in depth

Racism Is Built Into Our DNA

| by Chrysler Summer
Zendaya.Zendaya.

The ugly truth is that racism is alive and well in America.

The problem is that some want to deny its continued existence. Those who want to pretend that even though we may have had a problem at one time, the U.S. is long past any form of outright discrimination or bigotry. Usually these folks point to the election of our first black/mixed-race president as proof that we are not still dealing with racism. Or they point to Oprah Winfrey and other successful, rich black people.

But a few examples do not wash away the endemic racism that is woven into the fabric of our society. Our racism is so entrenched that even the victims of such racism have swallowed the thinking. As a result, many blacks, and others, have adopted the belief that being black is bad and being white is good.

The problem is a big one that should not — and cannot — be ignored. After all, it is not just blacks and other minorities who are victims of racism. I believe even whites are victims of this racism. Whites also suffer from this belief system that blacks are inferior and whites are superior. While white privilege is often seen as an unchangeable fact that isn't detrimental to society, that is not the case. Living with stereotypes and unjustified biases holds us all back collectively. It burdens us all.

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I applaud the new PBS documentary “American Denial” for taking a fresh look at this issue. According to the film’s description, the documentary “sheds light on the unconscious political and moral world of modern Americans, using archival footage, newsreels, nightly news reports, and rare southern home movies from the '30s and '40s, as well as research footage, websites and YouTube films showing psychological testing of racial attitudes. Exploring 'stop-and-frisk' practices, the incarceration crisis, and racially patterned poverty, the film features a wide array of historians, psychologists, and sociologists who offer expert insight and share their own personal, unsettling stories. The result is a unique and provocative film that challenges our assumptions about who we are and what we really believe.”

What the film apparently showcases is the fact that the root of our racism is in many ways unconscious. The researchers discovered that our problem is so deeply rooted that most people don’t even know it is there. They call the belief that white is simply better than black an "implicit bias," or a belief that you don't even know you have. As Vox put it: “[Implicit bias] seeps into just about every aspect of life, including areas like criminal justice that can have deadly consequences. Thirty years of neurology and cognitive psychology studies show that it influences the way we see and treat others, even when we're absolutely determined to be, and believe we are being, fair and objective.”

This implicit bias is at play when we automatically see white kids and think more positively about them than black kids. It is at play when we assume whites are smarter than blacks. It is at play when we assume a white doctor is better at his profession than a black one. It is at play when we immediately clutch our purses or pick up our pace when we see a black man walking behind us.

This bias, which leads to our collective culture of racism, is well worth looking at. It explains why sometimes people are telling the truth when they defend some seemingly racist statement or incident they have done. Just look at the Zendaya scandal. I honestly believe Giuliana Rancic meant no intentional ill will or racism toward Zendaya. But that does not mean that her comments weren't racist — or indicative of a bigger, systemic problem.

Unintentional or "casual" racism is not better — and actually, may be far worse — than intentional racism. After all, intentional racism we can pinpoint and label as "wrong." Unintentional racism? Well, that's a much harder egg to crack. Either way, the only way to root out this racism is not to be afraid to look at it deeply. We have to see the implicit bias towards white before we can understand how it manifests itself in our daily lives. We will all be better off when we stop sweeping the racism problem under the rug and face it head-on.

Sources: PBS, Vox, Us Weekly / Photo Credit: AP photo via MSNBC