Me. Public Radio. Monday Apr 24. Racism In America.


I'm going to be on Christopher Lydon's show, Open Source, next week for real! I'm interested in sharing my views and getting your input on modern racism, preferably before the show, but anytime is good. What has been your experience with racism? What do you think of affirmative action? What do you have to say about race in America?

So read on for more if you have time.

Christopher Lydon used to run one of the most popular NPR shows in the country called "The Connection." This show actually got me through college as I cleaned bathrooms, and it had the hottest theme music ever! He left a few years ago and started a show called "Open Source"

They transmit via regular radio, satellite radio, internet streaming and podcasting, and their show topics are determined by listeners and readers over at their website.

They've invited me to be on Monday's show as part of their series on Race and Class in America. The topic of this show will be, essentially, modern racism. The main guest is a woman named Jane Elliott who did a remarkable experiment showing the socialized nature of racism, by dividing her all-white class into brown v blue eyed students after King's assasination.

Here's a blurb from the site:
"In this hour we’ve invited Jane Elliott and others to talk about racism and discrimination in America today. Have civil rights legislation and affirmative action made a difference? Has the veneer of political correctness only made racism harder to detect? Are we hardwired to discriminate? Are our expectations for change unrealistic? Are we prepared to recognize that the road to true equality is paved with stumbling blocks? What are your experiences with racism and discrimination?"

So, I have a couple of theories on this whole thing which I will outline below, but for this email, but I'm also interested in your take on this stuff.

What do you think of those questions above?

My point in asking you is not because I don't have my own thoughts. Clearly I do or they wouldn't want me on the show. But yall are people I respect, and I want to do the subject justice.

Here's a somewhat random sample of my thoughts:

Americans are utterly confused about race today

On the one hand, political correctness has made everyone very touchy, sensitive and terrified of offending someone. Is it even ok to mention that someone is black? On the other hand, pop culture has blurred the boundary between cultures, making everyone feel like they're part of the IN group. For example, white people saying Nigger because so much hip hop says so.

I often find myself playing the "was THAT just racist??" game and second guessing my judgements. It's like thinking you saw a ghost. When a white guy decides to give me a "pound" instead of just shaking my hand like he's supposed to, is that racist? Presumptuous, mos definitely. Is it worth it for me to "falsely accuse" someone of racism? Do I sacrifice my integrity if I DON'T call someone on racism though? Tough questions.

Racism is different today, but it's not harder.

People like to look back on history and say "the problem was clearer in the past. You had laws to break down. Black people were hosed and forced to sit in the back of the bus. Today, racism is more stealth and harder to discern." I think there is some, but little, merit in this position. I wasn't around in the 1950s and 60s, but I can guarantee that the people fighting racism then didn't consider it "easy" or "clear." If it was so much easier and clearer, why were they getting hit upside the head and hosed in the first place? Because society as a whole didn't see it as a clear "problem" to begin with. Remember, we're in a nation where slavery, child labor and women-as-property were ALL the prevailing wisdom. Just because we think things are difficult today doesn't mean they were any easier in the past, and that attitude sort of insults the people who had the courage then to stand up back then.

Racism today: Lack of Positive can be as bad as a negative.

Notwithstanding what I said above, I do believe that on some levels, racism is less overt than in the past, at least from today's perspective. A company can no longer get away with saying "Coloreds need not apply." However, they can effectively exist with the same policy by not actively recruiting black people. It's about what they don't do where the racism comes through. Many businesses would never consider recruiting from a black college, or expanding locations into a black neighborhood. So, it's true that they aren't saying "NO" but they also, noticeably aren't saying "YES" because the assumption is that these people aren't worth their time.

Ok, time for white people to do some work.

For 387 years, the oppressed people of this country have borne the burden of liberating this society. We had to fight. We had to resist. We had to pull the establishment, kicking and screaming the whole way, toward this less imperfect union. Well, the jig is up. Racism is not solely black people's problem to solve. It's WHITE PEOPLE's! So far, most of their efforts have been to check a list of oppressive actions off the list, but there's been no real effort to eradicate the underlying attitudes of supremacy that still pervade the culture. If the analogy is Latin dancing, it's time for white people to lead. The oppresor has as much, if not more, responsiblity for undoing the oppression as the oppressed party does.

