But One of My Best Friends is Black!

The online version of the New York Times has a series called “The Stone.” It’s part of their general “Opinionator” category. A recent post to that series caught my eye, although I hadn’t originally planned to post about it.

Then I participated in a recent discussion hosted by GIPC’S Race Relations Network.

The discussion was titled “The Social Construction of Race,” and focused upon the discomfort so many white people feel during discussions of race and racism. At a couple of points, there was real tension in the room, despite the fact that everyone in that room was demonstrably a person of good will where race relations are concerned (and the white participants probably had close black friends).

I’ve been in several similar situations, and I’ve noticed that where discussions about race tend to break down is in the definition of racism. The post from the Times is instructive:

To understand well the realities of American racism, one must adopt an analytical perspective focused on the what, why and who of the systemic white racism that is central and foundational to this society. Most mainstream social scientists dealing with racism issues have relied heavily on inadequate analytical concepts like prejudice, bias, stereotyping and intolerance. Such concepts are often useful, but were long ago crafted by white social scientists focusing on individual racial and ethnic issues, not on society’s systemic racism. To fully understand racism in the United States, one has to go to the centuries-old counter-system tradition of African-American analysts and other analysts of color who have done the most sustained and penetrating analyses of institutional and systemic racism.

Prejudice is much less than half the story. Because prejudice is only one part of the larger white racial frame that is central to rationalizing and maintaining systemic racism, one can be less racially prejudiced and still operate out of many other aspects of that dominant frame. That white racial frame includes not only racist prejudices and stereotypes of conventional analyses, but also racist ideologies, narratives, images and emotions, as well as individual and group inclinations to discriminate shaped by the other features. Additionally, all whites, no matter what their racial prejudices and other racial framings entail, benefit from many racial privileges routinely granted by this country’s major institutions to whites.

This last sentence seems inarguable to me. It is what is meant by “white privilege,” and all of us white folks–inescapably–benefit from it. The underlying point is that systems matter more than individual bias, and that even the least prejudiced, most pro-equality, non-racist white person is treated differently in numerous contexts because of the way those systems have been constructed over time.

White folks who get offended by these discussions need to realize that simply pointing out the reality of institutionalized racism is not an accusation of complicity. It’s a recognition that we can’t change deeply-embedded structures unless we recognize that they exist and understand how they operate.

Ultimately, individual bias isn’t the problem. Social systems that reinforce and perpetuate inequality–that treat similarly-situated people differently based upon the color of their skin– are the problem.

If you don’t believe me, ask a black friend.


  1. What if we started from the perspective that we are all racist. We all have a sense of position in all cultures that we find ourselves and we naturally react with at least some offensive and defensive posturing more or less. Just as we do with all social cues.

    We all have friends and in those relationships we have built enough trust and credibility so that our interactions are more natural and less reflective of any need to establish or defend preconceived “position”.

    So racism and sexism and nationalism and regionalism and classism are cultural norms and all that varies among individuals is extremism in those reactions.

    Some become defensively more extreme and some offensively more extreme depending perhaps on familiarity and self confidence in that particular inter-relationship.

    A good example is an old fashioned 8th grade dance.

    From that perspective racism is not something to be overcome by anybody. If there are ways to make it less dysfunctional they are to embrace and accept it and work within its framework.

    None of this denies that there are consequences to all “isms”, for all of us, which includes all of us, for our membership in groups both natural and institutional.

    So what?

  2. If anyone understands racism it’s someone like me that is married to another human of a different color. We see it, live it and try our darnest to overcome it. It’s so minuscule sometimes, it’s almost transparent but it’s there. I’ve been profiled just for being with him and I doubt it will ever end in my lifetime.

  3. The current mood of “scarcity’ makes this a very important topic. When we have large segments of our population that our whipping up the masses to think that if they give an inch someone else takes there section of the pie. This attitude doesn’t lead to a good outcomes for our nation or the various populations it contains.

  4. Pete is right; we are all racist to some degree, often unaware of this in ourselves but seem to see it in others. Three of my four ex-husbands are black men; I have lived within the black community and, for the most part been accepted. Our problems/divorces were not due to racial differences. I did become aware of the misguided belief by many blacks that all whites were privileged, never lived in poor situations and all our needs were met. I’m sure the small pockets of racially mixed neighbors in white areas, both races were aware of the poverty of the other. What I noticed as a more blatant form of segregation was the Catholics who kept themselves apart at all ages and on all levels.

