What is racism?

“Much of the racial stupidity we encounter in everyday life derives from the fact that people think of racism as individual prejudice rather than a broader system and structure of power”

Dr. Crystal Fleming 1

Most of us white people don’t understand what racism is. We think of it more in terms of racists than of racism. We think of intensely bigoted individuals, often ignorant and filled with hate. We think of racist acts as individual acts that range from insults to hate crimes.

We seldom think of patterns. We seldom think of institutions or systems. We only consider interpersonal conflict. Calling someone the n-word? That’s racism. A system that results in almost twice as many white families owning their homes as Black or Hispanic families? That’s, well, I dunno what that is. Blacks are lazy I guess. Mexicans are too, even though they are stealing all our jobs. Whatever it is, how can it be racism if no-one was called the n-word?

Racism is a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequity.

Ibram X. Kendi 2

We white folks define racism in ways that exclude us individually from being racists. We argue with People of Color when they disagree. “That wasn’t racism!” we exclaim when a Black person calls out racism. “You’re too sensitive. You see racism in everything!”

“It’s important to understand that individual biases and negative stereotypes, (which we all have) are not the same as systemic racism. Though everyone internalizes stereotypes about social groups, we do not all occupy the same position in the social order.”

Dr. Crystal Fleming 3
see no evil


In the United States, 71% of white families owned their homes in 2014 compared to 45% of Latinx families and 41% of Black families. That racial inequity is not the result of a series of individual incidents of bigotry that by just pure coincidence happens to work against Black and Hispanic families. No. There’s a series of things at work there. There’s the fact that Black and Hispanic workers are paid a fraction of what a white worker gets for the same job, resulting in less money. There’s the fact that a white man is much more likely to get a mortgage than a Black or Hispanic man who has the same credit, same job, same cash-on-hand for a downpayment. There’s the fact that if a Black or Hispanic person does get a loan, it will almost certainly be at a much higher interest rate. When you add all of this and more together, it stops being a series of isolated, unrelated incidents of personal bigotry by individual white bosses, bankers, real-estate agents working in tandem by pure coincidence. Instead, these things become interwoven, a pattern, a system, and what you are looking at is systemic racism.

“Racism, specifically, is the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.”

Ruth Wilson Gilmore 4

Ruth Wilson Gilmore is a professor at CUNY and a prison abolitionist and prison scholar.5 There’s a lot to unpack in her very simple definition. The first thing is that racism is state sanctioned or above the law. It is the action of the state, or a group in power, and not the action of an individual. The second is that it is the exploitation/oppression of a group. This is not the same as bad language directed at an individual. Finally, the end result is that the group becomes vulnerable to premature death.

Think about that for a moment. The white supremacy that we white people benefit from? That white supremacy results in entire groups of people – Black people, Hispanics, etc. being vulnerable to premature death.

Never has this been clearer than now, with Covid-19.

Coronavirus: systemic racism laid bare

“Black and Latino people have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus in a widespread manner that spans the country, throughout hundreds of counties in urban, suburban and rural areas, and across all age groups.”

NYTimes 6

When the pandemic hit, Black and Latino workers were laid off at double the rate of white workers. 7 When the economy started to reopen, white workers were the ones hired back. Last hired, first fired. This is a repeat of racist labor practices that devastated Black workers duing the Great Depression. 8 Essential workers, mostly in grocery stores, meat packing plants, migrant farm workers, mostly low wage earners, were forced to work. Despite being categorized as essential, not even the most basic health and safety measures were implemented to protect them and/or combat the spread of coronavirus. Nor did many receive hazard pay.. 9

Forced to work in unsafe, unprotected environments, Black and Hispanic workers are three to four times more likely to become infected with covid-19 than white workers, and, once infected, two to three times as likely to die. This second gruesome statistic is not because white people are somehow more biologically capable of coping with infection but because Black and Hispanic people receive substandard health care, if they receive healthcare at all, and, due to some combination of stress (due to racism, financial worries, or overwork), poverty, environmental racism, substandard medical care, etc., are more likely to have underlying conditions.

That is Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of systemic racism laid bare. And nobody had to say the n-word. Nobody even needed to be impolite.

