This past weekend, the Republican National Committee — a group that is in dire need of racial and ethnic diversity — decided to acknowledge the 58th anniversary of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on an Alabama bus with the following message on Twitter: “Today we remember Rosa Parks’ bold stand and her role in ending racism.”
This would have been a lovely sentiment and perhaps a way to warm a few non-white hearts as well as white ones, if only it were true that racism ended then. Hell, it still hasn’t ended now.
The RNC, after a series of fast and furious tweets, rewrote the tweet to better acknowledge Parks’s role in the civil-rights movement, but in many ways the initial tweet is reflective of how many white Americans view racism.
Whenever matters of race come up, for most white Americans, there is sense of weariness and even exasperation at non-white Americans’ stubborn refusal to go along with the idea that racism is dead. The problem lies in the fact that for many white Americans, racism is a personal matter and since for many of them, neither they nor their friends or loved ones are overtly racist, they see racism as dead. Now, I will freely admit that while personal racism really isn’t dead, it also isn’t nearly the social ill that it once was. However, what has remained virtually unchanged in decades is institutional racism.
Institutional or systemic racism is the insidious form of racism that is woven into the very nature of our political and social structures. It is the racism that sets the default to “white” and anything else as “other.” It is the racism that underlies why blacks, even when equal to whites socioeconomically and educationally, can still expect to die earlier than their white counterparts. Even science and medicine, which for many should be free of bias, is still set on a default setting that sees white as right and focuses on white people’s responses and reactions. For people of color, particularly black Americans, that internal default could shorten your life.
Institutional racism creates disparities in crime and punishment as well, creating a system where a higher percentage of blacks reside in penal institutions than whites, in some cases because the sentencing guidelines themselves created an unequal system. Crack versus coke, anyone? From the late ’80s on, blacks were jailed at higher rates for possession of crack cocaine than whites were for powdered cocaine. Also, studies have shown that when people of color and whites commit the same or similar crimes in general, the white perpetrators get significantly lesser punishment.
When we only look at personal racism and then declare our society to be free of racism, we deny the role history continues to play in current-day America. Blacks on average have less personal wealth than whites, for example, in large part because people in black areas pay more for everything and earn less than comparable whites on average. Sure, we have Obama and Oprah, but a few exceptional exceptions does not mean all people of color have the same opportunities. That would be like assuming all whites can be Warren Buffett, which we know is not true.