Ignorance About Race Is Killing Us

Engage race and racism or more people will die and many will continue to suffer

While nine Americans lay dead on the floor of a famous church in Charleston, South Carolina, thousands of Americans were making racist jokes, crossing the street to avoid a young black man, bemoaning how governmental handouts favored minorities, and/or assuming that black athletes are biologically superior to whites (except at certain positions). And probably not one of these Americans linked their jokes, actions or beliefs to the carnage at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Wednesday the 17th of June, 2015.

Ignorance about Race is killing us.

The terrorist Dylann Roof asserted that black on white crime is out of control in the USA, that black men rape white women in disproportionate numbers, that there are patterned biological differences that separate blacks and whites (and Hispanics, Jews and Asians) into discrete categories. He did not make these things up, he learned them. They are commonly held beliefs, promoted not just on crazy white-power websites but by racists with powerful cultural and political positions like former science writer for the New York TimesProfessor of PsychologyPolitical Scientist, and many others. The assertions by these people are readily available in the mainstream media and consumed by many like Dylann Roof. However, there are many, many more who do not take such violent action but who believe this misinformation and develop a psychological wall of fear, distrust and difference that remains one of the most serious impediments to developing sustainable and equitable communities in the United States of America. 

Lydia Polgreen writes in the Sunday New York Times “America is living through a moment of racial paradox. Never in its history have black people been more fully represented in the public sphere… Yet in many ways, the situation of black America is dire.” Yes, there is an African-American President, African-Americans write and star in top TV shows and are prevalent in pop culture, but that does not change the reality of racism and racialized history in the USA. The President only cautiously talks about race, major news media use kid gloves around the issue, and many Americans are afraid to bring it up in mixed-race contexts. Worst of all our public schools are more segregated now than they were 40 years ago and textbooks avoid serious engagement in K-12 education about race and history. We are not anywhere near a post-racialized society. We do not talk and teach enough about the reality of race in this country.

This creates a pervasive ignorance. Every single assertion by racists about biology, behavior, and history can be easily refuted by even a small bit of discussion, investigation and education. But only if we challenge them. So here are a few talking points to fight against the ignorance:

 “BLACK” AND “WHITE” ARE NOT BIOLOGY: Biological Race is a population or group of populations in a species that are on a different evolutionary trajectory than the other populations in that species. Biologists call this a “subspecies.” There are many ways to measure whether a cluster within a species is different enough to be labeled a subspecies. Apply any of these measurement criteria to all the living humans today and you always only get one race. We are all the same subspecies (Homo sapiens sapiens). Neither genetics, behavior, height, body or face or head shape, skin color, nose or hair from, or any other biological measure divides modern humans into subspecies.

BEING “BLACK” OR “WHITE” MATTERS IN THE USA: While not biological groups the “Races” we use today are socially, historically, and politically created and maintained categories: they are real in the USA. What “race” means, and who gets to be in which one, has changed over time (ask the Irish how “white” they were in 1820), but because of our specific history of slavery and racialized discrimination against minority groups there is an inequality built in to the history, and present, of our nation—one that is especially harsh for Americans of African descent. This has be made more explicit in how we teach and think about history if we are to fully understand why we are where we are today.

BLACKS ARE NOT OVERRUNNING WHITES IN THE USA: Whites make up 63% of the USA population and Blacks 13%. Currently there are 43 black members in the House of Representatives (out of 435 total) and two in the Senate (out of 100). There have been a total of 1,963 senators in USA history and 9 of them have been African-American. Whites dominate in every single economic aspect from the fact that net household worth for Whites is 20 times higher than for Blacks to the fact that Whites own 79% of the businesses in the USA. We also know that the infant mortality rate is twice as high for Blacks as for Whites, that Blacks are incarcerated at 6x the level of Whites, in spite of Whites being arrested for 70% of crime, including 65% of forcible rape (see here and here), and that only 14% of homicides of Whites are committed by Blacks. We also know that everyone in the USA grossly over estimates the amount of crime and criminal threat posed by African-Americans across the board. Columnist Charles Blow does a terrific job of laying this bare here.

RACISM HAS SOCIAL AND BIOLOGICAL EFFECTS on those people who are racialized and discriminated against because of it. Understanding and confronting the realities of a racialized history and present are important for American society and our communal psyche. See herehereherehereherehereherehere and here for data and discussion to help move this conversation along.

Dr. Martin Luther King was spot on when he said, “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” We have the capacity to be among the most informed nations on the planet, yet we are increasingly willfully ignorant. We are in the midst of a flurry of horrible events that push the issue of Race and racism into our faces and yet we continue to respond to each as if they were isolated events or to simply stick our heads in the sand and wait for the uproar to pass. But it will not pass.

There will be more people like Dylann Roof, don’t let them, or any of us, stay ignorant.

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