Students needed to learn about racism in American society long before I started teaching a course on it.
I chose to title my course “White Racism” because I thought it was scholarly and succinct, precise and powerful.
Others saw it differently.
Many white Americans (and even some people of color) became upset when they learned about this course. Thousands took to social media and far-right news sites and racist blogs to attack the course and me personally. Some 150 of these individuals even sent me hateful and threatening messages.
It’s tempting to blame the hostility to my course on today’s political climate — one in which the president of the United States can routinely make overtly racist statements and receive some of his strongest support from members of white, racist hate groups.
But the reality is that scholarly critiques of white supremacy in the U.S. have always been met with scorn. That doesn’t make the topic any less true, any less important, or any less necessary to teach.
White racism isn’t an opinion. It’s a historical and contemporary truth, supported by evidence, that’s been taught for decades.
I’ve taught courses on racial stratification in the U.S. for nearly a decade myself. The course, and others like it, are all anchored in a damning body of historical and contemporary evidence — evidence that shows that Europeans and their white descendants colonized what would become the United States, as well as other places around the globe.
They practiced all manner of inhumanity against non-whites. This has included genocide, slavery, murder, rape, torture, theft, chicanery, segregation, discrimination, intimidation, internment, humiliation, and marginalization.
This is inarguable. But that’s not where the opposition to my course lies.
In reality, most Americans have a general understanding of our nation’s history of abuse toward African-Americans. The transatlantic slave trade, Jim Crow laws, lynchings, housing and labor market discrimination, police brutality — these are all concepts with which most are familiar.
What many disagree with is the impact of those practices on people’s lives and opportunities today. Many argue for what I (and many others) call the myth of a “colorblind society.”
The myth of the colorblind society holds that the U.S. is a “post-racial” society where race no longer impacts individuals’ opportunities in life.
It’s a belief that erases the daily realities that demonstrate the this country is white supremacist in nature.
But the myth of a colorblind society crumbles underneath a substantial body of research that shows how race still matters in many areas of American life. Evidence shows that race still matters in the labor market and workplace, education, and even in access to clean water. Race matters in health care, the criminal justice system, and even everyday retail and dining experiences.
Still, many refuse to believe that racism persists. They point to the civil rights legislation of the 1960s or, more recently, the election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States, as evidence of the “end” of racism, or at least race’s “declining significance.”
The point of my course is to disabuse my students of those beliefs, guiding them toward a more accurate understanding of racial matters in our country.
But wait a second. Can’t anyone be racist?
The most common complaint that I’ve encountered thus far is that anybody can be racist, not just white people. They ask indignantly: What about “reverse racism”? Or what about other forms of racism they believe exist on the part of Latinos, Asian-Americans, and Native American peoples?
My answer is: Folks of color can be prejudiced and biased, but there is no such thing, for example, as “black racism.”
Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, president of the American Sociological Association, put it well when asked if it would be fair to have classes such as “Asian Racism” or “Latino Racism.”
He said, “We can all be prejudiced, yeah? So, black people can be anti-white, but there is a big difference between having prejudiced views about other people and having a system that gives systemic privilege to some groups.“
That’s the bottom line: Black people did not develop and benefit from a centuries-old comprehensive system of racial oppression comprised of laws, policies, practices, traditions, and an accompanying ideology — one that promotes the biological, intellectual and cultural superiority of whites to dominate other groups. Europeans and their white descendants did.
This is systemic racism. And students in courses such as mine are introduced to the scholarship that attests to this reality, past and present.
My course may be an elective, but the effects of white racism in society are not.
A common criticism I’ve heard is that I’m teaching a course titled “White Racism” at a public university at taxpayer expense.
Not only should my course and others like it be taught at public colleges and universities, they must be taught at such institutions. It is in the public interest that students be provided with not only an opportunity to learn about the origin, logic, and consequences of white racial domination but also how to challenge and dismantle it. The public university classroom is among the best places for this to occur.
The president of Florida Gulf Coast University, Michael Martin, has strongly and publicly supported the inclusion of my “White Racism” class in the university’s course offerings.
“Reviewing the course content is much more instructive than passing judgment based on a two-word title,” he said in a statement. “At FGCU, as at all great universities, we teach our students critical thinking skills by challenging them to think independently and critically about important, even if controversial, issues of our times.”
Hopefully someday, the rest of society will learn to do the same.
This piece was originally published by The Conversation and is reprinted here with permission.