The most important debate so far in 2014 between public intellectuals is currently blazing between Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic and Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine surrounding Paul Ryan, Barack Obama and the expected emanation of African-American poverty.
I was reading their dialogue, which you may find online and is so very worth your time, and I began to think about how in my own life, in my own university community, we advance notions of racism, racial inequality and reverse racism.
Let me begin by being indisputably clear: reverse racism does not exist. It is arbitrary. It is ineffective. It does not have a pedestal from which to change or impose any substantive discourse. Reverse racism is a construct of the white patriarchy, a backlash, reactionary spitfire in the wake of slowly improving racial equality.
Prejudice is assuming something about someone. Racism is a function of power. It seems white people tend to ascribe racism to prejudice. The assumption of someone's characteristics based on a racial stereotype is no different than those surrounding stereotypes of male hair length, for example. Or wardrobe. Or height.
When a person of a minority race assumes something about a white person because they're white, this is not racism. This is prejudice. Prejudice is a two-way street. Racism, on the other hand, is not.
In what ways may minorities exercise deep-rooted institutional power over white people? Sure, maybe stringent undergrad admissions favor racial minorities. And sure, affirmative action doesn't work.
But the minority college student who took your admissions spot? The deck was stacked against them from the beginning. It was more difficult for them to even get on the same playing field as you. Simply, on average, minority children have less resources available to them than white children. It's that simple.
In contrast are some ways that whites may exercise institutional power over minorities. The most prominent one that comes to mind is the wealth of overwhelmingly white state legislatures passing voter identification laws. Tennessee itself enforces a strict photo identification law. And it's no shock that this voter identification law was intended to – and successfully does – disenfranchise African-Americans.
It might be valuable for us to stop saying we live in a post-racial society. Maybe our president identifies as African-American. Maybe we are slowly bridging the gap between disproportionate income based on race – except probably not. Maybe the percentage of race-related violence in the United States is continuously decreasing.
Stephen Colbert posits this opinion regularly. "I didn't know you were African-American," he says to a guest, "because I don't see color." Even if Colbert's character is most often smart and satirically helpful, this is a major flaw for his brand, because Colbert himself, as a white male, was afforded the best possible opportunities in the community in which he grew up.
What we should strive for is not to live in a post-racial America, but a post-racist America. To perpetuate the idea that we either live in a post-racial society or that we should live in a post-racial society is to completely discount all historical factors that have constructed racial inequality in the first place.
What white people, especially those of us born after about 1980, sometimes forget is that even though it is second nature for us to have friends, classmates, or co-workers – our peers – who are minorities, that doesn't mean everything is equal now.
The remnants of Jim Crow and segregation resound through urban centers, where white businesspeople and government officials contribute crime rates, poverty and education inequality to a black-culture-induced breakdown of the family unit.
They, like many of us, again neglect the historical cultural and economic factors that have dug urban minorities into a deeper and deeper hole.
Wade Scofield is a senior in Latin and religious studies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.