Racism Without Racists?

By Thomas Chatterton Williams

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. 

oprah.jpg

Reuters

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." 

This is a funny joke, but it doesn't quite make the author's point. Chris Rock and his black neighbors, who include Mary J. Blige and Eddie Murphy, are rags-to-riches success stories, members of the lower class who've made fortunes. But the white dentist is almost certainly not from equivalently modest white circumstances. He's probably not the child of Appalachian rednecks. It's safer to assume his parents were college educated and of similar social background. That this dentist now lives in a well-to-do suburb is proof of little more than the fact that education and privilege reproduce themselves. If one starts out poor, it ought to go without saying that the kind of generation-skipping success exhibited by these famous back stars requires--regardless of race--exceptional ability and drive. It wouldn't be particularly shocking to learn that a generation or two ago it took more hustle for a Jewish child of immigrants to make it to Park Avenue or Greenwich, Connecticut, than it took for a WASP to stay. 

Much more interesting and relevant to the problem of modern racism is what Dr. Elizabeth Alexander, a poet and Yale professor, has to say: "The most racist thing that ever happened to me would likely be a continual underestimation of my intellectual ability and capacity, and the real insidious aspect of that kind of racism is that we don't know half the time when people are underestimating us. We don't know half the time when we're being cut out of something because someone is unable to see us at full capacity. And so I presume that that happens, and has happened, a lot." Aaron McGruder, the creator of the popular cartoon series The Boondocks agrees: "I imagine [the most racist thing that's happened to me would] be a thing I don't even know ever happened," he tells Touré. "It would be that opportunity that never manifested and I'll never know that it was even possible."

As I read and reread these quotes, I'm struck by the unifying reasoning behind them, which Touré never questions, and which, in the language of informal logic, is an example of argumentum ad ignorantiam, or the "appeal to ignorance." Imagine someone saying: "We don't know that UFOs are not visiting the planet earth or that aliens are not watching us. And so I presume that that happens, and has happened, a lot." This is a basic logical fallacy. Moreover, it is a complaint about being underestimated that is particularly hard to rally around coming from an Ivy League-educated, Yale-employed poet who is admired by the sitting president of the United States and who was asked to read an original poem at his inauguration. 

At a time when most poets toil in utter obscurity, one can't help but wonder, what intellectual recognition is Elizabeth Alexander being denied? And yet, I don't doubt that this is how she genuinely feels about her place in a historically racist society through which she must navigate as a black woman. Knowing that this is how many older black people continue to feel in the depths of their souls--often with ample justification, as Jesse Jackson's anecdote about the southern bigotry that spawned his activism poignantly shows--I would hesitate before disagreeing with her outright. 

Still, it is not a sentiment that I can claim with honesty to share. The world may always be an imperfect place to have brown skin (indeed, a fair amount of comments appended to the original article serve as reminders that bigots are alive and well, if mostly anonymously now), but I am doubtful I will ever know in a visceral way the searing pain that vibrates through a man like Jesse Jackson. Nor do I believe that that is what his generation fought and marched for me to endure. 

The looming problem in black America is not that Oprah Winfrey can't go to Hermès after hours or that Dr. Alexander is being overlooked. The point of real concern, it seems to me, ought to be the significant and growing class divide within the black community itself--the widening gap in opportunity and access that separates blacks who have educations and resources from those who do not. 

If we are fortunate enough to find ourselves in or near that first category, it is our ethical obligation not to forget the sacrifice it took for us to get there. Beyond that, though, it's difficult to see what advantage can be gained trying to prove a negative or lamenting what cannot be known. And this much is certain: In a world where there's racism, whether with or without racists, living well--as all of the people under consideration here are clearly doing--is, and always will be, the best and only revenge. That is what the Belgian man knew intuitively and why his experience in the gallery was a trivial one. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/09/racism-without-racists/245361/