InDepth-longread: Knowledge and Compassion: Reflections on Institutional Racism in the U.S.A.

Yoko Arisaka

“Either we learn a new language of empathy and compassion, or the fire this time will consume us all”.
Cornel West
Race Matters, 1993.

In the wake of the pandemonium spreading across America after the May 27th murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the whole nation appears to have reached the point of irrevocable split. Is it finally the end of pretense of a great nation and a possible new beginning, or is it the ultimate downfall of a racist oligarchy, a “failed social experiment,” as Cornel West recently broadcasted?[1] The anger against the long-standing brutality and racism of the police, against white supremacy, against the entrenched history of racism everywhere, and against Trump erupted everywhere. But such protests were suppressed by force; they were anti-American. One thing is clear: the emotional explosions are immediate and intense; they have shattered the nation as well as families and friends. Violence and destruction have escalated everywhere. Social media are inundated with reports and commentaries that are meant to flame up the already unbearable situation. The whole nation is breaking down (again).

The news has reached Germany and despite the Covid-19 prohibitions to gather en masse, there have been huge demonstrations across the cities here as well. Hand-made “Black Lives Matter” signs were held high up, and hundreds demonstrated against racism, not just for the U.S.A. but also against racism here in Germany and elsewhere as well. The contexts and nature of racism here are quite different from those in the U.S.A., yet there are similarities, for example racism has been a history of Germany and it is also continuously enacted through structural and institutional components today.[2] Eric Otieno, a Kassel-based doctoral researcher recently wrote, black people and people of color face everyday racism in Germany as well.[3] The German police also uses racial profiling, and individuals such as Ourry Jalloh and N’deye Mariame Sarr were killed at the hands of the police here (yet their stories only make minor news). The movement has gone beyond the U.S.A. because it has transnational relevance; resistance against racism is becoming global (there was a “Black Lives Matter” demonstration in Japan, too).

Anti-racism demonstrations are certainly needed everywhere, but there is something disconcerting about the widespread and easy use of “Black Lives Matter” as slogans and #hashtags by hundreds of people who apparently have no real connection to the experiences of African-Americans, or to the history and context of anti-black racism in the U.S.A. The reactions of African-Americans may be thus ambivalent when they see huge numbers of Europeans carrying “Black Lives Matter” signs all over the place. On the one hand, it is good to see the outpouring of support against racism, but on the other hand, the weighty cause has been taken over by hundreds of people who just use the phrase to experience themselves as good people doing the right thing, without further engagement. This is the problem known as “performative allyship”, where someone from the dominant group joins the marginalized group’s resistance, yet do so in a way it only “showcases” the gesture without substantial help. As Otiero quotes Zoe Samudzi: “The pattern of learning a new hashtagged name and face and collectively petitioning for some semblance of punitive justice is heartbreakingly banal and psychologically depleting”. One needs to do more than going through the motions of justice, if the intent is serious. In this contribution, however, I would like to focus on the case in the U.S. in order to provide a basis for further reflections about racism.

The Floyd incident has only been the most recent. Just in the last few months, there have also been Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade, among others, whose stories are just beginning to come out. Taylor was shot by the police in her apartment on March 13th, 2020, but so far no charges have been made. The history of countless incidents goes back hundreds of years. Racism is the stuff that makes up the core of American politics, and we have reached a point where not just black people who has long engaged themselves in anti-racism activism, but the rest of us must also begin to engage in the process of dismantling its hold on the minds and institutions of the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. It may feel perhaps too late and hopeless in the age of Trump, but we cannot afford to sink into cynicism, nihilism, or disengagement.

In this essay, I want to make two points. First, racism is not only about individual feelings but it is written in history and the structures of society. One must understand the American history of institutional racism, especially the role of the government in creating the laws and material living conditions of African-Americans in urban areas. Such knowledge must become mainstream, common discourse. Second, a shift in moral perception is also necessary. One should learn to reflect on the process of emotional identification or lack thereof, in order to see for oneself how and where the identifications occur, and why. The next step would be to see the world from the victim’s perspective and give the due respect to the testimonies of others – not only theoretically but also as empathized experience, but without “claiming” the feelings of the other as one’s own. Without this type of compassion as respect and humility, one’s perspectives and alliances do not usually change, but such an attitudinal change would be necessary. This is not an easy task, and it may take several generations for the common discourse to change.

