Many of us think we know what racism looks like — and who the racists are, what parts of the country they live in, the terrible things they think and do.
And conveniently enough, it’s never us. It’s always them.
Or, some people may acknowledge that yes, racism has been a significant issue in the US, but it’s all in the past.
We hear echoes of this line of thinking whenever someone says something like they simply don’t see race, they’re color-blind; they have too many non-white friends to possibly be prejudiced; or they voted for Barack Obama (twice!) so there’s no way they could be racist.
Americans often celebrate the distance between where we were and where we are now, but that same orientation can blind us to the gap between where we are and where we should be.
But believing that racism is a problem that belongs to other people or another time allows us to bury our heads in the sand about the ongoing reality of racism in the US. “Americans have an orientation toward progress,” says Candis Watts Smith PhD, associate professor of political science and African American studies at Penn State University, in her TEDxPSU Talk. “We often celebrate the distance between where we were and where we are now, but that same orientation can blind us to the gap between where we are and where we should be.”
And where we should be, Dr. Smith contends, is clearly defining what racism is (and what it isn’t) and whether we’re talking about personal prejudices or broader systems (or both). From there, we need to connect the dots from our individual attitudes and actions to overall structures — “the policies, laws and institutions that systematically benefit some racial groups while disadvantaging others,” as she puts it — that have succeeded in knitting bias into our mindsets and our society. Only when we understand racism and its different components can we engage in productive conversations that will enable us to take concrete steps to dismantle harmful attitudes and rebuild our structures.
Regardless of how far we’ve come, myths about racism continue to circulate. By not challenging them, they can end up distracting us from the real work that needs to be done and the real issues that must be addressed.
Here, Dr. Smith tackles five common myths about racism and shares the truths behind them.
I’ve lived in Texas, I lived in Massachusetts, I lived in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and every place has its special brand of racism.
Myth #1: The South is the most racist place in the US
Truth: Racism is everywhere
Many people associate racism in the US with Southern states, but when you look at present-day data on education and incarceration, the South is no longer the epicenter of racial bias and disparity. Yes, as recently as the 1990s, racially negative attitudes were found primarily in the Southern states but by 2016, these were more dominant in the Midwestern and Northeastern states, according to research conducted by Dr. Smith and Rebecca Kreitzer PhD of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“If we look at the most segregated states in terms of where Black kids go to school, some are in the South and some are in the Midwest and the Northeast. And If we look at states with the biggest racial disparities in terms of prison populations, none of them are in the South,” says Dr. Smith. She’s seen this firsthand, adding, “I’ve lived in Texas, I lived in Massachusetts, I lived in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and every place has its special brand of racism.”
Rather than regarding racism as a phenomenon confined to one part of the country, we should strive to identify its presence in the communities where we live — no matter what region we’re in — and examine how it affects people’s everyday lives. Then, when we do see injustice, we need to hold the right individuals and groups accountable.
Many people often place an emphasis on what the federal government is doing (or not doing) to address racial disparities. But the US Constitution gives a significant amount of power to the states, and many inequalities originate at the state and local levels, from school and police budgets to voting rights and reproductive healthcare.
Rather than just saying we’d like to live in a more fair and equal society, we need to do our part to achieve it.
Myth #2: Racists are easy to identify
Truth: We all participate in racist systems
Spotting the most obvious acts of racism is simple, and it’s easy to feel outraged after learning about a politician or high-profile figure who once wore blackface makeup at a high school or college party. But fixating on these flagrant offenses can distract us from the harmful actions of politicians, legislators and business leaders who design or promote policies that reinforce racism and from the actions that we could take (or could have taken) to prevent them.
Dr. Smith asks: “How many of us supported a ballot measure that systematically reduced some groups’ chances of voting? How many of us, when we learned about the huge racial disparities in maternal and infant mortality, focused on the behavior of Black mothers rather than physicians or health care systems and policies?”
Even though we might not have voted for such policies, “sometimes not doing something is just as bad as doing something racist,” says Dr. Smith. So rather than just saying we’d like to live in a more fair and equal society, we need to do our part to achieve it. Vote, reach out to your representatives, and make your voice heard.
White millennials are “visually progressive” — while they may show support with social media posts, they don’t back them up with concrete actions.
