With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Nils Gilman: What Katrina Teaches about the Meaning of Racism

[Nils Gilman is a high tech executive and entrepreneur in the Silicon Valley. He is the author of Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America (Johns Hopkins, 2003) and coeditor of Staging Growth: Modernization, Development, and the Global Cold War (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003). He is currently working on an intellectual biography of Peter Drucker.]

... One of the most fundamental problems with the discussion of racism in the United States today is the tendency (most commonly found, it must be said, on the political right and among whites) to equate racism with racial prejudice. People of this persuasion define racism as being identical to (and, crucially, limited to) ethnophobia—that is, disdain for other people on the basis of their supposed racial characteristics. In this definition, racism is not a social condition but rather is something that exists in the minds of “racists.”

It is widely and correctly observed that this sort of racial prejudice, or bigotry, has abated greatly in this country in the last half century. Though racial prejudice certainly still exists, many fewer people despise others simply because of their skin color. This is true not only in terms of a reduction of the number of bigots, but also in terms of a steady restriction of the social arenas in which prejudice manifests itself. Even subtle displays of bigotry are today widely regarded as illegitimate not just in the political arena, but also at work or even in social circles. For example, while many whites may still cavil at their daughters marrying a black man, the vast majority of whites no longer actively or even passively refuse to work alongside people of color; and that someone might be refused service on public transportation because of their skin color is unimaginable. It is precisely this tabooification of active racial hatred that leads some to believe that racism is no longer a significant problem for American society.

It is impossible to overstate what huge progress the curbing of bigotry represents for the United States. But if rolling back bigotry is a necessary condition for eliminating racism, it is arguably not a sufficient condition. This is precisely the fulcrum of the political debate in this country today about racism.

The problem with equating racism with prejudice is that it fails to address the fact that racial discrimination takes place not merely through intentional (though perhaps unselfconscious) interactions between individuals, but also as a result of deep social and institutional practices and habits. That is, historical patterns of race-based exclusion do not disappear in lock-step with the diminishment of the chthonic prejudices that underpinned the original race-based exclusions. Long after white people cease to actively hate and consciously discriminate against racial minorities, there persist social patterns—where people live, which social organizations they belong to, what schools they attend, and so on—that were built during the hundreds of years where active racial prejudice was the fact of ethnic life in America. These social and institutional structures, in other words, are constructed on prejudicial racialist foundations. As such, they are bearers of the racist past, even though they may today no longer be populated by active bigots. This social and economic exclusion on the basis of race is what “racism” is really all about.

The continued exclusion of blacks from certain prestigious, purely social organizations is the archetype for this sort of racism. Consider the illustrative archetype of the all-white country club. The barrier to entry for blacks into these sorts of institutions is rarely an active rule banning blacks from joining.2 Rather, what excludes blacks is that the club members know few if any black people as social equals outside the club. Now, it would be a mistake to conclude from this lack of black friends that the club members are necessarily prejudiced against black people. Rather, the club is simply an institutional manifestation of a longstanding social network of upper-class whites. For such a social set, it’s not that they’re against the idea of socializing with blacks (though maybe their parents or grandparents were), it’s just that as a matter of fact they don’t socialize with blacks. The phrase “not caring about black people” is thus both fair and accurate to describe the mentality of this social milieu. Folks in this milieu may not be bigots, but they scarcely know any black people and thus don’t pay much mind to the specific concerns and welfare of black folks. In the meanwhile, the club facilitates the making of money (within their narrow social circle), the reproduction of the elite (within the same narrow social circle), and thus generally works to assure the social replication of the longstanding racialist pattern, all without a discriminatory thought ever entering anyone’s head.

Moreover, it should be stressed that racism can replicate itself merely via an unwillingness to challenge these racialized institutions and patterns. Undoubtedly the majority of white Americans regard themselves as post-prejudicial; yet many continue to consider the impact of racialist patterns of exclusion as something that the individual victims of those patterns must take individual responsibility for redressing.3 The result is a huge gap between blacks and whites in their understanding of the racial meaning of Katrina: for blacks, the disproportionate blackness of Katrina’s victims is a sign of how the plight of their community is systematically ignored by the government; whereas the large majority of whites consider the racial issue as more or less irrelevant.4 (A less comfortable example for the average reader of this essay might be the challenge of making “diversity hires” at elite universities: when someone on the search committee insists that there simply are no qualified minority candidates for a given position, this argument is far less likely to be the result of active prejudice than it is to derive from an unwillingness to challenge a process that at every step imposes race-tinged filters.)

It cannot be repeated often enough that racial exclusion, e.g. racism, today happens not so much through active bigotry as it does through the tacit exclusions created by these sorts of unstated, unconsidered social habits. The fundamental point is one that is deeply uncomfortable for large sectors of this country: if your social network is, for purely historical reasons, defined by color lines that were drawn long ago in a different and undeniably widely bigoted age, then you don’t have to be a bigot yourself to be perpetuating the institutional structures of racial exclusion, e.g. racism. This was exactly Illinois Senator Barack Obama’s point when he declared on the Senate floor that the poor response to Katrina was not “evidence of active malice,” but merely the result of “a continuation of passive indifference.” 5 These structural exclusions matter very much for one’s total life opportunities, including crucially one’s economic opportunities…and thus greatly affect one’s opportunities to, say, escape from deadly hurricanes. ...
Read entire article at Social Science Research Council