There are times we realize how racism is integral of our daily life. This is not just the case when people are treated in obvious racist ways. It is systemic to our daily lives. Some happen in less than obvious situations. And at times it opens a window into how much it affects our lives. Never mind that we’d prefer to ignore it. To be frank, short term it is less painful. But when we ignore racism, we only encourage it.
Racism is obvious sometimes. For example, when people call immigrants illegal, which is dehumanizing. There are worst terms as well, such as wetback. Then there are the times that a white, or Hispanic person calls an African American man…boy. These are extremely obvious examples of overt racism. They are as old as the country. While we should not ignore these, there are other examples that are far more insidious, more systemic if you will. Sometimes you come across a situation when victims of racism, or antisemitism, have internalized and made the language and excuses their own.
Not all racist moments are obvious. this is what makes racism so insidious. nor are these moments generic. Different groups have different ways of accepting and internalizing racism. However, as a society we all should be able to name them, identify them, and call them out. Even if they are not part of our day to day experience. Nor is this an easy conversation because we all believe we are virtuous and above this. Ok, to be honest, most of us. Many members of the far right are proud of their racism, and now are changing how they call it to what they call a form of identity politics. There is irony in this since they criticized all others for this It is critical to understand that we all have blind spots. In a society that is racist to the core, it is hard to admit to them, when called on them. It is even harder to admit we have them.
I lived through one of these blind spots recently on social media. Social media is one of the easiest places where to experience this since a lot of the non-verbal cues are missing. Remember, most of the human conversation is non-verbal. Moreover, some groups are very good at internalizing terms and not realizing how racist or antisemitic they are. Americans are not openly exposed to these terms openly except for some very specific hate groups. However, we must understand that racism has deep origins and why this matter.
That exchange quickly got ugly. My life and family history was denied. I became the other, the stranger, the liar. It was not unlike other occasions when that has happened. This was unique since this was done by a Jew, who denied my family history and the death of 350 plus of my family in Eastern Poland.
This is why I decided to put this painful chance encounter with this ugly reality into words. It matters that we expose this for what it is. It also has a context that is as old as the country.
Social relations in the United States are underpinned by something we barely notice most of the time. Or at least those of us who have a lighter melanin content don’t. Why? Skin color at times feels like destiny. Less so, if you have an accent. Believe me, when I open my mouth this reveals itself to me in full clarity, almost every time. I do transform often into the stranger, the other. The experience of becoming the other is both familiar and threatening. I know I have it easier than those with a darker skin tone. I know that as long as I remain silent, I can pass. I can subsume myself into that group that controls society. White supremacy is ever present. So is xenophobia. In the age of Trump, this has become even more visceral and open, It’s far more threatening than it was when I first arrived in the country at nineteen.
But we have laws… None of this is legal!
We do. But we also have strong forces that keep this almost rigid caste system in place. These forces emerge in housing, in schooling, in employment. We are reminded of this often. It tells us often that we are to know our place. This is why even African-Americans who have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams are reminded of their place. This is why Colin Kaepernick was called all kinds of names for kneeling. He was not behaving in a proper way. We know this. The signals are subtle but present at all times. This is why people still live in segregated communities.
The choices that black families make today are inevitably constrained by a legacy of racism that prevented their ancestors from buying quality housing and then passing down wealth that might have allowed today’s generation to move into more stable communities. And even when black households try to cross color boundaries, they are not always met with open arms: Studies have shown that white people prefer to live in communities where there are fewer black people, regardless of their income.
The result: Nationally, black and white families of similar incomes still live in separate worlds.
In many of America’s largest metropolitan areas, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, black families making $100,000 or more are more likely to live in poorer neighborhoods than even white households making less than $25,000. This is particularly true in areas with a long history of residential segregation, like metropolitan Milwaukee.
This is still a reality, decades after the end of redlining. It is also one thing I saw when one of my neighbors moved in. This is a black family. We had no problem welcoming them into the neighborhood. We talk often. A few of my white neighbors sold their apartments and moved. They were troubled by their minority neighbors. This is a serious problem and the way signals are sent.
One tool used often by those who seek to preserve this caste system, and keep others down is to deny others their family history and their experience. This is as old as the country. After all, treating slaves or indentured servants as fellow humans would break the image of superiority by those who dominate society. Slaves, in particular, had their roots stolen from them, in a methodical way. This was neither accidental or not wanted.
The Lords who came to the American colonies, especially in Virginia, wanted to recreate the life of the British countryside. In that, they also meant to recreate a rigid social structure where they were at the top of society. Hence the Clintons and the Carters were important, and well-connected families during the colonial and early national periods. And if those names sound familiar, they should. Their descendants have remained connected members of society, even if at least the Clintons had to claw their way back to the top.
The system of social control included a sense of superiority, and with the rise of chattel slavery, a whole class of people was put at the bottom, permanently. The experiences of slaves were not unlike the untouchables in India, who were condemned by custom and tradition, as well as ownership, to become invisible. Another group, indentured servant, was placed there on a temporary basis. In between were denizens, poor whites, who had some rights, but were still less than the wealthy aristocracy. This system remains to the present. Why poor whites feel superior to even well to do minorities. This is also one reason some poor Americans vote, when they do, against those who they consider being lower than them. This is entrenched, and within how society works, Whether it was towns closed from dusk to dawn for minorities, or preventing minorities from voting.