I also want to point out that racism is and is not a problem of race. It is, on the one hand, of course a problem of racial injustice that has to do with the history and social and political realities of race (although “race” in fact does not scientifically exist). However, more importantly, it is, apart from history, fundamentally about human suffering, a thesis West advanced already in his Race Matters, in 1993. The nature of this suffering is existential. Black Americans are subjected to the “lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness” (22-23). Before elaborating on this point, let me return to the current case and go from there.

A word of caution for the German readers who are not accustomed to the American race discourse that openly uses racial markers such as “blacks, whites, people of color”, as well as using the categories of “race”. The terms Rasse, race, which stem from the biological racism in the 19th Century and actively used in the Rassenpolitik des Nationalsozialismus, are completely obsolete, not to mention morally unacceptable, and they cannot be used any longer in German political contexts. So it may appear as if the use of the race categories make the perception and discussions “racist”, and that one ought not to refer to such categories at all. However, the phenomenon of racism is as alive in Germany as ever, but if one does not refer directly to the problem of race-making and race-perceptions, we would produce the paradoxical consequence that there are no direct ways to address the problem of racism in German. The lack of language prohibits its adequate analyses. When there is no language for the phenomena in question, it is as if they don’t exist. The myth of colorblindness whitewashes the way in which we try to discuss racism, making us all blind to racism. “We are all different individuals, all equal” is the resulting discourse that rejects the realities of racism. It is too easy to say, “well look at the U.S., such a racist country, so glad we live in Europe”, but here, too, racism is a reality, only made more invisible. Race discourse uses the categories of race in order to discuss race and racism, which refer not to biology (obsoleted) but to the political, social, cultural realities of race. In Germany, die Rassismusforschungen employ terms such as Rassifizierung to highlight the problem, but also the English terms notions from race discourse that directly refer to race.

Analyses of racism are nearly always written in order to accuse the perpetrators, and this can be done from the victims’ standpoint, or from a liberal white standpoint. Black people do not need to be told about the “problem” of racism; they are confronted with it on a daily basis. They know and can speak. Racism is most problematic for liberal white people (including those in Europe) who want to be against racism, yet they could remain complicit in enacting it, if they are not careful or aware. It is this group of people I want to address, so I deliberately take this standpoint. When I write “we”, that refers to sympathetic whites and others who occupy a structurally privileged position (in that they do not usually have to live with racism on a daily basis). Right-wing whites I exclude here for the moment; the critique against them would be too obvious.

Nearly all are in agreement that what happened to Floyd was inexcusable. But why is it that the resulting protests have received more attention than discussions about systemic and institutional racism that provided the foundation? Apart from the single point of his death under the knee of a police officer, the media coverage and the public discourse as well as sentiments of the wider public focus not so much on the gruesome history of racism and what needs to be reckoned with (as if this is a side “black issue” that has already been dealt with enough), but rather on the divergent opinions and outrage of “all Americans”, all trying to blame on some target-group for the chaos.

The divisions between the right-leaning patriots vs. the blacks, people of color, liberals, and progressives began immediately as the protests began, and they exemplified, once again, the perennial problem of racism that constitutes the very materiality of the United States—not only its people, but also households, communities, cities, and history. The emotional alliances occur almost prereflectively, immediately – one simply “feels” the anger, the outrage, and the desperation; there is little room for negotiating the feelings, and people hardly ever change sides. How could we go forward? It may even seem impossible, but we must, as the alternative is not an option.

Let me begin by describing some of the reactions that divide rather than bring people together, to which specific questions may be raised:

  1. Protests are in order, but to what extent is violence justified, if at all?
  2. What about looting (taking objects from businesses, vandalism)? Is it understandable, excusable, condemnable, or criminal?
  3. What part of “Black Lives Matter” do people not understand?

First, on violence. Peaceful protests are for the most part not controversial, though we should remember that the American football quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s bent knee, though peaceful, was controversial and led to him being ejected from the NFL. The difference in reactions begins when the protests involve aggressive confrontations with the police, throwing objects, destroying property, people getting hurt, and some being maimed and killed. One should note here, however, the difference in moral content between the violence of the police against the protesters vs. violence of the people who protest. The former is a means of control and further oppression; the latter, an expression of resistance. The former is an unexcusable use of power, while the latter may be a necessary means.