Racism is a system. You can have racism without racists. 10

And what did many white people do in response? Many took up arms to protest being forced to wear masks in public. Some spat at essential workers. Others destroyed things in stores. Others were a little more explicitly racist, grabbing their Confederate flags and AR-15s and heading down to Huntington Beach (surf city USA!) or the Michigan State Capitol to threaten folks. And the Attorney General of the United States? He said that white people being told to wear masks was a violation of civil liberties as bad as slavery. 11

“You know, putting a national lockdown, stay-at-home orders, is like house arrest. It’s — you know, other than slavery, which was a different kind of restraint, this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history,”

Attorney General Bill Barr 12
See no evil


When we hear about white supremacy, we imagine a bunch of Klansmen burning crosses. We imagine neo-nazis and the Aryan Nations. It’s extreme, we think, it’s ugly, it’s not us. But white supremacy is not something that belongs solely to far right radicals or overt racists.

White supremacy is the social, political and economic dominance of people socially defined as white. If you are a white person who got an apartment that an equally qualified Black person was turned down for, you benefited from white supremacy. If you as a white man get paid more for the same job than a Hispanic man with the same qualifications, you are benefiting from white supremacy. This is true whether you know it or not.

America was founded as a white supremacy.

The Naturalization Act of 1790 was explicitly white supremacist. Signed into law by President George Washington almost immediately after the Constitution was ratified, the Naturalization Act of 1790 granted naturalized citizenship to the brand new country only to “free white person[s] … of good character”, excluding women, Black slaves, free Black men, indentured servants, Asians… “It was literally a government hand-out for whites only13

Even Native Americans, who had lived in what had just become the United States for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, were denied citizenship. Native Americans were not granted US citizenship until 1924.

Misconceptions, Fallacies, & Stuff That’s Just Plain Wrong


There is no such thing as reverse racism.

Racism is not the same as individual biases. In order for there to be racism, some group needs to be oppressed. Racism can only be done by a dominant group. Black and Hispanic people are not higher than whites on the American racial hierarchy (or on any racial hierarchy, since racial hierarchies were defined by whites). It is impossible for Black people or Hispanics to oppress white people. There is no such thing as reverse racism.

If you talk about reverse racism because some Black person was rude to you, you are doing something called racial gaslighting. Maybe that person was a jerk. Maybe you are oversensitive. Whatever happened, you were not oppressed.


Yes he is. Whether or not you voted for him, whether or not you despise him, he is your president. You don’t get a pass. And anyhow, racism and white supremacy have been around a lot longer than Donald Trump has been President. The United States has been a white supremacy at least since the Immigration Act of 1790. If you are reading this after November 2020 and Trump has somehow miraculously been voted out of office and has actually left, racism will still be going strong. Trust me on this.


This one is a bit infuriating. Racism is not something limited to ignorant uneducated conservatives in the Deep South. Systemic racism is something that pervades liberal and conservative politics. Liberals are just as complicit as conservatives in maintaining white supremacy.

So you’re a liberal. Have you ever described a Black or Hispanic neighborhood as “rough”? Are you one of those many liberals who on occasion, when describing a neighborhood like, say, Altadena, says something along the lines of “too many crackheads” when what you really mean is you are uncomfortable with the higher-than-average-for-a-neighborhood-you-might-otherwsie-consider-buying-a-house-in ratio of Black people to white people? If you can answer yes to any of these questions, you have said something that’s racist.

But here’s the thing: for most of us, racism is something we do, not something we are. If you are white, you have said some cringeworthy racial stuff, even if you didn’t intend it. Which brings us to the next point:

But I had the best of intentions!

So what? Your intentions might matter to you, and maybe you worship a God who will let you slide on a lifetime of wrong-doing if you have a deathbed conversion. But the people you have harmed have been harmed no matter how pure your intentions were at the time, or on your deathbed.

There was a nice white Christian lady named Renee Bach who left Virginia for Uganda. There, she discovered that a bunch of kids who were desperately malnourished and in need of care. Renee Bach was a 20-year-old high school graduate with no medical training but a heart pure and filled with the love of Jesus, so she opened a medical clinic. Over the next five year, she killed 105 kids. 14

White Americans seem to place an awful lot of value on intention. Your intention doesn’t mean shit. All that matters is the effect. If a man with bad intentions went to Uganda and killed five of kids, the effect would have been less than a twentieth of the harm done by the well-intentioned Renee Bach.

It’s interesting, too, whose intentions matter. Are the intentions of Central American migrants honored when they are trying to flee oppression in their native lands? No, not the way the intentions of a young white American Christian lady’s intentions are honored, even if she killed over a hundred innocent children.