One of the breaks that white people continue to get is to simply not be aware of race. Because of the lack of direct, oppresive experience, they often have the luxury of ignorance. It's just indicative of how much the eradication of this disease requires everyone's conscious participation.

Sexism provides a useful comparison. I recently attended the SMT Conference, and met an incredible man named Cedza Dlamini from Swaziland in southern Africa. He was speaking on a panel about HIV/AIDS on the continent and had this to say, paraphrased:
"We have to challenge the social norms and patriarchal structures that are contributing to the problem. We, as men, need to be involved in the fight; to have a redefinition of manhood. Men can no longer feel entitled to women's bodies."

An analogy from my own life made this super clear. I've been dating the same wonderful woman for nearly six years. Because of the amount of time we've spent together, I'm way more aware of issues facing women than I ever was, even though most of my close friends in life have been women. What I learned was this: I am never, ever concerned about my personal safety. I'm a dude. I'm pretty strong. I have a (relative to the average) imposing physical figure. I'm cool walking anywhere, anytime, pretty much. But that is absolutely not the case for a woman, so when I say something like, why don't you meet me five blocks from your home, and it's damn near midnight, that's a stupid ass suggestion. Something that's an afterthought or no-thought for me, can be absolutely terrifying and absurd to a woman, but I would never know because I never thought about it. Even though I'm not actively oppressing her, that's kinda sexist.

I can't say this enough: White people need to think about racism and what they're going to do about ending it as well.

My theory of citizenship breakeven.

Race in America: the

The point is related to finance. In the business world, there is a concept of "cashflow positive." where your business may have been in the red early as you invested in growth, then you started generating positive cashflow and coming out of the whole, then you broke even, fully recovering your investment, and finally you're really in the black. This is a helpful way to think about racism in America.

From the moment slaves were brought here in 1619, this country started accumulating a debt; call it a citizenship debt or Freedom Debt, since "freedom" is the new black apparently. So then let's say 1965, the voting rights act, is when we stopped digging the whole. We're VERY negative at this point. 346 years Freedom Negative, to be precise. As of 2006, we're still 304 years in the Freedom HOLE! We won't be Freedom Breakeven until the year 2310! And that's still not dope enough. Because what you're saying then is that we are Freedom Neutral, but neutral sucks. We want our society to be positive. We don't just want the absense of non-Freedom or the end of Freedom-Debt. We want Freedom-Wealth, positive freedom, where people don't just not-hate each other, don't just "tolerate" but actually work positively together. That won't happen until 2656, btw. This is obviously a rough approximation, and human experience and change may not be linear. The period could come sooner, but it could also come later! The point is, either way, we have a long way to go, baby.

I'm talkin bout that man in the mirror.

Black people have been understandably focused, maybe even obsessed, about what white people are up to. How and what they did to us and continue to do. However, we haven't dealt with our own internal ish. Whenever the body experiences a trauma, it necessarily goes into a healing and recovery mode. Cells repair themselves, resources are marshalled, an assessment takes place. We have not undertaken this much needed mission. We have not tried to heal the wounds of oppression. We have tried to stop the ongoing attacks but have yet to repair ourselves.

There is something socially, psychologically and emotionally traumatic about being ripped from your home, tossed to the sea, told you are worthless, raped, flung far from your family. And anyone who doesn't see a connection between this traumatic history and the problems facing black people in present-day America is sadly lacking in cognitive abilities. They are very much connected. Culture, history, attitudes, expectations are all handed down, inherited across generational lines. We have work to do, as black people, among black people on this healing process. This has nothing to do with white people, per se. It's not about what "they did to us." It's about what we've been through.

Now, white people have a similar struggle to undertake. For centuries, they believed, were taught and continued to teach they they were inherently superior, that thay had divine rights of power over others, that their poo didn't stink. This too is damaging to their people because it's been passed on from the 1806 slave master who killed a "worthless" black slave to the 2006 executive who avoids recuiting the "worthless" black worker. This disease may be falsely interpreted as a positive. Who doesn't want to feel superior?? But it's quite damaging and corosive to the soul. It's unhealthy and, in its own way, it's a trauma that white people have endured which requires healing and recovery. Again, this has very little to do with what "they did to black people." It has to do with what they've been taught and what they've been through.

Are positive stereotypes ok?

