Columns & Blogs

On Culture: Why can’t we figure out how to talk about racism?

We are a society that has managed to figure out many things. We have figured out how to immediately communicate with people clear across the world through email, social media and Skype. We have figured out how to get books and movies and music without leaving our homes. We have figured out how to make a butter substitute that tastes so much like butter, the product promises that you won’t believe it’s not butter by calling itself I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.

And yet, even though we’re smack dab in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century, we still haven’t figured out how to deal with racism. As a black man approaching his 39th birthday next month, I am amazed how old-school racism, the kind of racism I thought went out in the ’50s and ’60s, is unfortunately coming back in style.

I never thought I’d see police brutality become so blatantly rampant in the African-American community. But it’s happening all over, whether it’s in a major city like New York, a town like Ferguson, Mo., or at a pool party in McKinney, Texas. I never thought I’d see someone use blackface to elevate their career, but that’s what Rachel Dolezal did when she bronzed up her skin and pretended to be black so she could run the Spokane, Wash., chapter of the NAACP. (Needless to say, she has since stepped down.) And I never thought I’d see another massacre involving the murder of innocent black people in a church, but that’s what sadly took place in Charleston. Budding white supremacist Dylann Roof has admitted he went into the Emanuel AME Church and gunned down nine people.

A woman he allowed to survive said he told the Bible study group before he gunned them down: “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

In a photo on his Facebook page, Roof is wearing a jacket with the flags of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia, two countries mythologized by white supremacists. So it’s a fair call to say the attack was racially motivated. However, a lot of right-leaning politicians, pundits and news outlets have said we don’t know what was going on in his mind. GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, for instance, said that it was an attack on religious liberty.

Look, I’m not that well-equipped to riff on most of this; a friend had to remind me that Rhodesia was a racist, white-minority-ruled country in East Africa before it was toppled by an armed uprising and became Zimbabwe – and that dude was white! However, I can say, I’ve spoken with white people and black people about this, and the general consensus is we have to stop thinking of race as a four-letter word and get into serious discussions about it.

When I talked to a white friend (some of you may know him as N&O columnist Josh Shaffer) about what I would say in this column, we had a lengthy back-and-forth about what keeps racism going in these times. Shaffer found that people are so touchy about racism that if you even acknowledge it, you’re part of the problem. “If you admit it,” he told me, “you’re obligated to do something about it.”

I also spoke to poet, rapper and hip-hop scholar Dasan Ahanu, and he has certainly come across people who really don’t want to talk about it. “There is a new element that I never expected to deal with,” he says. “It’s that there have been people I’ve been having conversations with who are trying to move me past understanding and accepting it to talking about the elimination of the concept of race. And I’m just like, ‘No, you don’t get to wipe it away before we deal with the impact that it has had.’… That is the not the solution.”

Listen, as much as I admire and enjoy this country for all that it has given me, this is also a country that was mostly built by minorities who were regularly seen as property rather than human beings. Racism literally paved streets and created cities. It’s in this country’s DNA, a deep-seated, systemic cancer that is still impossible to shake off. Racism is all around us. Hell, Rolling Stone recently did a cover story on “Orange is the New Black,” a show swarming with female minorities (it is set in a prison, after all), and they only put the attractive white stars on the cover!

Racism has been around too long to go away just like that. But the less we talk about it and the less we accept its existence, the more racism will keep showing up in the most unusual, the most ridiculous and the most violent of ways – and the more future generations will continue to keep the tradition going.