‘Power’ is an essential component of racism

Content Note: Racial slurs

I really need more hours in the day, days in the week, and weeks in the year. I am a wee bit behind on reading my ‘saved links’ on Facebook. The sidebar says I currently have 11 saved links, but I think that number might be a wee bit higher.

::goes off to check::

Oooooooooh yeah. Way more than 11.  That figure reflects what I’ve saved today and *part* of last week. I just scrolled down and I have at least 84 saved links to be read. I say at least bc I got to the bottom of the page and FB did that loading bit where it says ‘please wait while we load the five gajillion links you have saved and if you read these darn things in a timely manner, it might not take so long to load them all‘ (it really says that on my page; wanna buy a bridge in Brooklyn or some swampland in Florida?).

Amid all those links are a host of articles that I have thoughts and opinions about. In more than a few cases, the content of those articles elicits strong opinions from me (and I’ve shared some brief thoughts about them on FB). Other pieces are logged away in a mental “to write about” file that is so huge it almost eclipses Donald Trump’s ego. While I was going through the links, one really stood out to me-a clip from the May 5 episode of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert featuring guest W. Kamau Bell:

In the clip, Colbert discusses Bell’s new CNN documentary series, United Shades of America (and yeah, “black guy goes where he shouldn’t” is a funny and spot-on description of the show). I actually tuned into the premiere episode when it debuted a few months back, though only for a short time. The idea of watching a black man travel around the country into areas with people who would like to see him dead was a bit discomfiting bc Bell serves as a stand-in for other black people, including myself. The thought of venturing to these places fills me with dread (and the fact that I’ve driven through some of these places, lived in some of these places, and likely *still* live in one of these places is an everyday background worry).  My “I’m done with this point” was when Bell was filmed watching a torch-burning by a KKK group. That was just too uncomfortable for me to watch. I do hope that the show managed to help some viewers gain a clearer image of white supremacy in this country and how *not* dead it is.

The thing that really caught my eye about this segment though? At around 5 minutes in, Colbert asks Bell if there is a type of racism that black people engage in, which made me want to stab my eyes out with a hot poker. Not because I don’t think that Colbert is ignorant of the answer to that question, but bc even with Bell’s explanation (“racism implies power and the institutions behind it”), there are going to be people (white folks, let’s be honest) who are going to continue believing that black people can be racist. They will continue to say things like “that one time, at band camp, a black person called me a honky/Becky with the good hair/Chad/cracker/Comrade Mayoface and that’s racist and I’m a victim too”. In their eyes, such comments are racist bc HEY, dictionaries support their view of what constitutes racism! And they’re right. Kind of.


: a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race

: racial prejudice or discrimination


Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior


the belief that some races are better than others, or the unfair treatment of someone because of his or her race

Are you among the people who think any comment that references the race of an individual and does so disparagingly or mockingly is an example of racism? Do you hear “Becky needs to shut up and check her privilege” and instantly think “that’s racist”?  Do you read the hilarious posts by Love Life of an Asian Guy on Facebook and think “he mocks white people for being white and that’s racist”? Do you feel that a black person calling a white person a ‘cracker’ is no different than a white person calling a black person a ‘nigger’? Do you look to the above dictionary definitions for confirmation that such comments are racist? If you do then your understanding of racism is deeply inadequate. In fact, it’s so inadequate that it’s pretty much wrong. That’s because dictionaries are not prescriptive. They are not the be-all, end-all of definitions. Dictionaries work to define how words are used in our culture. They *describe* words. They are not the final authority on what those words mean. And with a word like racism, dictionaries have a great deal of updating to do.

To understand what I mean, you need to examine what it is about racism that is actually harmful. If you think racism is racial prejudice or antagonism directed at a person or persons based on their actual or perceived race or ethnicity, consider the following:

  • If a black person calls a white person a ‘cracker’, is that the same as a black person being forcibly ripped from their home country and brought to the United States to serve-unwillingly-as a slave for a white landowner?
  • If a black woman calls a white woman “Becky with the good hair”, is that the same as a black woman being unable to vote, even after women were ostensibly granted the right to vote in the early part of the 20th century?
  • If a black person says “I hate white people”, is that the same thing as members of the Ku Klux Klan riding around the country lynching black people?

