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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Towards a Better Understanding of Modern Systemic Racism

Emory University philosophy professor George Yancy conducts an excellent interview with sociologist Joe Feagin, “a leading researcher of racism in the United States for more than 40 years” on the topic of “American Racism in the ‘White Frame’” on the pages of the New York Times Opinionator. This is a good read for Democrats who want to better understand and more effectively navigate complex race relations in the U.S. at this political moment. Some highlights:

G. Y.: In your book “The White Racial Frame,” you argue for a new paradigm that will help to explain the nature of racism. What is that new paradigm and what does it reveal about race in America?
J.F.: To understand well the realities of American racism, one must adopt an analytical perspective focused on the what, why and who of the systemic white racism that is central and foundational to this society. Most mainstream social scientists dealing with racism issues have relied heavily on inadequate analytical concepts like prejudice, bias, stereotyping and intolerance. Such concepts are often useful, but were long ago crafted by white social scientists focusing on individual racial and ethnic issues, not on society’s systemic racism. To fully understand racism in the United States, one has to go to the centuries-old counter-system tradition of African-American analysts and other analysts of color who have done the most sustained and penetrating analyses of institutional and systemic racism.
G.Y.: So, are you suggesting that racial prejudices are only half the story? Does the question of the systemic nature of racism make white people complicit regardless of racial prejudices?
J.F.: Prejudice is much less than half the story. Because prejudice is only one part of the larger white racial frame that is central to rationalizing and maintaining systemic racism, one can be less racially prejudiced and still operate out of many other aspects of that dominant frame. That white racial frame includes not only racist prejudices and stereotypes of conventional analyses, but also racist ideologies, narratives, images and emotions, as well as individual and group inclinations to discriminate shaped by the other features. Additionally, all whites, no matter what their racial prejudices and other racial framings entail, benefit from many racial privileges routinely granted by this country’s major institutions to whites.

Feagin has an interesting observation about blind spots many white Americans share about their own history:

G.Y.: I realize that this question would take more space than we have here, but what specific insights about race can you share after four decades of research?
J.F.: Let me mention just two. First, I have learned much about how this country’s racial oppression became well institutionalized and thoroughly systemic over many generations, including how it has been rationalized and maintained for centuries by the broad white racist framing just mentioned. Another key insight is about how long this country’s timeline of racial oppression actually is. Most whites, and many others, do not understand that about 80 percent of this country’s four centuries have involved extreme racialized slavery and extreme Jim Crow legal segregation.
As a result, major racial inequalities have been deeply institutionalized over about 20 generations. One key feature of systemic racism is how it has been socially reproduced by individuals, groups and institutions for generations. Most whites think racial inequalities reflect differences they see as real — superior work ethic, greater intelligence, or other meritorious abilities of whites. Social science research is clear that white-black inequalities today are substantially the result of a majority of whites socially inheriting unjust enrichments (money, land, home equities, social capital, etc.) from numerous previous white generations — the majority of whom benefited from the racialized slavery system and/or the de jure (Jim Crow) and de facto overt racial oppression that followed slavery for nearly a century, indeed until the late 1960s.

Feagin also illuminates the phenomenon of ‘white virtue framing,’ which is well-understood by many people of color:

G.Y.: What implications does the white racial frame have for blacks, Asians, Latinos and those from the Middle East in our contemporary moment?
J.F.: That white frame is made up of two key types of subframes: The most-noted and most-researched are those negatively targeting people of color. In addition, the most central subframe, often the hardest to “see,” especially by whites, is that reinforcing the idea of white virtuousness in myriad ways, including superior white values and institutions, the white work ethic, and white intelligence. This white-virtue framing is so strong that it affects the thinking not only of whites, but also of many people of color here and overseas. Good examples are the dominant American culture’s standard of “female beauty,” and the attempts of many people of color to look, speak, or act as “white” as they can so as to do better in our white-dominated institutions.

The Yancy-Feagin interview is a good read for any American, especially for Democrats, as members of the racially-inclusive party who want to promote interracial solidarity in pursuit of progressive reforms. The challenge for Dems is to provide leadership to alleviate what Feagin terms “the centuries-old reality of this country’s white racism, especially…its systemic and foundational character and how it has been routinely reproduced over 20 generations.”

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