Read an Excerpt from “Tacit Racism” by Anne Warfield Rawls and Waverly Duck

September 8, 2020
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As shown every time we read or watch the news, racism is ubiquitous in America. Yet racism is so insidious that it exists on a more micro, common level as well. Effecting all swaths of culture and society, it permeates aspects of day-to-day life, especially when it is unexpected. In Tacit Racism, Anne Warfield Rawls and Waverly Duck illustrate the many ways in which racism is coded into the everyday social expectations of Americans. The following is a slightly altered excerpt from the introduction to Tacit Racism

book cover

Racism Is a Clear and Present Danger

If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you. —Lyndon B. Johnson

Since the 1670’s, fifty years after the first Africans were sold into slavery at Jamestown in 1619, racism has steadily and relentlessly wormed its way so deeply into the foundations of the American democratic experiment that we typically don’t even notice it. Racism does not usually take an obvious form that we can see and prevent, rather it masquerades as the most ordinary of daily actions: as unnoticed and ever-present as the air we breathe. In our book Tacit Racism we illustrate the many ways in which racism is coded into the everyday social expectations of Americans, in taken-for-granted Interaction Orders of Race that create vast amounts of hidden unconscious – Tacit Racism – which most Americans are not aware of. Because it is systemic, institutionalized in our everyday interactional expectations, acting on this racism does not require conscious intent: actions are racist if Race is coded into them. This racism divides the United States, providing fertile ground for the manipulation of issues associated with Race (e.g., health care, guns, voting rights, and immigration) by wealthy special interests and foreign powers (Russia in particular is exploiting Race to interfere with our elections) such that Race divisions now pose a clear and present danger to the nation and its democratic institutions.

In over twenty-five years of research, the authors have found that without being aware of it, everyone in the US acts in racist ways just by doing ordinary things. In his book The White Racial Frame (2009), Joe Feagin shows that a 350-year-old racial gestalt shapes the way Americans view Race such that, as studies of implicit bias show (Greenwald and Krieger 2006; Jost et al. 2009), most Americans see and hear non-White Others in racist ways. Since the birth of Black/White racism, which as Theodore Allen (1994, 1997) documents in The Invention of the White Race, began in 1670s Virginia, the myth of a dominant White Race – the myth of Whiteness – has played a preeminent role in the social, economic and political organization of the United States. According to Jonathan Metzl (2019) in Dying of Whiteness, Americans who identify as White, particularly White men, are literally dying for their investment in the mythology of Whiteness.

The irony is that Race is not a biological fact. It is a social convention, a “social fact” (a fact by social agreement). There is no White Race, no White civilization, and there are no White people, except as a matter of agreement (Race terms, including “Race,” “Black,” “White,” and “Other” when used to indicate a racialized Other, are capitalized to highlight this social fact status). Furthermore, each country has categorized differences between people in ways that suit its own needs, so Race categories differ by country. The Race issues we discuss belong uniquely to the United States. Other important categories like Latinx/Hispanic and Asian not only do not denote Races the way the Black/White binary is intended to—even by agreement—they confer outsider status. Persons in these categories do not easily fit within the American binary. For Latinx/Hispanic this is the case even though the oldest colonies in the United States were Spanish. The binary American Black/White category system that is taken for granted in the United States today is Anglo in origin. It was invented by rich English plantation owners in the Jamestown, Virginia, colony to trick poor Irish, Scots and English laborers into controlling African laborers for them (Allen 1994, 1997). The invention of Whiteness was a ploy by the rich to divide and conquer colonial American working classes by Race, while also eliminating Spanish influence.

Corresponding myths about Blackness and the alleged violence and criminality of Black Americans have been used systematically to control White Americans since the late 1600s, encouraging them to remain in segregated rural areas and all-White enclaves; and when White Americans do rebel against this control and start speaking out in their own interest, powerful forces move quickly to punish them. The myth of Black criminality and violence is as much a fiction as the myth of White superiority. Just as there is no White Race, there is no Black Race. Furthermore, studies of unreported crime suggest that the “real” White American crime rate is higher than for other categories of people. It has just not been recorded because the police do not patrol White neighborhoods the same way they patrol Black neighborhoods. White Americans have been made to fear the illusion of Black violence. But, as Michael Males (2017) reports, White Americans in predominantly White Republican counties are 50% more likely to die from violence than White Americans in racially diverse Democratic counties. It turns out that the biggest threat to White Americans is living in isolated White communities among themselves.

Nevertheless, on the basis of social fictions about a “criminalblackman” (Russell-Brown 2009) and Black-on-Black crime, Black Americans continue to be feared, shot by the police, denied jobs, education, housing, and the right to vote, and incarcerated at record rates for things that most White Americans do with impunity. When Black Americans do manage to secure high-status positions, they often find that the White Americans they work with do not recognize their legitimate status or competence, creating problems for them on the job and giving them back only what we call “fractured reflections” of the identities they have achieved.

While many believe that Black Americans suffer from what Frantz Fanon (1952) called the “colonial mentality,” leading to low self-esteem and impoverished cultural development, we note that it is primarily White Americans, not Black Americans, who are exhibiting the characteristics Fanon describes: in particular trying to emulate the wealthy Whites who oppress them—a process that is deeply invested in fantasies about Whiteness. Details about how voters were targeted by social media during the 2016 election suggest that those who designed the algorithms used to target susceptible voters took advantage of the vulnerability that the fantasy of Whiteness creates (Wylie 2019).

