How does one identify racism in a “post-racial” world? Is it the expulsion of a large group of black and Hispanic kids from a private pool? Is it the arrest of a black Harvard professor for trying to enter his locked, upscale home? Or is it the attack of a Hispanic nominee as a “reverse-racist” for offhand statements she made to fellow Latinos? I assume that it was relatively simple for African-Americans to recognize instances of overt racism prior to the Civil Rights era. There were restaurants that would not serve you. There were certain jobs that you could not get. There were public accommodations which you could not access. It may not have been infrequent to hear racial epithets hurled in your direction.
As a Generation Xer, I can probably count on my fingers the times I have been called the “n-word,” and most of those were as a child. No one has ever told me there were places I couldn’t go because I was black. I have had the opportunity to apply to and attend the schools of my choice, and I have witnessed the election of a black president. Given the changes in our more accepting society during my lifetime, I recently wondered how one would identify an instance of racism if it were not overt? And if minorities are excluded or marginalized because of race, but the racial motivations are not obvious, is there any real harm?
Of course, there is a real harm. The divisions that remain in our own city and state perpetuate prejudice, mistrust, and discrimination. If you are reading this paper in a Charleston restaurant, look up for a moment. Chances are extremely high that the only minorities in the establishment, if any, are in the kitchen or in a service capacity. Most (non fast food) restaurants in Charleston simply do not have a diverse clientele, and it is irrelevant that this is not a purposeful exclusion. This pattern repeats itself across area schools, businesses, and recreational facilities across the state, where the racial balance of the institution rarely reflects the surrounding community. So even if there is not a purposeful exclusion of minorities from pools, neighborhoods, or restaurants, harm can still result when minorities receive disparate treatment in these places. Because of the history of racism in this country, minorities often question intent when receiving questionable treatment. Only greater inclusion will break down these potential misunderstandings.
I went into a West Ashley restaurant a few weeks back and was completely ignored by the waiter tending the bar area. I was dressed nicely, I had been in that restaurant before, and the restaurant was not busy. I thought that the bartender might be having a bad day until I saw him pleasantly greet and interact with other customers who happened to be white. I was the only black customer in the restaurant, a fact that was lost on me until I tried to make sense of the bartender’s snub. Was the disparate treatment I received a result of racism?
I may never know. It is virtually impossible to determine whether treatment that a minority receives is racially motivated. The racism that occurs today often does not manifest itself with smoking gun clarity, but in discriminatory ways that are systemic and frequently fall below the radar. The youth group excluded from the swim club and the arrested Harvard professor are just the rare instances that make the headlines. Homogeneous clubs, neighborhoods, and restaurants only set the stage for discrimination, real or perceived. Until we personally reach out to people of different races to combat our own prejudices, the status quo of segregation is going to persist and the ideal of a “post-racial” world is going to remain an elusive dream.