Collective v. Individual; Where Does Racism Lie

(cross posted at Forbes Avenue)

Skip I work for a progressive organization in Washington, D.C., with a wonderful group of human beings. We work side by side on any issue you can think of and, mostly, we get along while we do it.

Two days ago, four colleagues and I were talking about the degree to which race played in the Skip Gates arrest controversy. I and a fellow Black colleague were pretty confident, given what we know from news reports about how the incident went down, that race played a role.

My other colleagues, you can imagine, were skeptical. They argued, rightfully, that someone made a call and the cop had an obligation to follow through and secure the home. They asked "what are the standard procedures" in situations like this? Also, not surprisingly, they wanted to make it about the cop's ego, an idea that is picking up traction online, as if it couldn't then be about race as well.

Later that night, two other Black friends told me similar stories that they had with White colleagues. Everything they told me was the same as what went down in the conversation I had with my colleagues, almost down to the language.

White folks are quite comfortable with this notion that there is a pattern of racist behavior in America. They are reluctant, however, to say that any individual instance is about race. So what happened to Skip Gates wasn't racist. Neither was what happened to Shem Walker. Or Sean Bell. Or Oscar Grant. Or Officer Omar Edwards.

Every individual instance must be rationalized, but then at the end of the year when the stats are compiled we rant and rave against a pattern of behavior, against institutional racism.

Institutional racism is nothing more than a pattern of individual behavior that has become instituationalized. Redlining is just a lot of White folks deciding where non-whites can live. Poll taxes were nothing but a lot of White folks making it really hard for Black folks to vote.

They say the personal is political. Well the individual is the collective.

The goal here isn't to call the cop a "dirty racist" and write him off. What I said to my colleagues was that acknowledging that what the cop did to Skip Gates was racist, doesn't make him a bad person. This isn't "i hate niggers" racism, but it is still racism.

The goal is to let him (and other non-Black cops) that this kind of behavior is a problem. We need to have processes for training police for how to deal with different types of people. And we need processes to handle situations after they happen. We simply do not have this anywhere to the degree we should.

Behavior like this can be involuntary; a lot of White folks have tremendous guilt that they lock their doors in a "bad neighborhood" and clutch their purses in an elevator alone with a Black man. But rather than live in the guilt, we gotta acknowledge it and begin to unlearn it.

Until we do, we are going to keep seeing these individual instances and keep being surprised that the year-end statistics haven't changed.

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