Racism Taboos and Underground Bias.

Matt Yglesias on racism in Western Europe:

My casual-ish impression is that in 2010 racism is generally a bigger problem in Western Europe than in the United States. We’re obviously far from perfect in this regard, but progressives can I think legitimately count substantial progress in fighting bias as a major achievement and the European experience as illustrating the fact that the challenge is a non-trivial one.

A few thoughts. First, broadly speaking, I think this is right; Europeans do seem to be more comfortable with public expressions of bigotry and anti-Semitism, although anecdotally, I've heard that Europeans are more likely to see Americans as the "real racists," given our history of slavery and apartheid. Of course, it's that same history of slavery and apartheid that has fueled the fight against bias in the public sphere.

Still, it would be a real stretch to call the United States an "anti-racist" society; systemic bias is a defining feature of American life, and individual prejudice remains alive and well. And indeed, one of the downsides of making racism a taboo -- perhaps the ultimate taboo -- is that bias has gone "underground." Vanishingly few white people would attack blacks in public, but quite a few -- and probably more than we think -- would disparage them in private. The funny thing, of course, is the taboo is so strong that someone might do or say something racist in private while adamantly maintaining their anti-racism. I have white high school classmates who have gone to Halloween in blackface or who freely use "nigger" on their Facebook pages.

To borrow from an e-mail exchange I had with a few friends, "I can't tell you, for example, how often I've had Chris Rock's 'black people vs. niggers' speech recited to me and the insistence from the white person that he is just the same as Chris Rock, and so it's not racist, and it's about behavior and not race, etc. etc." Worse, because racism is almost exclusively identified with Bull Connor and the Ku Klux Klan, discussions of institutional racism are incredibly difficult, if not impossible (see: nearly any discussion of affirmative action).

That said, I can't help but prefer "underground" racism to its above ground counterpart; as someone who has been the target of overt racism and who will probably encounter it in the future, I kind of prefer a world where racism is banished from polite society, even if the result is a hard fight against systemic bias.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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