Question of the Month:

Can Blacks Be Racist?

March 2009

Q:  Recently I attended a showing of your traveling exhibition called, Them.  It was generally good but I saw something that disturbed me.  Why did you include the “white trash” costume and the tee that had “arrest all whites” in the exhibition?  I am a middle-aged white person and even I know that blacks and other racial minorities cannot be racist, just like women can not be sexists.  Racism equals power.  Whites are not hurt by the everyday flow of society. I think you are trying so hard to be objective that you end up being politically correct.

-- J.R.C. - Grand Rapids, Mich.

A:  I will try to focus my rant.  Can blacks be racist?  The answer, of course, will depend on how you define racism.  If you define it as “prejudice against or hatred toward another race,” then the answer is yes.  If you define racism as “the belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race,” the answer is yes.   And if you define racism as “prejudice and discrimination rooted in race-based loathing,” then the answer is, again, yes.  However, if you define racism as “a system of group privilege by those who have a disproportionate share of society’s power, prestige, property, and privilege,” then the answer is no.  In the end, it is my opinion that individual blacks can be and sometimes are racists.  However, collectively, blacks are neither the primary creators nor beneficiaries of the racism that permeates society today.

Let me share with you a story from my journey.  In the early 1970s, I was one of several hundred black- and brown-skinned children who were sent to Prichard Junior High, a school that was proudly all-white.  Recall that on May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (347 U.S. 483) had declared that state laws which permitted separate public schools for whites and blacks had in fact denied black children equal education opportunities.  By a 9-0 decision, the High Court had ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”  Brown attacked de jure (legal) segregation as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United State Constitution.  The white population in Prichard, Alabama met the Brown decision with, at first, a collective yawn, then later with open resistance.  By the time I was told to attend classes at Prichard Junior High—about 16 years after Brown—most of the local white power structure had reluctantly conceded that school integration was legal and inevitable.  Despite that, many of the whites that lived near or attended the school were intent on keeping us out.  There were fights, black students against white students, and white parents and friends against black students.  We did not ride in buses to school.  Instead, we walked from our all-black neighborhoods near Highway 45 through the white neighborhoods that surrounded the school.  Along the way, people threw stones at us and we threw stones back at them.  We were cursed at, and we cursed back.  The fighting, as I mentioned, was constant, especially that first year.  The Brown decision had attacked de jure segregation, but the cold reality was that de facto segregation (by custom and tradition) remained.

I recount this story because it affords me the opportunity to make several points.  The people who threw stones and slurs at us were pitiable, with a level of poverty that Americans often associated with so-called Third World Countries; they were some of the   economically poorest people in the nation.  One could argue that, although they lacked power, they nonetheless had (white) privilege.  I would argue, instead, that they were marginalized in ways similar to how minorities of color were marginalized.  They worked jobs that paid starvation wages and they were poorly educated.  They did not have the power and privilege of middle-class, “respectable” whites, and as a result, they were summarily dismissed as “trash” by other whites.  Despite being white, they were stereotyped as “White Others” – nasty, lazy, ignorant parasites.  Poignantly, it was not uncommon to hear them called “white niggers.” To argue that one must have power in order to be racist is to suggest that the man in Prichard, Alabama who called me a “red nigger” and threw a rock at me was not a racist.  A different explanation is that his poverty and lack of power made him susceptible to anti-black racism.  

There are few things in this world that I am surer of than this: blacks can hate whites.  The years that I spent at Prichard Junior High are illustrative.  We hated whites and that hatred often manifested itself in racial ways.  It was Us versus Them, and the Them were whites, or at least the whites who lived near, attended, or worked at the school.  Only a few blacks – those teachers who came with us – had the power to grade, expel, or suspend students.  Neither we nor any blacks, I suspect, had the power to not attend the school.  Although we lacked political, social, and economic power, we did have the power to be intolerant and to hate.  You can call it defensive hatred if you like, but it was a thick, real hatred.  The quirky part of this story is that there were two groups of people, both desperately poor and treated as outcasts, who used their hatred of the Other as bonding mechanisms.  I want it said loudly and clearly that we can define racism in many ways, but it is, in my opinion, intellectually disingenuous to define it in a way that trivializes the role that racial hatred plays.  Certainly, not all racism is hate-driven, but to ignore the connection between racial hate and racism is to reduce the concept of racism to a useless theoretical abstraction.

