I read and write about issues of racism on a near daily basis, so I probably didn’t need a study to tell me that people don’t understand how racism works. But it helps.
University of California, Berkeley, professor Clayton R. Critcher and University of Chicago professor Jane L. Risen have published a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that shows when “non-African-Americans—whites, Asians and Hispanics—who had seen images of successful black Americans were less likely to believe that systemic racism persists,” according to The Hufffington Post. The study’s abstract reads: “After incidental exposure to Blacks who succeeded in counterstereotypical domains (e.g., Brown University President Ruth Simmons, Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison), participants drew an automatic inference that race was not a success-inhibiting factor in modern society.”
Seeing images of successful black people makes others think racism doesn’t exist. That’s hardly surprising. Not much is when it comes to racism. But it underscores what’s so frustrating about our “national conversation on race.” People come to the table not understanding what racism is.
It’s not entirely their fault. Race Forward’s “Moving the Race Conversation Forward” report from January showed that “two-thirds of race-focused media coverage fails to consider how systemic racism factors into the story, instead typically focusing upon racial slurs and other types of personal prejudice and individual-level racism.” The result is the understanding of racism as a personal obstacle to be overcome, rather than a system of oppression rooted in white supremacy.
We aren’t closer to correcting that narrative when we celebrate the individuals who manage to “succeed” despite racism’s entrenchment. The impulse is understandable. Those individuals can serve as reminders of what is possible in the face of hopelessness. But individual symbols of progress seduce us into believing the system is fundamentally fair.
LeRoi Jones (later to be known as Amiri Baraka) addressed this in his 1962 essay “Tokenism: 300 Years for Five Cents”:
There are almost 20,000,000 Negroes in the United States. One of these 20 million has been given a two-dollar raise and promoted to a clerical job that my two-year-old daughter could probably work out without too much trouble. And we are told that this act is symbolic of the ‘gigantic strides the Negro has taken since slavery….
Somehow, and most especially in the United States, the fact that more Negroes can buy new Fords this year than they could in 1931 is supposed to represent some great stride forward. To where? How many new Fords will Negroes have to own before police in Mississippi stop using police dogs on them. How many television sets and refrigerators will these same Negroes have to own before they are allowed to vote without being made to live in tents, or their children allowed decent educations?
Symbols aren’t meaningless, but they are never strong enough to dismantle systems of oppression on their own. And as this recent study shows, they have the ability to convince people that those systems don’t even exist. If we’re having trouble getting to the first step acknowledging racism as a system of oppression, the prospects of actually undoing and replacing that system appear bleak.