In the above examples I think most rational people would consider the actions of the white people racist. But the actions of the black people carry nowhere near the weight of their white counterparts. In fact, the actions of the black people won’t have any noticeable effect on anyone, aside from possible hurt feelings. I won’t deny that having one’s feelings hurt is unpleasant, but when compared to being denied basic human rights or being enslaved, having one’s feelings hurt is simply not comparable. There is a world of difference between a black person calling a white person a ‘cracker’ and a white person holding a black person as a slave. And it comes down to the fact that only one of those has a hugely detrimental impact on the life of one individual.  Think about the effect of slavery on black people. It shouldn’t be hard to comprehend how rough a life slaves had it. Then consider life after slavery, during the Jim Crow era, when society was heavily segregated and blacks had access to inferior healthcare or public education. Also think what it must have been like for southern black people to live with the constant specter of terrorism hanging over their heads in the form of the KKK. Compare those life-changing and even life-ending experiences with that of a white woman being called “Becky with the good hair”, and you should begin to realize where the true horror of racism comes from: the degradation, the dehumanization, and the oppression of African-Americans by white people. The oppression black people in the United States have experienced is a result of the racially prejudiced beliefs of white people who wield sufficient power to affect the lives of blacks on a macro level, and in all walks of life.

That’s racism: a system of oppression in which social, political, and economic power is concentrated in the hands of one racial group-a group that hold racial prejudices and biases and uses their power to discriminate against, marginalize, and oppress other racial or ethnic groups. As a racial group, white people have always wielded the reins of power in this country and have never experienced marginalization or oppression due to their race bc while racial prejudice is an important component of racism, it needs the addition of power to affect the lives of vast swathes of people. Without power, it is not possible for one racial group to be racist against another. In this country, black people have never wielded power on a level sufficient to affect the lives of white people. So while black people can display racial prejudice or bias against white people, they lack access to the the requisite power necessary to be racist. If you don’t believe that, consider the following:

  • White people were the ones who had the political, social, and economic POWER to enslave black people and create the institution of slavery.
  • White people with POWER were the ones who were able to create and enforce Jim Crow Laws.
  • White people with POWER were the ones who created the US interstate system which tore apart poor and predominantly black communities.
  • White people with POWER were the ones who prevented black people from achieving the same success with the G.I. Bill post WWII as compared to white people.
  • It was white people with POWER who decimated black Wall Street.
  • It was white people with POWER who rioted for decades through black communities, slaughtering African-Americans for any reason (real or invented).
  • It was white terrorists with POWER who roamed the countryside engaging in mob violence, attacking black people, lynching them, torturing them, and taking body parts for prizes.
  • It was white people with POWER who allowed such atrocities to continue with tacit approval.
  • It was white people with POWER who launched the MOVE attacks.
  • It was white people with POWER that fought against desegregation.
  • It was white people with POWER that opposed miscegenation.
  • White people with POWER are the ones who launched the War on Drugs which has decimated African-American communities and seen countless black lives imprisoned or destroyed.
  • White people with POWER are the ones who have created Voter ID laws which deliberately disenfranchise black people by inhibiting their ability to exercise their constitutional right to vote.

In the history of this country, there is no point when African-Americans have possessed the power to oppress white people by engaging in any of the above activities (or anything similar). OTOH, at Every. Single. Turn in the history of this country, the marginalization and discrimination faced by black people has been bc of white people who held (and continue to hold) prejudicial or bigoted beliefs about black people, and had the POWER to enshrine those beliefs into our culture and our laws. Wielding the reins of power has allowed white people to oppress black people at all levels of society for the entire history of this country. That’s where the true power of racism comes from. Not from calling someone racial slurs, but by the fusion of bigoted beliefs with the power to deny whole racial groups their autonomy, their dignity, and their basic humanity.

‘Power’ is an essential component of racism

4 thoughts on “‘Power’ is an essential component of racism

  1. 1

    I’d say that’s what “systemic racism” is, or something. Mere racism doesn’t necessarily have to be like that, it can be on a personal level.

    And even if power was an essential component of racism, everyone has some power (unless they are physically paralyzed or something).

    I also suspect someone could, if they looked, find some substantial examples of black people being racist (in action, or belief) against white people.

  2. 2

    The power I’m speaking of is specifically institutional power though. Black people don’t have the power to enslave white people, for instance. Or segregate them. Or deny them access to voting booths. That’s a level of power neither black people nor any other racial group have ever possessed in this country. And that’s where the true damage from racism comes from.

    I think the distinction I’m making between racial prejudices or biases and racism is an important one bc of the impact each can have on people.

    I think a lot of the problems with understanding racism in this country come from conflating individual acts of racial bigotry with the institutional acts that affect entire racial groups.

  3. 3

    I agree that it’s important to distinguish between something that is (currently) institutional VS non-institutional, high impact VS low impact etc., just not that this distinction determines whether or not something is racist.

  4. 4

    Sorry I’m a bit late to this one, I seem never able to catch up!

    I’m fairly recently married to a person of color who is by the definition above, racist, save for the colour of their skin. In particular they think the race they belong to makes them inherently superior to some other races. And this is a common belief in their extended family. They are changing, slowly, and I would be very surprised if the person I know and love still holds these racist views as we grow older, and I certainly hope these views are in the dustbin when we start a family.

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