We can’t ignore our skin colors … yet

Did I know, the woman in line asked me, that non-whites are now a majority in a dozen major American cities?
In a manner of speaking I did know that, or at least I didn’t find it unreasonable. “I’m surprised it’s only 12,” I said. I’ve lived in several other cities; whites were outnumbered by non-whites in all but Minneapolis.
Well, she’d been told it was 12. She was white. “Does that mean I’m in the minority now?” she asked.
Her real complaint was that she had been excluded from a program that was reserved for minority participation. She might have been the victim of unfair discrimination or she might not have; I don’t know the facts of her case. But her comments speak to a common error, one that informs much of our current national discussion of race and its consequences.
With this week’s third anniversary of the birth of post-apartheid South Africa, I’d been thinking about race there and here anyway. Mainly, it struck me that in this country we are close to abandoning affirmative action at the same time Nelson Mandela’s new democracy is embracing it.
But the woman threw in my face the kind of questions that really matter — not the symbols of newborn democracy (South Africa seen from afar) but those of personal effects.
Americans make the mistake of limiting their understanding of “majority” to numerical superiority. Were that the limits of the word, we would have to stop calling our political system one in which the majority rules. In fact, laws are made by a mere handful of representatives elected by as few as one citizen in six. Ours is a system of competing minorities.
A majority reflects political authority. The age of majority is the age at which a child becomes a fully vested citizen, not the age when one outnumbers anyone else.
Which is to say that, basically everywhere in this country, whites are a majority. White people make the laws. White people are the arbiters of the national culture. White people own most of what is to be owned, and if there is anything that can be done, white people have the power to do it.
The woman wanted me to understand that she knows there continues to be discrimination against minorities, that she sympathized with the victims of racism, but shouldn’t she just get to take advantage of the reserved program regardless of her skin color? What she was trying to say was “I’m not a racist.”
I’ve heard it from white people before — I’ve even found myself saying it. The earnest explanation of understanding and sympathy — the denial of personal responsibility, mind you — that amounts to saying, “Some of my best friends are (fill in the blank).”
And it does bother many people today that affirmative action, a race-based policy, is seriously advanced as a solution to this country’s history of white bigotry. White opponents of affirmative action quote Martin Luther King — “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” — in argument against the affirmative action King advocated and which Mandela has only recently enacted.
But another thing most white Americans get wrong about race is something I was reminded of recently while riding a bus to class.
Two black men at the back of the bus had fallen into a conversation. Turns out they were both from upstate New York and they both worked in metal shops, albeit competing ones. Their talk turned to comparing New York and Minneapolis on the basis of white racism.
“You have to remember,” one of them said, explaining the merits of the Twin Cities over Poughkeepsie, “there’s a difference between a bigot and a racist.”
He was right. There’s all the difference in the world between bigotry and racism, and most white people don’t understand the fact. A bigot is someone who mistreats people on the basis of arbitrary personal characteristics. A bigot hates blacks or Jews or Asian immigrants because they are black or Jewish or Asian.
A racist, on the other hand, is simply someone who believes that there are races of people, that humanity is divided at birth into groups on the basis of physical traits. Racism is a belief in a form of biological determinism, a belief without foundation in biological science.
Which is why we are pretty much all racists in this country. We believe that there are such things as races. “Black” and “white” are meaningful descriptions to us.
What the woman was really saying was that she was not a bigot. But she, like most white people, made the mistake of equating bigotry with racism. Most white people aren’t bigots, and that is an improvement from the state of affairs a few generations ago.
But we are racists, and most white people — if not most Americans — seem unable to come to terms with the fact. It’s a tragic mistake, really. It blinds us to the reality of the American condition and to the lingering effects of racism on our fellow people and on ourselves.
The white equation of bigotry with racism cheapens the public discourse. It lets white people too easily off the hook. Because mostly we are no longer bigots — because some of our best friends are black — racism is a dead issue, we tell ourselves.
“We’ve said we’re sorry about all that Jim Crow stuff; we’ve promised not to do it again, and we’d all really rather slavery hadn’t happened in the first place,” we say. “So will you please let us alone now? And really, isn’t it time we ended affirmative action, now that we no longer want to turn the water cannons against your children?”
Well, that was easy, we say, and go to bed in the smug assurance that bigots like Gov. Orval Faubus, who ordered the Arkansas state militia to attack black children on the steps of desegregated schools in 1957, are a thing of the past.
American apartheid is no longer the law of the land, and that is something all Americans should be proud of. But the racism that led to Jim Crow bigotry is still a fundamental part of the American character. We still speak of black people and white people as if the terms mean something real, something more than the arbitrary social castes they represent.
Even though the law no longer requires black people to sit at the back of the bus, we must not be lulled into complacency, into the basically dishonest and lazy assumption that America’s original sin of racism was overcome when Lyndon Johnson had dinner with King.
Affirmative action — whether here or on the Cape of Good Hope — is a racist policy. But it exists in a racist society that still bears the scars of historical bigotry. It’s not a nice fact, but it is true, and the longer white people equate the death of organized bigotry with the end of our own racism, the longer we will be unable to live up this nation’s founding ideals.
Certainly, hiring or teaching or housing people with their skin color in mind is a racist act. But doing so, carefully making sure to consider not only the applicant’s race but also one’s own reaction to it, helps to prevent us from returning to the outright bigotry of our own apartheid past.

R. Scott Rogers is an associate editor at the Daily.