Reversal of centuries-old racism is slow but essential

Published 10:42 pm Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Racism is not genetic. It’s a learned trait. It must be taught and retaught, in order to be passed down generation to generation.

Once taught, racism must be unlearned. Sometimes that can occur through a single epiphany, or event, that strikes out of the blue. More often, though, it comes over time, as we meet, work with and associate with people of all backgrounds and races and realize that we are, indeed, all just human, with the same ambitions, same strengths and same frailties.

During the past half-century, the integration of schools, the military and other elements of society have enabled an increasing number of individuals to shed the racist teachings of their youth, and it is certainly true that there are far fewer people today who consider themselves racially prejudiced than there were in, say, 1950.

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And yet, racism remains a curse in our nation. It dies hard. The election of President Barack Obama in 2008 was extraordinarily promising in terms of racial acceptance, but while his two terms in office represented a huge advance in race relations, those years also deeply angered the hardcore racists who remained.

The election of Donald Trump to the presidency was brought on by many causes, not the least of them being that hardened attitude among those who would like to see racial progress reversed, and the nation return to the 1950s. “Make America Great Again” meant many things to many people, but for many people, it unquestionably meant make it white again. Racists have felt empowered during this administration to be more public — and they have been.

The recent nationwide convulsion brought on by George Floyd’s death was a declaration that the nation is not willing to return to the “old ways,” and the large number of white Americans who have joined the protests and called for changes in our justice system seems, at this point, to be guaranteeing that.

The problems related to the nation’s racial heritage are extraordinarily complicated, though, and even as more and more of us whites declare ourselves to be free of racial prejudice, there remains a societal imbalance that grew out of centuries of overt actions.

Our individual feelings about race are crucial in bringing about change, and we should be open and forceful in our rejection of racism. But the social, educational and economic barriers of institutional, or systemic, racism won’t disappear because of our individual feelings. They are far too ingrained in American society and life.

Systemic racism is not really a complicated concept. It is the realization that after four centuries of being left out of the economic, educational and social fast track of society, blacks are at a huge disadvantage in trying to achieve success for themselves and their children.

College entry is but one example. There is a national movement — among whites, naturally — to make college entry totally racially neutral. Base it on academic achievement, the thinking goes, then everyone will have an equal shot at success.

That only occurs if everyone has an equal chance to get to that point. A child who grew up in poverty, whose parents came home bone tired nightly from menial jobs, who could not afford quality health or dental care, whose diet depended on the cheapest food available, did not have an equal start.

Of course, many white children are born into similar circumstances, but the privileges of race have benefited even them, though to a lesser degree. In addition, the percentage of blacks in that status is far greater, and the obstacles they face in attempting to climb out are far higher.

“I didn’t cause it” is a favorite mantra of whites today. No, but we inherited it as a nation and we benefit from it, and until we collectively make up our minds to assist black Americans in achieving their fair share of the American dream, the disparities between the races will continue to widen, and this four-century-old national tragedy will continue.

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is