Myth #3: Racism will die out with the oldest generation of Americans
Truth: Younger people are not as progressive as you (or they) think
Relying on future generations to eradicate racism is not an active or effective anti-racist strategy — and there are many reasons why that’s not a good plan. One reason is what Dr. Smith calls the “racially homogenous” lifestyle that ultimately limits the worldview of many young white people in the US. As she puts it, “we know that young white folks like diversity and appreciate it; we also know that they don’t live diverse lives. Research shows that the average white American literally has one Black friend and what that means is most don’t have any at all.”
This lack of diversity can play out in some meaningful ways. Dr. Smith has conducted research on one particular group of younger Americans — white millennials — with Christopher De Sante PhD of the University of Bloomington in Indiana. Their findings showed that white millennials share the same or, in some cases, more conservative racial attitudes and policy preferences than baby boomers. Dr. Smith notes that “white Democrats that are millennials and white Democrats that are boomers are about the same in their understanding of institutional racism and white privilege.” She and De Sante also found that when white millennials were asked about what was important to them, “they don’t have any particular sense of urgency around questions of racial inequity.”
White millennials, defined as those born between 1981 and 1996, are an example of what Dr. Smith calls “visually progressive”. In other words, they may show support with social media posts but they don’t back them up with concrete actions. And while they may say they believe in diversity, equity and inclusion, they can often lack the empathy that’s gained from having relationships with people from different backgrounds and experiences.
Another factor limiting true understanding is the outsized emphasis on the Black and brown people who succeed in traditionally white spaces. Seeing a Black CEO leading a Fortune 500 company, for example, or a Black president or vice president can lull white millennials — and many of us — into thinking the majority of the work has been done and racism isn’t a problem. But consider this: For every person of color who makes it to the top, there are countless others with the same intellect but who were denied access to the necessary opportunities. So instead of zooming in on individual success stories, Dr. Smith suggests looking at the bigger picture of how one group of people in a given field is doing compared to another group.
Racism is a system of advantages and disadvantages that all of us function within. So it’s worth asking ourselves: Are we generally part of the group that benefits or part of the group that doesn’t?
Myth #4: Racism affects only Black and brown people, not white people
Truth: Everyone is impacted by racism
Racism affects all of us — but does it help us or harm us? Racism, as Dr. Smith says, is a system of advantages and disadvantages that all of us function within. So it’s worth asking ourselves: Are we generally part of the group that benefits or part of the group that doesn’t?
Although white privilege may insulate some individuals from racism’s disadvantages, it doesn’t mean that white people face no challenges — it just means that the hardships they face on a daily basis won’t be because of the color of their skin. And that has incredible value. It’s freeing to not have your racial identity occupy valuable mind space, and there’s tremendous mental and emotional safety in not having to carefully navigate so many daily interactions.
But it’s also not a zero-sum game, because racism is complex. As Dr. Smith notes, “Racism can be helpful to white people; it can also not be helpful. When people listen to racist dog whistles, they might end up supporting policies that aren’t [beneficial to] them, like not expanding healthcare.”
In this way, racism has a negative impact on everyone, but the folks who have less privilege face more barriers and experience harsher outcomes. While white folks can be affected by racism by voting against their own self interest, the old saying goes “when white folks catch a cold, Black folks get pneumonia” — something which has been clearly demonstrated by the unequal impact of the pandemic.
Progress occurs because people dream big and put their bodies on the streets to demand change, not because people [in power] suddenly become enlightened or have epiphanies about it.
Myth #5: Racial progress in the US is inevitable
Truth: It’s not
Racist systems were built by design one decision, or policy or law at a time, over hundreds of years, to reinforce advantages for those in power (and those have historically been white people).
But the good news — and it is actually good news — is that since people created the problem, people have the power to create the solution. By acknowledging these truths, we can get out of our own way when it comes to understanding systemic racism and how we can take action against it.
Dr. Smith says, “Progress occurs because people dream big and put their bodies on the streets to demand change, not because people [in power] suddenly become enlightened or have epiphanies about it.” She goes on to say that “people made racial disparities, and people can unmake them. We can agree to be anti-racist — people who learn more and do better.”
But the thing is, as systems of oppression are taken down, new ones are created to replace them — like voter suppression bills in Georgia, Iowa, Arkansas, Utah and many other states — because the system is built to favor those in power.
So if you catch yourself believing one of these myths (or any others) about racism or putting space between you and the racists, think about this: If we all woke up tomorrow, without any stereotypes or racial bias, would our communities or society be fundamentally different?
The answer is no. Prisons aren’t going to reform themselves, wealth will not magically redistribute, and equal access to voting won’t just happen by itself. We — the people — have to make these things happen.
Watch Dr. Candis Watts Smith’s TEDxPSU Talk here: