The following is an essay I wrote about a year ago for my upper-division writing class at San Jose State University, hence the APA format and restrained nature. The assignment was to focus on a word used by someone else and present an argument on why that person was using the word incorrectly. Naturally, I wrote about how the word "racism" was being used incorrectly by those Avenue Q assholes in that one shitty song. Enjoy!
The Meaning of Racism
San Jose State University
Racism is a system of oppression that continues to privilege White people by torturing People of Color, and the only way to end racism is to vehemently oppose it. Apparently, not everyone thinks so. Avenue Q, a musical comedy on Broadway, has created a song that greatly makes light of racism (as cited in Songlyrics, 2013). Titled “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” the song portrays the problem of racism in a very inaccurate manner and, therefore, connotes an incorrect definition for the word racism. Let us begin by establishing the true definition of racism. Then, we can examine the historical and academic usage of the term. Afterwards, we need to address the notion of White privilege. Finally, all of these revelations will allow us to understand the reality of racism and undo the apathy.
Before we can comprehend the true definition of racism, we need to comprehend the false definition. With lines such as “Ethnic jokes might be uncouth / But you laugh because they’re based on truth / Don’t take them as personal attacks / Everyone enjoys them, so relax” (lines 49-52) and “Hey guys, what are you laughing about? / Racism / Cool” (94-96), Avenue Q obviously does not see racism as a serious issue. The author defines racism as innocent, inconsequential prejudice and mockery. Furthermore, the song implies three additional features: Avenue Q insists that People of Color are equally culpable for racism; White people are equally harmed by racism; and the only way to end racism is for “P.C.” (line 128) People of Color to stop whining. The author’s definition of racism is more than just an oversimplification; it is, for whatever reason, a complete misrepresentation of life in a White supremacist society.
Indeed, it is insulting to dismiss racism as a trivial concern and foolish to equate racism with mere prejudice. There is nothing trivial about Black and Latino students being far more likely than Whites to attend schools of concentrated poverty (Orfield, Kucsera, & Siegel-Hawley, 2012). There is nothing trivial about labor market discrimination restricting employment opportunity for People of Color (Bertrand & Mullainathan, 2004; Pager, Western, & Sugie, 2009). There is nothing trivial about college-educated Blacks being nearly twice as likely as comparable Whites to be out of work; college-educated Latinos being about 50 percent more likely than comparable Whites to be out of work; and college-educated Asians being about 40 percent more likely than comparable Whites to be out of work (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012). There is nothing trivial about police officers linking Black faces to criminality (Eberhardt, Goff, Purdie, & Davies, 2004). There is nothing trivial about a Black youth being six times more likely to be incarcerated for a crime than a White youth even though the crime details and prior record are no different (National Council on Crime and Delinquency, 2007). Racism is not innocent and inconsequential; it is devastating and torturous. Racism is not just prejudice and mockery; it is a system of oppression. Racism is not a two-way street; it privileges Whites at the expense of People of Color. Racism will not end with complacency and mockery; it will only end with fervent resistance. Racism is a system of oppression that continues to privilege White people by torturing People of Color, and the only way to end racism is to vehemently oppose it. Now that we have established the true definition of racism, we can further support the definition with its historical usage.
The historical usage of the term racism has always alluded to the urgency of racial inequity. Take for example Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Written in 1963, this document contains insights that are still relevant today. Dr. King wrote it as a rebuttal to a statement from eight White Alabama ministers that expressed their concern for Dr. King’s direct action demonstrations, a statement that “fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations” (as cited in Hornsby, 1986, p. 39). Besides stating his disappointment with the White moderate’s lethargy, Dr. King directly points out the existence of a White power structure in American society that has produced “the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood” (as cited in Hornsby, 1986, p. 39). In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King used the term racism correctly. When Dr. King spoke of racism, he did not see it as innocent or inconsequential. When Dr. King spoke of racism, he spoke of apartheid; he spoke of separate and absolutely unequal segregation. He spoke of White supremacy. He spoke of being “harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, never quite knowing what to expect next […] plagued with inner fears and outer resentments […] forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’” (as cited in Hornsby, 1986, p. 40). Along with the historical usage, the academic usage of the term also puts Avenue Q to shame.
The academic usage of racism easily matches the correct definition. There is a bevy of articles that support this, but how about we focus on one peer reviewed article by Kenneth T. Ponds (2013) called “The Trauma of Racism: America’s Original Sin.” The title alone conveys the real meaning of racism: It is one of trauma and sin. In no uncertain terms, Ponds discusses the direness and inequity of racism. Racism is:
power plus prejudice […] the superiority of one group over another […] broader societal systems support[ing] the notion that whiteness represents superiority and non-whiteness signifies inferiority. Systemic racism disadvantages people of color and operates to the advantage of whites, whether or not they are aware of these privileges or even want them […] Racism maintains domination, power, and control. It also provides the rationale and justification for debasing, degrading, and doing violence to people of color. (Ponds, 2013, p. 23)
Now that we have established that the correct definition of racism is used in the academic field, we can address White privilege.
