The long-lasting effects of institutionalized racism

That excellent radio program This American Life just recently won the first-ever Pulitzer prize for excellence in journalism awarded to a radio program. It is well deserved because it is a truly outstanding program. The show they won the prize for dealt with the terrible plight of the migrants who have been turned away at the US-Mexico border because of the cruelty of Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy. They rebroadcast that program last week after winning the prize and you can listen to it here. Back in 2005, I wrote to the program offering to nominate them for a prize for their coverage of the terrible treatment meted out to poor people in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit. You can listen to that program here.

Recently it had a fascinating story titled Black in the USSR about the experience of Yelena Khanga who describes how she grew up as a black person in the USSR after her grandparents moved there in the 1930s to escape from the racism in the US. Her grandfather was black and her grandmother was a Polish Jew and they had met in jail in New York City after being arrested at a demonstration. When her father, a rabbi, arrived the next morning to bail her out, she asked him to also bail him out but when her father saw that her friend was black, he left, leaving them both in jail. That was the strange beginning of their romance.

Khanga said that growing up, there was no institutional racism in the USSR (they were not discriminated against in terms of housing or education or employment or by law enforcement or in terms of getting jobs) but while she received friendly treatment, she was perceived as a curiosity because of her skin color and asked all manner of questions that we would perceive as rude and intrusive and even insulting. She describes how after visiting the home of her boyfriend for a few days in a small remote town, she saw her friend’s mother examining the sheets one morning. When she asked her boyfriend about it, he said that his mother had never seen a black person before and wanted to see if some of her ‘blackness’ had come off onto the sheet. Khanga put things like that down to curiosity and ignorance and not racism, since she knew that most Russians had never met a black person, and so she didn’t take offense.

In her late twenties, she came to the US because she thought that there would be a larger community of black people that she could move with. She did find that and started dating a black man. She said that when they were out together and they encountered certain types of incidents, like being treated discourteously, she would see it as generalized rudeness while he saw it as targeted towards black people. Matters came to a head when on the very that day he seemed to be about to propose, he took her to a fancy restaurant and they were offered a table near the bathroom instead of near a window. Her date saw that as a deliberate slight arising out of racism while she dismissed it as just one of those things that happen in life. They argued about it all through the dinner and this difference turned out to be so deep that they felt it was an irreconcilable difference of worldview and they broke off the relationship. She later returned to Russia and married a Russian.

You can listen to the 22-minute clip of Khanga being interviewed here.

The story resonated with me because of my familiarity with the work of sociologist John Ogbu who found that the performance in education of any given minority in the US depends on a complex interplay of factors involving whether the minority is a voluntary one because they chose to come to the US of their own accord, such as Asians now and earlier generations of Jews, Irish, and Germans, or an involuntary one such as blacks due to enslavement, Native Americans due to conquest, and Hispanics due to colonization. He said that voluntary minorities perceived their relationship with the dominant majority white culture quite differently from involuntary minorities whose culture had been subjected to relentless denigration in the effort to create in them a sense of inferiority and thus justify their oppression. The latter cannot forget how they and their ancestors were deliberately made to feel inferior and not worthy of being treated like human beings, and that legacy is not easily overlooked. This helps explain why the Russian-born Khanga and her American-born date, while both black, had such different reactions to the inferior placement of their table in the restaurant.

I recently watched a new Netflix mini-series titled #BlackAF in which writer and creator Kenya Barris plays an extremely wealthy father of six whose daughter is making a documentary of her family as part of her college application. A running gag in the show is how Barris says that the explanation for everything he does, even down to the choice of clothes he wears, is due to the legacy of slavery. But underneath, this is not really a joke. The scars of slavery run deep and cannot be wiped away from the consciousness of those who suffered under it for centuries and whose after effects are still with us.

A few months ago I was in a supermarket checkout line (before the pandemic of course) and the white cashier cordially greeted the white customer in front of me and they chitchatted while he rang up the purchases. When it was my turn, there was no greeting and no chitchat. Not even a smile. While I registered the difference, I did not put it down to intentional discrimination, thinking that maybe he had got distracted by something he had just remembered and was thinking about it. But while I am a person of color, I am a voluntary minority and thus do not carry around with me the full historical burden that involuntary minorities do, of the knowledge that such slights were routinely used against people like me. If were black, I would very likely not have been nearly so willing to give the cashier the benefit of the doubt. Two weeks later, I was in the same cashier’s line and this time he greeted me and we chatted. The temptation is for me to assume that my preliminary suspicions that the cashier has prejudicial feelings towards all people of color were unfounded. But I do not really know that. All I know is that he was cordial towards me.

It is tempting for the members of groups who have not been the targets of prejudice to sometimes think that the people who identify and call out prejudice are either being too sensitive or are going out of their way to seek out and impugn prejudicial motives to things that were not intended to be so. But acts of prejudice that may be almost invisible to those who have not been the targets of such prejudice may be blindingly obvious to those who have. It is like the Magic Eye pictures that were all the rage a decade or so ago. Some people saw the embedded images immediately while others (and I was in this latter group) could not see them at all. They were just random colored dots to me. But just because I could not see the images did not mean that they were not there or that those who did had to really work hard to see them.

A good example is the controversial VW ad that I posted about recently. At a first look, I saw it as a silly and pointless ad and did not register the racial overtones. But I can well understand how black people would immediately see it differently and my not seeing it is not evidence that the racism was non-existent or even highly subtle. The comment thread to that post is illustrative of this difference.

So we should be careful about suggesting that black people are overly sensitive to perceived racial slights and accused of looking for them in situations just because others either do not see them or have to have them pointed out to them. It is not that simple. The exchanges between Khanga and her black American interviewer Emanuele Berry in the link above provide a very thoughtful and enlightening view of how our backgrounds result in differences in perception regarding race and I really recommend listening to it.



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