The Myth of a ‘Post-Racial’ America

Recent Elections Reaffirm Racial and Ethnic Politics

protest

Ten years ago people actually talked about Americans living in a post-racial society. Not only did that not happen, but the US has moved even further from that ideal. If anything, the moral arc of racial justice has moved in the wrong direction.

The racial divide evident in this week’s election results showed that identity politics is still alive.

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Jeff Schechtman talks to Paul Kivel, social justice activist and nationally and internationally recognized anti-racism educator.

Kivel explains that when we talk about race, we tend to talk about individual acts of racism. But he sees that discussion as just a cover for the systemic racism that begins with a stolen land, continues with the slavery and exploitation of labor that built this country, and that still drives large sectors of its economy.

The US has a race-based culture, he says, that is reinforced every day, in jobs, housing, the criminal justice system, and education. The problem is, because white people mostly deny it, they have never developed the lens to really see racism. Thus denial and minimization become the default policy.

Recent polls show that the majority of whites don’t see race as even a top ten problem. There’s a belief that if it is going on, it’s “not in my community.” Yet this week we saw election results that showed that the polarization and homogeneity among racial groups is stronger than ever. Can this ever change?

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Jeff Schechtman Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

Remember, just ten years ago when people talked about us living in a post-racial society? Not only did that not happen, but we moved even further from that dream. If anything, the moral arch of racial justice has moved in the wrong direction. The socio-political reasons are many. It is as if the perfect storm of political, social, technological and economic change converged to create a powerful machine to drive deep wedges between every group in society. But while the causes are many, complex, global and systemic, it just might be that the solutions are personal, human, and individual. We can be, at least with respect to racism, the masters of our own fate.

We’re going to talk about this today with my guest Paul Kivel. He’s an award-winning author and an accomplished trainer and speaker. He’s been a social justice activist and, nationally and internationally, a recognized anti-racism educator and an innovative leader in violence prevention for over 40 years. It is my pleasure to welcome Paul Kivel here to talk about his book, “Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice.” Paul Kivel, welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy.