    After listening to frequent conversations regarding the misguided views of my black husband and our friends discussing their living conditions growing up; I finally had to step into the discussion. It took some doing to get them to believe my home growing up had a coal oil stove in the living room, one cold water faucet in the kitchen sink and our “bathroom” consisted of a toilet in a small storage room off of the bedroom my brother and I shared. We did have electricity. My grandmother (1 block away) had gas lights, a toilet in a dark closet, a wooden sink with a red hand-pump for water. There were still outhouses being used in my neighborhood. Yes, Gopper, I am getting personal again, this time to show that racism comes in many colors. Also that is is often not recognized as racism.

    We ultimately discovered there were few differences in our “inequality” during growing up years; the major differences came later with the routes we took to rise above our living standards. Education was sought after more strongly by the black community but too often denied. For an excellent source of first-hand information regarding this issue, read “The Story of Ray Crowe: A Legend In High School Basketball”. He was more than teacher an coach at Crispus Attucks High School; he was mentor, father figure, often provided food and clothing for families and demanded high academic values in his students and team members. This book gives you a picture of living conditions in Indianapolis known only by the black community from inside. I had black friends in high school (mid-1950’s); only allowed during school hours by black and white students alike due to parental racism and supported by teachers.

    I have one biracial great-granddaughter, one Mexican-American great-granddaughter and two biracial great-grandsons. Anel, Mexican-American, is only two but I worry what is ahead in life for her. Kiera, Marcus and Tra are teenagers and know racism personally.

    “Ultimately, individual bias isn’t the problem. Social systems that reinforce and perpetuate inequality–that treat similarly-situated people differently based upon the color of their skin– are the problem.”

    This paragraph of Sheila’s blog brings me to my current situation regarding racial problems – if it is a problem or a lack of trust. My neighborhood is small; approximately five blocks north to south; three blocks east to west (17th Street curves north, 19th Street curves south and they intersect at 18th Street, no north to south street on the east side) and there is only on way in and out. Most of the new neighbors the past 3-4 years are black families; I have made attempts to be “neighborly” to get acquainted, but have not been accepted. My deafness is a deterrent but…how much does it effect lack of acceptance of my hands-out in friendship, and how much is due to my white face? We are obviously all in the “similarly situated” or we wouldn’t all be living behind the Raytheon facility.

  5. It has been my experience that people don’t need much of a reason to be mean to each other…skin color is as good as any.

  6. “White folks who get offended by these discussions need to realize that simply pointing out the reality of institutionalized racism is NOT AN ACCUSATION OF COMPLICITY . It’s a recognition that we can’t change deeply-embedded structures unless we recognize that they exist and understand how they operate.”

    [My own capitalization above for particular emphasis.] I am the lighter (from the silly skin-color criteria point of view) one-half of a 21-year interracial relationship that became a legal marriage last year. And yet at times I’ve been offended/uncomfortable. We all need to choose our terms very carefully…….because if we are to have any hope of success in entering that “conversation” everyone says we ought to have but don’t quite (so far) ever seem to get around to in earnest…….the quoted sentence needs a change of being firmly understood and accepted.

  7. “change” should be “chance” in the last sentence above and I need to be a better proofreader.

  8. I must say as a White Baby-Boomer I am uncomfortable with our “White” past. My ancestors came off the boat after the Civil War. However, when I see movies like Roots, or Amazing Grace I am angered to the depths of my soul about the cruel, and brutal treatment of African-Americans. I also feel intense feelings of guilt. Slavery was ended and African-Americans became legally free. This did not mean there was equality. 100 years of Jim Crow followed more intensely in the South, but Jim Crow existed in the North too.

    As a nation we do not seem to have ever come to grips with this past. We now have these deluded clowns lamenting the exposure of the Confederate Battle Flag as symbol of slavery and defending it as Southern Heritage.

  9. Louie; for some reason your last sentence brought to mind an old saying from I-know-not-where; “Hang onto your Confederate money, boys, the south’s gonna rise again.” Is that what those upholding the Confederate flag as Southern Heritage have in mind? Wanna bet there are many who do have Confederate money as keepsakes stashed in trunks in their attics.

  10. An interesting thought experiment is: what if there were only one race? Would things be different?

    My opinion? Not really.

    I believe that the root problem is between cultures not skin colors. If in the 18th century there were not blacks and whites, only aggressive well armed colonialials vs primitive defenseless cultures, slavery would have still happened. Tensions between snobbish country clubbers and poor urban dwellers would still be rife among us. Nothing would be different save the use of skin color vs clothes, habits, entertainment, etc for culture clues.

