Thursday, December 13, 2007

Facing Racism

Mention racism on this site and immediately I get negative reactions from a few white folks.

It seems we are eager for everyone to understand that we "get it" and that we are no longer racist in our view of the world, and neither are any of the systems or institutions with which we have anything to do.

Usually those who respond as innocent of my charge will catalog the proof of the absence of personal prejudice in their lives. Many go on to argue that we are in a new day in the U. S., that racism has been overcome, and that to continue to discuss it is counterproductive at best.

On Monday the U. S. Supreme Court, in a case involving the very obvious disparities in mandatory sentencing rules imposed on courts by the Congress for offenses involving the use of powdered cocaine compared to crack cocaine, ruled that judges can use their traditional discretionary authority to impose reasonable sentences, even if federal guidelines direct some other verdict. In essence the court ruled that judges can ignore the sentencing requirements that make the use of crack cocaine more legally objectionable than the use of the powered variety.


So, sentences against African American crack cocaine users have been much harsher than those rendered against more affluent, white users of cocaine in powered form. In short, blacks have not received equal treatment under the law in thousands of cases.

My point?

Systemic racism often works against black Americans in a manner that often devastates families and communities. This racism may have nothing to do with the way some individual white people feel about their black neighbors. But, the power of the racism embedded in the Congressional mandate for mandatory sentences for certain crimes is blatantly racist and affects the African American community in a disproportionately negative manner.

For years I've watched crack users receive much stiffer sentences than those who used powdered cocaine. Both are devastating. Most users need lots of help.

What black folks don't need are stiffer sentences for the same violation of the law as whites.

The same kind of systemic racism can be observed when looking carefully at the administration of death penalty sentencing. Black who are convicted of capital crimes against whites receive death sentences at a significantly higher rate than do whites who kill blacks or blacks who kill other blacks.

Racism is insidious. It is still very much alive in our culture. Unfortunately, the fact that you really aren't personally prejudiced is simply not enough.


Glenn said...

You convinced me, but what _is_ enough? What can I do as a white I'm a middle-class white male who perceives that he's not racist? I have several professional co-workers that are black, Asian, Hispanic, Indian, Middle-Eastern, Greek and who knows what else. We don't give a flip what our backgrounds our, and frankly I'm more embarrassed than proud of my hillbilly, white-trash blood line.

Larry James said...

Glenn, great question.

1) Recognize that there are forces at work in the rules of the current game that benefit you as a white male.

2) Pay attention to this reality and work to see these rules changed.

3) Talk to your non-white friends about this reality and get their perspective on it.

4) Come to grips with white privilege.

That's a short "get started" list.

Eric Livingston said...

Good grief. Anyone who thinks racism is a thing of the past needs to take a look at the people sitting in the pews in my church Sunday morning. Even when we think we are making strides against racism, Sunday morning worship times seem to be the most segregated hour of the week. Racism is still alive and well in Jackson, MS, throughout the South, and I would say throughout a good portion of the world.

If only we could have taken to heart Dr. Seuss' lesson in his "Star Bellied Sneetches". We need to show people God's light and love, whether or not they have stars upon thar's.

Chris said...

Have you noticed that the racist attacks on Barack Obama are coming from the left and not the right?

Daniel Gray said...


I've read some good books here in grad-school that look into some practical manifestations of racism in our societal structure:

1. Tim Wise, White Like Me (2005)

2. Allan Johnson, Privilege, Power, and Difference (2006)

3. Beverly Daniel Tatum, Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity (2003)

All three of these authors are great at sharing anecdotal information and pointing out the practical problems of structural racism that are so hard to see.

Larry James said...

Chris, would you expand a bit on your comment? Who is attacking Obama?

Waymon said...

What are the top three, four books by James Cone that you'd recommend?

Larry James said...

Waymon, thanks for asking. Here's my "Cone List":

1) God of the Oppressed
2) Black Theology and Black Power
3) Black Theology: A Documentary History, 1966-1979 (with Gayraud S. Wilmore)
4) The Spirituals and the Blues

karen said...