Paul Kivel: Thank you. It’s great to be with you this morning.
Jeff Schechtman: Is there a fundamental difference? Can we look at systemic racism and personal and individual racism in different ways, and approach them differently?
Paul Kivel: I think that they’re all very much interconnected, but it does help to take them apart and think about our individual lives and relationships and actions in the context of the institutionalized and cultural levels that racism operates on every day.
Jeff Schechtman: To what extent do we see more ups and downs and more of an arc in terms of this systemic and societal and cultural racism, as opposed to individual racism?
Paul Kivel: I think that, systemic racism is part of the foundations of our country. Part of the problem is, we’ve never acknowledged how much our culture, our society, our economic wellbeing, is based on the exploitation of the land that we stole from Native Americans, and on the periods of slavery and Jim Crow and extended periods of exploitation of the labor of people of color, including today in terms of domestic work and farm work and all kind of things. It’s been consistent. We can’t really get at the roots of it until we acknowledge that history and how it currently impacts our lives.
What happens, though, is that, at certain periods it becomes very dramatic. There’s … Right now, we have an administration that is manifesting a lot of, specifically, racist policies and rhetoric. Different times, different things come up that bring it to our attention. Often because people of color are out in the streets protesting, like at Standing Rock or Black Lives Matter. It becomes unavoidable for those of us who are white. The foundation is steady and we need to really dig deeper at the roots, so that we actually begin to build a society that, I think, we all want to live in.
Jeff Schechtman: There’s been often talk that generational change will make a difference. Generational change hasn’t really made a difference, historically. Talk a little bit about that as it relates to this idea you’re discussing of getting at the roots of it.
Paul Kivel: Generational change could make a difference. The problem is, we keep indoctrinating new generations of white youth into accepting racism as it is. Our textbooks are still woefully inadequate in documenting the true history of this country. The everyday culture, the media, the video games, the cartoons, the advertisements, things like that, reinforce racist stereotypes and the status quo. Many of us and our families are reluctant to even talk about racism with our young people. One of the things as parents, as teachers, as youth workers, that we need to do is actually help young people navigate this system so that they can, in fact, bring a different perspective and be working to change things.
Jeff Schechtman: What about the extent to which racism has become as politicized as it is today?
Paul Kivel: I think that … One of the things that happened, after the Civil Rights movement there was a tremendous backlash. White people started feeling like they were under attack, and that it was a post-racial society. That people of color were okay after that. Then, with Obama being president, it really reinforced for many white people that, “We’re over that. We did that. We fixed it.” That’s obviously not the case. There’s still tremendous denial and minimization among white people about the extent of racism.
A recent poll showed that, the majority of white respondents thought racism wasn’t a major problem in this country. A majority thought it wasn’t happening in their community. One of the things we do is we say, “It’s someplace else. It’s over there.” I grew up in California thinking racism was a problem in the south. It took me years to really see how extensive and pervasive it is here in California.
We need to admit that it is happening. Pervasively, it has devastating impacts on people of color. It also has devastating impacts on the white community. It’s constantly being reinforced by the fact that we have tremendous economic inequality. Those at the top of the economic pyramid are regularly directing our attention away from them as decision makers, towards communities of color, like recent immigrants, the African American community, muslims, any number of groups that were directed to blame for our problems. Whereas, the real culprits are the folks at the top of the pyramid making the decisions that move jobs overseas and exploit the land, and produce toxic waste in our food and water, and things like that.
Jeff Schechtman: Can the issue of race, and racism, be separated out from all of those other issues that you’re talking about?
Paul Kivel: Only abstractly, theoretically. Racism is part of the fabric of our society. It’s in the school system, it’s in the health care system, the criminal-legal system. It impacts the job and housing markets, and what we see on the media. We need to develop as white people a racial lens. This is something that people of color have to do just for their own survival. They have to analyze how racism is playing out in particular situations. They never know when it’s going to pop and when they’re going to be under attack. Because white people … We live in such segregated communities. Our housing, jobs, religious institutions, and schools are highly segregated today as much so as they were in the 50’s before Brown vs. Board of Education.
We don’t have the information. We don’t have the lens to understand and see racism as it’s happening. We need to develop that lens and assume that racism is extensive and pervasive, and that, when we get better at noticing it, seeing how it works, then we can interrupt it. Then, we can step in and work to change things.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about the impact of diversity. Because at one point, it was black/white racism that we were talking about. Now, it’s so much more widespread.
Paul Kivel: It’s not that racism is so much more widespread, but … African Americans have always played a critical role in our society, and have been the generators of tremendous amount of the labor and creativity of our culture, and just our economy. At the same time, Native Americans are also an intricate part of the economy and the culture, and have been severely exploited. Latinx, and Asian Americans, and others have also been always part of the fabric of our society. Always marginalized, deemed dangerous, and excluded from being citizens. Having to vote, and all kinds of basic things that, as white people, we take for granted.
I think it’s important that, these days, it is much harder just to have a black-white conversation because, racism is complex and different groups are impacted differently.
Jeff Schechtman: You’ve been looking at this issue for a long time. I mentioned in the introduction that this is the fourth edition of the book. Talk a little bit about what’s changed in your mind in terms of how you approach talking to people about the subject of racism.
Paul Kivel: I think there’s a few things that are different. One is that, we have a new generation of young leadership of people of color. We’ve seen this at Standing Rock, in the Black Lives Matter movement, the DACA youth, the fight against Islamaphobia, and the Muslim ban. They have been bringing to our national attention in indisputable ways just how severe racism is in their lives and in our entire community. Part of my work in my book “Uprooting Racism” is to highlight those voices and to follow their lead in terms of addressing what we need to face today.
I think, at the same time, because of the current administration and the rise of neo-Nazi groups in our streets, and a variety of other things, that there’s more and more white people who are upset, confused, angry, frustrated, wanting to do something. And so I really wanted to provide a toolbox for white people. Ways to get involved, stories, history, guidelines, activities, questions, lots of different resources, so that people, white people in particular, can break the silence in white communities and step up as allies to people of color. Not only working for racial justice, but for economic and gender justice as well.
Jeff Schechtman: Is it something that white people can truly understand? Can they truly grasp the depths of it, the history of it, the roots as you talked about at the outset?
Paul Kivel: I don’t know about truly understand, because we don’t experience it. We can certainly get to a point where we have enough knowledge and information and insight and compassion to be able to identify how racism is working around us in our schools and neighborhoods, and workplaces, and to get involved in doing something about it. I think part of the problem is, as white people, we often want it to be perfect. We want to have the answer, we don’t want to make mistakes, we don’t want to be wrong, we don’t want to hurt anybody. All good intentions, but they get in the way of us actually doing anything. I had to come to grips with that in writing the book. It’s a book I wanted to be out there to be able to give to people, but I thought that, “Well, I wouldn’t do it perfectly.” I would make mistakes, people would be angry at me, I didn’t know enough. I had all kinds of reasons why it wasn’t for me to write it.
I was waiting around for somebody else to write it, who would do it better. Then I realized those are many of the reasons that we give as white people for not getting involved. We have to break through that with a real commitment to using our compassion and our courage to step in and get involved and make a difference.
Jeff Schechtman: How much more difficult is it now, given the tenor that comes from Washington? The almost institutionalization of racism on a certain level?
Paul Kivel: It’s more difficult in the sense that, it gives permission for people to be more racially explicit and public. At the same time, it is so explicit and public and in our face that, it’s easier to talk about because so many white people are upset about what’s going on in one way or another. Because they are part of groups that are targeted by this administration. I find that, actually, it’s a relief for folks to have an opportunity to talk about these issues.
One of the problems of this in the white community is that we’re very reluctant to talk about racism explicitly. We often talk about it with other white people in kind of coded language, but in terms of actually bringing it up in our families with our kids or in our classrooms or in our workplaces, it’s that’s silence that is a complicity with the status quo. Our passivity is a form of collusion. It’s really important that we take that step to bring up racism. To identify it and notice it, to have those conversations with those around us, friends and family, coworkers, things like that. So that we can, in fact, get a public conversation going in a more productive way.
Jeff Schechtman: How does it begin? What are the personal beginning steps that you talk about?
Paul Kivel: It starts with, first, doing a little bit of education ourselves so we’re more aware of what’s going on. It starts with just asking some questions with the people around us. “How are you feeling about what’s happening, what about the statements from the White House and the policies? How do you feel about the attacks on immigrants and the Muslim ban?” It’s about sharing our own feelings and experience.

