Racism and the Indelible Impact of Personal Experience

Americans are divided on the subjects of race and racism.

Let’s begin with a thought experiment. Imagine for a moment that one out of every 20 Americans was an outright, died-in-the-wool racist. These Americans hate people of other races, and that hatred leaks out in various ways, including through comments and outright discriminatory acts. That estimate may be low (it’s likely low), or it may be high, but we know that in any given population of Americans, some people are in fact bigots.

If you’re black, by the simple law of averages you’ll end up interacting with racists at some point in your daily life, and some of those bigots will make their views plain. They may treat you differently in a store, they may drive past you in a taxi (by the way, many taxi-driver bigots aren’t white), or they may actively discriminate against you at work. Those encounters will be shocking and infuriating — and they’ll naturally make you suspicious that racial motivations may lurk behind other negative life events.

If you’re white, by contrast, unless your social circle includes open racists, the odds are that you’ll not only never see racism — you may never even have a conversation with a person who admits to their bigotry. Expressing overtly discriminatory thoughts is a ticket straight out of polite white society, so even racists tend to keep their thoughts to themselves. So you live your life without seeing or experiencing racism. Having never seen bigotry — and, in contrast, often seeing affirmative-action programs that actually disadvantage you or your kids — many Americans are thus naturally suspicious of claims that America is a racist society or that racism is a material factor holding back black Americans.

I thought of this paradigm — a paradigm that I’ve now experienced from both directions (more on that in a bit) — when I saw recent Pew Research Center data outlining the extraordinary racial gap in perceptions of racism and racial progress in the United States. For example, 88 percent of black respondents believe the country needs to continue to make changes for equal rights. Whites are almost evenly split, with 53 percent believing changes are still necessary. By enormous margins black Americans believe they’re treated less fairly by employers (42 points), by banks (41 points), by the police (34 points), and by the courts (32 points).

There was a time when I’d look at those numbers, shake my head, and think that white America had it about right.

The gap between those who say they’ve personally experienced racism or discrimination is similarly huge. A majority of blacks (71 percent) — including an overwhelming majority of college-educated blacks (81 percent) — report that they’ve suffered from racial discrimination. Less than a third of whites report the same. Whites who reported “a lot of contact with blacks” were more likely to report racial discrimination than whites “who have less contact with blacks.” In other words, racism can and does run in both directions.

There was a time when I’d look at those numbers, shake my head, and think that white America had it about right. I grew up in rural Kentucky, and while I encountered a few overt racists in high school, I never heard from them again after I left for college — nor when I returned to rural Kentucky and rural Tennessee later in life. Aside from hearing the rants of a few Middle Eastern cab drivers, I simply never heard or saw racism of any kind. To the contrary, in Evangelical America there is constant talk and discussion of racial reconciliation. Indeed, while Evangelicals are constantly reviled as bigots and haters, I’d argue they’re doing more effective work for racial unity and racial healing than any other American subculture.

#share#Then my wife and I adopted a black child, and my perspective changed. In the last six years, I’ve experienced more racially charged moments than in my previous 41 combined — and it runs both ways. Yes, there’s the vicious online hate — first from the identity-politics Left expressing disgust at white conservatives raising a black child, then from the alt-right sharing the same view — but there have also been a number of surprising in-person incidents. There was the father who warned his child not to play with black kids. There was the lady who demanded proof that our child belonged in a neighborhood pool — a pool that had guarded entry, and every child wore an armband.

And then there have been the racially charged incidents running in the other direction — many of them centering around our daughter’s hair. Indeed, to some black women it has seemed as if the entire test of my wife’s parenting ability boiled down to making sure our daughter’s hair looked perfect — even when it looked better than their child’s.

RELATED: Identity Politics Are Ripping Us Apart

I don’t want to give a wrong impression. Our largely white and Christian community has thoroughly embraced our daughter. She’s surrounded with love and friendship. But those few racially charged moments do hurt, and she’s starting to notice when they happen. My daughter is in the 71 percent of black Americans who can report experiencing racism, and it does indeed color her view of the world.

When it comes to race, I can’t help but sense that our nation is sliding backwards — toward more race obsession and more division. There are those who seem to believe that white supremacy is the central fact of modern American life; their opponents will sometimes go so far as to deny the racism that plainly still exists. The true way is the hard way: acknowledging that while not everything is about race, some things are, and we will never, ever create the perfect racially blind society.

I don’t know the path forward, but I know that America is a place where my daughter will likely enjoy more freedom and opportunity than in any other nation on earth. She will also almost certainly confront continued racism and rejection simply because of the color of her skin. Both things can be true at the same time, and we can thus be encouraged and discouraged. But mostly, I’m humbled. Experience has changed my perceptions. May it also increase my understanding and bring me closer to the truth.


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