Sociologist to journalists: “Racism: Not Isolated Incidents but Systemic”

After several recent incidences in East Haven, Connecticut, a sociologist explains why racism is a systemic issue, not a matter of a few racist individuals:

As a sociology professor whose specialties include the study of racism, I am sometimes asked to explain what is happening following such a flurry of racist incidents. That question is based on the faulty assumptions that what is happening now is something new and that what occurred is no more than a disturbing accumulation of isolated incidents of racial bigotry committed by a few Neanderthals who didn’t get the memo that in today’s colorblind America we have moved past all that.

Social structures, racist, or otherwise, don’t just disappear or grow old and die. Consequently, when I get that “what is happening now?” query from the press, I feel like yawning as I mutter, “There you go again.” Lately I have advised reporters to connect the dots. I challenge them to, for once, abandon racism-evasive language such as “race” or “the race issue” and to call the thing what it is, racism, which is by its nature always systemic.

So far, to my knowledge, no reporter has taken my advice. Instead they tend to write stories that, if they even acknowledge a pattern of racist incidents, seem to attribute it to the bad economy, the coming of a full moon or perhaps some foul-smelling concoction that was secretly slipped into our drinking water. Then they go away for another few months; and when still more overtly racist stuff happens, they email again to ask me to explain, once more, what is happening, now.

Unfortunately that type of news reporting supports the dominant response to racism by European Americans — the militant denial of its existence or significance. A very successful racism denial tactic is to conveniently confuse the racial, bigoted attitudes and behaviors of some person of color with systemic racism as a way of suggesting that white racism is no more of a problem than is so-called black racism. On other occasions a person of color may be accused of being a racist for simply bringing up the issue of racism.

This is a message needed for more than just journalists.

I wonder if journalists are any better on this issue than average Americans. On the whole, Americans often privilege individualistic situations to social problems, race or otherwise. White Americans, in particular, would prefer to act like race doesn’t matter and claim that we should move on. I’ve noted before that the reverse should be true: Americans should have to show that race isn’t involved in social situations instead of suggesting it doesn’t matter until there is incontrovertible proof otherwise.

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