NO! I'll keep this one short, but black men should be allowed to have small penises. Asians should be allowed to fail math. And white people should have the freedom to NOT dominate the friggin globe! It's a serious burden.

Can a black person be racist? Can a white person tell a black person NOT to be racist?

Yes and no. I was taught many years ago that there's a key distinction between racism and prejudice. It goes like this: racism = prejudice + power; black people have no power; therefore, black people cannot be racist. This is not universally true because depending on the context of the situation, black people can have power and thus, can be racist.

Consider a scene I've witnessed countless times. A group of young black men get on a sparsely populated bus / train. There's a white guy there. He gets uncomfortable. The dudes know this and exploit it. They harass the hell out of this man who really didn't do anything to them. They call him names, maybe fake punch him. He leaves terrified. They leave feeling like they had a good laugh and feeling pretty good. In that situation, they had power over that man, and I think their actions can be referred to as racist. Now, we can argue about whether the power they had over a single white man compares to the power to hire and fire, the power to launch missiles, the power to set policy, but I know I have to acknowledge that what they did was wrong on some level and involved racism.

That second question -- can a white person call a black person racist -- is interesting to me and is related to the first part. A friend of mine is a teacher in a charter school which is pretty much all black, and she's pretty much all white. She told me recently that these kids were horribly racist toward other ethnicities, especially Asians. She was having some challenges with how to deal with this and teach the kids something. But the situation is admittedly awkward. "Uh, Dashon, you're being racist." followed by "Uh teacher, your great great granddad owned my great great granddad." It's like the Catholic Church giving out child care advice.

I asked her if the kids were just being kids, but she thought there was more to it. They refer to all Asians as Chinese and are really, really terribly racist. This is clearly a problem, and especially in a school situation, requires a "teaching moment." My own thought is that you have to find a way to show the kids what they're doing, so that they see it and logically come to the conclusion that it's some horribly racist ish which needs to end.

I know that's easy for me to say because I don't have a room full of sugar infused, malnourished, MySpace junkies looking to me for daily educational guidance and counseling. However, one great lesson I've taken from standup comedy is that the best jokes are those that you let the audience figure out for themselves. You just have to set it up right, but explaining a joke is just bad comedy. Screaming on a black person that they're being racist is just bad comedy!

Finally, have I ever been racist? Have I failed to stand up for others?

YES! I will never forget this. I was apartment-hunting with another black friend for our first post-college apartment. The rental agent was driving us around and warned us: "You don't want to live there. Indian people live there and you know how bad they smell. All that curry and weird body smell really leaves a stink in the place. Know what I mean?"

We both looked at each other like, "can you believe this dude?" But then we kind of laughed it off because really, getting an apartment in Boston is hard work, and we couldn't afford to alienate any rental agents. Well karma is a biatch, because wouldn't you know we actually ended up rooming with an Indian dude that year!!?? Finally we had to fess up to him. "Yo Praveen, we need to tell you, we kinda hated on your people out of selfish cowardice. We're sorry."

By not standing up for him, we sold ourselves out. This is how, ultimately, holocausts and genocide happens. Most people aren't for oppression, but they're all-too-happy to look the other way if there's no direct impact to their lives. As black people, we should have been extra sensitive to this sort of thing, but we failed. Never again.

If you read this far, congratulations. That's more than I expected. I'm sorry if the ending feels a bit non-closing, but this wasn't designed to be an open and shut essay. I'm just working out some thoughts. I'm also shocked at how many friggin words there are here! Someday I'll have to make this funnier.

Please, please, contribute your thoughts, comments, questions, links etc. I'm turning off comment moderation until the radio show airs Monday April 24, so excuse any SPAM that comes through, but I want feedback with the quickness.

peace peace.

- Baratunde Thurston

UPDATE: I didn't quite capture everything here. Will be adding notes on

1. My experience with racism, especially something that happened at Sidwell Friends School
2. My explanation of the need for affirmative action to a 50 year old, bald-headed, conservative, white man from Wisconsin who was my roommate for a week in California. No lie.
3. (thanks to a friend reminding me) The role that an increasingly MULTI-racial America means for New Racism. That is, "THE BROWNIES ARE COMING!!!"
4. (more thanks to that same friend) We don't actually talk about race anymore, much less racism. Look at Katrina. Blown opportunity.