Why do so many conversations about race seem counterproductive? Why do they tend to offend?
There may be many reasons why conversations about race may be difficult but at least one of them is that those in the conversations often have two very different definitions of racism.
Some people define racism as individual personal prejudice or discrimination while others view it as a structural reality embedded within American culture that leads to racial inequalities. In their book, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, Emerson and Smith clarify this confusion with the term Racialization.
For them, the problem of race in American is best described not in terms of individual hatred, but as “a racialized society.”
Individual bias and discrimination
The traditional definition of racism is “an overt doctrine of racial superiority – usually labeled prejudice – that leads to discrimination” (8). If this is the extent of racism in America, we can solve the problem of race by removing through education or exhortation, these false ideologies.
Emerson observes that while racism in this form exists, it does not tell the whole story of the race problem. First, he notes that in many cases racist ideologies came later to justify status quo institutions, such as slavery. Second, based on interviews that occurred during the time of the Jim Crow era, we can see that many people rejected personal racial prejudice, all while accepting and defending social norms that led to racial inequality.
Structural inequities and racialization
We can also speak about racism by describing how structures and institutions negatively impact racial minorities, such as in areas of employment, housing, education, and policing. Emerson refers to this as “racialization.” A racialized society is “a society wherein race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships” (7, emphasis his). He observes that the form of racism changes, but has a single standard: It is “the collective misuse of power that results in diminished life opportunities for some racial groups” (9).
Racist attitudes may be used to justify racialization, but they do not need to be present for racialization to occur. According to Emerson, racialization is the constant in American society even while its form changes, from slavery to Jim Crow, to its present form. Today, it takes on increasingly covert forms. Racialization is embedded in normal society, avoids direct racial terminology, and tends to be “invisible to most whites” (9, emphasis mine).
I emphasize this last point because it highlights a major divide between how African American Christians and white evangelicals view race. As Emerson goes on to argue, evangelicals have an extremely individualistic cultural toolset. This closes them off to structural conceptions of racism. White evangelicals are even more individualistic than most white Americans. On the other hand, black Christians consistently think and talk about racism as structural, historical, and embedded in society, even apart from individual racial bias. As a result, white evangelicals, looking only through an individualistic lens, simply can’t see what is of grave concern to African Americans in America.
It’s important to note that racial bias does not need to be overt for racialization to occur. Emerson and Smith give the example of college-educated whites compared to non-college-educated whites. More educated people self-report fewer racist ideas than those who are less well educated. While they are more likely to say that they value diversity in housing and education, they are more likely to live in racially homogenous neighborhoods and send their kids to racially homogenous schools.
Emerson isn’t saying that college-educated whites are covertly more racist (secretly holding biased attitudes) than non-college-educated whites. He is saying that they are more equipped to pursue the American ideal of a nice home and a quality school. In racialized America, that means “whiter” neighborhoods and schools.
Why clarity matters
We would be wise to understand this distinction when entering into conversations of race in America. I was once accused of saying that “all white people are racist” [read: have a personal prejudice against back people] when I used the term “systemic racism.” Instead, was talking about what Emerson and Smith are describing above, that racialization is structurally embedded within American society and that this racialization leads to inequalities based on race. If I had “come to terms” with my friend, perhaps our conversation could have been more productive.
 As an example of this latter definition of racism consider this quote from Kaitlyn Scheiss in The Liturgy of Politics: “Racism is a system of oppression based in race – a system that is communicated affectively and experientially.”
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