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By Joe Block 

Around the Block


June 13, 2019

We need to talk about racism

Last week I authored an article about a former officer from the Sauk Prairie police department. Given the content, I knew the article would garner attention from the public, and I expected some to be critical of the Star News for publishing it. This indeed came to pass. I welcome readers communicating with me, and I do read those letters and think about them. I hope those communications are respectful, and I am happy to say they have been. Except for one.

Last Thursday, the day the newspaper was delivered to mailboxes, I received a phone call. The number was listed as unavailable. I usually let unknown numbers go to voicemail. For some reason I picked up this phone call. The caller was upset about the article, but respectful. They listed the issues many have pointed out, and I listened. It’s important for me to listen. I am the public face of the Star News, as well as the author of that specific piece. I acknowledged their concerns, made a few brief explanations, and the phone call was coming to an end. They finished the call with the following:

“Obviously you hate the police, so you must be black.”

I’m not a person of color, so this wasn’t a personal attack against me. This gave me a certain privileged distance from the racial slur. But it was a racial slur nonetheless, and an affront to minorities everywhere.

This was an act of explicit racism. We know, and hear, much about explicit racism today, not that it ever was something hidden from view. The emergence (again) of white supremacists, their ideologically driven hate speech, and their violence against peaceful protests, is endlessly covered by the media. This attention, with the unfortunate side effect of propagating their hate, is important nonetheless. We need to be reminded that this hate exists, because it is legion.

Explicit racism has, compared to the past, lessened (although this is easy for me to say as a white man). Legal segregation has all but been abolished in law. When public on a national stage display their explicit racism, condemnation is quick, and there are (usually) consequences. We even hear about hyperlocal instances—state legislators, business owners, even the editors of newspapers—being publicly racist. To a certain degree for the public, explicit racism has become ‘uncouth.’

Explicit racism is coiled deep in the heart of an individual. It is a bias that pervades the individual and the entirety of their worldview. They see not just race, but dehumanizing hate. It is not that people of color are just ‘less than,’ it is that they are not human beings. Not just ‘not equal,’ but ‘not me.’ It is not a lack of compassion, but a fundamental failure to extend agency, intelligence, even existence, to a person of color. It is erasure.

Part of American society is institutionalized racism. For hundreds of years our laws codified it. For too long social mores dictated and even encouraged it. Our entire nation’s unheralded economic growth and prosperity was achieved on the backs of people of color and rationalized by racism. Racism was enshrined in our Constitution.

This continues to this day, although many are loath to acknowledge it. Peer reviewed studies repeatedly and conclusively show that people with ‘black’ names are denied job interviews versus people with ‘white’ names. A Primetime special in 1991, filmed in St. Louis, had a person of color and a white man travel through the city seeking employment, lodging, and other common daily tasks, while hidden cameras rolled. Repeatedly, the person of color was denied services the same white man was granted. Glaringly, the white man was treated far better in social situations as well. This reality was shown to the public 28 years ago. But still people deny that racism exists. Or at least, “It doesn’t happen here.”

I do not, and cannot, claim to be the ‘white savior’ archetype so often proudly pushed in modern narratives. I had an upper middle class upbringing in a nearly all white suburb. My large grade school had one person of color; my high school a few. Even my liberal arts college of 800 had no more than a handful of people of color. By no means was I explicitly racist. But I had to examine myself, search deep inside and see what was coiled inside me. What biases did I have? One of my most striking realizations was when a classmate asked to use my microwave in my dorm room. I knew him through other people, and nearly the first things everyone said about him was that he was extraordinarily kind. He was a large person of color and I realized that when he entered my room, I was initially apprehensive. Why? Where did that come from?

This was implicit racism. It was not a conscious, deliberate, line of reasoning. It was the product of years of indoctrination—never explicit—by our society, through television, movies, news broadcasts—any number of avenues. I could accurately say “I am not racist,” and that was factually true. But something deep inside me, hidden away, revealed itself.

I was a philosophy student, studying race theory, feminism, social justice, and yet I still found this inside me. I had been studying on the surface but never going deep. I went deep. I found things that I didn’t like.

“But I’m not like that,” you may be saying, “I would never make a comment like that. I don’t feel apprehensive around people of color.” I’m sure you’re right. I know the people of this community and except for the phone call, have never encountered a whiff of racism.

But implicit racism is insidious. It lies hidden. It may never reveal itself, and it may never affect how someone acts or thinks. But it is part and parcel of our social fabric. Hundreds of years of collective memory and deeply intertwined social mechanisms do not evaporate overnight. They do not even go away in a generation or two. They pervade.

It’s possible that the person who made the phone call is not explicitly racist. Perhaps they would never say such a thing. It just ‘came out’ in a fit of passion. But it’s still there. And they need to think about that. And we need to think about that.


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