For racial healing, we need to get real about racism

The United States was founded upon racist ideas: a land of opportunity, but only for European immigrants. To overcome the divisions that fragment us, we all need to invest in personal transformation. 

American society is like a broken mirror

America: divided by racism. Credit: Shutterstock. All rights reserved. 

Here’s a provocative statement. The reason white Americans are so touchy about racism is precisely because white supremacy is ingrained in white identity. When people of color challenge racism, we aren't just challenging what whites do, we're challenging an aspect of who they are, and from the position of the inferiors in a racial hierarchy that is held together in no small part by white entitlement.

In order to reconcile ourselves to one another, we need to get real about the forces that fragment us, especially race. But overcoming racial divisions will require us to go beyond politics as usual and invest ourselves in personal transformation.

Why? We live in a society that has so deeply internalized race, that race, and by extension racism, is at the very core of who we are as a people. As Americans, our history of racism is the story of us. Until we deal with that, we will never coalesce across the divisions that history has created.

But if white people were the only problem, racism would be resolved by demographic change. Yet demographic change will not end racism.

Race was, for most of U.S. history, an important system of political and social organization. The rationale for imposing that system wasn’t just internalized by whites. We have all internalized race, though with strikingly different consequences.

The notion of “white devils” running around among us only strengthens racism. Simplistic ideas of good and evil are integral to the racial categories upon which racism is founded. Deciding that certain people are morally deficient because of race only strengthens those categories.

Instead of relying on simple good vs evil dichotomies of race, I often picture America as a broken mirror. Each fragment reflects some aspect of who we are as a people. But the images they reflect are so incomplete that trying to make sense of them is next to impossible.

Even many of the dominant themes of American culture are essentially racist tropes.

Take for instance the American Dream. It's founded in the belief that America is a land of freedom in which hard work will yield opportunity. But America is a nation founded in slavery. The slave trade capitalized the original colonies and eventually the project of creating the United States of America.

Because of slavery, the U.S. was founded as a land of opportunity, but only for European immigrants. This reality persisted all the way up to the end of the Civil War, a conflict that ended less than 150 years ago. That’s real.

White immigrants were drawn to America in order to escape the rigid European class system and achieve the dream of becoming gentry in the New World. The economy they entered relied on a racial caste system that favored whites. White people’s dream of social mobility had nothing to do with black slaves and would continue to have very little to do with their descendents, even through the mid-twentieth century rise of the American middle class.

With slavery as its economic engine, the U.S. expanded across the continent. Americans won territory by engaging in genocidal campaigns against the original people of North America.

In spite of this history, we call ourselves a “nation of immigrants.” The very notion is rooted in our history of excluding African Americans and Native people from citizenship, making the U.S. historically, indeed, a nation made up only of immigrants. That’s also real. Yet we conflate the idea of the “nation of immigrants” with liberty and justice for all.

We continue to organize our understanding of America according to race today. Consider the Asian American “model minority” stereotype. The stereotype is rooted in the 1960s when it was deployed to undercut support for the Civil Rights Movement.

Asians in America like me were described during this period as compliant, uncomplaining strivers, as compared with black people, who were cast as a “problem minority.” Asians were said to have channeled our concerns about racial injustice into hard work, winning success and supposedly putting the lie to the claim on the part of black leaders that government action was required to resolve persistent black poverty.

The reality is that Asian American “success” is by no means cultural. It is a political construct.

Asian America is a hodge podge of ethnic groups, many of which have benefited from the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. Many others were recruited to the U.S. to fulfill our need for certain classes of highly skilled workers. Because of special visas, those with higher educations and higher incomes are over-represented among Asian Americans.

Yet Asian Americans actually make less per capita than whites. Asian household incomes skew higher, both because we tend to be concentrated in expensive coastal cities where wages are inflated, and because we have more incomes per household on average.

But race is so powerful a force in shaping our understanding of one another that the “model minority” stereotype has become accepted as fact. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that genetics play a factor in Asian American achievement.

As a racial justice advocate and community organizer, I’ve had to learn to live with this reality. In the 1970s, the angry young man I was believed that race is a political system requiring political solutions. We would win racial equity only by appealing to political and economic self-interest. Anything else was just feel-good politics; they might feel nice but they’re ultimately a waste of time.

But over the years my cynicism eroded, replaced by the recognition that in spite of all of the organizing I was doing, work magnified many times over by the efforts of thousands of campaigns for racial justice waged by people far cleverer than me, racism adapts to changing circumstances and persists in ever more insidious forms.

Racism is not just a political problem. It lives in our hearts and we live it every day through our shared culture. All of us do, even if we may experience race differently, and many of us to our disadvantage.

We are, indeed, a broken mirror. To truly understand human need and find our way to a just peace, we must commit to the slow and painstaking work of pulling the jagged shards of that mirror together so that with each touch we become a truer reflection of what it means to be human. 

This will require honest dialogue, and a willingness to invest as much in cross-racial community building as we do in campaigns and public policy. Through expanding our relationship networks we expand our perspectives, ideally in ways that redefine our sense of community need.

We need to conduct a people’s archeology of race. If the story of race is the story of us, what are the many threads of this story and how do they inform our sense of who we are?

I’ve witnessed this kind of work many times. I’ve stood in circles with the families of incarcerated people, naming our fears, claiming our weaknesses, and helping each other find the strength to continue to struggle to change Departments of Corrections and public opinion concerning our loved ones. The process doesn’t just involve “feel-goodisms”. It also requires us to name the negative stereotypes we’ve developed concerning one another so that when they are used against us we aren’t divided by unacknowledged prejudices lurking beneath the surface.

In multi-ethnic groups of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, we’ve shared the stories of how our families came to be in the U.S., or how the U.S. came to claim our families and homelands. And as we tell our stories, we do as much to acknowledge privilege as to describe our oppression. The stories are charted. Timelines and maps are often created. We acknowledge that the oppression of Asian America is not just the story of racist immigration quotas, hate crimes, and exploitation. It is also our story, and the extent to which we’ve accepted certain privileges of being American, or even of being stereotyped as model Americans.

In this way, we can nourish the kind of genuine solidarity needed to win real change. 

About the author

Scot Nakagawa is a social justice veteran who took his first job as a community advocate in 1980. Since then, he's worked in dozens of organizations on a wide variety of issues of concern to politically marginalized communities. Scot now serves as Senior Partner in ChangeLab, a racial justice laboratory primarily concerned with addressing anti-Asian racism. His blog, Race Files, focuses on race and racism in U.S. politics and culture. 

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