Tanya McDowell, a Black woman temporarily living out of her car, was sentenced to five years in prison for using a fake address to enroll her son in a better school district. Felicity Huffman served eleven days of a fourteen day sentence for paying $15,000 to a man to cheat on her daughters SAT exams so that her daughter could get into a better university. Their intentions were the same. 15


That’s nice. But the rest of the world does. How do you explain the fact that twice as many white families own their homes than Black or Hispanic families? How do you explain the fact that the next worth of the average white family in the United States in 2016 was $171,000 while the net worth of the average Black family was one tenth that, at $17,000? Do you think this country is a meritocracy? Have you ever described a Black or Brown neighborhood euphemistically as a “rough” neighborhood? What did you really mean by that? And what gave you that impression?

The most threatening racist movement is not the alt.right’s unlikely drive for a White ethnostate but the regular American’s drive for a “race neutral” one. The construct of race neutrality actually feeds White nationalist victimhood by positing the notion that any policy protecting or advancing non-White Americans toward equity is “reverse discrimination”

Ibram X. Kendi 16

When you say “I don’t see race” you are engaging in something called “colorblind racism”, whether this is your intention (see above) or not. Google it. A good article to read is “Colorblindness is Counterproductive” by Adia Harvey Wingfield 17

The danger of colorblindness is this: if you refuse to acknowledge race, you also refuse to acknowledge racism. And yet racism clearly exists. Without your acknowledgement, there can never be a solution.

But I’m Not Racist!

Many of us white people think of racists as horrible, morally reprehensible people engaged in overt acts of hatred towards people of color. “Racists are mean, nasty people with bad intentions who purposely mistreat and abuse people who aren’t white! I’m not a racist!”

But racism is something you do, not something you are. There are racist ideas, and there are racist policies, and to some extent or another almost all of us white folks hold and express racist ideas, whether or not we are aware of it, and benefit from racist policies, whether or not we ask for it. That does not make us bad or immoral. We are, however, participants in something that is bad and immoral.

Ibram X Kendi has a lot to say about this. In his NY Times Bestseller “How to Be An Antiracist” Kendi distinguishes between the “not a racist” and the “antiracist”.18

Someone who is “not a racist” is essentially sitting civil rights out. “I am not a racist. i have never personally harmed a person of color simply because they are a person of color. I am a passive participant in white supremacy.”

I’m going to use much stronger language than Kendi does: that’s a fucking cop-out. That’s like watching a woman get raped and saying “I’m not raping her.” True, and yet your “I don’t want to get involved passivity” allowed the rape to take place.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Desmond Tutu

According to Kendi, there is no neutral “I am not racist”. You are either a racist because you are supporting racist policy through your actions or inactions, or expressing a racist idea, or you are an anti-racist, supporting antiracist policy through your actions or supporting an antiracist idea. Read that carefully. In the fight between racism and antiracism, inaction makes you a racist. 19

White supremacy is killing people of color. You’re not a bad or immoral person if you unwittingly think or express a racist idea. Morality is the one place where your intentions might matter. But if you knowingly, intentionally take a neutral stance, you are immoral and a racist, even if all you did… was nothing.

“People were being killed, and he did nothing.” That’s gonna look great on your tombstone.

  1. Fleming, Crystal “How to be Less Stupid About Race” Beacon Press, 2018, pg 12.
  2. Kendi, Ibram X. “How to be an Anti Racist” Random House, 2019, pg. 20
  3. ibid, pg 13.
  4. Gilmore, Ruth Wilson “Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California” University of California Press, 2007
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruth_Wilson_Gilmore
  6. NY Times: “The Fullest Look Yet at the Racial Inequity of Coronavirus” July 5, 2020
  7. ibid
  8. “Last Hired, First Fired: How the Great Depression Affected African Americans” April 8, 2018
  9. “Essential workers still lack basic safety protections on the job” Emily Stewart, Vox.com, May 7, 2020
  10. Eduardo Bonilla Silva, “Racism Without Racists” Rowman & Littlefield. 2003, 5th edition 2017
  11. Politico.com Sept 17, 2020
  12. ibid
  13. Fleming, Crystal “How to be Less Stupid About Race” Beacon Press, 2018, pg 31.
  14. “American With No Medical Training Ran Center For Malnourished Ugandan Kids. 105 Died” NPR, August 9, 2019
  15. This Mom Went To Prison For Enrolling Her Son In A School Outside Her District – Ashley Alese Edwards, Refinery29, March 2019
  16. Kendi, Ibram X. “How to be an Anti Racist” Random House, 2019, pg. 20
  17. “Colorblindness is Counterproductive” Adia Harvey Wingfield, The Atlantic, Sept 13, 2015
  18. Kendi, Ibram X. “How to be an Anti Racist” Random House, 2019
  19. ibid, pg. 13

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