It is a disturbing and seemingly widespread trend to downplay the role that racism plays in modern society. Events like the election of Barack Obama have led some to declare a new “post-racial” society, as if to suggest that equality has been achieved and we needn’t struggle towards it any longer. While it would be foolish to deny the progress made by past anti-racist movements, it would be even worse, and indeed dangerous, to let ourselves be lulled into complacency and put to rest a struggle that is far from success. Indeed, we must recognize that the fight against racism needs to be an unyielding one. White supremacy hides behind a number of facades, and though it may not be as blatant as it once was, it asserts its venomous influence as surely as ever through veiled but pervasive systems of institutionalized discrimination and privilege.
Contrary to popular ideas about our society, racism is not a problem that is limited to interpersonal harassment and violence carried out by fringe bigots in white robes. Rather, it is built into the very structures that define contemporary life. From slavery and colonialism to physical and cultural genocide, the historical treatment of people of color by white Europeans had catastrophic effects that reverberate now, centuries later. Issues like poverty and crime in communities of color are not the result of biological or cultural inferiority; they are the direct legacy of historical injustices that have placed these communities at a dire disadvantage. For most people of color, the proverbial rat race is much more of an uphill battle than it is for people of European descent. In the face of this glaring cause-and-effect relationship, racists and racist apologists continue to insist that people of color are to blame for their own hardships. Michael Parenti effectively diffuses this argument when he states that “focusing on the poor and ignoring the system of power, privilege and profit which makes them poor is a little like blaming the corpse for the murder.” Parenti is correct to implicate systemic forces as the cause of racial inequality. What needs to be understood is that racial inequality is an essential underpinning to the dominant capitalist system. For power and wealth to stay concentrated, as they are, in the hands of a powerful white male elite, the oppression of people of color is necessary. With this in mind, the insistence by those in power that the problems facing communities of color are in some way “their own fault” should come as no surprise. This argument and others like it serve as a defense of the established order. In the case that racist structures and the injustices they perpetuate were eliminated, the beneficiaries of those structures would have much to lose.
Consideration and critique of systematic racism necessarily leads to a discussion about the inequality of privilege that it creates. Because historical and contemporary life (and often, death) are intimately tied to a system that fundamentally favors whites, people of color are placed in positions of poverty and strife. From this initial disparity, people of color are denied the opportunities that white people enjoy, both on an individual and cultural basis. The evidence of this inequity is visible all around the world. From urban neighborhoods that lack adequate education and perpetuate cycles of poverty and crime, to communities and cultures in the global South that are destroyed by the economic and environmental misdeeds of North American and Europeans corporations, white supremacist capitalism dictates a bleak fate for those not on the benefitting side of privilege. Add to this the frequent murders of people of color by police and military forces, the treatment of immigrants as second class citizens, and the vastly disproportional imprisonment dark skinned individuals, and the picture begins to become clearer and clearer. The privilege of white people lies in the fact that they do not share the relationship to these types of injustices that people of color do, in both severity and frequency. There should be no mistake that these conditions are not a product of merit or happenstance, but of entrenched values and implementations of white supremacy on a global scale.
If a serious and formidable anti-racist movement is going to be built, a fundamental change in focus and attitude is essential. It is relatively easy (and necessary) to oppose the blatant bigotry and violence of the KKK or ragtag groups of neo-nazis, and victory is sweet when we send them running in shame, but the resolution of the problem of racism lies in the development and implementation of a critique that is much deeper and more difficult to grasp. The truth is that the society that we live in and that dominates the world is fundamentally racist, and we cannot truly strive towards the end of racially determined injustice without also working to dismantle and restructure society itself. This means that we should ultimately abolish capitalism as a whole, as well as the political and social institutions that support it. By understanding the current system, and each of our places within it, we should recognize that we will be much closer to a just and egalitarian world once we work together to dismantle the old one and begin to build something new.