When Hillary Clinton put “half of Trump’s supporters” into her “basket of deplorables,” she verbalized an idea fundamentally true to her beliefs and dealt a possibly fatal blow to her beleaguered campaign. The “basket of deplorables” metaphor is emblematic of the way many white liberals, myself included, decided to talk about race and racism this past election cycle—full of accusatory language and contempt for individuals. This approach represents a fundamental misunderstanding of racism in this country and creates a blockade to political dialogue that very well may have cost Democrats the White House.
Accusing individuals of racism distracts us from the fact that racism is systemic, coded into our laws. It distracts us from the fact that our education, housing, and criminal justice systems are fundamentally unfair. We have to realize that Donald Trump’s accusation that our nation’s first black president wasn’t born here is a manifestation of a racist society that features red-lining and discriminatory lending, underfunding of predominantly black schools nationwide, and one in three black men ages 18 to 25 in prison, on probation, or on parole.
If we are going to talk about racism held by individuals, we should focus first on ourselves.
It would be a Herculean feat to avoid developing implicit bias while surrounded by movies, TV shows, advertisements, news, and politicians that promote narratives of black criminality or white beauty. I do not claim to have avoided developing this bias.
However, I could always find someone more racist than I am and use them to feel better about my own prejudice. This is what many white liberals did throughout the 2016 election. In doing this, they alienated both those they called racist and racial minorities that felt they didn’t do enough to deal with their own racism. If we ever want to come to a more complete understanding of racism in this country, we have to engage with our own biases rather than sit on our collective high horse and point out the biases of others.
When we call people racist, they stop listening to us, and any chance of progress in a political dialogue is gone. In an effort to change the paradigm on dealing with prejudice, researchers at Stanford University recently tested a new, groundbreaking approach. They sent out canvassers willing to have friendly, personal, and candid conversations with people in order to change their opinions on transgender rights. They discovered that not only were they remarkably effective at getting people to change their minds on the spot, but that people continued to hold their new, more open beliefs three months later.
While opinions on race may be more entrenched than opinions on transgender rights, the overall message of the study is far-reaching: people can ditch prejudice when they are treated with respect and given compelling personal stories to counter their previous beliefs.
Ultimately, we must approach dialogues on race with compassion and humility.
If we are ever going to truly deal with systemic racism we must acknowledge it, understand our own role in perpetuating it, and then work to convince others—through empathy, respect, and understanding—that it exists.