We take the position of W. E. B. Du Bois (1903), that because Black Americans have an experience of being seen by the White Other as inferior, while at the same time being blocked from emulating them, they have developed what he called “double consciousness,” which has enabled Black Americans to create their own community that insulates them against the colonial condition. As Cornell West (2002) noted, trying to emulate White Americans is detrimental to the well-being of Black Americans. Our research shows that Black interaction order preferences tacitly embed this understanding. Thus, in the current crisis, it is ironically the colonial mentality of White Americans that threatens to overturn our democracy. In the words of Leonard Pitts (2019), “The Republican Party’s appeal . . . stems largely from an implicit promise: Vote for us, and we will repeal the 20th century.” However, while White Americans—egged on by the 1%—are trying to undo the civil rights reforms of the last century, Black Americans remain committed to a democratic future for every single American, and our research shows that Black American interaction order expectations reflect this commitment.

Powerful special interests are well organized to keep White Americans in thrall to an anti-democratic racial mythology that encourages them to continue trying to keep Black Americans “in their place” (Maddow 2019; Mayer 2016; Skocpol and Williamson 2011). Black American attempts to organize have also met with powerful political opposition. But, the primary objective has been to use Race to divide workers. Each time White workers have begun to organize for their own benefit, special interests have quickly mobilized racialized counter-narratives (“you have no job because affirmative action gave Black people your jobs”) in combination with political and legal action to stop them too. According to Kerri Merritt (2017), the need to put an end to the threat of a strike to end slavery by White southern laborers before the Civil War hastened the beginning of that war. Over the course of American history, the myth of White racial superiority has been the principal means of controlling White workers.

The question why White Americans so often vote against their own self-interest has a simple answer: they do it to preserve their investment in the fantasy of Whiteness.

At this point of national crisis, we need to have a general conversation about Race to liberate both White and Black Americans from the myths that divide the nation. Racism and democracy cannot coexist. Racism is a basic failure to recognize the Other as a human being like oneself: a failure of empathy and reciprocity that impacts communication, social interaction, and the life chances of all citizens. Because most Americans now believe that racism is wrong, the discussion of Race we need to have should be possible. But a strong tendency to treat racism either as a matter of personal bias (whether overt or implicit), or as explicit bias in formal rules and laws, is getting in the way.

Before we can talk the way we think about Race and racism will need to change. Not only does thinking about racism in terms of personal bias ignore the systemic racism coded into interaction, but focusing on individuals and their attitudes creates the false impression that individual prejudice is a bigger problem than the systemic tacit racism that makes individuals and institutions act in racist ways in the first place.

This sets up the problem backwards. It overlooks the most prevalent forms of institutionalized racism—which are tacit not explicit—and obscures the fact that we all unknowingly act in racist ways. It also scares White Americans, who do not want to be told they are racist, and keeps them away from the conversation we need to have about Race. Ultimately, the biggest problem is not the explicit racism of institutions or individual racists and their attitudes—these we can at least see. The bigger problem is the racism we can’t see that is structured into the fabric of American life, shaping the actions and implicit biases of all Americans in racist ways, encouraged by the powerful special interests and foreign powers that are taking advantage of our divided nation. Our country was built on a racist labor system that is still sustained by the many myths, lies, and fantasies about Race, and this has shaped our national culture. This is one of the reasons why we still need to talk about slavery. The preferred ways of interacting that have developed over time among Black and White Americans reflect the underlying racism embedded in our society that began with slavery. Given this background, how could we not be enacting hidden tacit racist codes every day?

In focusing on the Black/White binary and the two clashing interaction orders that correspond to it, we do not overlook other categories of people identified by Race and/or culture in the United States who experience racism and exclusion. What we argue, however, is that they, too, find themselves positioned against the Black/White binary when they are in the US. We take the position that all racism (and misperceptions of Race) in the US are structured by the Black/White binary, and consequently that all other racial/cultural classifications in this country can best be understood in terms of their positioning in relationship to that binary. This ironically holds for the category Native American as well.

The Black/White binary has been close to absolute for 350 years. Americans tend to be perceived as either Black or White. Those who cannot be classified within the binary tend to be perceived as outsiders no matter how long they and/or their ancestors have lived here. Those who come to the United States from elsewhere, are usually not aware of the way Race categories work in this country or how they will be assigned to (or excluded from) those categories by Americans. Nor are they typically aware of the expectations of the interaction orders of the categories to which they may be assigned.

Our aim is to examine how the legacy of the Black/White binary and its attendant anti-Asian and anti-Spanish forms of racism have been coded into ordinary social interaction in the United States—as tacit racism—so that we can stop pretending we are a democratic society and start becoming one. This will require achieving a level of awareness about Race and systemic racism among White Americans that we call “White double consciousness” in homage to Du Bois. Just as the experience of being seen as inferior has, he argued, enabled Black Americans to develop some insight about racism, we hope that an awareness of the many ways in which White Americans are acting out a false code of racial superiority will give them a corresponding insight into their own racism – and how they look to Others. Until we develop a general awareness of the racism in our own actions, the defensiveness of Americans who identify as White, described by Robin DiAngelo (2018) in White Fragility, that leads them to deny they are acting in racist ways, will keep getting in the way of the awareness of Race and racism we need to achieve.

Anne Warfield Rawls is professor of sociology at Bentley University. Waverly Duck is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh.


Tacit Racism is available now on our website or from your favorite bookseller.

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