Historically, violence has been an integral part of many revolutions. It has been understood as a legitimate tool of revolt against an oppressive regime. The upturn of oppressive powers had been successfully carried out by some examples of nonviolent demonstrations and negotiations (such as the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine), but violent uprising has been far more common. It is a possible method when the alternatives have failed, and the urgency of the brutality of the situation (as well as the perception of an evil regime) have triggered violent reactions. Those who were sympathetic to violent protests certainly felt this level of urgency and interpreted the situation as requiring or demanding such actions.

Many are, however, reluctant to condone violence in general and would not personally instigate it. At the same time, they say that it is a fully understandable reaction. African-Americans as well as Native Americans have been subjected to unjustified killings and brutality throughout history, as millions of people attest. Violence against them has been the status quo. It is unfair and unreasonable to prohibit violence in return. Despite thousands of peaceful protests, little has changed; Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed despite his peaceful protests. Out of desperation, humiliation, anger and a need to express sheer frustration, to shout out the ultimate “enough!” peaceful demonstrations have not been sufficient. How long can they continue to use this nice but ineffective method, just because violence is prima facie supposed to be bad, while being subjected to violence over and over? Enough of this hypocrisy, which is indeed intolerable when the suppression is carried out precisely with extreme violence.

If your daughter is beaten up and she has said “stop” repeatedly while nothing changes, then it is time to act. You tell her to get up and fight back. If she hits the bully back, you are probably not going to yell, wow stop the violence – you would certainly understand her actions. You cannot let her lay there and watch her being beaten over and over while she “peacefully” pleads with the beater to please stop. Indignation must find a rightful expression that is justified by its ability to turn back the unjust violence that has been inflicted.

Those who are against violence may have moral reasons. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. in his Nobel lecture in 1964:

„Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. I am not unmindful of the fact that violence often brings about momentary results. Nations have frequently won their independence in battle. But in spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones. Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.“[4]   

Others might oppose reactive violence not on personal moral grounds, but for strategic reasons. It is counter-productive. In his “Murder is Not a Weapon,” a commentary published in Die Welt on the terrorism of the Red Army Faction (RAF) in 1977,[5] Herbert Marcuse notes that the individual acts of terrorism can in fact strengthen the repressive system. In addition, “in view of the overwhelming disproportion between the concentrated power of the state machine and the weakness of terrorist groups isolated from the masses, the attempt to create uncertainty and anxiety among members of the ruling class is hardly a revolutionary accomplishment.” The terrorist acts did little to advance the cause of the Left against the capitalist regime. The context is quite different, but the noted negative effects of violence, that it potentially strengthens the dominant power as well as weakens the solidarity of the left, is an apt critique. To the white mainstream, the protests did little to promote understanding but contributed to further hatred and militant control. Forgetting their own long-standing use of violence against African-Americans, violent protests have given them the unwanted opportunity to preach against the barbarity of violence, arguing that it destroys communities and the “nation” and suggesting that such eruptions of violence must be controlled at all costs even if it means applying force. In fact, this appears to be exactly what has happened under Trump. The rhetoric of control and use of force against the protesters have indeed become even more violent.

Second, what about looting? Under normal circumstances, vandalizing properties and “stealing” are criminalized. Destruction of properties and stealing, especially those affecting small businesses (many of which are owned by persons of color), are certainly condemnable and extremely unfortunate. However, in the history of racism as well as colonialism – the homes and businesses of African-Americans, the Native Americans, and colonized peoples all over the world have been looted over and over, as if this were the normal process. The wealth of this nation has depended on the exploitations of slavery and/or colonialism in other countries. So, our middle-class lives are directly a result of and built upon generations of past exploitations and abuses, and we enact this constantly in our everyday living. The lives we create may seem like our own individual doing, but our embeddedness in history makes us complicit with past injustices, so long as we ignore them. The past exploitations and generations of racism have created a class of have-nots, and history has never paid them back. The balance has never been equalized. Therefore, it seems only just that you take what you deserve but were never allowed to have. As the upper-class becomes richer and richer, certain sectors are left to degenerate into absolute poverty and depravation. Out of sheer powerlessness comes an attempt at restoring some form of power and “getting even” becomes a way to regain some sense of justice. One could even say that looting out of desperate need, such as to provide food and medicine for one’s children, should be fully excusable, when agribusiness and pharmaceutical giants make billions without paying attention to the increase in poverty everywhere. Looting could be considered a form of informal reparations that redistribute resources among the communities in need.

