Several years before I wrote an educational biography of Lou LaBrant for my doctoral dissertation, Jeanne Gerlach and Virginia Monseau published Missing Chapters: Ten Pioneering Women in NCTE and English Education for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE, 1991).
Their important volume included a chapter on LaBrant by England and West, but the project also produced a recorded interview of LaBrant when she was 100, a gold mine for my biographical work.
Jeanne and I became good friends because of our love of English teaching, history, and the people who have created that history. But one of our frequent conversations was about a claim by LaBrant in the interview: LaBrant was adamant that during her life that spanned the 1880s into the 1990s she had never once experienced sexism.
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LaBrant, Jeanne and I agreed, was so determined and assertive as a person that this claim was both a perfect example of who LaBrant was and completely unbelievable.
So when I read Charles Blow’s Op-Ed on Clarence Thomas denying racism—in the 1960s and today—I thought of LaBrant.
Thomas’s assertion about racism reminds me of LaBrant’s about sexism, but it also strikes a cord about the pervasive responses I receive to much of my public writing about race, class, and poverty.
Two comments recur: (1) Why does it always have to be about race?, and (2) I agree with most of what you’re saying, but I think the problem is class, not race.
The first comment tends to prompt me to want to say, Why is it never about race? But I suspect people who offer that first response are unlikely to listen to anything.
Thus, it is the second response where I believe raising a few questions has the potential for helping people who deny racism today see that they have a serious evidence problem.
Let me start by returning to Blow’s central thesis when responding to Thomas:
One thing that I will submit, however, is that the emphasis must shift from discussions of interpersonal racism — which I would argue are waning as they become more socially unacceptable — to systemic and institutional biases, which remain stubbornly infused throughout the culture.
Interpersonal incidents of racism are easy to identify and condemn, particularly as their prevalence dwindles. We do hear too much about these at the expense of discussions about the systemic and institutional biases that are harder to see — it’s the old “can’t see the forest for the trees” problem — and that rarely have individual authors. This bias is obscured by anecdote but quite visible in the data sets.
The evidence, I acknowledge, supports Blow’s assertion that “interpersonal racism” is “waning” but that “systemic and institutional” racism remains powerful and must be confronted.
My caveat to waning interpersonal racism is that overt racism certainly suffers much greater public scorn than in the fairly recent past, but as the Richard Sherman “thug” incident (and the Michael Dunn shooting of Jordan Davis prompted by “thug music”) shows, racism on the interpersonal level still persists beneath more socially accepted codes.
Systemic and institutional racism, however, poses a greater evidence problem for racism deniers.
For those who insist that racism no longer exists, even at the systemic or institutional level, I have a series of questions that must be answered:
- Please read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Why are African Americans arrested and incarcerated for drug use at rates much higher than whites, even though African Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates? Why do police target African American neighborhoods for drug sweeps, and not college dorms?
- Please examine the prison incarceration data by race. White males outnumber African American males in the U.S. about 6 to 1, but per 100,000 people in each racial group, 2207 African Americans to 380 whites (nearly an inverse proportion of 6 to 1) constitute that prison population (2010 data). Since there are also more whites in poverty than African Americans (about 2 to 1, 2011-2012 data), what accounts for the inequity of these numbers by race? If incarceration is a function of class and not race, the prison population should be about 2 whites to 1 African American.
- Please examine data on discipline rates, access to courses and teachers, and retention rates in U.S. schools; for example, “African-American students represent 18% of students in the CRDC sample, but 35% of students suspended once, 46% of those suspended more than once, and 39% of students expelled.” Why such inequity by race in schools, inequities that foreshadow the incarceration inequities?
Are issues related to race different in 2014 when compared to the 1960s? Yes, in many ways, some of the more overt aspects of blatant racism have been confronted—although the consequences of that development have also masked racism—and racism no longer finds refuge in statutes.
To answer the questions above is to confront the evidence and then to offer answers that I suspect racism deniers simply do not want to admit—despite the inevitable conclusion that racism remains a powerful marker for inequitable consequences throughout society and within institutions.
Blow ends his Op-Ed with: “Simplistic discussions about race — both those that are history-blind and those that give insufficient weight to personal choices — do nothing to advance understanding. They obscure it.”
To that I add, denying racism does not end it, but that denial obscures it as well.
Saying something doesn’t exist will not make that true; it is a sort of word magic that reinforces the unacknowledged status quo.
The evidence shows systemic and institutional racism persists and is powerful. To end racism, we must first name it.