Last week we looked at Brown v. Board and the Clarks’ doll test, which the court cited to prove the danger of implicit bias and the presence of systemic racism. The problem is that a lot of white people resist the idea of those things even existing, because no one likes to be called a racist. Unlike many people in previous generations, we have been raised to believe that racism is not only wrong, it is evil, so to admit we are tainted by it would be to admit we are evil, too. But that is not what systemic racism means. It operates as it does without you making a conscious decision to be part of it, and it takes work and education on the subject to recognize it and work against it.
When my child was very little, in the mid-90s, they were pitching a fit because they wanted to go to the store with their mom and mom needed some time alone. My aunt happened to be over at the time –my beloved aunt who helped raise me and whom I love dearly. She wanted to help out in quieting the kid. So she said, “You don’t want to go over there! Them colored people will get you!” I was shocked. I had never heard her say anything so overtly racist, and, in fact, she usually spoke in favor of civil rights issues. She herself was at a loss to explain it.
I gave that incident a lot of thought in ensuing years. Why would she say a thing like that? Well, because she wanted to scare a little child into behaving. But why that particular approach? It would have to be because that’s what her parents had said to her 50 years earlier to scare her. And their parents said to them, and theirs to them, and so on. To the point that no one remembered any longer why that threat had originally been so scary. Because if you go back far enough, you reach the days of slavery – when white people lived in fear of slave uprisings. Black people out on the roads after dark – with or without the proper “papers” – might be desperate runaways or participants in a revolt. As one black friend once said, when a white man commented that black people don’t seem to age as quickly as white ones, “that’s because we don’t lay awake at night worried about a white uprising.” And when slavery existed, it was considered the duty of the white community – required by law – to take action against potentially rebellious or “uppity” black people.
Now think about all the incidents in the last few years where black people innocently going about their business were shot dead by panicked white people. A 12-year-old boy in the park with a toy gun. A man in Walmart carrying a BB gun he was going to buy. A man jogging at night. Kids playing their music loud. A teenager walking home from a convenience store. Car crash victims knocking on a random door at night for help. With most of those shooters, I don’t think they woke up that morning and said, “Man, I hate black people. I hope I get to shoot one today.” I don’t believe they thought at all; I think they just reacted, because they were scared. But why were they so much more scared by black people? Studies prove this happens, and numbers don’t lie.
Do you think it might help if more people were aware of (and believed in) implicit bias and the history of race in this country? Do you think that white people burying their heads in the sand will solve anything?
You know it won’t.
Another factor is Republicans trying to pass laws about how history is taught is what historians call “the Lost Cause narrative.” We’ll look at that next week.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.