Last term, in response to injustices against the black community, most famously the hate crimes in Louisiana and questionable conviction of the Jena 6, a coalition of nearly a dozen clubs held a discussion that also addressed racism on our own campus. Despite a strong PR campaign and the collective power of nearly all of the Intercultural and Human Rights clubs, only a handful of people showed up to talk about the urgent problem of nationwide violence and injustice against people of color.
But last Thursday, the Gizmo was packed with students of all colors talking about racism because Merritt Rohlfing’s sports column was published here, at Knox. Its message was blatantly racist and publicly distributed. But what about racism that is more subtle? That occurs behind closed doors? Or racism outside of the Knox bubble? We’ve given ourselves a pat on the back for engaging in dialog and debate over the important issue of race relations on campus. But does the conversation end here?
I had to skip out of the discussion early to attend a class screening of Conspiracy: Trial of the Chicago 8, a verbatim reenactment of the trial of several activists in 1968. Bobby Seale, a Black Panther and the only black defendant in the case, was tried unconstitutionally: his lawyer was not present, and he was denied the right to defend himself. Seale repeatedly interrupted the court to demand a fair trial. These disruptions were tolerated until Seale got personal with Judge Hoffman: “If you try to suppress my constitutional right to speak out then I can only see you as a bigot, a racist, and a fascist!” he cried. He criticized the court for displaying portraits of slave owners Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, and Judge Hoffman angrily defended himself by saying that he was a “friend to the black people” and did not have “anything to do with” slavery. After which, he ordered that Seale be gagged, bound, and thrown in jail.
The film was a well-timed reminder that racism isn’t just about interpersonal conflict between members of different races. It is about the oppression of racial minorities by white-controlled institutions.
More specifically, Judge Hoffman’s behavior represents the strange paradox in many white responses to racism. We absolve ourselves of personal responsibility by either pointing the finger at institutions we supposedly have nothing to do with, or by conceptualizing racism as a personal defect that, luckily, afflicts only an ignorant few.
The reality is that racism, like all forms of oppression, is both personal and political. White supremacy is ingrained and perpetuated by most American institutions: education, law, country clubs, and the so-called “justice” system to name a few. As whites we can participate in, perpetuate, and benefit from these institutions, all the while claiming that we aren’t racists. Sure, Judge Hoffman never owned a slave, but he had the power to order a black man chained, gagged, and locked up.
Perhaps Thursday’s discussion had a lasting impact on some, but unfortunately the vast majority of whites can and will coast in and out of the racist institutions of this society without putting up much of a fight. Like Judge Hoffman, most of us tend to ignore racism in our society until and unless we are personally called out. When we are, we’re so defensive about protecting our image as non-racists that we avoid efforts to honestly examine ourselves. Hoffman’s persistent attempts to prove that he was not racist finally prompted the defense attorney to exclaim “for god’s sake, we are talking about a solution to a human problem, not whether you feel good or bad!”
It’s not enough to wait around for a racist incident to incite a confrontation. Forums like the community conversation are vital for spreading awareness about racism and building solidarity among students of different races. But these conversations can be packaged into short, feel-good guilt relief sessions for whites. It’s all too easy for whites to respond much as Judge Hoffman did in 1968 — by renouncing personal responsibility and assuming that we have no role in racist institutions. Then, when Rohlfing‘s column blows over we can all go back to coasting.
If you are white, not being racist isn’t enough. You can easily be a “friend” to people of color while simultaneously supporting and benefiting from racist institutions. We must actively work against racist colonization of our minds and challenge the larger institutions that oppress people of color. We must address racism that is subtle and overt, local and global. White supremacy is the status quo, and the status quo tends to replicate itself. If you’re not swimming against the current, then you will be swept away by it.