White privilege consists of all those unearned benefits that come at the expense of People of Color’s disadvantage. Already presented in a previous section, all of the evidence concerning racism’s impact on People of Color (inequality of educational opportunity, employment discrimination, unemployment, and persecution by the justice system) can be seen from another perspective: its impact on Whites. If America’s education system forces Youths of Color to go to worse schools, then it also allows White youths to go to better schools. If American employers are biased against People of Color, then they are also biased in favor of Whites. If America’s justice system persecutes People of Color, then it also gives White people too much leeway. If society puts someone down, then it also props someone up. If America forces some people to be underprivileged, then it also allows others to be overprivileged. Now, I know that overprivileged is not in the dictionary. I know that Microsoft Word is going to put a squiggly red line underneath it, but I do not care. It is a word that needs to exist. If people can understand the concept of White privilege and the other preceding revelations, we can finally begin to undo the apathy.
Apathy is nothing new. In 1963, about two-thirds of White Americans believed that Blacks had equal opportunity with regards to employment, housing and education (Gallup, 2001). In 1962, 94 percent of White Americans told Gallup they believed that Black children had just as good a chance to get a good education as White children (Institute of Government & Public Affairs, 2011). “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was written in 1963. Let that sink in for a moment. White denial has been around for quite some time. The vast majority of Whites were apathetic about racism during the Civil Rights era and, frankly, they are still apathetic about it today. Do not follow in their footsteps. If people could just accept the truth and understand the correct definition of racism, we can break the long-standing tradition of ignorance, complacency, and apathy.
Racism is not innocent; it is evil. Racism is not inconsequential; it is traumatic. Racism is not an even battleground; it is inequity. Racism will not end with jokes; it will only end with tension. The true definition of racism, supported by its historical and academic usage, is the foundation required to understand the notion of White privilege and the reality of racism. Knowing this reality will allow you to undo the apathy. The importance of such endeavors for People of Color is obvious. As for White people, I have a quotation for you from Dr. King: “There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience” (as cited in Hornsby, 1986, p. 40).
Bertrand, M., & Mullainathan, S. (2004). Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination. American Economic Review, 94(4), 991-1013. Retrieved from http://libaccess.sjlibrary.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ofm&AN=513173282&site=ehost-live
Eberhardt, J. L., Goff, P., Purdie, V. J., & Davies, P. G. (2004). Seeing Black: Race, Crime, and Visual Processing. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 87(6), 876-893. doi:10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.116
Gallup. (2001). Black-White Relations in the United States 2001 Update. Gallup Poll Social Audit. Retrieved from http://iws2.collin.edu/lstern/GALLUP-RACE-AUDIT.pdf
Hornsby, A., Jr. (1986). Martin Luther King, Jr. "Letter From a Birmingham Jail". The Journal of Negro History , Vol. 71, No. 1/4 (Winter - Autumn, 1986), pp. 38-44. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2717650
Institute of Government & Public Affairs. (2011). Racial Attitudes in America: Trends and Interpretation 2011 Update. University of Illinois. Retrieved from http://igpa.uillinois.edu/system/files/Trends%20in%20Racial%20Attitudes_3-4B-Sup.pdf
National Council on Crime and Delinquency. (2007). And Justice for Some: Differential treatment of Youth of Color in the Justice System. Author. Retrieved from http://www.nccdglobal.org/sites/default/files/publication_pdf/justice-for-some.pdf
Orfield, G., Kucsera, J., & Siegel-Hawley, G. (2012). E Pluribus…Separation. The Civil Rights Project. UCLA. Retrieved from http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/mlk-national/e-pluribus...separation-deepening-double-segregation-for-more-students/orfield_epluribus_revised_omplete_2012.pdf
Pager, D., Western, B., & Sugie, N. (2009). Sequencing Disadvantage: Barriers to Employment Facing Young Black and White Men with Criminal Records. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science , Vol. 623, Race, Crime, and Justice: Contexts and Complexities (May, 2009), pp. 195-213. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40375896
Ponds, K. T. (2013). The Trauma of Racism: America's Original Sin. Reclaiming Children & Youth, 22(2), 22-24. Retrieved from http://libaccess.sjlibrary.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=89922670&site=ehost-live
Songlyrics. (2013). Avenue Q – Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist. Retrieved from http://www.songlyrics.com/avenue-q/everyone-s-a-little-bit-racist-lyrics/
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2012). Labor Force Characteristics by Race and Ethnicity, 2011. U.S. Department of Labor. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsrace2011.pdf