Politics and Current Events

5 Mistakes White Folks Make When Discussing Race

The recent events in Baltimore and Ferguson, along with the killings of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Eric Garner and John Crawford III, have thrust the issue of race back into our public discourse. It is a discussion that needs to take place. It is a talk we must have. Unfortunately, discussions on race relations often devolve into shouting matches, tired cliches, and playing the “blame game.” Here, I would like to outline 5 major mistakes my fellow Caucasians make when discussing race and the problems facing African-Americans.

1)  Blaming black people.

It’s the lack of black fathers. It’s the hip hop/gangsta culture. People in the “ghetto” are lazy and won’t work. Black people commit more crimes. Black people need to police themselves and change first. We’ve all heard these responses to the problems plaguing majority-black inner city neighborhoods, but they are wrong and they stereotype African-Americans.

First, black fathers are just as involved in their children’s lives than people in other racial groups.1 Second, these problems predate the existence of the hip hop/gangsta culture. The loss of industrial jobs in America’s inner cities and the advent of the war on drugs came several years before the rise of gangsta rap in the late 1980s and early 90s. Third, the “lazy” argument is racist to the core and does not merit a strong rebuttal. The problem of African-American unemployment has many systemic causes, none of which are “laziness.”

The idea that blacks commit more crimes than other racial groups is based on drug convictions and prison population statistics. The fact that blacks are convicted at higher rates for many crimes is not, however, a reflection of the fact that blacks commit more crimes. It simply reflects where the war on drugs is waged, in inner city predominantly black neighborhoods. The war on drugs might be one of the biggest public policy disasters in American history, resulting in the U.S. having the largest prison population in the world (the U.S. incarcerates at a higher rate than China, North Korea, or Iran) and a dramatic increase in police power and government bureaucracy. To make matters worse, the drug war has disproportionately been waged against black communities creating dramatic racial disparities in the criminal justice system.2

Michelle Alexander’s excellent and meticulously researched book, The New Jim Crow, shows that whites are just as likely to use and sell drugs as blacks, yet blacks are arrested, convicted, and incarcerated at much higher rates.3 Of course, this also means that a higher percentage of black Americans are permanently labeled felons, meaning they can no longer vote or buy a gun. They are also forced to check “yes” to questions about criminal convictions on job applications, making the problem of black unemployment much worse. Imprisoning people for non-violent drug offenses doesn’t seem to work. The United States still has the highest rate of drug abuse in the world and gang violence fueled by the drug trade still plagues many poverty-stricken neighborhoods.4

2)   Blaming the media.

The media does not manufacture racial problems. Sure, the media does engage in hyping up certain issues or exaggerating the role of race in some cases, but the media does not create racial tension. The media did not appear in Ferguson or Baltimore until after the protests got underway. For all the media’s faults, MSNBC did not nearly sever Freddie Gray’s spine. CNN is not responsible for black unemployment and the New York Times did not institute mass incarceration or start the war on drugs.

Some have complained that the media exacerbates hatred and violence towards law enforcement officers by “broadcasting every mistake cops make” and reporting every time a white cop kills an unarmed black man. I believe that most consumers of TV news are intelligent enough to realize that most cops do their jobs well and are not looking to kill black men. The media has a duty to report on possible instances of police violence, albeit in a very careful manner that doesn’t try the case in the media. The public has a right to know. The media is doing their job by reporting on these cases.

3)   Narrowly defining racism.

Gone are the days when blacks are refused service at restaurants and interracial dating is considered taboo (at least for most of America). Gone are the days of lynching and the KKK fielding teams in community baseball leagues (this was a real thing in the 1910s and 20s). Yet still, we define racism in such a way that only recognizes these egregious examples. Since overt racism is virtually gone from society, we believe racism is all but dead. The problem is that hidden, unconscious racism is still very much present in our society.

Back in 2000, the year I got out of the Air Force, I took a part-time job at Target during the holidays. I was hired at the same time as an older black lady. The woman had several years of retail experience. I, on the other hand, had none. Because I have a big mouth, I accidentally revealed my starting pay in the presence of the woman and the manager. It turns out I was being paid about 50 cents more per hour. The manager immediately became defensive and claimed it was because I had more retail experience (which I knew to be a lie). I don’t believe that manager was either racist or sexist. He probably based his decision on statistics that show that both African-Americans and women make less on average than men. So being a good company man, he chose to base the woman’s pay on prevailing rates to save Target some dough. Racism today often takes these more innocuous forms, but at the end of the day it is still racism. We have to expand our definition of racism to include all examples of bias, whether conscious or not.

4)   Finding that one black guy…

It never fails. Every single time a high profile incident brings the race debate back into focus, my white friends on social media find the “lone dissenter” black guy who made a viral YouTube video that dismisses the problem. This young black man discusses how he was pulled over and followed the cops directions with no problems (the problem is that many young black men are still harassed even when following directions). Then there was this video or this one. Too many people run with these videos and use them to dismiss any other black person who complains about systematic injustices. 

