordable housing, and mental-health services, or further to create new municipal institutions designed to keep the peace. Current efforts at voter suppression that reduce the number of polling places and early voting days in Black, Brown, and Native communities is systemic racism.
Institutional bias exists against African Americans and other Peoples of Color. It is no coincidence that Covid-19 has struck members of African American, LatinX, and Indigenous communities harder than white people; the African American death rate from the virus is almost three times greater. The reason is institutional racism. African Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods with toxic industrial pollution. Minority communities have less access to quality healthcare and suffer poorer health and higher rates of serious diseases because of social determinants of health — air and water pollution, generational poverty, poor housing, and poor diets the result of poverty and lack of access to healthful food. Africans Americans are 1.5 times and LatinX 2.5 times more likely to be uninsured than whites. The death rate from Covid-19 is 177 per 100,000 in the Navajo Nation, greater than any of the 50 states. Across the country, Native American households are 19 times more likely than white households to lack indoor plumbing and safe drinking water.
These and other racial disparities are not accidental and result from “collective social, economic, educational, and political forces or policies that operate to foster discriminatory outcomes or give preferences to members of one group compared to others,” according to the National Association of Social Workers in its 2007 paper, Institutional Racism & the Social Work Profession: A Call to Action. “It is the benefit of access to resources and social rewards and the power to shape the norms and values of society that white people receive, unconsciously or consciously, by virtue of their skin color.”
And it’s this system of preferences that gives racial privileges to whites that are not available to African Americans or other Peoples of Color — a phenomenon otherwise known as white privilege. Peggy McIntosh, a well-known feminist and anti-racism scholar, coined the phrase in her 1988 article, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, in which she wrote of the “package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was meant to remain oblivious.” She wrote that in the same way men might agree that women are disadvantaged socially, many men refuse to acknowledge the corollary that they enjoy gender-based advantages. The same concept applies to race, McIntosh reasoned. Many whites may agree that Black Americans are disadvantaged, yet they refuse to recognize that they benefit from the same systems or institutions that hold down African Americans. Whites might not engage in overt racism, but they also might be unaware of its covert form.
“I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege,” McIntosh wrote in 1988. “Generally, white people who experience such privilege do so without being conscious of it.” She would explore and detail the reasons in her 2009 article, White People Facing Race: Uncovering the Myths That Keep Racism in Place. In it, McIntosh, who is white, lays out the five major myths that she believes white Americans are taught that help them feel good about themselves and their country while giving them the privilege of “not having to take the subject of racism seriously.”
- The first is the myth of meritocracy, that the individual is the only unit of society and which “acknowledges no systems of oppression or privilege that, for various people in various situations, could make life arbitrarily more, or less, difficult.”
- The myth of “Manifest Destiny,” McIntosh wrote, “includes the idea that white people were intended by God to take the lands of indigenous people and others (Mexicans) in order to possess the whole of what is now the continental United States.
- The myth of white racelessness “is the notion that white people do not have race or racial experience” and are racially unmarked. “In this view, we are just ‘normal.’”
- The myth of white moral elevation is reinforced by the family, educational system, and media and allows white people to experience “internalized superiority.”
- The final myth is that of monoculture, the idea “that there is one American culture and that we all experience it, more or less, the same way,” McIntosh wrote. “It requires (African Americans and other Peoples of Colors) to see and feel and behave like white people,” — in other words, assimilate — “and it assumes that they have nothing to lose by forsaking their culture of origin.”
Today, as marches for racial justice and calls for disbanding existing systems continue, extensive reading lists are appearing on social media for white people to access to educate themselves on race and racism. McIntosh offered a focused and necessary beginning step in her 2009 writing on white myths. “Those who want to do their homework on race relations must give up their sunny view of monoculture,” she wrote, “that we are all in the same system and experiencing it the same way.”
Mark Curnutte is Visiting Instructor of Social Justice Studies and Journalism at Miami University. He is author of Across the Color Line: Reporting 25 Years in Black Cincinnati (University of Cincinnati Press, 2019) and former race and social justice reporter at The Cincinnati Enquirer.