Under the surface, this remains. This is why medical care, to the present, is racialized. We may not have black wards, and we did at one time, but African-Americans have worse health outcomes than whites, and their care is not as good. This applies to other minorities as well.
What we have is a system that is pervasive and total. Those who are at the top of this caste system are free not to notice. It is in fact, it is advantageous if they don’t notice. Groups that have recently gone up in the system, and transformed into white, have absorbed many of the values of that system. It has become a good thing for them. Ergo, they at times engage in these same attitudes that kept them subsumed in earlier generations.
So what is the modern form of this system:
The first and most obvious way where it manifests itself is a zip code. Where you are born determines a whole slew of things for your future. Whether these are schools, medical care, access to clean water. even clean water pipes. Areas of town that at present are where red-lined districts used to tend to have worse schools, and city services. This is by design. This is why the people who live in La Jolla live a very different life than those who are born in Logan Heights. This is why cities are segregated to this day. After all, schools in majority-minority areas tend to be far worst off than schools in white neighborhoods.
This problem is getting worse with rising income inequality as some of those worst off neighborhoods face gentrification, as white people move in. Meaning, people who have lived in those communities are facing eviction from economic pressures. When they no longer can afford to live there, they will be forced to move out. In some cases, they will be forced to move out to the streets. And in our system, all the blame for their condition will fall on them, and not a system that was designed to favor some over others.
Then there are two connected elements. They both have to do with the neoliberal economy that places the market above all. The first is the privatization of as many public services as possible. These efforts benefit very specific groups of people but hurt others. The other is the weakening and destruction of a safety net that saw its peak with the war on poverty of the 1960s. President Bill Clinton’s welfare reform is the best-known example of this. It forced people who were on welfare and who had no jobs to find work. Most of this is low skilled and not paid jobs, in order to get meager benefits. At times work at fast food places, pushed them out of getting any benefits, but they still remain in a poverty trap. The people who this affects in large proportions are poor, urban core, minority populations.
These are the same groups that are over-policed and face mass incarceration. This is not accidental, as people who are convicted of felonies lose their rights to vote. This is systematic and has kept families separated and trapped at the bottom of a social order.
Hate speech is meant to demean and hurt people. Calling an adult “boy” is meant to remind a person of their caste status. This person is a child. Presumably does not have the same rights as adults. The same goes when people are called all kinds of names. They range from wetback, to illegal.to other terms. All of these demean the individual and take away their humanity. None of this is accidental.
So is using antisemitic language, or drawing swastikas on Jewish institutions. We have to be careful with this symbol, since it is sacred for some groups, including first peoples and Hindu. So context does matter. A swastika on the door of a Jewish temple is antisemitic. One carved on an Indian temple, or a first people’s blanket, belongs. You show your ignorance if you get annoyed at the swastika painted on a piece of art meant to depict the Mexican past for example.
Hate speech also creates us versus them mentality. Open racism and hate crimes are on the way up. We also see it changing linguistically in groups like Identity Evropa, who speak not in terms of race but of identity. And there is irony there. They speak of their superiority. They speak in ways that point to matters of evolution, such as the ability of Europeans to digest milk after childhood, as proof that they are better. It is a misuse of scientific data, which is hardly unprecedented.
This is no different than measuring skull size or pointing to the shape or noses to prove that the Arian race was better. Never mind race is a human cultural construct. So be ready to call this for what it is. This is racism. Yet, we all should get worried when racist jokes, in my recent case antisemitic jokes get in.
So here I come back to my recent experience. We were talking about politics on social media, To be specific the California Senate race, mind you, both candidates are Democrats. So one winning over the other will make zero difference in who keeps control of the Senate.
So I was told that my choice was between starving to death or going straight to a gas chamber. That is a direct allusion to the Holocaust. What made this worst, is that the person posing this Faustian choice is a Jew. I mentioned to this person that this figure of speech is rather insulting (and there is a third choice incidentally, fight). I also mentioned that my father was a Holocaust survivor.
Now here is where internalizing hate speech comes in. Instead of apologizing, I was told that my family history was not my family history. This is a classic of hate speech. Denial and refusal of the other. It is an attempt to erase those who challenge you from the face of the earth. As an immigrant, this has happened in the past, just not by a fellow Jew. This is also about maintaining that caste system and social order. I am obviously not part of this upper group since I openly challenge the right of a person to stay in office forever.
American Jews have “made it” from minorities to the highest levels of power. Anybody challenging that power needs to be put in their place. It is worrisome since it not only internalizes hate speech, but it also seeks to deny history. It leads to a lot of foot in mouth moments, but also to a division within and outside groups. It also betrays a deep lack of knowledge of what constitutes antisemitic speech. Where I grew up this speech is out of bounds. Why? We are aware of what it is. But we lived with daily reminders that Jews are outsiders. American Jews are not unlike German Jews in 1929. Suffice it to say, they were the first victims of the Holocaust.
Those who forget history…and all that comes to mind.