  11. I have to say that I hate it when people say they have Black friends and Black relatives etc. That to me shows some prejudice right there. Don’t we all just have friends and relatives? What does it matter what color they are. Would you say that you have friends with green eyes or black hair? Thinking about race, I remember the “doll test” administered by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940s. A group of black children between the ages of three and seven were shown dolls that were black and also white. When asked which they preferred, the great majority selected the white doll and attributed positive characteristics to it. The Clarks then gave the children outline drawings of a boy and a girl and asked them to color the figures with the same color as themselves. The majority again colored the figures with a white or yellow crayon. The Clarks concluded that “prejudice, discrimination, and segregation caused young black children to develop a sense of inferiority and self-hatred. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund engaged Clark to provide expert social science testimony in several trials against “separate but equal”. In fact five separate cases were gathered under the name of Brown vs. the Board of Education Trial in Kansas. Brown’s seven year old daughter was denied admission to the school near to her because of her race. The U.S. Supreme Court heard the case argued on three separate occasions in as many years. It announced its unanimous decision on May 17, 1954. It held that school segregation violated the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. The following year the Court ordered desegregation “with all deliberate speed”.
    A large majority of White people have inherited land, money and other material things from their ancestors while Black people had ancestors who had no money or property or material things to leave. Many White children received their college educations from trust funds, etc. from parents and grandparents who did make the money from their original “forty acres and a mule”. Black families never received their forty acres let alone a mule! Where will it all end and even up? I don’t think anybody knows, but it has not been done yet! People can talk about the south, but look here in Indiana and many, if not most other states.

    October marks the 20th anniversary of “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life”. by Murray and Hermstein.
    They felt then and even now in a later version that it seems highly likely that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences, but they have not given an estimate on what the mix might be. The original book is very interesting as is their updated statements, but they said that fifty years from now they bet that claims about “The Bell Curve” will be used as a textbook case of the hysteria that surrounds the possibility that black-white differences in IQ are genetic.
    Have a great day people. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer!

  12. We need to keep in mind that all of us are part of the problem, and all of us are part of the solution. No one is exempt.

  13. The Holocaust – regardless of whether it was hate of the Jewish race or Jewish religion or both – shows what can happen when some people think they are better than others. We are all God’s children.

  14. Was the incident in Ferguson racism? The JD revealed that some 40% of town finances were dependant on charges laid on the backs of minorities.

    If fees and fines were not associated with minor infractions would there be any?

    If sheriffs were not paid per inmate would there be prisons? This nation existed years without one prison. The first prison was in the North, not the South. Today, the largest is in LA, Angola.
    On former plantations. Still worked by black free labor. It makes lots of money for the state. Virtually all black inmates. Racism of economics?

  15. What a bucket of hogwash! Anyone who does not assess people by all the information available is deliberately a fool. Young black males commit an extraordinary amount of crime. The attitudes of blacks that drive that ongoing crime wave carry into other aspects of society as well. I for one, as a white, am not the least bit guilty with regard to condition of this generation of blacks in the U.S., or the last one, or the one before that, or the one before that. There are billions of dollars spent by all our levels of government on schools for blacks, food for blacks, housing for blacks, transportation for blacks, phones for blacks, internet for blacks, special hiring advantages for blacks, special lawsuits for blacks, and the plethora of other hand ups and hand outs. It seems to just generate more demands and more expectations. For all of you whining feeling guilty types – fund it with your own money and quit trying to satiate your guilt with government money.

  16. Thank you Sheila for sharing a very good description of racism. Unfortunately, it seems that many of the people commenting here have missed the most important points you made – racism is about, reproduces and requires institutional power.
    A sociological definition of racism is: 1) the belief that members of another racial group are inferior to ones own, 2) the belief that that racial inferiority justifies unequal treatment and by virtue of ones privileged racial status, and 3) the institutional support that privilege provides, act upon ones attitude towards one or more members of the racial group defined as inferior. Racism by individuals (in our society here, by White folks) involves acts including discrimination, violence, harassment, threats, theft, and any other forms of mistreatment that denies the person of color the same rights, privileges, opportunities and safety available to the dominant racial group (that would be us White folks):

    This means that anyone can be prejudiced against members of another racial status, which is an attitude, and they can even act on that prejudice. But racism requires that the prejudiced actor has, by virtue of his/her racial status, immediate and socially recognized access to institutional power. Here is a quick example: if a black woman who is prejudiced against White folks, looks out her window at 2 am and see’s a unknown white man standing on her porch, she may call the police or even open the door and shoot the man, because she is afraid, but it is very unlikely that her actions would be considered appropriate or legal. But when a white woman with prejudice against Black folks sees a Black man on her porch in the wee hours, the police are likely to respond with guns blazing, and if she shoots the man herself, few will question her claim that she was afraid for her life. This is the difference between prejudice and racism.