You are absolutely right that racism is alive and well. Even recognizing that, sometimes one is truly taken aback when it raises it insidious and ugly head.

Perhaps I'm particularly aware of it, as one of my grandchildren is French-American, the second is African-American, and the third is Vietnamese.

One of my daughters was at a birthday party recently for the husband of one of her closest friends, consisting of 4 to 5 couples. These are affluent, white, well-educated, 'enlightened,' North Dallas people, people I know well and think very well of. One of the men told a filthy, and I do mean filthy, and very racist joke, one that could make Don Imus look like a Boy Scout. And everyone, except my daughter and her husband (and the wife of the joke-teller, who had the good grace to be embarrassed), laughed heartily and at length -- not just polite titters. My daughter was so stunned and offended that she and her husband left the party.

Ah, yes, racism is alive and well.

Chris said...

The following have been said about Obama by liberals, the Clinton Campaign, Democrats and the media, which actually are the same thing.

1. He's clean and articulate.

2. He's a "magic negro"

3. Not "black enough."

4. Not authentic

5. Not "down for the struggle."

6. Not experienced

7. Too ambitious--wrote an essay in third grade that he wanted to be President.

8. Not his time yet. (Hill thinks she is next in line)

10. He's muslim

11. He's corrupt, he has a slush fund.

12. He must be a drug dealer (I believe this guy on the Clinton campaign resigned or was fired)

Pete (Katie & Sam's Dad) said...

I don't believe racism is dead. I myself still find subtle evidence in my own life. However, I would recommend using other examples to make your point. It's tough to elicit sympathy for crack cocaine users from those to whom your post is directed.

Daniel Gray said...

Pete, no one is trying to give cocaine users a free pass.

However, the problem is that crack users are predominantly black, and powder users are predominantly white. There's very little difference in the substances, but they carry very different penalties. Crude translation = blacks who do drugs languish in prison. Whites who do it get a slap on the wrist.

Of course, we definitely need to rethink our whole "putting people in prison cures addiction" philosophy and have more rehabilitative punishment.

Larry James said...

Pete, thanks for the comment. Actually, and ironically I suppose, I have found crack users to be much more sympathetic individuals than the few users of the upscale, powdered variety. Crack assualts the poor. And, Daniel is correct. The point here is not any excuse of the use of crack, but rather the differences and disparities in sentencing mandates--not judicial decisions, but mandates from Congress about how to punish people along a line that is largely defined by race and class. The effect on inner city communities and families of this clearly discriminatory practice is terrible to watch.

c hand said...

We can choose to see people as individuals, uniquely created by God. Or wecan see them as part of a class ( the rich, the poor, the blacks, the whites, the native pacific islanders....) One of these views will bring with it more prejudice and racism thn the other

Larry James said...

Again, the key to understanding racism is to evaluate how power is used in relationship to both individuals and groups different from me. The more inherent power I possess to affect social norms and systems, the more potential I have for the exersice of racism. Prejudice pluse the power to inforce the assumptions of that prejudice equals racism. It is very difficult for people with little power to exercise or implement racism systemically.

c hand said...

B Obbama has been upfront about drug use earlier in his life. Was it racist for the Clinton campaign to wonder out loud if he had been a drug dealer to kids?
Today, the Clinton spokesman had to sneak the word cocaine into the half hearted apology . Is this racist or just slimy?

Larry James said...

Maybe slimy playing to the racism that is recognized.

c hand said...

And she has calculated that playing to this racism in the democrat primary will pay dividends. Do you think it will?

Larry James said...

I'm not at all saying that this tactic was her idea, nor am I saying that the way you described it here is accurate. Campaign staff people often do all sorts of things that a) aren't really representative of their candidates and b) aren't authorized by those to whom they report. It is my understanding that in this particular case the person involved lost his job. And no, I don't think it will hurt Senator Obama.