Looting might be opposed on moral grounds, that one ought not to steal from others, but demonizing the looters as criminals from such generalities is a common tactic among those who refuse to acknowledge historical racism and the creation of the class of have-nots as real historical developments. Taking a moral high ground to condemn looters as criminals often comes from a privileged position whose lives have never been victimized or deprived. It is thus a form of “victim-blaming.”

What about the “ideological rioters” on the bandwagon – people seeking more aggravation and unrest, for the sake of destroying the status quo? They are out to destroy capitalist symbols, racist markers, and infrastructures including greedy big businesses and means of distribution – let the products of labor return to the people themselves, especially to the most exploited. As a tactic, it could be understandable. But what about the “rioters for fun” who go out on a rampage and destroy in order to increase the state of unrest or simply to vent. In this case, one might say that there is no justification.   

At any rate, as in the case of violence, probably the overall damage outweighs the initial reason or purpose. Looting alienates many of the protesters themselves, thus weakening the alliances. Even though it might be understandable for some as a tactic of political statement, looting appears to be counter-productive even in the effort to illustrate the long history of symbolic and actual looting of the lives of African-Americans, especially because many of the victims of looting included the businesses of people of color. Often the violence argument is used as a quick way to invalidate the protest without wresting with the complexity of the effects of long-term domination on the African Americans by the racist mainstream.  

Third, “Black Lives Matter” (hereafter BLM). It has become a hashtag but there still are people who do not understand it or refuse to acknowledge it. Some say “all lives matter” and are upset when this slogan is chastised by black people. In case it has not been made clear, one cannot respond to the protests by saying “all lives matter” because, while this is trivially true, black lives are the ones excluded from this claim. “All lives matter” is a general statement, a truism, but BLM is a concrete cry that aims to draw attention to the exclusion of black lives from “all lives”. So it is not a special focus on the mattering of black lives above others (as the critics often claim – why focus on their lives?) but it is rather a reminder of the ones that have not been included in “all lives.” (Think of a case when you say to a friend, “my cat died” in sadness, and your friend replies, “all cats die”.) In this light, saying “all lives matter, too, not just black” amounts to ignorance, callousness, negation, or refusal of what has been intended by BLM. It shows that the message has not been heard.

Above all, it is a call to understand history. More specifically, to acknowledge the reality of perpetual devaluation of black lives throughout history, and to appreciate its magnitude and long-lasting effects. As West opens his Race Matters:

„Black people in the United States differ from all other modern people owing to the unprecedented levels of unregulated and unrestrained violence directed at them. No other people have been taught systematically to hate themselves – psychic violence – reinforced by the powers of state and civic coercion – physical violence – for the primary purpose of controlling their minds and exploiting their labor for nearly four hundred years (XIII).“

Engaging with institutional racism is the first element of what is to be done. There are hundreds of books and articles one can read in order to inform oneself of the workings of institutional racism, but let me mention two books that provide facts that ought to become common knowledge.[6]  

First, Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton’s American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Harvard University Press, 1993). Massey and Denton offer sociological analyses of how the effects of government-sponsored black segregation for generations continue to devastate the lives of African-Americans. It is still a reality, although the term “segregation” may have disappeared from the current political discourse on race. Massey and Denton write:

„No group in the history of the United States has ever experienced the sustained high level of residential segregation that has been imposed on blacks in large American cities for the past fifty years. This extreme racial isolation did not just happen: it was manufactured by whites through a series of self-conscious actions and purposeful institutional arrangements that continue today…Residential segregation is not a neutral fact; it systematically undermines the social and economic well-being of blacks in the United States…The effect of segregation on black well-being is structural, not individual. Residential segregation lies beyond the ability of any individual to change…As long as blacks continue to be segregated in American cities, the United States cannot be called a race-blind society (2-3).“

The urban underclass did not just emerge; it was systematically created in the early 20th century by a series of public policies, city ordinances, institutional practices (banking and real estate regulations), and behaviors by whites who sought to contain growing urban black populations. Prior to 1900, most of the blacks lived in clusters, such as a particular street or an area, but they were dispersed among the white communities. In the north where there were relatively few black populations, many blacks held similar jobs as whites, and some became black professionals – physicians, dentists, lawyers – who even had white clients. In the south where the majority of black population was located at the time, black servants often lived on the side street from their white masters in the same community — although in a hierarchical relationship, there were constant interaction between whites and blacks. Between 1890 and 1930, most blacks in the north tended to live in predominantly white neighborhoods (23). In the south, the blacks also lived among the whites, but this was because they were prohibited to form African-American societies; they were closely controlled by the whites (24). This control broke down in the years leading up to the Civil War (1861-1865), when free blacks and slaves escaped to black settlements on the periphery of the cities in order to escape white supervision.

