Some years back I wrote a letter of complaint to a museum where I held a membership. Because every time I visited, I got stopped. Despite displaying the membership card. Never mind the white people who sailed through who didn’t get so much as a cursory glance. I got stopped. And then the person behind the front desk would take physical possession of the card. And then he or she would look up my name in the computer. Because having a valid membership card apparently wasn’t enough.
So I stood at the entry and watched as patrons entered. And I watched who got stopped and who didn’t. Although the answer was already pretty clear to me. An African American man came up to me once and asked what I was doing. After I told him, he told me the same thing happened to him.
So I wrote a letter. The museum’s response?
Discrimination is against the core of our mission and it is important to us to that all visitors feel welcome.
One little problem here: You can’t be “against discrimination” when you are actively discriminating. It isn’t “important” to you that all visitors feel welcome if you aren’t welcoming them.
When we talk about intent v. effect with regard to racism, usually what is meant is that the fact you didn’t mean anything by your racism is meaningless. The intention is not the focus. Instead you have to look at the harmful effects. Similarly, you can’t claim to be against racism if you allow racism to be perpetuated.
Anti-racism is about action. Not about warm and fuzzy words and feelings. Not about how you believe that all people are created equal. It’s about all people being treated equally.
So Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul is against discrimination. He abhors it, actually. But private businesses should be allowed to discriminate if they so choose.
The majority of the time when you hear Free speech! First Amendment rights! being claimed, it isn’t in response to criticism of the government or calls for social change or radical expressions of thought. Nope, it’s about the freedom to be a racist jerk or an idiot or both. (This just depresses the heck out of me. Seriously.) And it’s often used to try to silence criticism. So much for furthering discourse. (Ditto.)
The issue is framed as being about rights and as an extension of free speech. I’d argue that it isn’t free speech, since it is about action. Paul and his supporters endorse the right of businesses to serve or not serve whomever they please. So it’s about the right to discriminate. The right of the majority to discriminate is being privileged over the right of non-majority members to be treated equally.
As I’ve noted previously, privileging “free speech” is often about endorsing and perpetuating racism. So if you really abhor racism, you need to abhor actions that create racist effects. And you need to take action.
It’s already very clear that many white business owners don’t want to serve people of color. And market forces don’t seem to be driving them to reconsider. The bike shop where I was refused service has been in business for more than fifty years. Being a white establishment doesn’t seem to have harmed it one bit. In fact, I’m sure it’s been an advantage.
As I was writing the above paragraph, I considered and reconsidered the phrase “refused service.” Sounds so 1960’s. Sure, nobody told me that I wasn’t welcome. But it was pretty obvious.
Under the law you need to prove discriminatory intent. Because measuring effect is so much harder. But I believe that measuring effect may be the best way to gauge racism. Because addressing racism needs to move from the abstract to the concrete. That is, thinking that we abhor racism isn’t enough. We have to address inequity. (Which is another reason why collecting racial demographics is still important. Because we haven’t reached colorblindness just yet.)
I think about apartments that were suddenly no longer available when I showed up to view them. Or the one where the rent suddenly became twice the going rate. Jobs that were mysteriously suddenly filled, so sorry you had to come all the way down to interview. The part-time job interview where I was asked to take a typing test on a keyboard above shoulder height. (By the way, I still managed 70 wpm.) The items I wanted to purchase where I was informed that the price tag and the shelf signs were wrong and the real price was much higher. (My father used to call this the [racial slur redacted] tax.) The restaurant I briefly worked at where the rare African American customer’s meal took forever to appear.
I was not an adult in the bad old days.
The discussion about Rand Paul has included some historical background about racism. And a number of these discussions on the web are illustrated with racist signs from the past. The colored waiting room. The marked drinking fountains. The “we serve only whites” signs.
But although I think the recognition of historical structural and institutional racism is important, I’m a little uncomfortable with the implication that the “whites only” mentality is something from the bad old days. Has racism become more covert? Possibly.
But even overt racism is difficult to prove, because it becomes a “he said, she said.” And people of color only have so much time in their lives and sometimes don’t have the energy to deal with being mocked at a fast food restaurant or being refused service at a lunch counter. Because racism already takes up too much time and energy, and sometimes we have to pick and choose. So I think there are a lot more Valley Swim Clubs out there.
But here’s what I know to be true. If civil rights laws were not enacted, market forces would not drive discriminatory white companies out of business.
A friend who was refused service at a restaurant was with a white colleague and the colleague didn’t do anything. And nobody at the colleague’s place of employment (which was right across the street) did anything either. They continued to eat there, and are still eating there, as far as I know. Although I’m sure they all abhor racism. As an abstraction.
Rand Paul and others claim that they wouldn’t patronize a racist establishment. But undoubtedly they already do. The simple truth is that because of their privilege, white people don’t notice the treatment of people of color or even their absence. The absence of people of color is often seen as a positive. “Good schools” and “good neighborhoods” and “good places to shop” are code for “white.”
Marshall Field’s, which many white people nostalgically long for because of its alleged wonderful service, did not hire African Americans for the longest time. And the wonderful service wasn’t extended to folks of color, either. When I worked in Chicago, the African Americans I worked with never shopped at Field’s. Neither did I. My mother and I got into an extended argument one year when she wanted to send an out-of-state relative some Frango mints. I lost. So as a result I had to spend an extended period of time in Field’s trying to get somebody to wait on me.
The white people who came after me but were served before me? They didn’t notice. Because they were getting wonderful service.
Field’s was an institution. Where racism was institutionalized.
Let’s not fool ourselves here. Racism has not become less prevalent (if you want to argue that) because people have become less racist. Civil rights were never a matter of asking politely and having majority members exclaim Oh but of course you should have equality! Sorry, we just didn’t notice before!
Civil rights were hard-won. And we still struggle with enforcement. Because when you look at the inequality in our society, you know we haven’t become post-racial yet.
As Tim Wise says, public perception follows institutional realities. The only way to eliminate racism is by dismantling a racist system. Endorsing a right to discriminate perpetuates that system. The message it gives is clear: White superiority.
Someday I would like to feel that being treated as an equal is not a freak event. Because sometimes you just want to buy a fucking bike. With no [racial slur redacted] tax.