The Fantasy of Race Relations

Race relations as love and equality, a fantasy of colorblind racists in the US. (http://plus.google.com).

It is beyond amazing that Americans across all spectrums continue to use the phrase “race relations” to describe what is anything but a relationship. The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows that 70 percent of Americans see “race relations in the US” as either “very bad” (28 percent) or “fairly bad” (42 percent). This was nearly a record high for the poll, one that was set in July 2016 (74 percent), “amid unrest after the deaths of several unarmed African-American men at the hands of law enforcement officers.” Carrie Dann’s NBC article summarizing the poll also notes the differences between how Whites and Blacks see race relations. One-quarter of all Whites surveyed in the NBC/WSJ poll saw race relations as “very bad,” compared to 40 percent of Blacks.

But none of this is about relations between Whites and Blacks. Rather, the term “race relations” represents an attempt to prove progress in ending racism when presented as hatred and feelings, instead of racism as policy, practice, and power. How much racial progress has there been when President Donald Trump can call a group of White supremacists “some very fine people” after Charlottesville, and anti-police brutality protester Colin Kaepernick a “son of a bitch?” How much progress can there ever be if protests against racism spark more vitriol from Americans than does the latticework of racism itself? Truly, polls on race relations serve as poor barometers of the persistence of American racism in all its forms.

Embedded in race-relations polls like the one NBC/WSJ conducted are two countervailing ideas. One is the belief that racism is only about hatred. The other is that racism is about individual actions. The evidence comes from Dann’s own description of the poll’s history, which “dates to the divisive O.J. Simpson trial and verdict in the 1990s.” The pollsters conducted this latest survey in “the wake of a white nationalist demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia in August that led to the death of a peaceful protester.” Dann also mentioned President Barack Obama’s 2008 election and the July 2013 George Zimmerman verdict in his killing of Trayvon Martin in her piece.

Boiling down race relations to either the racist actions of individuals or symbolic victories is a highly simplistic view of what constitutes race relations. It is a view that draws on the reactions of Americans to random events, and not on the issue of progress against structural, institutional, and other forms of racism more broadly. It also tends to make African American complaints about racism beyond individual incidents discountable. This accounts for the differences between White views of race relations as positive when compared to Black perspectives in these polls. Whites see racial progress based on past individual behavior, whereas Blacks recognize racism’s structural entrenchment in all of America’s institutions.

But with polls like the NBC/WSJ one, the idea of race being about relations is a wishful delusion because it suggests that Blacks and Whites are on a level playing field. As sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva wrote in Racism without Racists (2006), “most whites insist that minorities (especially blacks) are the ones responsible for whatever ‘race problem’ we have in this country. They publicly denounce blacks for ‘playing the race card’…and for crying ‘racism’ whenever they are criticized by whites.” For so many Whites, Black reactions to racist incidents are overreactions, an uncomfortable challenge to their worldview of America as a great nation, a land of freedom and equality.

American racism is primarily about maintaining inequality, of one group’s vise grip on political, economic, social, and cultural power. American racism is all about discounting the counteroffensive of anti-racist activism against both individual instances of racism and the structures and institutions that help justify these often horrific acts. American racism is hardly about maintaining an amicable relationship between Whites, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans. As such, American racism defines race relations to be one in which Whites get to dictate what is and isn’t racist, and Americans of color only get to accept these findings without complaint or protest.

A much better comparison between the delusion of equality through “race relations” and the hard reality of American racism would be a picture of domestic violence. One in which the male spouse holds most of the power, and the woman is constantly in fear of the emotional, physical, financial, and sexual assault that they have experienced in the past. To even consider the days in which the husband buys his wife a necklace or treats her to dinner as an improvement in their marriage would be a sickening farce. The wife is still in an abusive relationship. So too it has always been with American race relations. A dozen years of Reconstruction didn’t wash away slavery’s 246-year history. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 couldn’t possibly disinfect the physical and economic violence of Jim Crow. President Obama’s two terms in office didn’t change America’s structural racism problem one iota. Until Blacks hold equal economic, social, political, and cultural power, calling American racism “race relations” is pure fantasy, a distracting and symbolic bill of goods signifying nothing.

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Freelancer via @washingtonpost | @TheAtlantic |@AJEnglish | @Guardian; American Univ. & UMUC history prof. Invite me to write/speak: donaldearlcollins@gmail.com

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Donald Earl Collins

Donald Earl Collins

Freelancer via @washingtonpost | @TheAtlantic |@AJEnglish | @Guardian; American Univ. & UMUC history prof. Invite me to write/speak: donaldearlcollins@gmail.com

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