Jonathan Chait wrote an interesting article this morning, Obama Calls Racism “Deeply Rooted.” He’s Right. Mostly, it is about our subconscious racist attitudes that we aren’t in control of. I’m extremely aware of these in myself, and I find it very troubling to have to fight gut reactions. And that is to say nothing of the things that I’m not even aware of. Chait made the point that it is hard to deal with our cultural racism when so many of us refuse to even admit it.
He quoted Quin Hillyer of National Review, who said, “We’re not oblivious to racism; we just want to transcend it by leaving it out of discussions where it doesn’t belong.” That’s just code for, “We want to pretend it doesn’t exist so we don’t have to do anything about it.” In my experience, people who make these kinds of arguments are the worst kind of racists: the ones who think that as long as they don’t use the n-word, they aren’t racists. (Interestingly, fifty years ago, their argument would have been that they aren’t racists because they don’t support lynching — it’s progress at a glacial rate.) To give you an idea of Hillyer’s seriousness, he complained about Obama telling Black Entertainment Television (BET) that racism is “deeply rooted” in America. Chait noted that his claim about where racism should and shouldn’t be discussed don’t mean much, “Apparently the places it doesn’t belong include an interview about race with BET — which is to say, it doesn’t belong anywhere because Hillyer and many of his allies believe it does not exist.”
But I have to disagree with Chait on one point. I’m just not sure that things are better for African Americans now. They are certainly different, but that is hardly the same thing. I was looking at some statistics about lynching in America. From 1882 to 1968, 3,446 black people were lynched in the United States. That’s roughly 40 per year. Lynching wasn’t so much about killing any particular person. It was part of a campaign of terrorism against the African American community. The message was clear: get out of line and we will murder you.
The police now kill a whole lot of people in the African American community. I can’t say if it is more. Police at every level and in every region have gone out of their way to avoid researchers to put together a complete picture of the problem. But let’s just look at one city: Oakland. During the five years from 2004 to 2008, the police shot 37 African Americans — only 40% had guns on them. So that’s 22 unarmed. And one-third were fatal shootings. So that’s seven fatalities — over one per year. That’s in quite a small city.
What’s more, this terror campaign works really well in that it often kills totally at random as in cases like Oscar Grant and Akai Gurley. This obliterates the “Twice as Good” concept that Ta-Nehisi Coates has discussed. This is the idea that if only the African American community (or any other oppressed group) would act twice as good as the powerful majority, they will eventually be accepted. This is certainly what people like Quin Hillyer believe. And it just isn’t true.
So have we really made progress? It used to be vigilante groups who killed African Americans to keep them in line. Now it has been institutionalized and police offers are held accountable. And by “accountable” I mean that in a theoretical sense. Of the 22 unarmed men who police shot in Oakland, not one was ever charged with a crime. For the bigots, this is perfect. In the past they couldn’t claim official exoneration. Today, as we’ve seen with people like Joe Scarborough in the Michael Brown killing, they do just that. The kangaroo grand jury decided not to indict, so that means Michael Brown was a thug who should have gone to the electric chair and Darren Wilson was a hero.
If this is a colorblind society, let me see all the colors. And let Joe Scarborough and Quin Hillyer say what they really mean, “We hate those n*****s who stand up for themselves!”