Racism, Still A Problem

There’s a broad strain of American political discourse that considers race a myth, an illusion that, if we work diligently to expose as false, will wither away into the dustbin of history. A greater and more pernicious one is the old myth of social progress; that racism is a musty old problem that, as time passes, becomes less and less of a vital issue.

Consider the recent remarks by Howard Dean, former Democratic National Committee chairperson and Governor of Vermont, who characterized the Tea Party “movement” as “the last gasp of the 55-year-old generation … that has trouble with diversity.”

For Dean, the “trouble” arises from within the old Moxie generation, trouble that the Pepsi generation is better acclimated for handling. When he speaks to college crowds (that’s us!), he notes, “You all have friends of different races, different religions, and different sexual orientations, and you all date each other.” In dramatic contradistinction, “the Tea Party is almost entirely over 55 and white. And the country has changed dramatically as a result of what happened in 2008.”

Conservative commentators have taken umbrage with Dean’s comments because, for one thing, they don’t accurately reflect the demographics of the Tea Party movement, which has token numbers of non-white “Anglos” (to use the language of the conservative   Weekly Standard) and young people. Furthermore, the conservative line goes, those older white folks are not racist, as Dean implies.

As with all conservative utterances, we can dismiss these points of contention out of hand, and a real critique of Dean’s argument has to move in the other direction, rejecting the premise that the new generation is more racially progressive and accepting of diversity, and that young people of all colors comingle (communally or carnally) on college campuses.

To put a finer point on it, the racism that the Moxie generation embraced and vociferously defended has been institutionalized and is taken for granted by the Pepsi generation. We enjoy a world in which violence against Black people is so taken for granted that it is not just invisible, it proves our commitment to diversity.

Reading Dean’s remarks, we would do well to remember what Dr. Abby Ferber notes in her book, “White Man Falling,” namely that “defining white supremacy as extremist in its racism often has the result of absolving the mainstream population of its racism, portraying white supremacists as the racist fringe in contrast to some non-racist majority.”

There is no non-racist majority in America. If, as a social experiment, one tried to engage white people (and other groups to varying degrees) in a discussion on ongoing racism, he or she might be surprised by all the gradations of denial, bad faith and self-deception he or she ever encountered.

And, if one tried to catalog the violence of existing as black in an anti-black world (specifically, on a college campus), he or she would be hard-pressed to ignore the grotesque patterns of violent behavior toward black students.

Consider the police murder of Danroy Henry, a student-athlete at Pace University in New York. Or consider the police shooting of Kofi Adu-Brempong, a graduate student at the University of Florida. Or, closer to home, if you want to get a sense of how efficient UCIPD can be at seeking out traffic infractions, try carpooling with any black student on campus.

Police violence only reflects the sharp edge of the ongoing regime of racist violence on American college campuses. Since I’ve been in college, nooses have been hung at Cal State Fullerton, Columbia University and UC San Diego. The Fullerton and Columbia cases occurred in the wake of the case of six young black men who were unjustly arrested on trumped-up charges in Jena, Louisiana in 2006, and the UC San Diego case occurred after black students dared to take issue in February 2010 with the preferred leisure activity of their white fellow students: dressing in blackface at a “Compton Cookout.” On our campus, at the same time, the New U ran an incoherent, racist opinion article bemoaning Black History Month, complementing the general dearth of coverage — more accurately, the erasure — of racism on campus. For such coverage, alongside a wealth of other topics, one would have to turn to the Black Student Union’s quarterly publication, Umoja.

Finally, what of Dean’s point that us college students “all date each other”? We ought to note in the first place that, despite our large Asian-American population, we are not a “diverse” campus in the least. So if white students did, in fact, actively seek out relationships with black or Latina/o students, those students would have dance cards as diverse as a Benetton ad.

Statistically, though, interracial dating remains a perfectly rare occurrence, even within the Pepsi generation. The eminent sociologist, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, has observed that white students frequently overestimate their friendships with black students while rationalizing the fact that they “just so happen” to avoid relationships with them. Perhaps if we, as a generation of white students, could stop deluding ourselves about our racial tolerance — underwritten from the start by state and interpersonal violence against blacks — we would have the language for understanding the “trouble” we find ourselves surrounded by: racism.

James Bliss is a fifth-year political science, women’s studies and African American studies triple major. He can be reached at jbliss@uci.edu.