If you haven’t had the opportunity to listen to Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” please take the time to do so. You won’t regret it. In her talk, she discusses how she was stereotyped after coming to America for college. Her college roommate had a single story of her as an African. Adichie herself had a single story of what American and British culture was about. The gist of her story is that one must take multiple perspectives into account to avoid the trap of a single story. The viral videos linked above represent a single story. They do not tell the whole story. When we run with these “lone dissenters,” we miss out on hearing the multitude of other voices crying out for help.

5)   Changing the subject.

The most egregious problem might be that of changing the subject. Why don’t white people riot or protest over unarmed white people being shot by police? What about so-called “black-on-black crime”? Or the discussion will focus exclusively on looting and violence. Sometimes white people will bring up other groups that faced bigotry, such as the Irish or Native Americans, to change the subject.

The first thing we must realize is that African-Americans have a unique history of persecution in the United States, as do the Irish, Catholics, Native Americans, and other groups that have faced forms of xenophobia. In order to understand black anger, one must treat black issues as unique to the black community. We have to understand how the drug war has been disproportionately waged against black communities. We have to understand how deindustrialization and the loss of manufacturing jobs in our inner cities has hurt black communities far worse than others. We have to understand how hidden, lingering racism still affects black people today. Then, and only then, will we be able to understand why an unarmed black man killed by police evokes so much anger in the black community while unarmed non-black deaths do not. The #BlackLivesMatter movement is not just about unarmed black men being killed by police. The movement is not about saying black lives are more important than other lives. It is about bringing attention to a whole range of issues.

Black-on-black crime is not a thing. It is a rhetorical trope meant to change the subject. Black people even fall for this trick. I myself previously fell for this trick. There is no such thing as “black-on-black” crime. It is just crime. Sure, over 90% of black murder victims are killed by black people, but it is also true that 84% of white victims are killed by white people.5 These statistics are a reflection of our society’s level of segregation. Black people live among other black people and white people among other white people. Thus, it is only natural that most victims belong to the same racial group as the perpetrators.

Focusing exclusively on the few bad apples that loot, riot, and burn cars and businesses is another way that people change the subject. Of course destroying another person’s property is wrong. Of course looting is wrong. Of course attacking police officers is wrong. Virtually everyone agrees on this, so there is really no debate on this issue. Those actions are illegal and the instigators are either arrested or condemned nearly unanimously. People protested in Baltimore for days and weeks with no major incidents of violence, then one really bad night occurred, then the next day people from the community came together to clean up and actions were taken. The next few days witnessed a return to peaceful protests. Yet that one night of foolishness became the exclusive focus of the media, especially Fox News, and many white folks. We cannot let this become a distraction from the real issues at hand.

Let’s keep our focus on the issue

The first step to healing is acknowledging the problem. Black people in America have indeed come a long way, but that shouldn’t mean throwing in the towel and claiming our work is done. Racism may be dying, but it is far too slow a death for many. I graduated from high school in a small South Carolina town in 1996. Back then, interracial dating was still frowned upon. When I got to my first duty station in the Air Force, a fellow airman who was excited to learn that I was also from South Carolina commented privately to me that “us South Carolina boys are a little prejudice towards blacks” (as if this were some kind of badge of honor or something). I still know of folks who claim that blacks have their own churches and don’t belong in white ones. A 2002 study at the University of Chicago sent out identical resumes only changing the names with either a very black-sounding name or a very white-sounding name. The study found that “white” names received 50% more job callbacks than “black” names. Racism is still very much with us, as this article points out.

One of the greatest aspects of contemporary evangelical and charismatic Christian culture is its color blindness. Pentecostal and non-denominational evangelical churches are some of the most racially diverse and inclusive congregations in America. This is to be applauded. Unfortunately, sometimes those of us who have moved completely beyond seeing skin color can fail to see the problem of racism because we no longer see it in our own lives. This is what opens the door to the belief that the media creates false narratives of racism. The recent revelation of racist emails coming from Ferguson police officers should give us pause.

It’s is time for all us, and especially Christians, to stop and listen to our African-American brothers and sisters. We must hear the cries of those in Ferguson and Baltimore and every other city. It’s time to lend our ears and stop changing the subject, blaming black people, or blaming the media. The time for problem solving and community building is now.

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Chris Smith

Chris Smith

Chris is currently employed as a library specialist for Middle Eastern language materials at Duke University. Prior to that he spent two years as a teaching assistant and Ph.D. student in Islamic Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. He holds a M.A. in Religion from Wake Forest and a B.A. in Global Studies and Religious Studies from UNC-Chapel Hill. Chris has two daughters and currently resides in Chapel Hill, NC.

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