In response to the science girl's recent post here and its many testimonial comments -- about the all-too common white tendency to see a potential criminal in every black person -- a commenter name Mr. Byte provided an example of another common white tendency:
It ain't right. It will change, because it has changed. Slower than molasses pouring in winter, but not so many years ago, "Driving while Black" would likely be punished with a severe beating followed with a "Resisting Arrest" charge a lot more often than I believe it happens today.
Things will change, you see. So just have some patience -- such white-talk usually implies -- and while you're at it, how about you stop complaining too?
I talk to white people about racism frequently, especially when they say or do something racist, and also when race is related to what we're talking about, whether the other white person realizes that or not (and usually they don't, which is why I bring it up).
I think I'm a pain in the ass this way for many of the white people I know. But they rarely say so; most of them are too polite. Most bear with me, and some actually listen, and even help with my efforts to delineate this or that example of racism or de facto white supremacy.
However, one tendency that I've been getting more frustrated with, and a tendency that I know a lot of white people almost reflexively feel or think in response to examples of racism in our times, is to embrace the belief that "things are getting better."
I've come to think of this as "white racial gradualism." It's a belief, even a feeling, that racism was really awful back in the day, when whites treated Indians badly and enslaved black people, and then there was like, you know, Jim Crow segregation, which was also bad, but it wasn't as bad as the stuff before. As for today -- the white racial gradualist is thinking while hearing about racism -- white racists do still exist, but they're dying out. This person might even admit that most or all of today's white people still have some racist tendencies.
But, none of that is as bad as it used to be, right? As Mr. Byte wrote -- way down in a comment thread that's full of examples of blatant, stressful, hurtful, and life-threatening racism -- "It will change, because it has changed."
As I said, I find expressions of this belief, that racism is gradually, inevitably declining, more and more frustrating lately. My awareness of this white racial gradualism is also frustrating because I know that even more white people think it than say it.
It seems to me that a common consequence of this belief is that when most well-meaning white people witness or hear about a new act of racism, or encounter new evidence of institutional racism, it doesn't stick with them. It's not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, because things are getting better, so why remember it? And so, the example doesn't get added to the many earlier examples that they've witnessed or heard that also didn't stick with them. The evidence doesn't accumulate into an understanding that racism is nowhere near going away, because in response to the latest example, something inside of us often says, "Well, that's sad, but hey, things are getting better. Eventually, that kind of racism won't happen much at all anymore. Just like racism in general."
So when I try to talk about racism with white people, one thing that's blocking their reception is this sense that it's not as important as I'm trying to say it is. Because, you see, things are just not as bad as they used to be, and they're certainly going to be better in the future.
This kind of thinking sort of short-circuits serious consideration of today's racism; it also lets white individuals who are willing to at least acknowledge racism off the hook in terms of actually doing anything about it.
And, of course, in many ways, things are not getting better; they're actually as bad or worse than they used to be. Fifty or sixty years ago, for instance, the overwhelming majority of prisoners in the U.S. were white; now the percentages are reversed. In many American cities, neighborhoods are more racially segregated than ever before. Rates of unemployment, wealth disparities, health care disparities, educational funding and the lack thereof, a myriad of microaggressions . . . When I'm talking to a white racial gradualist, I could go on and on like that, and come up with a wealth of evidence that in many ways, things are the same or worse than at this or that before.
But then, something inside that person is saying, "Yeah, in some ways it may be worse. But, overall, things are getting better."
Why do white people so often feel this way?
I'm not a racial statistician, so I can't say for sure that in terms of racism, things in general are not getting gradually better. But even if they are, they're still bad, and again, in some ways they are worse than before. Racism still causes a hell of lot of pain; it also still endows white people with countless forms of unearned access and privilege. Why not acknowledge that more fully, deal with it, fight against it?
"Because that's not my job," many white people seem to think. "And one reason it's not my job is that things are already getting better without me. Things don't need my help. So have patience, you complainers -- things will get better because they have before, and so they will again."
This sunny disposition about the supposedly imminent demise of racism is the result of not having to suffer the debilitating trauma that it causes for people of color. It's also the result of a long history of white subjugation and dehumanization of other people, which continues to make it difficult, and perhaps impossible, for white people to empathize with people of color.
Do you encounter this white gradualist belief? (And by the way, by labeling it white, I don't mean that people of color never believe it as well; I'm writing about stuff white people do.)
Even if white people don't express this blithe racial gradualism, do you still sometimes sense that they're thinking or feeling it? And that those gradualist thoughts are preventing them from taking racism all that seriously? All that, personally?