“I’m really upset about this. How do you feel about it?” or, “What do you think? I’d really like to try to do something. Maybe we can do something together.” It’s about inviting people into the conversation, expecting them to be curious and interested and perhaps misinformed but of goodwill and good intent.

Jeff Schechtman: How should individuals deal with pushback to that? When groups pushback to that very idea with the notion that, “You just don’t understand, you can’t understand,”etc.?
Paul Kivel: I think a couple of things that are important to keep in mind when you get pushback … One, there’s a certain percentage of the population, of white folks in this country, who are just staunchly racist and are not going to be moved by a conversation. It’s not very useful to spend a lot of time trying to convince them or to get into arguments and fights about that. There are, at the same time, millions of white people who are concerned and would like things to be different and better. Those are the folks we need to engage. It’s important that we sort out who is it useful for us to be having these conversations with? That may not be everybody around us.
The other thing is that, when there are racist comments or racist practices in our workplace or in our public institutions, then we need to step up and not have a conversation so much as interrupt that. Is to say, “Wait a second. This is not fair. This is not just. What you said is hurtful, etc.,” and to really challenge the status quo, the collusion that so often as white people we participate in. Often we’ll find that other white people are sitting around waiting for somebody to say something and are uncomfortable, but aren’t willing to take that initial step. Our behavior really role models for other white people what it’s like to step up and stand for equity and justice.
It’s a role model for the young people in our lives, but it’s also a role model for the other adults. It gives them a sense of, “Oh, yeah, I could do that,” or, “Yeah. I could say that or be part of that.”
Jeff Schechtman: Is there a unique role for educational institutions in all this?
Paul Kivel: Absolutely. Educational institutions have a key role. By educational institutions, I think about that pretty widely. Our families are educational institutions, and our religious organizations are also educational institutions for our young people. Part of the way that racism is perpetrated and perpetuated is through the training of each new generation of young white people to believe that this is the way it is. That, there’s a national racial hierarchy, that white people are superior and we’ve done everything of importance in the world, and to know very little about people of color and their contributions to our society.
We need to be looking at the curricula. We need to be looking at the hiring of teachers, we need to be looking at more subtle things, like who gets promoted into AP classes, and who gets disciplined more harshly. All of these are areas that have racial impact and have racial facets to them. I think that we have to realize that this is a long- term struggle that we need to be working now. There’s no time to wait but that we need to bring more and more people into this struggle. I think what we need to be working for is to make it so that, that’s unnecessary.
Jeff Schechtman: Paul Kivel. His book is “Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work For Racial Justice.” Paul, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Paul Kivel: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do, by going to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from sign (sarah-ji / Flickr – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) and vigil (Rick Stillings / Flickr – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

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