    In our society, white folks have political, legal, economic dominance, and control over societal institutions as well as most powerful organizations and corporations. In a society such as ours, which was founded – from the earliest settlers in the early 1600s – on the creation and reproduction of a racial hierarchy that, among other things, justified the exploitation of Black folks labor (and also the labor of those defined as “brown,” “yellow,” and “red,” but I’ll leave those histories for another time) to enrich White individuals and the colonies/country as a whole (of which Black folks were never considered full members of), the prejudiced meanings attributed to Black folks formed the core of this country’s culture and shaped structural conditions in such a way that gave White folks race-based privileges that have been consistently denied Black folks. These patterns have become institutionalized, so basic and embedded that most of us White folks don’t even see them or pay attention to them anymore than we think about the air we breath. But they are there, from the shared meaning systems we carry around in our mind and that are conveyed through the media to the legal system that codifies racial prejudice in laws that punish crimes typically associated with a Black folks far more severely than those typically committed by White folks (ie difference between cocaine and crack) to our deeply held convictions of who is deserving and who is not (ie debates about “welfare” and currently, police violence). This race-based prejudice becomes Institutionalized Racism, because of the power institutions have to give or prevent access to social resources and opportunities, compel and sanction behavior, and use violence to control or punish those members of society who are seen as inferior, dangerous, deviant or in anyway counter to the ideals held by the racial group that controls those institutions. White folks can call upon institutional power to enforce their prejudice in ways that most Black folks can not (and even those Back folks, who, due to their education, financial achievements, or profession, may be less vulnerable to institutionalized racism, may find themselves vulnerable when their special status is not recognized or acknowledged).

    As for the one commentator here who insists that Black folks are at fault for prejudice and racism against them, let me remind you that racism was invented by white folks, for the benefit of White folks, long before the urban segregation and urban crime that is often cited by White folks as justification for their racism. It is also the case that, like White folks, most crime committed by Blacks is linked to poverty and is intra- racial; meaning that most crimes committed by Black folks is committed against other Black folks (likewise, most White victims of crime are victimized by White folks). I always find it ironic that when White folks want to use statistics to justify their prejudice and racism, they are not as enthusiastic to apply the same logic to statistics concerning Whites. As Cose points out, the large majority of White female victims of rape are raped by White men that they either know, or are acquainted with. Now, if anywhere between 1 to 4 out of every 10 white women are sexually assaulted by a male at some point of their life (as various reports suggest), then I’d have to say that from the point of view of white women, White men are very dangerous, statistically speaking. Given that, why aren’t police actively targeting White men for Stop &Frisk, or ID checks? Hell, with these kind of statistics, one could even make a pretty good argument for all White men to wear tracking devices or body cams Silly? Outrageous? Then why do we use this kind of reasoning to justify police racial profiling and police violence against unarmed Black folks? This is yet another example of both White privilege and Institutional Racism as well as another way most White folks can act on their prejudice in such a way to significantly negatively affect outcomes for Black folks (just accuse a Black person of a crime and sit back and wait).

    Let me end by sharing some sociological insights (in case you haven’t guessed it, I’m a Sociologist)
    A) Race is a social construction: in our society, it is a hierarchical set of statuses purportedly based on inherited physical and biological traits – although as biologists have found, race is not natural – human beings can not be divided into distinct, mutually exclusive and genetically identifiable racial categories. That is why racial categories vary across cultures and across time. A look at who was considered “White” in this society since its earliest settlers is quite instructive – hint, if your ancestors were Italian, Irish or any number of non-European Protestant, they were not categorized as White in many early American census.
    B) But this doesn’t mean we can all just claim to be colorblind and free of race and racism, because: “That which we define as real, becomes real in its consequences.” White folks have long assumed race was a real thing, and acted on that belief for centuries now,so that the consequences of that belief can not simply be wiped away with the wave a hand. The real consequences are structural and cultural and will take a very focused and serious effort by White folks to eliminate those effects.
    Yes, I said White folks, because even today, white folks continue to reproduce racism, continue to benefit from it and it will not end until we change our culture and let go of our privileges so that structural change can also take place. Those who seem to think that racism would be over if Black folks would just be more like White folks are misguided and ignorant – in fact, that very sentiment reeks of racism – the presumption that White folks are superior to a Black folks and that inferiority is the reason why Black folks are treated differently, and then relying on White privilege to ignore the ways in which Institutional racism creates those differences.
    C) that which is socially constructed, logically, can be deconstructed. But only when the dominant players take responsibility for their actions (whether they intend those actions or not, does not matter), and actively work to eliminate institutional arrangements that privilege one racial group over all others AND consistently root out and dismantle racial meanings that have long sustained racism in this country and which are embedded in our culture. And thus in our minds.

    Until more a White folks accept these social facts, there will be little change in race and racism in this country. But then, the resistance of a white folks to accept their responsibility (instead pointing their fingers at those who lack their privileges a re are subjected to their racism and institutionalized racism from the day of their birth) only serves to highlight how much they like and want to keep, their racial privileges.

    Sent from my iPhone

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