COMMUNITY VOICES | Equity: A response to discussion of racism


I appreciate your writing about racism in Minneapolis. I don’t know if this will be helpful but your writing has made me think about the reasons that discussions about race in Minneapolis are sometimes so difficult. I think you are really on to something, with providing the stories and examples that shed some light on these issues.

“The door that is invisible because it is always open”, is the kind of metaphor that I think is helpful.

I wrote the following on the Minneapolis E-Democracy Issues list:

I humbly offer these observations:

Discussions of racism in Minneapolis usually start out with multiple layers of misunderstandings and because of those misunderstandings, it is often difficult for us to speak to each other about racism.

1. Does White privilege exist?

How is it possible to understand that which is invisible or subconscious?

Peggy McIntosh has written eloquently about White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.

Which for me, gives me a pair of x-ray glasses to see that which has been invisible to me for most of my life.

2. I can’t be a racist

This is the point where the conversation in Minneapolis is often doomed to failure. When the question becomes: Am I a racist? or when we get to: You are a racist/ I am not a racist… the lack of a basic agreement about what that means leads to emotional debates that aren’t particularly productive.

When the conversation about understanding racism turns to: Am I a good person? …that is a very different question.

I will use myself as an example.

For someone like me, being called a racist is really painful and evokes an emotional response. Am I a racist?

I have marched for racial equity, I have taught about the nature of prejudice, and I am an elected official committed to social justice….OK did I pass the test?

But, if I have some insight to how I form my opinions, I would realize that I am a bundle of prejudices… prejudgments of all kinds of situations and people, and while these may be inadvertent or unintentional and can be changed, I do have unhelpful thoughts and biases related to race.

I think it might help to view Racism like a spectrum disorder. I am somewhere on a continuum.

If I could add just one observation to the conversation about race it would be that the yes/no absolute doesn’t get us very far and really limits our ability to understand racial equity issues.

If we see Racism like a spectrum disorder with unmitigated racist bigotry on one end and most of us wanting to be on the opposite side of that scale, we have a much better chance of understanding our biases, where we are on the spectrum, and the nature of structural racism.

3. Can Black people be racist?

Many people in Minneapolis get stuck on this question. The simple answer is no, but it is not an obvious answer unless there is an agreement about the definition of racism.

The definition of racism is about a social condition that has a long and complex history and is a subset of bad behaviors and outcomes.

Any of us can be mean, stupid, unfair, unreasonable, prejudiced, regardless of our skin color.

Any of us can be a bigot, with the definition: a person who is extremely intolerant of another’s creed, belief, or opinion.

But racism is a particular thing apart from other human failings.

There is some really good work in Seattle as part of a Race and Social Justice Initiative that we can look at as a great resource for these discussions:

Here are some definitions of racism from that work:

INDIVIDUAL RACISM: Pre-judgment, bias, or discrimination by an individual based on race.

Example of individual racism: Individuals acting in a discriminatory manner based on race in the workplace.

INSTITUTIONAL RACISM: Policies, practices and procedures that work to the benefit of white people and to the detriment of people of color, often unintentionally or inadvertently.

Example of institutional racism: Job descriptions that put undue emphasis on college degrees over work experience. This may eliminate qualified candidates of color, who face institutional barriers to higher education. This practice can create racial inequity in the job market, even when that is not the intent.

STRUCTURAL RACISM: A history and current reality of institutional racism across multiple institutions. This combines to create a system that negatively impacts communities of color.

Example of structural racism: Racial inequity in employment creates inequity in family wealth. Fewer household resources mean limited housing choices, which often go hand in hand with poorer schools and inadequate health care.

I hope these are helpful observations. I don’t mean to pontificate or claim expertise more than I have, but especially on forums like this one, I see repetitions of some common misunderstandings that make it difficult to better understand different points of view.