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Language has changed but racism remains

Though we are as divided as we have ever been as a country, the one thing we seemed to be able to agree on is that recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd were heinous, both reminders that the evil of racism still exists in America. We shared this “common ground” for about five minutes before the waves of protests and rioting began, and then the sudden abrupt shift in focus by one group from the murders to the reaction to the murders revealed that we had not, after all, reached some new level of mutual understanding.

The division is rooted in how very differently we see things. One group insists that the race issue is largely behind us, and that it is exacerbated and perpetuated by the other group. They call this “playing the race card.” The first group is more likely to see the murders of these two black men as tragic exceptions and may even be prone to believe that race was not really the issue. I noticed that several people I know in the first group who originally denounced the deaths in strong terms have since posted links questioning the character of Arbery and Floyd, as if any infractions from their past had some bearing on their killings.

This, I think, is the way racism works on a deeper, more insidious level. A cop puts his knee on the neck of a man for nearly nine minutes, a man who is already restrained, begging for his life, and crying out for his mother while other cops and bystanders watch him die. Because the murder is captured on video, people who view it experience the human response of revulsion — we just witnessed one man killing another defenseless one in a slow, excruciating manner. We agree that this is terrible. We should be outraged, and we are. And our consensus ends right there. 

We argue about white privilege a lot. One side is prone to believe it doesn’t exist. This belief feels good, because it presupposes a world that is equally just or equally difficult for everyone. It presupposes that wrong acts will be uniformly acknowledged and punished, regardless of the victim’s ethnicity. It does not deny the existence of racism exactly, but it insists that it is isolated and just as prevalent, if not more so, in other races against white people.

The belief that white privilege is “fake news” is grounded in one group’s life experience, while the belief that it does exist is grounded in one that is profoundly different. As a white male, I’ve been pulled over by law enforcement at least a dozen times in my years of driving, and I’ve never once feared for my life. I’ve never been treated rudely in a grocery store by a cashier and had to wonder whether my skin color played a factor because the cashier may have uttered a slur under his breath. In fact, there is no slur that anyone can utter at me that will wound me except in the most trivial or superficial way.

I’ve never been told the apartment I hoped to rent was no longer available, and then noticed it still vacant two weeks later.  I have never been followed around in a store because someone assumed I might steal something.

I’ve never had any of these experiences, but I know people who have. I’ve also had people say incredibly racist things to me because they assumed I agreed with them since I am white. In many cases, people do not think they’re racist if they have a black friend or coworker that they may be fond of. They make a distinction between the individual and the group.

They’re a little more careful with this construct than they used to be. When I was younger, I often heard, “Well, he’s a good one. You never see him acting his color.” When references to the group were made, I heard the N-word a lot. Spooks. Spades. Jungle bunnies. Welfare queens. Lazy ass coons living off the government. Black people they actually knew usually got a pass. With the faceless masses, it often got ugly fast.

If anyone objected, you might hear something like, “Hey, there’s white niggers, too,” though I never once heard any white person called that. The very idea was ludicrous, even then. But people said it anyway. Some of them may have even believed it.

Nowadays, the language has changed. The term “thugs” has replaced just about all of the previous slurs. People who use it will insist it can apply to any race but pay attention to how and when it is used, and a picture forms. 

We’ve seen two public lynchings in 2020 — both captured on video — of young black men murdered in broad daylight by white men claiming to apply the law. The awful question that must be addressed is this one: without the video, would there be any justice? What would the story be in the imagination of that group that believes we are “past racism,” if the video did not exist? Would there be any story at all? And finally, for every Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, how many victims are there for whom there will be no chance for justice, because there was no video?

This question must finally be addressed. Systemic racism must be identified, understood, ferreted out, and extinguished once and for all. Old stereotypes that influence the way people think — even on a subconscious level — have to be discussed. And people who insist that “all lives matter” must come to understand the irony of using the phrase as a rebuttal to “black lives matter.”

That would be a start.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Haywood County. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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