A Hidden Investment in Racism

In this paper I shall argue that both blacks and whites have a hidden investment in racism. Also, I will contend that in society, there can be racism without the existence of racists. Writer and English professor Shelby Steele has argued in favor of the notion that both races have something to gain from racism. My arguments will draw on the works of Steele, journalist Sally Lehrman, and Rutgers philosophy professor Jorge Garcia. It is first important to define what racism is. Then, I will explain why both races have a hidden investment in racism. Last, I will discuss how racism can exist without the presence of racists and how this theory overlaps with Steele’s views.

Before defending my thesis, it is first necessary to adopt a definition for racism that will be used throughout the essay. Racism is a belief system that advocates discriminating against people based on a perceived or ascribed “race”.[1] Continuing, racism usually results in the social, political, and economic advantage of one group over others.

Now that I have established a working definition for racism, I will examine why both blacks and whites have a hidden investment in racism. Shelby Steele maintains that the source of black power and motivation to succeed comes from the negative effects of racism.[2] He declares that blacks “have a hidden investment in victimization and poverty.” White oppression has been the source of strength for the black community. Scenes of intense racial tensions, such as the Civil Rights Movement and riots in various cities (i.e. East St. Louis) are used as evidence of black innocence and white guilt. If blacks are not being victimized, they are not seizing the opportunity to publicly claim innocence and seek advancement of their race. Steele believes that blacks choose to believe in their inferiority, not because that is what society expects from them, but for the benefits that their racial inferiority affords them.

In some cases, black leaders have put themselves in the middle of incidents as if they were basins of black virtuousness. One black leader who has a tendency to appear in such situations is the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Quite often, Jackson
uses racial politics to advance himself. In addition, critics of Jackson claim that he has exploited poverty stricken African Americans in order to make money and gain political power.[3] To say that Jackson has a hidden investment in racism is an enormous understatement. On a similar note, black comics such as Chris Rock have made millions of dollars identifying and joking about racial issues in society. Rock is yet another black individual who has a hidden investment in racism. If racial inequality did not exist, if there wasn’t a disparity between black and white, Chris Rock would have no material.

The evilness of whites makes blacks look good. On the other hand, the perceived inferiority of blacks gives whites power. Whichever race can prove itself to be the most innocent when it comes to race relations will be the race that assumes power in society. Because of this, blacks and whites are constantly searching for and publicizing situations where the opposite race is at fault. While I do not deny the significance of the events that are reported in the news media, I do believe that occurrences involving racism or problems with race relations definitely allow the balance of power between the races to be shifted. For example, the most covered piece of news lately has been the alleged criminal actions involving Duke University lacrosse players. According to reports, several white, male Duke lacrosse players sexually assaulted a black woman who was performing an exotic dance for the group at a party. While I in no way condone such actions, it is easy for me to see how the black community is gaining and will gain from the publicity this issue is receiving. Reporters are scouring the Duke University campus and the town of Durham, North Carolina for any and every story regarding racial disharmony. Stories are surfacing about the ever-increasing racial gap in the town, among other issues. The black community is gaining tremendous power and publicity through this victimization.

Those who strive for racial equality and racial harmony maintain that only when all races and sexes are treated as equals will society operate at its fullest potential. When racial equality is achieved, all parties involved will be satisfied. This notion is sound in theory, but in reality, such a society could never exist. There will always be a struggle for power. Even if every member of every race has good intentions, there will still be the desire for supremacy. According to Steele, “power requires innocence.” Innocence requires racial disharmony and racial divisions.

An interesting theory proposed by Jorge Garcia is the existence of racism without racists. While at first glance this issue seems to be akin to fire without smoke, it is a much more complex idea. Garcia argues that racism is rooted in intentions, not in actions, which would allow certain incidences to be racist without involving racists.[4] One such example would be parents from a predominantly white community pushing for an increase in funding for a predominantly white school. The state’s education budget is no doubt limited, so this demand for an increase in funding (if met) would require decreased funding to schools in surrounding communities. Let’s say, for example, one such surrounding community is predominantly black and includes a predominantly black school. Because of the increased funding to the school that contains a majority of white students, the black-dominated school suffers budget cuts. This policy is no doubt racist, but does it mean the parents who are pushing for the budget increase are racist? Not necessarily. David Wellman, a professor of community studies at UC-Santa Cruz best summarizes Garcia’s premise by stating “You don’t need to be a racist to promote policies that are race-conscious”.[5]

Another example of racism that isn’t necessarily perpetrated by racists is a case study which examines the motivations behind the construction of waste disposal sites in certain areas of a California community. The toxic waste incineration site was built in a portion of the community that housed lower class minorities.[6] The question at hand is whether this is an issue of racism. Even if it is judged to be a racist endeavor, did members of the city council, contractors, etc. build on the site because it would not inconvenience middle to upper class white residents, or was the land simply cheaper and more ideal for an incineration site than other areas? Again, even if the toxic dump is said to have been constructed in the particular area because of racism, there is no way of proving that those who supported the construction on the site are racists.

Garcia’s theory of racism without racists supports the ideas of Steele with respect to innocence and victimization. By claiming that the decision to decrease the school budget of a primarily black school or to build a garbage incineration site in a minority-dominated area of town is racially motivated, blacks are portraying themselves as the victims, and seeking to shift the balance of power in society. For the reasons that Steele highlighted, the cry of racism is very common. Thus, the existence of said racism can occur without the involvement of true racists.

Innocence is ignorance. In asserting innocence, both races create comfortable areas of ignorance for themselves. Consider them racial blind-spots that encourage a misguided pursuit of power at the expense of racial equality and racial harmony. Because of this constant struggle for social superiority, both blacks and whites have a hidden investment in racism. In addition, racism can exist in certain situations without the involvement of racists. Shelby Steele vehemently argued that both races gain from racism on some level. The arguments presented in this essay hinged on the works of Steele, journalist Sally Lehrman, and Rutgers philosophy professor Jorge Garcia. First, it was necessary to adopt a working definition for racism. Upon understanding the meaning of racism, the concept of both races having a hidden investment in racism was introduced. Last, we explored Garcia’s theory of racism without racists and how that viewpoint overlapped with Steele’s views. In conclusion, it will be impossible to have a society without racism. The idea of racism is one that is a blessing and a burden for all involved. It provides the opportunity to show superiority, guilt, and victimization. Most importantly, it gives everyone an excuse for why things are the way they are. It is not the fault of the individual; it is the fault of society, its inherent racism, and its oppression.

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