After the Civil War, in the north was a rapid development of industrialization. In the south, although slavery was officially and constitutionally prohibited in 1865, there were numerous laws that were enacted in order to enforce strict segregation (known as “Jim Crow”) which continued to be in place until the Civil Rights Act prohibited them in 1964. In order to escape Jim Crow as well as to seek work, a large number of blacks migrated to the north in the first decades of the 20th Century. In the urban and industrialized cities in the north, there was a mass increase in black population in addition to the newly arrived immigrants (Jews, Poles, Italians and Czechs), and they were segregated in groups in different sections of the cities. With the increase in black population in the north, white racism became rampant. The color-line appeared in employment, education, and especially housing. As the color-line in work and living conditions continued into the 1920s, so was racial tension and violence against the blacks, such as the Chicago race riot of 1919. In order to contain violence and more influx of blacks into the city, Chicago, then a leading city of black migration from the south, established “improvement associations” and zoning-regulations in order to maintain the colored order and for the containment of black population, creating what is known today as the housing projects in the “South Side”. By the end of the World War II, in virtually all major cities, the foundations of the “modern ghetto” had been in place (31). In Chicago, the “isolation index” (which measured the number of blacks living only in the black neighborhood) was 10% in 1910 but increased to 70% in 1940 (31).

Thus, after generations, we have a situation of “hypersegregation” today: whites and blacks live in separate neighborhoods and they do not often come in contact. The extreme difference between the middle-class and the urban residential projects are lived without much interaction, reinforcing racism and the lived color-line. Urban black neighborhoods received less funding and the conditions deteriorated further. In these destitute communities, poverty, crime, drugs, decay, and disease are concentrated and the “spirals of decline” have become the norm. Kenneth Clark, a psychology professor and civil rights activist, wrote in his Dark Ghetto in 1965: “Racial segregation, like all other forms of cruelty and tyranny, debases all human beings – those who are its victims, those who victimize, and in quite subtle says those who are mere accessories” (63). Many whites say that they were only protecting their own property values or financial means when they opposed black people from moving into the neighborhood or moving out when the area became “more black”, and they might even claim that they had no choice because they could not take the financial risks. But such actions are exactly what constitutes structural racism and further concretizes the residential color-line. Massey and Denton wrote in 1993 but little has changed since then despite affirmative action and Obama. “Until policymakers, social scientists, and private citizens recognize the crucial role of America’s own apartheid in perpetuating urban poverty and racial injustice, the United States will remain a deeply divided and very troubled society” (16).

This is a fact that nearly all African-Americans and many liberals take for granted, yet this aspect of the real living conditions are only fleetingly acknowledged and the responsibilities for which are rejected or ignored by the mainstream white community. Black Americans were not allowed to get certain kinds of loans, which limited home ownership and business opportunities. Real estate agents controlled which homes they could buy. Black children could not attend private schools that barred them and their public schools are poorly funded. Businesses, local organizations, as well as the government of the United States are directly implicated in the creation of what some activists call an internal apartheid, yet this fact escapes the consciousness of “we the Americans.” It is our history, our doing. Instead the saying goes that, in the land of “individualism, equality and freedom,” anyone can beat personal misfortune. However, this is very much an ideology of those who didn’t have to bear the burden of hatred, absolute poverty, broken families, discrimination by law and regulations, and racial dejection for generations. It is time to shift our discourse to the collective responsibility that at least all Americans owe to the ones who have been victimized.

The second book is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010). As a civil rights lawyer, legal scholar, and Professor of Law, Alexander examines how the American criminal justice system, officially colorblind, has created a caste-like system in which African-Americans, disproportionately males, are permanently and legally relegated to a second-class citizen. This is done by systematically incarcerating African-American males. A high percentage of urban black men are in prison due to the carefully crafted “War on Drugs” and other measures since the 1980s. Once they become felons, they are denied basic civil and human rights, including the right to vote, the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits. In short, race cannot be used as a basis for discrimination, but once you have a criminal record, even a minor felony, all the forms of discriminations may be carried out legally. They are practically barred from normal participation in society, for life. The aftermath of such systematic and targeted incarceration leaves whole communities devastated and destroyed. Thus, the downward spiral continues.

