Commentary: Why White People Don't See Racism

Explaining the disconnect between Black and white Americans.

Posted: 07/24/2013 12:59 PM EDT
Commentary: Why White People Don't See Racism

Next week I will participate in a racial discrimination hearing against a Manhattan night club that frisked and searched me when I attended on a "Black night" but does not search patrons on mostly white nights.

Last week, I was accused of stealing an iPhone by a white woman in Miami who came up to me and asked if she could search my pockets to find it. It was not a joke or a pickup line.

And just last month, I had to pull out my own iPhone to photograph and report the license plate and medallion number of a taxicab driver in New York's Union Square who refused to pick me up and then drove across the street to pick up a white customer seconds later.

For many African-Americans, I suspect these stories aren't entirely surprising. As President Obama said last week, racism is a daily part of our lives. Like air and water, it's part of the environment in which we live. Yet far too many white Americans still live in denial about its persistence.

That's the conclusion to be drawn not just from anecdotal experience but from a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll out Wednesday that showed a vast disparity between white and Black perceptions on race relations. The poll, conducted after George Zimmerman was acquitted for shooting unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, found that 52 percent of whites think race relations are "good" in America while 58 percent of Blacks describe race relations as "bad."

The new poll numbers follow similar results from a Washington Post-ABC News poll two days earlier. In that poll, 86 percent of Blacks disapproved of the Zimmerman verdict while only 31 percent of whites felt that way. Even more disappointing is that 86 percent of African-Americans say Blacks and other minorities do not get equal treatment under the law, while only 41 percent of whites think that's true.

So what explains the disconnect?

Years ago, I heard a law professor explain what I call the "magnet analogy." Remember those big red and silver horseshoe magnets from high school? Now imagine you had to walk around the world with a huge horseshoe magnet on your neck. Aside from the heavy burden of carrying the extra weight, you'd quickly see the world a lot differently from those without the magnet.

The first thing you'd notice – there's a lot of metal in the world. Keys, coins, cell phones, even appliances would suddenly get a lot more of your attention. Why? Because the magnet attracts them. But those without the magnet would continue to remain oblivious to the metal assault on your body.

That's the experience for African-Americans every day. We're surrounding and inundated by the metal of racism while those who do not carry the magnet of Blackness remain oblivious to our experience. To them, racism is a thing of the past.

The problem is we need to recognize how new and subtle forms of race bias have replaced the old overt acts of racial discrimination. Maya Wiley of the Center for Social Inclusion explains how brain science has identified subconscious racial bias taking place in "nanoseconds" at subliminal levels. "There's something that police officers and college students and George Zimmerman all have in common," she told MSNBC's Melissa Harris Perry recently. "And that is that they're more likely to shoot a black man with a wallet than they are to shoot a white man with a gun." They call it "shooter bias."

Unfortunately, our laws and our public discourse haven't kept up with the changes in racism. Many whites are still stuck in the 1960s image of overt bigotry, of Klansmen burning crosses and segregationist governors blocking schoolhouse doors. They may know a parent or a grandparent who still uses the N-word, but as long as they refrain from using it themselves then they can't possibly be racist, they think.

But Paula Deen aside, modern racism isn't really about the N-word. New code words like Detroit, Chicago, "Stand Your Ground," voter ID, food stamps and welfare now carry the same impact with dog whistle messages too subtle to be reported by many in the media. This seemingly race-neutral language allows the majority to engage in public discourse under the mantle of innocence and thus dismiss the vestiges and effects of hundreds of years of legally sanctioned white supremacy. The only racists in this vision are the people who complain about racism.

That's why the U.S. Supreme Court eviscerated the Voting Rights Act last month and argued it had outlived its utility. And that's why George Zimmerman's defense attorney Mark O'Mara last week told Fox News's Sean Hannity that his client, a known killer with a long arrest record, was just a "meek, mild guy without a racist bone in his body."

If you kill an unarmed Black boy or fan the flames of white resentment on talk radio, you're a "patriot." But if you help the family of the young Black boy who was killed, you're a "race hustler." To be white in America allows you the freedom to remain oblivious to these distinctions.

Yes, this dialogue must be a two-way conversation. But until white Americans examine their own racial privilege and open their eyes to the experience of Black Americans, they'll never notice the magnet we carry every day.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes political commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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