I am a huge admirer of Robert F. Kennedy. In learning American history as a youth, I was struck my RFK’s profound humanist transformation from a righteously status quo politician to a truly revolutionary equal-rights activist. In an unprecedented visit to apartheid South Africa in 1966 he said the following to a rapt audience at the University of Cape Town, South Africa :
I came here because of my deep interest and affection for a land settled by the Dutch in the mid-seventeenth century, then taken over by the British, and at last independent; a land in which the native inhabitants were at first subdued, but relations with whom remain a problem to this day; a land which defined itself on a hostile frontier; a land which has tamed rich natural resources through the energetic application of modern technology; a land which once imported slaves, and now must struggle to wipe out the last traces of that former bondage. I refer, of course, to the United States of America.
His introductory words were met with uproarious applause for their witty misdirection and candor. In 2011, this historic visit to South Africa where he met Albert Lutuli, Africa’s first Nobel Peace Laureate and former anti-apartheid leader of the African National Congress, and residents of historically black township Soweto is recounted in the documentary RFK in the Land of Apartheid: Ripple of Hope. Kennedy’s recorded speeches at several universities and “official” venues in South Africa were made to predominantly white audiences though his unequivocal stance against systemic racism pervaded each oration. With Nobel Laureate, former South African president and anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela gravely ill, I wonder if we have learned from history.
In 2013, with so many of our Civil Rights leaders gone, many of the most influential long dead by assassination, so-called “post-racial” America stews in a pervasive colorless, odorless, invisible racism. One of the more accessible analyses of the contemporary, “post-racial” American worldview is colorblind ideology introduced by Duke University sociology professor Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. Colorblind ideology or colorblind racism is an outgrowth of progress in equal rights, backlash to equality, insufficient systemic change and discomfort with addressing racism for fear of engendering racism. Essentially, by saying things like “I don’t see color” or “racism is a problem of the past” we allow ourselves to ignore pervasive everyday and ongoing structural racism; from public slights to the nation’s wildly overgrown prison system.
On Tuesday June 25, 2013 we witnessed the gutting of the Voting Rights Act passed in1965 as a necessary effort to protect the rights of voters—particularly African Americans and other non-white voters— vulnerable to state laws to prevent one’s ability to vote via targeted, discriminatory voting requirements. A conservative Supreme Court struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act allowing individual states the right to change voting regulations without federal approval—no oversight whatsoever. In a circulating email petition from colorofchange.org, a recent quote from conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia says, “[the Voting Rights Act is] the perpetuation of a racial entitlement. “ Scalia’s rational speaks to the characteristically 21st century racism of modern America –whether envisaged as post-racial or colorblind. To the question of “racial entitlement,” there have been numerous attempts just this past presidential election to disenfranchise voters and the imminent majority of people of color in an effort to secure the election of conservative, prejudice public servants. The dilution of the Voting Rights Act alongside the pop-cultural racist controversy of Paula Deen makes me think it’s time to outline what exactly 21st Century Racism looks like because it is a rare thing to witness overt bigotry today as in Deen’s case. Today we live with a modern racism that hides in plain sight:
21st Century Racism is believing that discriminatory housing policy with respect to predatory home loans, gentrification (favoring unchecked/luxury development) and limited housing subsidies does not exist.
21st Century Racism is willful ignorance to the interrelationship between sexism and racism pertaining to women of color historically and today (see Quvenzhané Wallis Onion Magazine incident and Beyoncé Copenhagen incident).
21st Century Racism is rejecting the well-researched and ongoing criminalization of black, Latino and other minorities beginning with the Reagan Administration’s War on Drugs and resulting in what lawyer Michelle Alexander calls “the new Jim Crow.”
21st Century Racism is ignoring the disproportionate burden of record student loan debt on students of color.
21st Century Racism is the closure, redistricting and underfunding of public schools disproportionally affecting the prospects of students of color.
21st Century Racism is believing the “myth of integration” while the United States is persistently racially segregated and increasing economically segregated.
21st Century Racism is continuing to perceive anti-racist activism as the responsibility of people of color, rather than a committed inward reflection and outward deconstruction of white privilege by European-Americans.
21st Century Racism is eroding of landmark Civil Rights laws like the 1965 Voting Rights Act and possibly affirmative action by colorblind ideologues and conservative lobbyists without adequate alternatives to combat ongoing discrimination.
21st Century Racism is immigration policy that seeks to dramatically reduce U.S. cultural diversity through veiled racist sentiments: As Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif) states of a recent conservative push to end Diversity Visas, ”[it’s] a huge risk to bring in people that have a propensity not to be the brightest”—DVs provide green cards through a lottery system to nations with low immigration rates; primarily benefiting Africa in recent years though winners range from the Ukraine to Fiji.
I personally experience racism at least once a day. Many know of “micro-aggressions” of racism which happen when I pick up coffee on the way to work, or attend a play, or shop for groceries, or go to the doctor. I was born in Nairobi, Kenya and raised in New York City. My parents and elders shared experiences of colonial and neo-colonial racism, and I, as a member the African Diaspora, walk a fine line of multiple consciousness as African, American, woman, black, and immigrant. I have always known race to be a cultural construct with manifest discriminatory practice. Yet, the full extent, emotional hurt and ongoing experience of racism has inspired me to take action in a manner my Ivy League educated African parents would have never done. Just as I am African, I am American, a modern outcome of Civil Rights and Black Nationalists struggles, fully aware of my human rights and when they are violated. It is very rare these days to have someone call you a racial epithet, what is common is to experience racial bias veiled in the manner I outlined above—systemic, insidious, debatable and deeply hurtful. The greatest antidote to prejudice in all forms is to name it, as the feminist campaign “name it, change it” demands, therefore: the U.S. is a historically and modern racist society, we need to actively change it and can only do so by facing reality.