There is a distinction to be made between institutional racism and individual racism. Institutional racism happens within a public system and prevents people of a certain race or ethnic background from taking full advantage of their rights and liberties in America. Individual racism is simply one person’s belief that he or she does not like people of a certain race or ethnic background. As in the past institutional racism can reflect an overall societal problem or sometimes it can be caused be an individual racist in a position where his or her personal bias influence how the system treats people of a certain race or ethnic background.
This latter example seemed to fit in the case of former U.S. District Court Judge Richard Cebull of Montana, after an e-mail he forwarded became public knowledge. Deemed a “racist joke,” the e-mail read, according to USA Today: A little boy said to his mother, “Mommy how come I’m black and you’re white?” His mother replied “Don’t go there, Barack! From what I can remember about that party, you’re lucky you don’t bark.”
While the joke seems to be more about the President’s mother’s sexual morals than race itself, people were nonetheless outraged. Cebull apologized and resigned as an investigation was launched into Cebull’s activities on his federal e-mail account and his cases. Ironically, the e-mail that was publicized begins with the line “Normally, I don’t send or forward a lot of these…” but it turns out the Cebull did forward quite a lot of e-mails like this.
According to the Associated Press, Cebull “sent hundreds of other inappropriate messages,” and that those messages “related to pending issues that could have come before Cebull’s court, such as immigration, gun control, civil rights, health care and environmental issues. Yet more importantly, they also “found no evidence of bias in Cebull’s ruling or sentences.”
Cebull, who earlier claimed not be racist but instead “anti-Obama,” may be individually racist, only he can know his own thoughts unless he chooses to share them. However, absent a further analysis of his case history, he seems to have kept his private feelings private (outside of tasteless email forwards) and did his duty from the bench fairly and honestly.
In the light of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, this story exemplifies the current struggle against racism. Institutional racism is far less prevalent than it was in Dr. King’s day and in certain places has disappeared entirely. What’s left is to deal with individual racists. What one wonders is how Dr. King would handle them?
Would he call for them to be ostracized and left unable to make a living or would he have appealed to them in a different way? In modern society anyone who is fixed with the “racist” label is treated as if he or she is Bull Connor reincarnated. While Dr. King marched on America’s streets and capital, he also had to deal with many people who were individually racist and win them over. Would Dr. King have criticized Cebull for calling for his own investigation and then eventually stepping down? No one can know, but the question is worth considering in any discussion about modern race-relations.