As we focus on whether people think race relations are improving or getting worse, we lose sight of institutional racism.
A new CBS/New York Times poll on race relations reveals that more Americans believe race relations are getting worse. According to the poll, 57 percent of people—including 56 percent of whites and 68 percent of Blacks—think that race relations are bad. Meanwhile, 40 percent of Blacks and whites say things are going downhill.
Noting that the last time the polls were this gloomy was in 1992 after the Rodney King riots, David A. Graham in The Atlantic argues, “It’s possible that what this poll actually shows is less a material change in race relations, than greater awareness among white Americans of racial divisions that were previously invisible to them. This poll offers some strong evidence for this theory.”
At a time of heightened exposure of racial issues in the media—such as the Confederate flag, the Charleston massacre, and the deaths of innocent Black people in police custody such as Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland—there is credibility to the notion that whites are more aware of racial problems.
Moreover, a new movement of young Black activists is determined to shine the spotlight on racism and bring more attention to the killing of Black bodies and the systemic problems of the criminal justice system and institutional racism. However, whites seem to think race relations are fine until another shocking video of police brutality goes viral and overtakes the 24-hour cable news cycle. No dead bodies, and it is business as usual.
Meanwhile, whether there is a video of a Black person killed by police, Black people always were killed by the police. But it doesn’t end there. The impact of institutional racism is far-reaching and touches every facet of life, and while there is no gruesome video to capture its effects, the statistics are sobering and devastating—from mass incarceration, education funding and the school-to-prison pipeline, to healthcare disparities and life expectancy, redlining and employment discrimination. One can even argue that so-called “Black on Black” crime is a function of poverty and lack of opportunity in the Black community.
However, whites believe racism is an individual failing and not a systemwide crisis. After all, so they believe, if they are not individually racist—not waving a Confederate flag, using the N-word or wearing a white hood—they are off the hook and absolved of racism. What white folks do not realize is they are the beneficiaries of institutional racism and white skin privilege, and of a system that, running on autopilot and steroids, reinforces white privilege and normalizes white supremacy at every level. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to the drum major instinct.
“A lot of the race problem grows out of the drum major instinct, a need that some people have to feel that they are first and feel that their white skin ordained them to be first” King said.
Further, whites live in a bubble, in communities almost exclusively with other whites, in which they have very little interaction with Black people, as the poll suggests.
Unpacking this latest poll provides hints to disconnect over racial lines. For example, 55 percent of whites believe that Blacks have a better chance of getting ahead in society, while only 35 percent of whites believe whites have the advantage. In contrast, 60 percent of Blacks say whites have the edge, and only 35 percent think Blacks have an advantage. In addition, support for affirmative action programs is fairly split among whites, with 51 percent in favor and 41 percent opposed, yet with overwhelming Black support at 83 percent. Meanwhile, 75 percent of whites and 56 percent of Blacks believe there has been progress in eliminating racial discrimination.
In the area of voting rights, 24 percent believe Blacks are more likely than whites to encounter problems when trying to vote, and 71 percent believe there is no difference, while half of Blacks believe Blacks have more challenges when going to vote, and 47 percent say there is no difference across race.
Concerning of criminal justice, 44 percent of whites and 77 percent of Blacks think the system is biased against Blacks. Meanwhile, 82 percent of whites say the police make them feel safe, while 58 percent of Blacks say the same. Moreover, while only 34 percent of whites responded that police are more likely to use deadly force against a Black person, 74 percent agreed with that statement.
Further, 57 percent of whites viewed the Confederate flag as a symbol of southern pride, compared to only 21 percent of Blacks. In addition, 30 percent of whites and 68 percent of Blacks perceived the flag as a symbol of racism, and while only a little more than half of whites approved of removing the flag in South Carolina, 81 percent of Blacks approved.
Solving racism, if that is at all possible, is not a matter of everyone just getting along. But rather, this is a matter of eradicating institutional racism. That is not the job of Black folks. The solution rests with white people, who for the most part do not even acknowledge its existence.