Racism Without Racists?

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Even the most successful black Americans can feel haunted by a vague, invisible form of discrimination. The author's advice is to stop looking for it. 

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A young Belgian man hops from his bicycle and walks into the Paul Andriesse gallery in Amsterdam. He's dressed in a heavy black bomber jacket, black jeans and white leather sneakers, and drawn to a large painting on the wall. It's an expensive piece and when he asks about it, an assistant refers him to the owner, who emerges from the back of the room to say: "I don't see clients without an appointment." When he tries to get one, the response is simply "No." 

The young Belgian man, who happens to be the art buyer and fashion designer Raf Simons--one of the most celebrated and influential designers in the world--leaves the gallery and doesn't return. Asked about the incident later, he's not embarrassed: "That's how things work in the art world," he tells a journalist. "It's not a matter of being [famous] and walking in to purchase a piece...[that] isn't a license to get whatever I want."

Over in Paris, a middle-aged black woman approaches the entrance to Hermès's flagship store. The store's been closed for fifteen minutes, though a doorman and a clerk remain outside. The woman and her entourage attempt to enter but are refused and asked to come again another day. The woman is Oprah Winfrey, and this story, unlike the first, made international news. A spokesperson for Ms. Winfrey called it, "Oprah's 'Crash' moment"--referring to the movie about nuanced forms of racism. Ms. Winfrey for her part was troubled enough by the incident to contact the U.S. President of Hermès personally and to devote a segment of her talk show to it. 

But what was all the fuss about? In both of the above situations, a famous, wealthy celebrity walks into an environment of immense privilege and gets treated with something less than groveling obeisance. In neither case has anything resembling a tragedy transpired. However, the reactions to the two incidents couldn't be more unalike. Whereas the white millionaire brushes away the slight and moves on, the black billionaire bristles with hurt, leaving the scene feeling not just personally belittled, but also racially abused. 

Of course Hermès denied any ill will toward Ms. Winfrey and apologized for the perceived lack of respect. It is inconceivable that they would do otherwise. No successful company and very few individuals today would publicly admit to holding racist views. But would Martha Stewart have been similarly turned away? Who can say for sure? 

Many blacks--even many of the most prominent ones--feel that what happened to Oprah in Paris is an example of the different way prejudice operates today. It is a new and confusing era of "racism without racists," as the sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva terms it. "In contrast to the Jim Crow era, where racial inequality was enforced through overt means (e.g., signs saying 'No Niggers Welcomed Here' or shotgun diplomacy at the voting booth), today racial practices operate in 'now you see it, now you don't' fashion." 

Commenting in the Washington Post, a writer put the matter like this: "It is easy to believe that a clerk in a fancy store could be plagued by prejudices. But is it utterly naive to think she could also be indiscriminately brusque, dismissive or inflexible?" Though no one ever knows with certainty what another person thinks, the truth is that when you are white you are able to pass through the world with the basic ease of assuming you are not being discriminated against under ordinary circumstances: If you can't buy the painting, that's just the way the art world works sometimes; if you are denied entry at the door, that's because the door is closed--nothing larger is going on. It is the centuries-old residue of systemic racial oppression, however, that renders such a default level of comfort in society a luxury that even many of the richest and most accomplished blacks often feel they can't afford to have. 

Last week, a discussion of this tricky facet of modern black life flared up on this site when Touré, the writer and TV personality, published an excerpt from his book, Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness?, in which he engages a variety of prominent black figures, asking each of them to describe the most racist thing that has happened in their lives. He begins the piece with a Chris Rock joke about the fact that in the comedian's affluent New Jersey neighborhood, his only black neighbors are, like him, superstars of sports and entertainment--whereas the white guy living next door is merely a dentist. "He's saying that in modern America blacks can ascend to the upper class, it's possible," writes Touré, "but they have to fight so much more to get there because white supremacy remains a tall barrier to entry." 

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