Matthew Hunter: What racism means today

BY MATTHEW HUNTER

Published October 22, 2009

So far, the most prominent racial debates of 2009 have thrown around the term racism as if 400 years of our nation’s cruel racial history has not defined the concept. Today, everyone is considered racist. But there is a sharp difference between Obama’s supposed “racism” and Rush Limbaugh’s likening of NFL games to a battle between the Bloods and the Crips, only without weapons.

Although the term is abused, identifying racism is important to identifying racial injustice. But an accusation of racism has two effects, both of which impede progressive racial dialogue. First, it angers folks who are the victim of an accusation, because racism is equated with moral bankruptcy. And second, those who are suspicious of racism and those who are accused of it misuse the word to apply to any potentially racial issue, which effectively reduces the word’s meaning.

The meaning of racism is hotly debated. Does racism still exist? Can minorities be racist? Does racism refer to an oppressive system rather than individuals? Is all racial discrimination racism? Whatever your answers, there are some key points that can help us distinguish between the who’s who of racist dialogue.

Over time, the bar to escape racism has risen. If, for example, Keith Bardwell doesn’t marry interracial couples even though he says he has black friends, as reported by the New York Times on Oct. 17, he is still a racist. Because civil rights progress has been made, that which is blatantly racist is no longer the main concern. Instead, we need to reassess racism that has been clouded, to some, by larger issues of the past.

According to an Oct. 14 New York Times article, Limbaugh was dropped from his bid to be co-owner of the St. Louis Rams after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell denounced his bid because it sparked racial controversy. A few black Rams players said they would not play for a team associated with the controversial talk show host.

In addition to criminalizing black NFL players, Limbaugh is clear on what he thinks of blacks.

Fair.org noted in a June 7, 2000 article titled “A Color Man Who has a Problem with Color,” that Limbaugh has made such statements as, “Have you ever noticed how all composite pictures of wanted criminals resemble Jesse Jackson?” and, “The NAACP should have riot rehearsal. They should get a liquor store and practice robberies.”

Limbaugh is a part of a growing trend of people who deny their own racism. They are offended by claims of oppression or excuses to justify incompetence, laziness and criminality. But Limbaugh and his ilk would think differently if they could experience what it feels like to be a part of an oppressed minority. They would know how it feels to have police slam you against a wall and call you a nigger, like they did to me, or be shot in the back for no reason, which is what happened to Oscar Grant, a black California man, on January 1, 2009. They would know how it feels to go to school where only six percent, or less, of the students were their race. If Limbaugh knew what it was like to sit in the back of the bus, he would reconsider his continued racial slander.

Everyone has the potential to be racist. But there is a difference between white racism and minority racism. The reason the black community — and the Latino community — is in a disproportionate social state is because of racial oppression. White racism functions to further oppress minorities, whereas black racism just annoys people. Black racism does not cause an entire population to suffer the way that white racism does.

I have sympathy for those who deny racism. They don’t want to be racist, and there was a time when they would not have been labeled as such. But now that the bar has risen, the big difference is empathy. Our racial views should not be limited to the experience of our privilege. Rather, they should be principles based on empathetic understandings of other racial groups.

Matthew Hunter can be reached at majjam@umich.edu.