Definitions of racism have clearly become battlegrounds.  I have attended academic conferences where it was professionally chic to accept definitions of racism that only focused on white privilege or dominant group privilege.  In chats with scholars, many of them white, I heard a disdain for social scientific, especially psychological, definitions that characterize racism as an attitude.  For those who share this disdain, racism could only be viewed as an organized system of group privilege, and since blacks collectively lacked that privilege, they could not be racists.  This tautological reasoning remains problematic for me. 

I have great respect for the scholarship and activism of Joe Feagin, a past president of the American Sociological Association.  Feagin has theorized that every major institution in the United States was built on and through the racial oppression of minorities.  I get that.  Racism, in his view, so permeated the culture that he uses the concept “total racist society” to describe the United States.  Racism is for Feagin inseparable from white power and white privilege.  According to Feagin (and his colleague Hernan Vera), blacks cannot be racist:

“Racism is more than a matter of individual prejudice and scattered episodes of discrimination designed by African Americans to exclude White Americans from full participation in the rights, privileges, and benefits of this society.  Black (or other minority) racism would require not only a widely accepted racist ideology directed at whites but also the power to systematically exclude whites from opportunities and rewards in major economic, cultural, and political institutions.  While there are Black Americans with anti-white prejudices, and there are instances of black discrimination against whites, these examples are not central to the core operations of U.S. society and are not an entrenched structure of institutionalized racism.”1

Conceptualizing racism as prejudice plus discriminatory acts that are “central to the core operations of the U.S. society” is knotty for me.  The fact that relatively few blacks can hurt whites does not mean that no blacks can hurt whites.  I see racism as operating on all levels from the individual with irrational bigotry throwing a brick to the unintentional (and intentional) race-based privilege that pervades a culture.  Feagin is right to highlight the often unseen ways that white racism permeates the culture.  However, he underestimates the power (and importance) of everyday racist actions by individuals of all hues and statuses.  His conceptualization gives “free pass” to blacks and other minorities to hold racial prejudices and, when possible, act in discriminatory ways against whites.  Moreover, his conceptualization takes victimhood to a level that encompasses all blacks, no matter their economic, social, or political standing. 

I would not be a sociologist worth my salt if I did not acknowledge that racial minorities (and women) do not have a proportionate share of power, prestige, property, and privilege.  This inequality is one of the criteria that sociologists use to define “minority.”  In other words, sociologists accept as axiomatic that minorities must have less power, otherwise they are not conceptualized as minorities (yes, this too may be circular reasoning).  This does not mean that minorities cannot be racist, though.  It means, rather, that a minority (seen as a category) does not have the same or as many opportunities to hurt (discriminate against) the majority group.  You don’t have to be a sociologist to recognize that some groups have more power and, with that power, can do good things or bad things. 

I also accept that the dominant (majority) group (the group with a disproportionate share of the power, prestige, property, and privilege) will be hurt less often by the “everyday flow of society.” For example, the dominant group’s behaviors will be seen as normative and the conflicting behaviors of others (especially others who look differently) will often be judged as aberrant and deviant.  This is true both in racially homogeneous societies and racially heterogeneous societies.  In these societies, minorities are more likely to die the first year of life, more likely to be poor, and are punished more in schools, have higher rates of unemployment and underemployment, work for lower wages, spend more time behind bars, and live shorter lives. As a social activist and a person of color, this saddens and angers me.  The inequality faced by blacks does not mean that they individually cannot be racist; indeed much like the whites who threw rocks at me in the 1970s, it makes holding racist views and discriminating, when possible, against whites more likely.  And, yes, there are blacks who benefit from the “everyday flow of society.”

Several years ago I read Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, well, I should say, for the first time I really read it.  This letter, one of the great public letters written by an American, contained his well-known quote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  That statement really stunned me.  I had spent much of my life collecting objects that I could use to teach people about the racism faced by Africans and their American descendants.  But King's words made me look at injustice and inequality in broader ways.  And so I began collecting objects that defamed many groups, women, Asians, poor whites, Mexicans, gay people, and others.  This material helped me gained a deeper understanding of patterns of oppression.  The exhibition you saw was fruit from that work.  The exhibition was not created to compare “victim experiences.” Rather, it was created for the same reason that the Jim Crow Museum was founded: to fashion a vehicle that stimulates intelligent discussion about the relations between groups.  All the objects in the Them were chosen so that we could have the kinds of discussions that you and I are having.

1 Feagin, J. R. and Vera, H.  (1995). White Racism: The Basics, New York: Routledge, 1995, p.1.

March 2009 response by David Pilgrim, Curator, Jim Crow Museum

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