 “Jim Crow” refers to the explicitly racist laws and regulations of segregation that persisted until the 1960s. During the Jim Crow era, convicted blacks were treated like slaves again, stripped of all rights and forced into indebted labor (even chained like the slaves). Although the explicit racist laws and chains have disappeared, the practice has not – the racial caste in America is only “redesigned” and still function very much like the old system, legally today. We now have the “New Jim Crow.” The incarceration of black males must be put on the first agenda of institutional racism.

These facts are public. Alexander’s book was a New York Times Bestseller for over a year. Numerous workshops and study groups appeared afterwards. Yet these facts are still treated not as our common history and reality, but a racist “aspect of” history belonging to African-Americans. A shift in discourse as well as perceptions of people are necessary in order to have a common base.

It could very well be the case that even those who are antagonistic are aware of such histories yet actively reject them, because of hate and/or thoughtlessness. They would rather reject reality in favor of cherished myths that protects them from guilt and responsibility. But even so, a gradual shift in the way our histories are represented may make a difference over the next generations. (This may be a nonmoral example, but still an example of a shift in national discourse: Smoking used to be “harmless”, yet today we have a different public discourse about it and therefore the awareness that it is not. This shift has happened only in the last 20 years.) Perhaps it is possible for the national moral discourse to shift, to recognize its own guilt and move toward restorative justice. A shift in public discourse is a slow-developing shift in habitus, to use Bourdieu’s concept, or a question of developing the moral notion of virtue in Aristotle. Both are questions of human development in an intertwined system of shifting values in society.

Germany might in fact offer a contrast. After WWII, Germany constructed a national discourse that focuses completely on its guilt. After the Holocaust, there was no other possibility. Today except for a few right-wing sector, the citizens recognize and internalize this guilt, and common self-perception and the accepted national discourse admits of their own wrongdoing and construct the future based on not repeating the past wrongs. Unfortunately racism has not been dealt with in the same self-reflexive manner, because of several reasons. First, due to the language issue mentioned earlier (the near impossibility of producing an effective race discourse), its structural and institutional elements are too diffusive to thematize in an effective manner amid the constitutional and legal system that is colorblind. Second, the form of personal racism is mostly not overt hate, but more commonly other, more subtler forms such as cultural racism and paternalistic racism (which infantilizes people of color or simply disregards them as incapable citizens). These elements must also be analyzed.

The second point that I wish to make – a personal reflection about our emotive attention, affiliation, and empathy – has to do with attitudinal shift above and beyond acquiring knowledge. Hopefully, this shift in moral perception comes through understanding the seriousness of institutional racism, but even if not, it would still be an important aspect of becoming more aware about the subtle workings of racism.

Here let me return to the thesis that racism is about fundamental human suffering. This is again taken for granted by black people who must face the reality of it on a daily basis, but for many white people (and other privileged groups) it is often not registered. So let me propose a thought experiment, designed for those whose realities do not usually include race. Bracket out for the moment that racism is about race. Think instead simply about your relation to the suffering of others.

1. Imagine the suffering of your mother or your child. Imagine being in the presence of your mother/child in tears – she is ill, has no friends and no money, feels depressed and is very sad. It is likely that your emotional alliance goes to her and that you would be able to empathize (even if the two of you never had a good relationship). It is likely that you would be emotionally aligned with your mother/child because you perceive her as “one of your own.” Now imagine she says it is all your fault that she ended up that way. You may feel devasted, guilty, and, perhaps, even angry, but at least you cannot brush it off and forget about it. You are affected and you are motivated to do something about it.

2. Now imagine the suffering of people like yourself, whatever the chosen category – age, social class, gender, culture, race. People like you in a desperate situation, beaten down by poverty, desperation, hopelessness, pain, sadness, and depression. The first reaction might be that you are glad it’s not you but more likely an immediate outpouring of feelings that they should not be in that condition, perhaps because you yourself would not want it, may be present. Here, again, there is likely an emotional affiliation. Then you are told, you are directly implicated in the cause of how these people ended up the way they are. Most likely you would feel some guilt and sense of responsibility, even if you may not comprehend the situation. The fact that those who are like you suffer is enough to cause some emotional response and to result in a feeling that you would want to do something about it.

