By now, we all know the routine.
Someone says or does something incredibly racist, gets called out for it, and then insists that we took them out of context, or are overreacting. After all, they assure us, they have black friends, or once dated an Asian girl, or have an adopted child from Guatemala, or some such thing — so they can’t possibly be racist. No, indeed, not a racist bone in their bodies. And as we all know, racism is a skeletal condition.
If you were offended by whatever they said or did, that’s only because you’re too sensitive. It wasn’t their intention, and their intent is all that matters.
Perhaps it’s a sign of progress that people are so quick to deny their racism nowadays. It’s easy enough to imagine that many years ago, if accused of saying or doing something that betrayed bias against folks of color, most whites would have shrugged as if to say, what’s the big deal? I suppose it is a victory of sorts that we have evolved, socially, to the point where even the most bigoted persons typically try and keep up the pretense of racial ecumenism.
But even as the desire to deny charges of racism suggests a kind of social progress, the act of denial still proves hurtful. To deny the pain of the injured by focusing on the intent of the injurer is to suggest that the injured is not suffering, or if they are, it is only because they are irrational — yet another insult heaped upon the original harm.
That we wouldn’t do this in other types of situations should be obvious.
So, if I were to step on your toe in the line at Chipotle and break it, I doubt whether you would care if breaking your toe had been my plan all along. I don’t think it would matter to you whether I had woken up that day and wondered if I might be capable of breaking someone’s toe while waiting for my Sofritas bowl to get topped off with corn salsa.
So too, if my careless driving results in me running you over on your bike, I doubt “whoops” would suffice. In the eyes of you or your family, what will matter is the injury caused — the impact of my actions, not my intent. Yes, my criminal liability will depend upon my level of intent, and the degree of civil liability may as well; but whether or not injury itself occurred — whether or not there was harm worth noting — has absolutely nothing to do with that.
Beyond individual behaviors, when it comes to the institutional workings of society, there are several problems with limiting our understanding of racism to only those actions that stem from clear and discernable racist design.
First, in a society where ethical mores have shifted against conspicuous displays of bigotry, those whose actions are deliberately racist know the importance of covering them up. Employers are not stupid enough to put “No Blacks Need Apply Signs” in the window. So even when intent is present, proving it can be incredibly difficult. There won’t typically be a smoking gun like an audio recording of an HR manager saying something racist about a job applicant.
Second, the focus on intent views the issue of racism through the lens of the perpetrator rather than the lens of the target — the actor rather than acted-upon. But racism is an experienced reality, not merely a performed one, so even when there is no intent on the part of the one performing the act, the experience of the event can be one of racial marginalization and even terror.
For instance, when police disproportionately stop and frisk black males, or pull them over and search their vehicles, they may or may not stop a given person because of venomous bigotry. They may have made the stop based on a hunch rooted in statistical odds, which say that because black males have a higher violent crime rate than white males, stopping the former will more likely produce evidence of wrongdoing, perhaps a weapon, than would stopping the latter.
As it turns out, despite higher black crime rates, hit rates for drugs or guns are actually higher for whites than blacks when stopped. But even if the hit rates could justify the practice, statistically, most individuals stopped would still be innocent, as they have proved to be in every city where such policies have been practiced. Those stopped would then experience the event as the people they are, not as statistical abstractions on a spreadsheet. As a black male, to be pushed against a wall, or sat on the side of the road, while others watch police go through your pockets and question you is not a race-neutral experience, regardless of the officer’s intent. It is loaded with race-specific meaning, the weight of history, the knowledge of how it looks, and the stereotypes it reinforces.
So too, consider blackface. Every year it seems there is another incident on a college campus involving students donning blackface for a party or Halloween. Sometimes the racist intent of these acts is undeniable — so, for instance, when the event is a “ghetto party,” or when the blackface incident occurs on MLK day. Other times, it is the result of a staggering naiveté about why blackface is offensive, and why no, it is not the same as the Wayans Brothers in White Chicks.
