Every time there is a high profile racist incident in America, we all must huddle together to assure ourselves that at least we are not racists. The operating definition of racism needs an overhaul.
The Avenue Q song told us “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” But practically speaking, we can never get people to agree to identify people as racists in mainstream discourse unless we’re discussing a Klan member or neo-Nazi. Both of these definitions are inadequate. If everyone or (almost) no one is actually a racist, it allows everyone to elide responsibility. Gee, where could all that racism in America be coming from?
Racism is one of the only pure tainted terms we have in this country. This is unfortunate, in a sense, because it makes even people whose views are clearly racist indignantly proclaim that they are not racist, simply because they cannot envision themselves as bad people. Martin Luther King, black friends, etc. Every racist believes he is not a racist, but a realist. And nobody is bad just because they are a realist, right? In this manner we have come to a point when it is nearly impossible to discuss racism honestly, even though doing so is a necessary first step to proceeding past it... one day, we hope.
This is ridiculous. We should have an operating definition of racism that is practical. The requirement that no one be branded a “racist” unless we are able to magically peer into their heart and find inside it a tiny, stomping, white-hooded little devil is absurd. Look around. America is full of racism. America was built by slaves. Our parents were alive during a time of legal racial segregation. America is still racially segregated and racially unequal. That does not happen by accident. If we can easily spot the racism, we can just as easily spot the racists.
There are many, many decades worth of sly, self-justifying ideological tricks that allow white people to claim that their beliefs are not racist even when they are. Anyone who can convince themselves to subscribe to the fiction of “equal opportunity” can then proceed to the conclusion that in our fair country, inequality is just a matter of personal responsibility. (And that responsibility, needless to say, does not fall on them.) For this reason, I find the racial wealth gap to be the most useful statistic with regards to race in America. It does not require any heart-peering. It does not leave room for endless anecdotal tales of those who overcame the odds being trotted out as misleading counterexamples. It is math. And the math is shameful.
The median white household has about thirteen times more wealth than the median black household. Thirteen times more. We do not need to grasp for esoteric explanations for this: This is what happens when you enslave a group of people, profit off their labor for hundreds of years, legally disenfranchise and oppress them for another century or so, and fail to do anything meaningful to rectify the outcome of all of that. This is the bill for America’s history of racism. This is the financial tally of the years of slavery and Jim Crow and lynching and segregation and redlining and myriad forms of extra-legal discrimination. Black poverty is the legacy white racism. It doesn’t matter how many discriminatory laws you change. That does not even the score. Money makes money. Capital increases itself, and ownership of capital leads directly to wealth. If you give one group of people a lot of capital per person and another group of people very little capital per person, that gap will not close by itself. It will persist over time. That’s basic capitalism. You have to do something to close the gap. You have to take active measures to even out the distribution of wealth, or that distribution of wealth will stay utterly unequal. Even better, the group with a lot of wealth can simply invest it to stay ahead. The group with little wealth will have to work, and they will still fall behind.
Closing the racial wealth gap is a moral imperative. It is the most meaningful and straightforward way to measure our racial progress. The persistence of the racial wealth gap is a national disgrace. It is the unfinished business of America. It is a debt that we have failed to pay. For the white American power structure—the affluent portion of our country, the portion that wields the political and economic power—failing to act aggressively to close the racial wealth gap is the moral equivalent of failing to help a homeless person even though you are living in his house, which your parents stole.
Fortunately, the remedy to this problem does not require a grand national freakout. We do not have to have the government cut checks to black people, which would cause many white heads to explode. All we have to do is to have the government use tax policies to push wealth towards poor people—something it should be doing anyhow! Race and poverty are so closely intertwined in America that any meaningful and effective economic policy that reduces overall poverty and inequality will also help close the racial wealth gap. It is, in other words, not an impractical pie-in-the-sky goal. Our government has, since the Reagan era, used tax and economic policies to increase inequality, pushing wealth towards the rich. There is absolutely no reason it can’t do the opposite.
The Republican party exists to prevent this from happening. The Republican party exists to protect and increase the wealth of the currently wealthy. As we have seen, the math tells us that, on average, the currently wealthy people in our country are: white people. Therefore—with no need to delve into the mire of the culture wars or to argue over who loves Martin Luther King, Jr. more—we may accurately say that the policies of the Republican party serve to exacerbate the racial wealth gap. Because the racial wealth gap can be understood as an economic measure of the legacy of American racism, the act of not only failing to remedy it, but making it worse, is a racist act. The Republican party is the protector of this nation’s structural racism. A vote for the Republican party is a pro-racist vote.
(This is not to glorify the Democratic party, which has played its own role in getting us where we are today; nor is it to absolve all Democrats of racism; it is simply to record the fact that we can draw a distinction based on what people do in the voting booth: as a matter of stated policy, the Democratic platform seeks to close the racial wealth gap, while the Republican platform does the opposite. The moral failings of the Democrats are a rich topic for another day.)
Loud and proud white supremacists will always be a minority. White hoods have fallen out of fashion. Everyone fundamentally wants to believe that they are a good person. Endless arguments over “rap culture” and “my black friend” and “my parents worked hard” are tedious and unproductive. We have numbers. In aggregate, white America stole black America’s wealth. And we still have it. We need to give it back. That is kindergarten-level fairness. If you are not at the very least voting to move towards that goal, you are in effect supporting racism. That is what a racist does. That is what a racist is.