In podcast #8 (available for streaming and download below), one of the topics we discuss is racism. Jason brings up a quote from the first season of MTV’sThe Real World where Kevin Powell (a black cast member) is accused of racism and in response says, “Black people cannot be racist. We don’t have the power to control. . . .” At first hearing, I dismissed Kevin’s statement as ignorant. After all, racism, to me (a white male), means considering someone to be inferior in some way simply because of their race. While this is a valid definition of racism, it’s not the only definition of racism and not even the main definition.
A quick search through the various definitions of racism will show that racism also has to do with the exercise of power. The first definition for “racism” on Dictionary.com is “a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.” The second definition is “a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.” In America, we often call this “Institutional Racism,” and we white people aren’t quite as good at understanding this type of racism. In this sense, Kevin Powell was completely accurate.
Racism (believing someone of a certain race to be inferior in some way) and Institutional Racism (discrimination against other races by those in power) go hand in hand, but they must be differentiated when speaking about racism in order to have a productive conversation. Anyone can be racist, whether they’re a minority or not, but only those in power have the means to execute Institutional Racism.
A white cop may shoot a black man because he doesn’t like blacks and a black cop may shoot a white man because he doesn’t like whites, and both would be examples of racism. (Although one of those examples would be much more difficult to find.) However, when the white cop is let go with a slap on the wrist and the black cop is put in prison for years, you’re witnessing Institutional Racism, and that is something black people cannot enact, at least not in this country. In that sense, Kevin Powell was completely correct. Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, Native Americans, etc., are not able to be racist, at least not in America.
Despite what some political pundits will tell you (“We’re not racist anymore! We have a black President!”) racism is still alive in America, and Institutional Racism is the norm. It would do well for those in power (read “whites”) to acknowledge this and to work to change it. As Louis CK points out in his insightful standup routine about how awesome it is to be white, but how he wouldn’t want to travel into the future as a white man because, “we’re going to pay hard for this shit, you gotta know that. . . we’re not just gonna fall from number 1 to 2. They’re going to hold us down and f#$k us in the ass forever, and we totally deserve it!”