Why Are We So Obsessed with Whether or Not Black People Can be Racist?

“Black people can’t be racist” is a phrase that you’ve probably heard and might even agree with. On the opposite side, you have people who are desperate to prove otherwise. But what is with the obsession?

Why doesn’t anyone have this same debate about White people? Chinese people? Why is everyone so obsessed with black people and their ideas about race? Even black people themselves have passionate opinions on the topic,
but I can’t bring myself to understand why.

Black people are American. Racism and prejudice have played a huge role in the shaping of American society. To me, this makes the question of whether or not black people can be prejudiced or ‘racist’ a daft one.

Of course they can be. Black people can certainly be racist, and they can certainly hold prejudiced views. But….. why is that so difficult for some people to admit? On top of that, why is it a big deal? It’s not ‘right’, but it’s reality.

Every group of people has prejudiced individuals. To expect black people to be any different is quite strange. I think that in America, we’re used to seeing black people as perpetual victims. And unfortunately, far too many black people have bought into this narrative. When you call a black person ‘racist’, it almost immediately seems outlandish given what black people have gone through and are still going through in this country. Hence, most people, especially black ones, maintain that they cannot be racist. But I think that this claim is a ridiculous one.

Redlined map of Northern California’s Berkeley area, which was heavily segregated through the use of racial covenants.

Firstly, I think that there’s a false conflation between racism and power. You don’t need to hold power over any other group in order to express racist views towards them. In America, however, this idea is rather warped. Because racism has historically been used as a tool for political and social oppression, it’s very difficult for Americans to take racism at face value. We almost always see ‘more’ meaning to it, probably because our history has never still properly been reckoned with. So if a black person expresses racist views about a white person, many will fail to see it as racist because the same power dynamic is not present. I mostly agree with this, but herein lies the argument where people become impassioned and upset. Some will say “But this clearly is racist!” while others will say “How? Jokes about white people don’t affect them in the same way.”.. and I say that both are correct.

I say that any negative statement about a group of people based on their race is racist. There doesn’t have to be any power behind it. However, since racism and power are so closely intertwined in America, racially-charged statements carry different weights depending on who they’re levelled against and who says them. White people can experience prejudiced statements and treatment, sure. But these instances are situational rather than systemic. White people still represent the overwhelming majority of this country (despite what conspiracies might have you believe, whites still make up over 60% of the country), and they still hold most of its most powerful and influential positions.

The Supreme Court.

Taking these facts into account, you can see why so many black people find it hard to sympathize with whites over concerns of ‘reverse racism’. The language that groups use to insult each other might be the same, but the contexts are not.

I am not comparing the relationship between whites and blacks to that of a parent and child, but imagine this: a child calls their parent a ‘bitch’. This situation might strike us as funny, and even the child’s parent might laugh despite knowing that it’s wrong. Now, imagine this same parent calling their child a ‘bitch’. Now, no one is laughing. It’s not funny because the power dynamic is extremely out of balance. In fact, our immediate response would be to become upset at the parent for using such language. This power imbalance mindset is similar to the one that appears whenever the ‘reverse racism’ conversation is happening.

I think that this mindset, however, ends up doing more harm than good for black people. Not because it makes us ‘just as bad as them’ (a ridiculous notion), but because it baits us into believing that we truly hold no power or privileges as people.

Consider for a moment the relationship between black people and other minority groups. It’s quite contentious. Most minority groups in the U.S. have actively anti-black cultures, as bleak of an overgeneralization as that may be. That said, it’s not too hard to imagine a minority group expressing racism towards black people. Italians, Irish, Mexicans, Koreans, etc. have all expressed this animosity at various points in American history, and many still do today. Inter-minority racism isn’t new, and has always been an essential part in shaping the social structure of the country.

That said, why WOULDN’T we expect black people to become racist? What group of humans in their right minds wouldn’t develop at least some prejudiced ideas as a means of protection? It’s a normal reaction. When nearly every turn of your life is met by a group of people looking down on you, would you not start to make some generalizations of your own?

Black people are always victimized but never given empathy. People ‘feel bad’ for us, but never for a second imagine what our lives are like in-context. We’re never afforded the right to be angry, upset, or unreasonable.

Even after all that’s happened, we’re still expected to just ‘move on’. To be frank, it’s a miracle that black people don’t have a KKK equivalent in American history. The reason that whites are proliferating so many theories about ‘replacement’ (and have been for a while) is because they agree with my previous statement as well. They know that some of their own history is so egregious, one should almost expect an equally brutal retaliation.

So, yes, black people can certainly express racist views. Just like any other group in this country. But are those views affecting anyone in any serious way in their day-to-day lives? Well, it depends. If levelled against white people, probably not. I’ve yet to know of an instance in American history where white people were persecuted. Since that didn’t happen, their position in society and thus the impact of their language will always be different.

Black people, however, do hold some privileges over other minority groups that are oft-ignored. For one, black people nearly unanimously speak English. In a nation like the U.S., this is a huge advantage. Speaking the language means access to resources, which is something that many immigrants have a huge struggle with. There’s also the fact that black people are documented citizens. It might not seem like much, but when it comes to acquiring resources, these two characteristics already place most black people far ahead of the nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country. That’s a huge form of power. It’s just not one we ever consider, since Americans have focused on framing black people as eternal victims rather than themselves as perpetrators.

Restrictive housing covenants were common for most of the 19th/20th centuries.

Other minority groups often question why black peoples’ struggles seem to take precedence over their own, but the answer should be obvious: black people are not immigrants. We were brought here, giving us a unique relationship with the nation and with white people when compared to other racialized groups. We understand this land and its long history quite well, because we’ve been here for ALL OF IT. So of course our struggles will be louder and our issues will be more pronounced. In terms of this country, we’re an old group of people.

So, what’s my main point? It’s this: the fixation on whether or not black people can express racist views is a direct reflection of the fact that most people in America view black folks as helpless victims. We don’t even have the right to be racist. People can easily understand how a white person might develop racist views (‘it was the times’, ‘it was their family’, etc.), but don’t afford the same privilege to black people.

There are far too many black people who express loud, problematic views regarding immigration, LGBT rights, and abortion. But I reckon that most people choose to ignore those folks out of the idea that black people can’t do any real harm with these beliefs. Unfortunately, this belief causes a lot of those nasty views to turn inwards; plenty of black Americans express colorist, homophobic views and such to their own families. In fact, more black people voted for Trump in his second go-round than in his first.

Am I pointing this out because I’m self-hating or I want to ‘expose’ black people? No. I’m pointing these things out because I’m exhausted with black people not being afforded the right to be human. Black people can be racist. And looking at even the smallest stretch of American history, we might even expect them to be more racist than they are just for sheer logic’s sake (again, who wouldn’t develop problematic views after 400 years of oppression?).

Black people are foundational Americans — but it never feels like we’re respected as such. I’m not fighting for our right to be racist without scrutiny. I just don’t understand why the only group who was held in bondage for hundreds of years seems to also be the only group afforded such a low level of empathy and understanding.

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A.Alphonso

A.Alphonso

full-spectrum nerd and native californian