I've had a couple of conversations about racism lately, especially about police brutality and disenfranchisement, and I notice a trend of diverting the attention away from race and onto other things. Even when someone agrees that Philandro Castile was wrongfully killed, even murdered, they want the focus to be on poor police procedure or psychological issues, and not race. I usually agree that not everything is about race, and many things are not all about race, but race does play a role in many issues, a huge role sometimes. The statements I hear too often are things like, "You can't prove this was because of race," or, "I'm sure Officer Yanez didn't wake up that morning hoping to get a chance to kill a Black man that day." The problem with statements like these is that they show a fundamental misunderstanding about how racism works.
In fact, maybe we shouldn’t even be using the words racism or racist to describe someone's actions. For some people, racism just means disliking or hating someone because of their race, and that lets them off the hook. It absolves them of any responsibility to check their own thought processes. They can say to themselves that they don't hate anyone, and therefore can't be racist, even if they continue to hold some very racist beliefs or continue to show some very racist behaviors. For a lot of other people, racism means a system of oppression based on race, where one race consistently, but not always, benefits from the system, and another race is consistently, but not always, disadvantaged or obstructed by that system. The problem with this definition is that it makes it easy to identify a system as racist, but not a person. Actually, it would be really difficult to apply that definition to a person at all, no matter what their actions are, unless they have the power of an entire system behind them. For example, if a president were somehow to enact a law that barred all immigration from a particular country or ethnic group, based on the idea that they are dangerous people, that would be racist, because this action has the force of a governing body behind it, even if the decision is made my one person. But I'm not sure the same can be said about the actions of a single police officer who shoots an unarmed, nonthreatening Black man. Even though he is part of the system, or serves the system, can his actions truly have enough force to be called racist, the way this second definition looks at it? Even under the first definition, he can't really be called racist, because, according to him and everyone he knows, he doesn't hate Black folks. Hell, he's got Black friends, works with Black cops on the force, listens to hip-hop, maybe has a Black girlfriend. How could that guy be racist.
On the other hand, if we use the word prejudiced, instead of racist, the focus is on attitudes and actions, not on narrowly defined concepts of hate or dislike. If we use the word prejudice, we can not only make better sense of what happens around us in these cases, but we can actually do something to prevent them. I think there might be a very small number of cops in this country who might wake up in the morning hoping to get a chance to harm someone because of their race. That scares me to even say, but there are millions of cops, so maybe two or three think like that. I definitely don't think that Officer Yanez or some of the other officers that have been involved in these clearly wrongful shooting think like that. Instead, I think they prejudiced. If prejudiced means to prejudge someone, to form opinions about others based on their race, then it seems to me that Officer Yanez shot Philandro Castile because Yanez was prejudiced. In court, he claimed that he was in fear for his life, even though, in my opinion, he didn't have any reason to be afraid. If the only reason he was afraid was because he had negative prejudices about Black men that caused him to think of this particular Black man as dangerous, then the whole thing makes more sense. Yanez didn't wake up that morning with he intent to kill anyone, or even hurt anyone, but he did wake up with the same unchallenged prejudices that he had held probably for years. When you look at it that way, some kind of scenario like this was bound to happened, and when it did, the officer would be just as surprised as anyone else. If he was prejudiced enough to believe that Black men are more violent, or hate cops, or more likely to be criminals, then his reactions would flow from that fear.
By the way, a person can be prejudiced against Black folks and still have Black friends. He or she can actually be friends with someone and still believe themselves superior in some way, or believe some very negative things about them, or just believe that their friends are the exceptions to the rule. It's still prejudice if you want the Black guy on your pick up team because you believe he must have basketball skills - you know, growing up in the hood like he did. Using the word prejudice can also put to bed any nonsense about minorities being racist. Anybody can be prejudiced, sure, but one person's prejudices, up against a powerful racist system, don't really mean that much. That person should definitely look inward and think about the way they view and react to people, but it's the prejudices that line up with and support the racists systems that cause the most damage.
That doesn't mean that racism doesn't exist, just that we have to be careful how we use the word, or else we can't analyze the problem, and can't prevent it. Yanez may have shot Castile because of prejudice, but he was acquitted because of racism. His actions were produced by his beliefs, but the verdict was produced by a system that, apparently, will not convict a police officer of a shooting, no matter how damning the evidence.
Take hiring practices as another example. It's easy to say that a company that doesn't hire minorities is racist, and may even be correct, but holding up that racism is a lot of prejudices. A white executive or manager in charge of hiring sees a lot of people come through his office. Just like a police officer, he probably doesn't wake up each morning renew his commitment to oppress his fellow man. But when you ask him why he doesn't hire minorities, he may say reply that he interviews them al the time, and they're seldom the right fit. Pressed to explain why he didn't hire a particular Black applicant, he might say that he just didn't connect with him, didn't trust him, couldn't picture him working with the rest of the team. That executive may have Black friends and may love listening to Stevie Wonder, but until he starts really challenging his prejudices, and asking why he doesn't connect with or trust people who are different from him, his company is going to be part of a racist system.
The good news is that we can deal with prejudice a whole lot easier than racism. We can screen police cadets for prejudice and watch them interact with different types of people. As colleagues, we can challenge each other when we hear things that betray our prejudices. And we can do that, even if we find ourselves thinking that same way sometimes.
In that way, prejudice is the one thing that all of us can really do something about to effect change. I don't have a problem challenging people on their prejudices, and usually all it takes is a simple, non-threatening question. "Why would you say that?" when someone says that they don't trust someone. "What are you basing that on?" "Are you sure about that?" Just asking questions forces a person to evaluate their thinking. They have to either give a valid reason, which they might have, or admit their prejudices. I don't have a problem with someone who knows that they are prejudiced and is dealing with it. I can deal with someone who says, "I don't like the fact that I instinctively distrust Arabs," or "I don't like the fact that Black men make me worried a little."
What I can't deal with is bigotry. Bigotry is that attitude that flies in the face of analysis or logic or even common decency. Bigotry is confronting all of the logic and morality against your way of thinking and still stubbornly holding on to it, because it's the only thing that makes you feel superior to others, and you HAVE to feel superior to at least some others. Bigotry is that friend or colleague that you do challenge on their prejudices, only for them to respond, "I don't care what you say, I don't care what anyone says, I know I'm right." I have no problem dealing with prejudice, but with bigotry - honestly, I just knock the dirt off my feet and walk away.
As for myself, I'm going to try a little experiment. I'm going to try to use the as little as possible, and just ask people questions that challenge their prejudices. I'm not equipped to take on the system, but I think if I can knock out all the struts holding it up, maybe one day I'll see it wobble.