The persistence of American racism

Some thoughts inspired by the Charleston, S.C., church massacre.


As a college-educated white person whose friends are mostly other college-educated white people, I think of overt racism as a thing of the past.  Racial prejudice, yes, but not the ideology of white supremacy.

What the premeditated murder of the nine members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shows is that white supremacist racism has not disappeared, but just gone underground.

confederate_flagI can remember the bombings and burnings of black churches in the Deep South during the Civil Rights era, in particular the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963.

White racists claim to fear the black underclass.  But what they hate the most are the God-fearing respectable members of the black middle class, because the existence of such people undermines their feeling of superiority.


The murder victims’ loved ones said they forgive the murderer, just as Jesus taught and the Rev. Martin Luther King preached.  I ask my secular humanist friends whether they could be capable of such forgiveness.  I know I wouldn’t.


Racial discrimination is not a thing of the past.  Just because we liberal white people don’t come in contact with it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t still exist.

One of the members of the Sunday morning discussion group at First Universalist Church of Rochester, N.Y., is a white woman with an adopted black son.   I’ve met him, and he is a fine young man—intelligent, courteous and much more self-controlled than I ever felt the need to be at his age.

He once was traveling with white friends, stopped at a motel and was told there were no vacancies.  He went back to the car, and one of the white friends went in.  Unsurprisingly there was a vacancy after all.

He likes to visit Canada, but whenever he is driving the car with white friends, he says the car is inevitably stopped and searched.  When a white friend is driving, the car is always waved through.  When he is driving alone, he sometimes is refused entry to Canada—no explanation given.

He once was ticketed for riding his bicycle on the sidewalk and spent the night in jail.  I’ve never heard of anybody else here ever being jailed for a traffic offense.

race.cardHe does not speak in an obviously black accent.  He said that when he applies for a job, he often gets a highly positive reaction when he talks over the telephone, and a quite different reaction when he speaks face to face.

All this is in Rochester, N.Y., which is considered one of the more liberal of American cities.


It is interesting to contrast the fast-growing acceptance of gay and trans-gendered people to the persistence of prejudice against African-Americans.

It seems to me that the difference between male and female is more fundamental that the difference between white and black, but there are people who accept the right of Bruce Jenner to re-invent himself as a woman and not the right of Rachel Dolezal to re-invent herself as a black woman.

The comparison shows how deep racial feelings ago in the USA.


What can I as a well-intentioned middle-class white man do?

I can be aware of racial prejudice within myself—not as something to feel guilty about, but as a path to self-knowledge that gives me a more accurate view of the world.

I can refuse to allow racist statements to go un-contradicted—even I feel embarrassed in speaking up.

I can oppose institutional racism, which consists of all the ways in which the economic, political and criminal justice system is loaded against black people.  One example is the Republican voter disenfranchisement movement.  Another is mass incarceration, resulting from the law on drugs and the differences in how the criminal justice system treats poor black people and rich white people.

Most of all, I can refuse to pretend that racial prejudice and racism do not exist.


Take Down the Confederate Flag—Now by Ta-Nehisi Coates for The Atlantic.

Long Before Dylan Roof, South Carolina Massacred Emanuel Church Members by Lee Fang for The Intercept.

Refusal to Call Charleston Shootings “Terrorism” Shows It’s a Meaningless Propaganda Term by Glenn Greenwald for The Intercept.

Our Jihadis and Theirs by Tom Engelhardt.

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One Response to “The persistence of American racism”

  1. Herb Tinney Says:

    Fine thoughts, Phil – thank you! . . . Herb Tinney


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