Consider some of the most egregious evidence of racism. White supremacists proudly march and chant their vile slogans — we saw them at Charlottesville, and we know how quickly their hatred can turn violent. Bigots claim the right to openly spout racial epithets and even to kill. On a regular basis, we learn of police officers who kill black people with impunity. Earlier this month, white teens in New Hampshire reportedly left an eight year old black child hanging by his neck from a tree (fortunately, he survived). The older boys are said to have taunted the 8 year old with racial slurs and references to “white pride.” Carl Paladino, the co-chair of Donald Trump’s New York campaign, grotesquely fantasized about Michelle Obama being “let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe” to “live comfortably in a cave with Maxie, the gorilla.” Mr. Paladino’s friend and political ally Donald Trump gained entry to national politics on the wings of the racist lie that Barack Obama was not really born in the United States. Mr. Trump proceeded to run a campaign dripping in racism from start to finish. As president, he has defended white supremacists and neo-Nazis while championing bigoted policies like the proposed travel ban and, over the weekend, smearing mostly black football players who publicly protest racism and policy brutality as “sons of bitches”.
Most would agree these are examples of especially despicable racism. Yet no one will own up to being a racist. White supremacists hide behind the “alt-right” euphemism. Mr. Paladino claims his comments about Michelle Obama had “nothing to do with race.” Professional bully Donald Trump and his minions threaten the job of Jemele Hill — a black journalist who dared to call Trump what he is. A local police chief in New Hampshire initially described the near murder of an 8 year old boy as “an unfortunate incident between some juveniles” and expressed the hope that “mistakes [the teens] make as a young child should not have to follow them for the rest of their life.” President Trump insists that his comments about anti-racist/anti-police brutality protesters have nothing to do with race — even as he told a nearly all-white audience at a rally in Alabama that “people like yourselves” should turn off the TV when you see “those people” — mostly black athletes — protesting.
Of course, black Americans and other people of color fully understand that both racism and racists are among us. Unlike white Americans, they cannot choose to ignore it. They live this reality on a daily basis, often in far less dramatic circumstances than the ones I highlighted above. They prepare their children for a world in which racism may threaten their liberty or their lives. But when they forthrightly call out the racism they see and experience, they are ridiculed, dismissed, even threatened, as in the case of Ms. Hill and the protesting athletes.
It might make a difference if they didn’t stand alone. White Americans must be honest. We know what is said privately when people of color are not present. We know how pervasive racism is — and how ordinary and everyday it is. Few of us would have marched with the mob at Charlottesville, but I strongly suspect that most of us have stood by when others made racist comments, and few of us have ever spoken up to confirm what black people know about white racism.
This is not easy to admit. It is painful, in large part because it is deeply embarrassing, and also or relatedly because most of us know it is morally wrong. No one wants to be seen as a racist — not even the most egregious offenders among us. But it’s past time to speak openly.
Acknowledging the racism inside us — the prejudice and bias we feel and/or condone — does not mean, of course, that we are all Klan members. But this is not an all or nothing proposition. White Americans, of course, benefit in many ways from racism, including its systemic manifestations. If we say nothing when public figures or our own friends and family members make racist statements, we make ourselves willing partners. If we are silent when authoritarians try to silence black protest, we are condoning the bigots’ actions. I certainly do not exempt myself. I have heard other white people use stereotypes and vile slurs when no black people were present. I am ashamed to say that I said nothing.
It is absurd that black Americans can be criticized and threatened simply for protesting the racism that is woven into the very fabric of American society. But it is easier for the worst bigots among us to play the game of belittling black protest when the rest of us remain silent. It’s easy for most of us to express outrage at Donald Trump’s racism. But there’s much more we can do if we want to make it harder for him to spew his venom with impunity.
Chris Edelson is an assistant professor of government in American University’s School of Public Affairs. His latest book, “Power Without Constraint: The Post 9/11 Presidency and National Security,” was published in May 2016 by the University of Wisconsin Press.