Let’s dialogue about race. It’s an uncomfortable conversation for most of us. And anytime the topic is raised, the stress level of the parties involved surely go up a measure or two. With my last entry, I got some critical responses of which I was called out for calling out my Father as a racist. What kind of person would call out her own Father and an entire group of people (her own people, Vietnamese Americans) as racist?! Ummm… an honest one?
But allow me to be clear about how I understand race as a sociologist and as a person of color. I’m not here to appease anyone or to lecture anyone. My hope is that it provides more perspectives for all of us to consider in how we think or feel about race as a concept that is very much alive in the American social fabric.
To begin, there are a lot of well-meaning people who I believe really do not want to see race. You know these people and you may be one yourself. You want to see the good in everyone. You love those viral videos of black and white kids playing in the front yard together, meaning they live in the same neighborhood with each other, and their parents have pot luck meals together with a multicultural menu that would make delicious ingredients for the hip, fusion restaurants lining the streets of mixed neighborhoods that have somehow thwarted gentrification. You genuinely want everyone to get along, and you strive to treat everyone the same. But ask yourself, what are you ignoring on a larger scale when you see race only through what you hope and wish for?
Then there are the outright racists. These people are the polar opposite of the I Don’t See Race folks. They are the people we see on the news and documentaries about White Supremacists, the KKK, and White Nationalists. They either don KKK hoods or sport khaki pants, red hats, and American flag themed apparel. Their favorite mottos are “White Power”, “White Pride”, and “White Genocide”. These folks are angry. They see a race war coming, and they’re preparing themselves for the race apocalypse. The takeover by non-white folks will be defended to the death. The two images I’ve described reflect a white supremacist of the past and a white supremacist of the present. The white supremacists of the past are easier to write off with their kooky Klan hoods, but the white supremacists of the present are almost alluring. Think Richard Spencer. He is clean cut, sports suits and ties, articulate, and he holds conferences (instead of cross burnings). He presents a panache version of the white supremacist. Central to the major difference that these folks have from the well meaning I Don’t See Race folks is that white supremacists not only see race, they see race as central to their identity. Race isn’t just a side thing, it’s a core central thing to who we are and how we should live our lives. And to them, clearly, the white race is supreme and superior.
Somewhere in between these two polar opposites are a variety of folks who understand race in some fashion or form. My intention is not to get us into a discussion about this complexity. There are tons of books and stories out there that show how complex the topic of race was and is and will be. My intention is to try to simplify how I think of race in a way that makes it easier for me to live within a society that is so very complicated. Let me start by stating that racism and being racist is about POWER. It’s as simple as that. If you can wrap your head around the idea that RACISM IS ABOUT POWER, you’re off to a good start for simplification.
Let us use my Father as an example, because it’s a real, and not hypothetical one, and because it can hopefully clear the air with folks who are uncomfortable with me calling him out as racist AND with folks who wonder how I can still love my Father unconditionally if I truly believe he is racist.
My Father, like all of us, has prejudices. I, myself, have prejudices. If you say you don’t have any prejudice, you’re in denial. You do. And these prejudices are not a one size fits all kind of prejudice. There’s a concept in the social sciences called the Social Distance Scale where USC researcher, Emory Bogardus, outlines for us in measurable ways how close or far we feel about people who are different from us. His scale empirically measures people’s “willingness to participate in social contacts of varying degrees of closeness with members of diverse social groups, such as racial and ethnic groups. The scale asks people the extent to which they would be accepting of each group.” A lower score means one is willing to have the closest social distance to someone different while a higher score means one is setting themselves furthest from someone different. Here are the categories:
As close relatives by marriage (i.e., as the legal spouse of a close relative) (score 1.00)
As my close personal friends (2.00)
As neighbors on the same street (3.00)
As co-workers in the same occupation (4.00)
As citizens in my country (5.00)
As non-citizen visitors in my country (6.00)
Would exclude from entry into my country (7.00)
If you ask my Father about black men, he would rate himself as 2. Remember I said he didn’t want me to marry a black man? He would not score 1 for black men. But his neighbor and close personal friend is a black man. My Father has helped him on many occasions and has had them over to the house many times. He’s worked and gotten along fine with black people. He would not exclude black men in any way, except for marrying me – I know in his mind he thinks, “Who would want to marry his hard headed, argumentative, bossy daughter anyway?”
Does this make him racist? Where does power come into play? If I listened to him as my authority figure and denied black men a chance to date, court, woo, marry me, then my Father has won. It would be a racist situation because I’ve allowed my Father to have power over my decision making, which then would in turn deny a man based on the color of his skin. Well, too bad, Dad, you lose on this one. Funny how things work out, as he’s not objected to the current guy in my life who is bi-racial, Vietnamese and Black! I laugh out loud at this situation because how is my Father gonna deny this dude? He’s half Viet after all! Even though he’s half black. But it doesn’t matter what my Father thinks. With my decision, I have taken his power away. So I’ll backtrack from my last blog and state that my Father has some prejudice against black men, but I’ve taken away his power to deny me a black man if I should so choose to be with one.
