The following guest post is from Barbara Trepagnier. Barbara is a Professor of Sociology at Texas State University-San Marcos and is author of Silent Racism: How Well-Meaning White People Perpetuate the Racial Divide (2006 Paradigm). She is also a member of the Texas Task Force on Racial Disproportionality, sponsored by Texas Child Protective Services and Casey Foundation.
Silent Racism refers to the negative thoughts and images in the minds of white people regarding African Americans and other people of color. This claim seems unremarkable except that, by “white people” I mean all white people, including those who care about racism and would never do anything intentionally racist. In the same vein, the claim that silent racism is more dangerous than acts of blatant racism like that of Thomas Cosby, who ran down a young black woman riding her bicycle along a sidewalk in Florida last summer, downright preposterous. But it is not preposterous if you know what I mean by “dangerous.”
Clearly Cosby’s attack was dangerous for Nekedia Cato—she could have been killed. Silent racism is dangerous because it is insidious: It is hidden, and yet silent racism contributes daily to the institutional racism that lowers the life chances of African Americans throughout the U.S., especially children.
We all learned silent racism growing up, but most of us don’t notice it because the oppositional terms Racist/Not Racist hide it. These racism categories are profoundly out-of-date: Before the Civil Rights Movement, people in the Not Racist category were few and far between, and took a courageous stand against segregation and unfair voting practices. Today, Not Racist is a default category—people must perform hateful acts or make patently racist statements to lose Not Racist status and earn the label Racist (think Don Imus)
The rest of us sit smugly in the Not Racist category claiming that we would never do or say anything racist. The Not Racist category allows us to see ourselves as “innocent” and therefore not responsible for—or even connected to—institutional racism and the resulting racial inequality.
Silent racism, because of its prevalence in white people, is a sociological issue. For example, decisions fueled by silent racism result in the overrepresentation of African American children—especially males—in the child welfare system, a system dedicated to protecting all children. These decisions are not intentionally racist; nevertheless, the decisions lower the life chances of black youth who all too often end up homeless or involved in the juvenile justice system when they reach 18.
We need to get rid of the racism categories and think about racism in a new way, such as a continuum labeled More Racist and Less Racist. This step alone would shift how well-meaning whites think about racism. We would stop worrying about whether we are racist, knowing that we are to some extent. We would be more likely to think about how we are racist, a much more productive line of thought.