Hey — hey America, can we talk about racism for a second? Everyone else, feel free to listen in, but America . . . we really need to talk. Why? Because you seem to think the only racism that counts is the kind that involves crosses being burned on lawns by people in white hoods.
In reality, it’s the way that racism is passed down through generations — the way that it is taught passively and overtly — that should concern you. And one of the many ways this happens is via our deeply flawed education system.
Our education system is systemically racist in myriad ways — from unequal funding for schools, to a school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately affects students of color, to the fact that white women in education make up the majority of teachers, which can engender oppression against female students of color.
It’s ironic, then, that we also don’t teach kids about racism, and how it has informed American culture since the country’s inception. We teach a lie about Thanksgiving to keep racism going, and we venerate Columbus for “discovering” America, but we don’t talk about how manumission laws were written to prevent people from buying the freedom of their families.
Because we don’t teach real history during the K-12 years when history class is mandatory, by college, many Americans are left with the idea that racism is over because slavery and Jim Crow are over. That’s why there are many Americans with the flawed perception that the U.S. is post-racial, and that electing a Black president is proof we’re beyond our history.
Without understanding how racism works, white students also often have a fundamentally flawed understanding of affirmative action, believing it to mean that their classmates and co-workers of color are actually less qualified because they’ve been “helped” along. They point at lower graduation stats for marginalized communities as proof that “those people simply don’t value education.” And this idea — that only some (read: white) communities care about education — means that when people of color do succeed, there’s an assumption that they don’t deserve their success. It’s this attitude that led Abigail Fisher to sue the University of Texas at Austin in 2008, claiming affirmative action is what kept her out of the college — and not her subpar application.
When I was in college, I heard a lot about affirmative action and its supposed role in my own academic success; in later conversations, I realized that many of my peers experienced similar scrutiny. The message we received from others was that we couldn’t possibly know so much, and have such good grades, without the assistance of affirmative action.
But while there’s an assumption that people of color just don’t work as hard as white people, the opposite is often true. Students of color often work harder . . . because they have to in a system that works against them.
As famously noted on Scandal, and obliquely referenced in a speech by the First Lady at Tuskegee University, parents from marginalized communities know their kids have to work harder to get anywhere near where white privilege can take white students. So even though students of color may lack access to the same rigorous classes as many well-off white students, at home they are being pushed to read extra books and do extra work to make up for what they are missing. Like many of my peers, some of my most challenging work was done at my grandmother’s table because she would accept nothing less than my best.
In college, issues often arise when these hard-working students of color come up against white students who have benefited from their privilege. While I was in college, it was repeatedly made clear that many of my white peers weren’t prepared to have to compete with me or with my fellow students of color. It had never occurred to them that we deserved to be there.
After white students graduate college, they’re also often not ready to take their degrees into the workplace, where they may find the people of color they didn’t know existed before college sitting next to them in the same meetings. Racial resentment is ugly in any situation, but in the workplace, where there are actual laws against acting on it? It’s easy for resentments to play out in petty ways, like snidely refusing to use a coworker of color’s name.
This fear of having to compete with people of color for success is a driving force of white supremacy. Just look at how many high-profile white supremacist supporters of Trump (like Matthew Heimbach and Richard Spencer) were best known for being failures in their personal and professional lives despite their white privilege. Spencer struggled to keep jobs even at conservative publications because of his extreme views, and Heimbach was fired from the Indiana Department of Children Service earlier this year. Even as they attempt to make racism profitable, and argue for the myth of innate white superiority, they push for politicians to gut any programs, including those in education, that might erase their unearned social advantages. Instead of competing on merit, they want to compete against the oppressed so that they never have to face the cold reality that they are not inherently better or smarter.
They have benefited from structural racism, and are afraid to compete on a level playing field because deep down they know they aren’t guaranteed a win.
America, you want to pretend that education and time have changed not only the existence of racism, but also who is racist. You have built a mythos that racism is the province of the old, and the uneducated, despite the fact that many of the people in those Klan robes were educated and successful.
It’s difficult to admit that education — that bastion for success, opportunity, and progress — is itself steeped in racism. But we’ll never move forward until we do.