If my Father was a judge, and his job was to certify marriages, and he felt that black men should only marry black women, and he exerted his power to deny an interracial couple their marriage, then he would be racist, like Judge Keith Bardwell from Louisiana did. Judge Keith Bardwell has a prejudice, the same one as my Father does, but Judge Bardwell is racist, enacting his authority and power over other people. I don’t worry about my Father’s prejudice because, truth be told, he doesn’t have a lot of power in society. He’s just an immigrant who worked hard to provide for his family. Luckily his prejudiced beliefs did not stick with me. Now…imagine if a whole bunch of people thought like my Father were able to pass on their beliefs to the next generation, and the next generation practiced this belief. Would that matter? This is where the issue of preference comes in. Are you racist if you prefer to be with someone of your own race? Or what if you prefer someone not of your own race (for example, those Asian women who say they don’t date Asian men)? I would not put this on the level of racism. But the reason why it’s important to point these things out and dissect them is because it begs the question… when does this become a problem, if it does at all? Is there a tipping point when this example becomes racist?
What if my Father and those who thought like him voted on a law that would not allow interracial marriages (this law was real before, it was called miscegenation laws). That’s power. That’s where he and they have power. Power comes in numbers. This is how prejudiced ideas become racist practices and policies in a society. And this is where the panache white supremacists are dangerous. They have money, they are educated, and they are mobilizing themselves in ways that bring power to the table. We should not tolerate these views. We have to keep prejudice in check.
To keep prejudice in check, we need to understand and dispel racial/ethic stereotypes because this is often where prejudice comes from. If we don’t address prejudice, we allow the opportunity for those prejudices to become forms of power. And that’s racist. Individuals can be racist when they have power over others. Institutions can be racist when they operate in a way that purposely harms certain groups (think Jim Crow laws). And structures can be racist when they operate in a way that seems to be neutral but actually harms certain groups over others (the war on drugs, redlining in real estate, voter suppression, etc).
For me, I’m less occupied with my Father’s prejudice than I am with society’s individuals, institutions, and structures that enact prejudice through power and will over others. That’s the racism I’m concerned with. Fred L. Pincus wrote an essay that is easily digestible and helps explain how discrimination comes in many forms. In the essay, he provides examples of discrimination at the individual level, institutional level, and structural level. It is through this lens of power that prejudice becomes racist. In this way, Pincus argues that it’s not possible to have reverse racism at the institutional and structural level. At the individual level, unless someone has power over another, it’s just plain prejudice. On a macro level, the power structure of American society is white (and male to be clear about sexism in our society). If you look at the people in power, not just individuals like Oprah Winfrey or Jay Z and Beyonce, the vast amounts of power in wealth, in politics, in corporate leadership, in government decision making – it is white male dominated. So while individuals who are white can be treated unfairly because they’re white, it is a far less likely scenario than it is for someone non-white. White people have never been banned from voting (white women have). White people have never been banned from owning land (white women have). White people have never been banned from getting a higher education (white women have). White people have never been banned from military service (white women have). Do you see a pattern here? It is no wonder then, that white, college educated women (who are awaken to this historical prejudice turned sexism through power over them) socio-politically align themselves with minorities. A recent poll demonstrates this phenomenon.
And while the argument can be made that those laws banning minority individuals and women from equality don’t exist anymore, don’t forget the legacy of those laws AND that there are new policies and practices today that pretend to be neutral but empirically affect women and minorities negatively. In some cases, like the War on Drugs policy, there is evidence that the negative effect on racial minorities is an intentional one. The War on Drugs and Mass Incarceration is an example of a neutral policy (drug enforcement) that has had more of a negative effect on black men, and recently black women, than most anyone else. Do black people use and become addicted to illicit drugs more than other groups? Not so, according to American Addiction Centers – a comprehensive, research based drug treatment network that establishes there is no scientific claim to race based drug addiction. The center’s publications further informs us about the role of race in addiction with compelling evidence of the War on Drugs as President Nixon’s assault on the Civil Rights Movement. Nixon, was no doubt, a racist. He used his power to exert and enforce his ill will and prejudice, destroying entire communities and generations of minorities.
And that is why, my friends, we MUST VOTE! Otherwise, we end up with people in power who have prejudices that can be turned into discrimination. If you think you’re not racist, and you hope for your dreams of equality and equity some day, you will never have it if you don’t vote for your hope. White people in general are not the problem. Prejudiced Asian people are not the problem. Anybody, regardless of the color of their skin, who has prejudice and is in power, and uses that power to enforce their ideals of discrimination – these people are the problem. Do not allow them their power! Vote!