But regardless of whether you don blackface out of ignorance or malice, black people know its history. They know it was intended to denigrate black intellect and humanity. Whether you know that or not, they do, and they experience your act in their bodies and minds, not yours. To think that the historical meaning should be irrelevant to them at that moment — that they should cut you some slack and consider the possibility that you’re just an uninformed fuckwit who didn’t know any better — is grotesque. And it is the kind of thing that only one who had never themselves been the target of such contempt would say, which is another damned good reason to shut up and let other people make the call about what is and is not racism.
Finally, even race-neutral policies, practices, and procedures can have a harmful disparate impact, thereby perpetuating inequity and unfairness. And while these practices are sometimes valid and related to the institution’s purposes, other times they are not.
So, requiring surgeons to have attended medical school is a perfectly valid requirement. And this is true, even though it might produce a disparate impact on people of color due to less prior opportunity to access medical school educations or less average ability to afford the costs. In that situation, the answer to too few surgeons of color is to push for more opportunity and access on the front end, not to change the baseline expectations for entry to the profession itself.
But what about other types of jobs?
For instance, many years ago, I worked as an expert consultant on a discrimination case against the National Football League and the short-lived World League of American Football. The plaintiff for whom I worked was a black coach who had won two national semi-pro championships and had glowing letters of recommendation from existing NFL coaches and former players, including at least one Hall of Famer. But even though his background would have been perfect for an experimental league like the World League, like all other black coaches, he was passed over.
Among the rationales given by league officials for this outcome, one stood out. According to the league, they were looking for those who had already served as head coaches, either at the professional level or in a top-50, Division I college program. Alternately, they would consider those who had been Offensive or Defensive Coordinators at the professional level, which at that time meant the NFL, or the United States Football League (USFL), which had existed for a few years in the 1980s.
The problem was, at the time of the World League’s founding, there had never been a black head coach in the pros, or an Offensive or Defensive Coordinator who was African American. And there had only been one black head coach in a DI top-50 college program: Dennis Green at Stanford. Although the WLAF approached Green, it was apparent he was soon headed to the NFL and would have no interest in taking a job in an experimental league, with no assurance of long-term stability. As such, the offer was hard to accept as one made in good faith. Meanwhile, other black coaches, including the one for whom I was working, did want such jobs but were passed over because they didn’t have the requisite “experience.” But such a requirement, by limiting the available pool of candidates to one black guy, had the foreseeable result that no black coach would be hired.
Sadly, because the suit only involved one plaintiff and the league had only existed for two years, the court refused to hear it as a disparate impact case. There wasn’t enough quantitative data under existing jurisprudence, to allow for the kind of long-term statistical analysis typically required in disparate impact cases. So we were forced to prove disparate treatment, with intent — a high hurdle and one we were unable to demonstrate conclusively to the jury. Although I believed there was evidence of racist intent, and helped the attorneys fashion their case around that argument, it was ultimately too high a burden to clear, and my client lost the case.
But here’s the point: even if there had been no racist intent on the part of the World League or its various team GMs, the kind of criteria they were using to determine merit and talent would have resulted in racial exclusion anyway.
Many policies, practices, and procedures within the labor market can have this effect. For example, looking at job applicants’ resumes and picking the person with the “most experience” seems fair and race-neutral. But in a society where some have had greater access to prior opportunities and job networks, using such criteria without examining the context within which one accumulated credentials or didn’t, could perpetuate injustice. It’s like rewarding the person with a five-lap head start in an eight-lap race for hitting the tape first. But if the person who fell short still closed the gap from five laps to three, who was the faster runner? And who would you prefer on your track team?
Ultimately, only when we broaden our understanding of racism to a systemic one, in which individual intent is not the criteria for judging when harm has been done, will we begin chipping away the institutional practices that perpetuate unfairness. This means rethinking our notion of racism as being something that bad people practice, rather than something structural and institutional, in which we are all implicated to one degree or another.
In other words, it isn’t really about you. But how you respond to it, most assuredly is.