At its root, racism is a structural problem
How prejudiced are Americans? The internet knows. Whether it’s racism, sexism, cissexism, transphobia, classism, sizeism, or ableism, online residents are watching out for it and pointing it out at tremendous volume. Whole tumblrs are dedicated to meticulously cataloging the prejudiced histories of famous people.
While often useful and necessary, this strategy comes up short. The idea is that by “calling out” individual acts of oppression, we can raise awareness about the myriad subtle ways that prejudice manifests itself. The citizenry, better educated, will adjust its behaviors.
The problem is that white people, our dominant and most privileged socioeconomic group, tend to resist these critiques. In the case of racism, they are the ones who benefit from prejudice, and they squirm out of this stigma in increasingly interesting ways. How? These days, by loudly agreeing with those critiques, thereby signaling that they are meant for other, bad white people.
Think of the guy in critical theory class who embraces radical feminist authors extra-fervently in a bid to escape his own implication in the patriarchy. This bit of political jujitsu is rather “like buying an indulgence,” as Reihan Salam put it at Slate.
One might respond that the answer is improved self-knowledge, greater humility, and more self-flagellation on the part of the privileged (see: #CrimingWhileWhite). Sure. But the problem is that there is no possible demonstration of prejudice and privilege that cannot also be appropriated by white people in the service of demonstrating the purity of their own views, resulting in an endless vortex of uncomfortable, obnoxious earnestness. Being a Not-Racist these days is getting very subtle indeed.
But there’s another approach that is both simpler and far more difficult. Instead of focusing on individual guilt and innocence, the socioeconomic structure that undergirds racism can get equal or greater billing. If educating the privileged has reached a point of diminishing returns, then attacking racist outcomes with structural policy can make that education unnecessary.
Now, it should be noted that any individual instance of calling out prejudice is surely harmless and heartfelt. It should further be noted that many if not most anti-prejudice activists share these structural goals. The problem is a question of emphasis. Prejudiced words tend to get 10 times more attention than racist acts and structures. For example, Donald Sterling was hounded mercilessly for his racist comments, but largely ignored for his concretely racist actions as a landlord.
And the problems America faces go far beyond one rotten rich person. There’s the prison-industrial complex. The stupendous wealth and income gap between black and white. The fact that the police randomly gun down unarmed black men and boys on a regular basis. That’s just for starters — and it’s getting worse, not better.
Working on those problems is going to take a massive nationwide policy effort. Prison and sentencing reform, ending the drug war, overhauling American policing, and implementing quota-based affirmative action would be a good start. In particular, there is a good case for class to take center stage in any anti-prejudice effort. Nearly all racist oppression is heavily mediated through economic structures and worsened by endemic poverty.
More importantly, income differences and poverty are easy problems to fix policy-wise. (Fixing American police is a hellish problem and I have no idea where to start.) But a lack of money can be bridged with simple income transfers, from the rich to the poor.
All of this is very hard lift politically, of course. But substantive politics is the best way to get past people’s nearly infinite capacity for self-exculpation. If the root of racism is in our structures, then structural policy should be the solution.