The Rise of Oops Racism
Since my early childhood, I’ve been passionate about the issue of racism. Having grown up in many different countries, I’ve encountered it in all it’s forms. In my anger and frustration, I’ve often tried to understand it better and make sense of it, so that perhaps one day, I can help to defeat it.
Recent events have been provoking difficult conversations about racism around the world. I am not optimistic that they will result in any lasting solutions, but they may represent one more painful and arduous step toward justice. I am a black man, and therefore can speak with authority on the way racism affects people like me.
Over time, the ways in which racism is expressed have evolved. It remains the same evil beast, with the same bloody appetite and motives. However, it has learned to communicate over time in different ways to continue to be socially acceptable.
Originally, there was Flagrant Racism. This is the violent and rapacious form that was most common during the time of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. There were few social or moral constraints to its full and deadly expression. Perhaps to protect Christian sensibilities, black people were portrayed as heathen and sub-human, whose divinely apportioned lot in life was to be enslaved.
Rationalised Racism emerged when moral challenges were raised by some groups, so Flagrant Racism needed to invent more elaborate myths to further stereotype and dehumanise black people to justify their continued rape, murder, torture and exploitation. Junk social and scientific theories were invented to explain the superiority of the ‘white race’.
As civil rights movements developed, and black people began to make coherent and organised demands for equality, racism began to be communicated around the world in more understated and hidden forms. This is the stage of Disguised Racism, where policies, laws and institutions began to play a much bigger role in oppressing black people than racist individuals and groups.
Finally, we have entered the stage of Denied Racism, where the policies, laws and institutions have worked so quietly and effectively to oppress black people that the very existence of racism is now often not recognised. It is comfortable to deny racism because the policies, laws and institutions function to oppress black people with minimal need for personal intervention by racist people. As a bonus, the outcome of the generational application of these systems leads to black people being consistently and uniformly disadvantaged, thereby appearing to prove the myths of racial inferiority. Denied Racism is characteristic of a state of systemic oppression.
It is worth noting that all of these forms of racist expression co-exist in varying degrees. For example, there have always been disguised racists, and today there are still many examples of flagrant and violent racists. Likewise, right from the times of slavery and Jim Crow in the United States, laws were created to implement systemic oppression; only in those days, few people bothered to deny their existence and impact.
As debates hold now, I notice that racism is often depicted as a vice that arises from an individual’s character defect, or a lack of education, or plain stubbornness and stupidity. Therefore, the solutions that are proffered tend to focus on how everyone should become a better ‘non-racist’ person by being more empathetic and considerate. I believe this misses the point. Racism is not about niceness or education. It is the outcome of selfish interests to deliberately confer economic, political and social advantage on one group at the expense of another. That is how it has been since the time of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and that is how it is today. Therefore, the dismantling of racism will only occur when the specific policies, laws and institutions that sustain it are dismantled.
Sociologists recognise 2 types of racism: Individual and Systemic.
According to the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre, “Individual Racism refers to an individual’s racist assumptions, beliefs or behaviours and is ‘a form of racial discrimination that stems from conscious and unconscious, personal prejudice’ (Henry & Tator, 2006, p. 329). Individual Racism is connected to/learned from broader socio-economic histories and processes and is supported and reinforced by systemic racism.”
Systemic Racism includes policies, laws and practices that permeate social institutions. It is ‘racism on auto-pilot’ and does not require any intent by an individual to work. This is further broken down into Institutional Racism and Structural Racism.
Institutional racism refers to discrimination by people who carry out the mandate or instructions of prejudiced people or a prejudiced society. Certain law-enforcement and criminal justice systems come to mind here.
Structural Racism refers to “inequalities rooted in the system-wide operation of a society that excludes substantial numbers of members of particular groups from significant participation in major social institutions. (Henry & Tator, 2006, p. 352).” This can refer to voting, quality of schooling, employment and promotion opportunities, access to favourable housing and many more things.
In this era of sound bites and social media, I have identified another type of racism. It knowingly expresses outrageously racist things, later agrees that they were indeed racist, and then issues half-hearted apologies ‘if you were offended’. I like to call it ‘Oops Racism’. It is so common that I can cite numerous examples that occurred in the space of just a few weeks. Tellingly, there is almost never any prolonged backlash or consequence for Oops racists.
A recent and common example is the case of the so-called Central Park Karen. During an argument in New York’s Central Park with black birdwatcher Christian Cooper, Amy Cooper (unrelated) promised him that she would call the police and lie that he was threatening her. She went ahead and did so, incorporating Oscar-worthy acting in her hysterical plea to 911. Fortunately, everything was recorded, and the tables turned against her when the truth was revealed. Later, she swore that she never meant him any harm and didn’t expect the police to hurt him in any way. This is an example of Oops Racism. Fortunately, in this case, it did not proceed to its intended natural conclusion, the injury or killing by police of the innocent Christian Cooper.
Another recent example is the case of the President of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell. In resisting government instructions to wear masks and implement social distancing to prevent Covid 19, he tweeted a picture of a mask emblazoned with the governor of Virginia in blackface, next to a man wearing Ku Klux Klan robes. In the face of the resulting outrage mainly from the black members of faculty and black students, he reluctantly apologised and claimed he had been misunderstood and meant no harm.
One of the best examples of Oops racism comes from Fox News. In the face of ongoing protests demanding justice for the slow murder on video of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police, Fox News showed a bar chart graphic during a live broadcast that showed very positive stock market responses 1 week respectively after the assassination of Martin Luther King, the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers who almost beat Rodney King to death, the murder of Michael Brown by Ferguson police and the murder on video of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Of course, they apologised when challenged. To date, nobody has asked who is busy drawing favourable correlations between the performance of the stock market and the murder of black people, and why. Oops…
In my interpretation, this all serves to support my earlier hypothesis. Racism will never go away by the will of people to become better personally; it will simply continue to change form to become more socially acceptable in its expression while maintaining the advantage of the people it was created to serve. The only way to reduce racism is to destroy the policies, laws and practices that allow it to operate on auto-pilot in a society. These policies, laws and practices are embedded in housing policies, the criminal justice system, access to education, access to quality housing voter suppression and numerous other areas.
I support and commend the efforts of people to better understand their own hidden prejudices, and their attempts to deal with them. I wish them all the best in their quest to receive the epiphany that all human beings are deserving of human rights, and that it is not really a topic to be debated. However, I strongly suggest that advocates of equality and justice not allow themselves to be distracted from the most important core issues: the identification and reversal of the laws and policies that sustain racism. The fact that the neighbour is suddenly repentant and wants to do lunch doesn’t in any way change the clear, present and persistent danger to black lives posed by a system that was designed to oppress them.