In the United States, formal and informal institutions have been in place to control black bodies since before the nation’s founding. It began with slavery, followed with Jim Crow legal segregation, and has been replaced, some argue, with the criminal justice system. African Americans are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated for numerous crimes, even outnumbering whites in prisons (despite representing only 13 percent of the population). The problem with these statistics is that ostensibly, people have to break the law in order to be involved in the justice system.
This allows us to suggest, perhaps reasonably, that “it’s not about race.” Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, three unarmed African Americans recently killed by police officers, were all arguably seen as threats and may have challenged police authority. This sentiment has been repeated over and over in social media and news outlets, all with the simple message: this is not racism; these are thugs getting what they deserved.
It is the vehemence with which the “it’s not about race” argument is made that I wish to address here. Simply because overt racial prejudice has declined does not mean that racism itself has also declined in our society. Yet any claim that race matters is met with defensiveness and strong denials. This is understandable (and a good thing, in a sense) because it means that being overtly racist is not acceptable any longer. But we are living in an age in which racism is “ color blind” in that disparities are said to be caused by anything but race. The racism we live with is systemic and institutional. And while this form of racism is not necessarily as overt as someone using racist or disparaging remarks, it is likely more harmful. This means that our structures are built in such a way that makes life easier for certain races and more difficult for others.
The use of the criminal justice system as an institution of racial oppression makes structural racism invisible. This is what legal scholar Michelle Alexander calls “ color blind racism.” The fact that arrest and incarceration statistics are based on ostensibly illegal behavior allows us, as a society, to maintain control over distinct groups while claiming race isn’t a factor. So we have “ racism without racists.”
The Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice deaths and subsequent race denial happen all too often in part because of these structures. There is a long history of race disparities in institutions such as housing, education and employment. Schools are still not equal; African American children get punished at disproportionate rates, even taking “bad” behavior into account. As a society, we devalue black individuals relative to white.
Again, I am speaking about structures and institutions here, which, while composed of individuals, are separate from them. Becoming defensive or claiming that most police are not, by and large, racist misses the larger structural point. It is essential, if we are to make racial equality a real and true goal of society, to recognize that these structures exist, and to move beyond debates about whether you or I are racist. Intention, in some sense, does not matter; only consequences. As Britt Bennett recently wrote, “what good are your good intentions if they kill us?” With respect to some arrest statistics, things have gotten so out of hand that even this race-neutral explanation doesn’t hold as much water anymore; for example, as Alexander tells us, there is very little if any difference between blacks and whites in drug use, yet blacks are much more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for drug crimes.
The reality is we are all participating in a racist system in consequences, if not overt intent. And that, at its heart, is what the protests stemming from events in Ferguson and New York and on my own campus at Bates are all about. They are not an attack on you or I, but our complicity in failing to challenge these structures. And, Allan Johnson states, the ability to deny racial inequity “is especially true of dominant groups in systems of privilege, who can indulge in the ‘luxury of obliviousness.’” It is time to dispense with this obliviousness.
Michael Rocque is an assistant professor of sociology at Bates College. He is a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.