3. Now imagine the suffering of “people in general,” such as reading about a story about the history of human suffering. Many people might be able to feel immediate sympathy, but many may say something along the lines of “well that is too bad but what can I do?” There may or may not be emotional affiliation, depending on the degree of identification and particular imagination. If there is no emotional reaction, it is difficult to “make one feel.”

4. Next, try to imagine the suffering of those who are very different from you – those who claim different identity-markers, countries, histories. In these cases, it is less likely that an emotional alliance will occur. You might have a feeling that it is unfortunate that those people must suffer, but it could be out of some general moral belief such as, e.g., that people ought not to suffer and not from an immediate emotional reaction. Or, it could be that you are able to sympathize regardless of difference, such as reading about some individuals in a novel who are very different from you yet you are immersed in her stories and are able to feel. In that case it is a variation of 2 above – you see yourself as “similar” (perhaps as “humans”) in some basic way.

5. Now imagine the suffering of African-Americans. (Note what you imagine – women, children, gang youth, old people, in what kind of conditions?)

How is your emotional reaction? If it is like the first two cases, then you stand together. Regardless of the differences from yourself, you are able to sympathize. If your response is 3 or 4, then you still see the plight of African-Americans as “someone else’s problem” (or an “American problem” from the outside) and consider it a detached event. If you could accept 3 and 4, yet reacted negatively to 5 (such as anger), then you should examine your own racism. There is something specific about the suffering of African-Americans you are not feeling, though you have felt for “people in general” (3) or even “those who are very different” (4).

Here I need to comment on one thing. There are many people who are fed up with what the white folks call “reverse racism.” This term designates an attitude common among the whites that they feel “discriminated against and demonized” because they have been charged guilty of oppressing others. White individuals, especially white males, who may never have inflicted any harm on others or even participated in the struggle against racism, are targeted as the cause of all evil. Honest race conversations have become impossible, because many white persons feel they can never say anything right. Everything is about the evils of white privilege. Unfortunately, for those who complain, this idea comes from a misleading rhetoric of the “equality of all individuals” implying that whites and blacks (and other shades) more or less have equal participatory powers and that the playing field is even. It is imagined that on this equal playing field, different groups are fighting for power, and blacks can also be racists against whites, and so on. But this picture is incorrect. The playing field has never been even. One group of players has been consistently excluded from playing and they have been denigrated for centuries at the hands of the other group who dominate and rule the field. The playing field has been constructed in such a way that it is always advantageous to the dominant group. This is a structural issue and not an individual one. An individual white person might not have done or said anything racist, but so long as he/she does not actively counteract racism, he/she continue to “enact” the structural racism that is already in place, as you belong inevitably to the dominant group; the rules and benefits are already in your favor. You continue to “partake” in privilege automatically, which is unavailable for other people of color. (“Privileges” are not extra things but “ordinary” things like not having to worry about being harassed by the police.) So one may feel victimized when other persons of color gang up on him/her about the evils of racism, but here what the white person can do is to de-personalize and try to understand the whole mechanism of institutional racism, and see oneself in the system of overall privilege, which would be to accept the criticism. And perhaps try to recognize the pain of what it is like to be ostracized “based on race” and multiply that by hundreds and thousands. This is not to excuse the real cases of violence against white individuals, however. Such cases must be examined on their own right.

If you have reacted more intensely but in a sympathetic manner to 5 than 3 and 4, then you are conscious of race issues, most likely not in a negative way. This is tricky. It could be that you have paternalistic feelings, e.g., that you must act and help “those poor folks” because you are a good person. In that case, you may also have a race issue. If your stronger emotional affiliation comes from indignation over the institutional racism in America, then your motivation is most probably unproblematic. Here the white person as well as persons of color must be cautious: Persons of color must be generous on behalf of well-meaning but hopelessly naive white liberals joining the fight. You as a person of color might sense condescending paternalism or annoying innocence or detect a “white savior complex”. Or you see the need to be a poster guy of anti-racism, or the person is only showing “#hashtag performative alliance” in order to advertise how he/she is on the right side. There may be fake sympathy, “taking over” or “claiming” of others’ suffering for own purposes, or endorsement of personal agendas – all these are common and insulting to African-Americans, yet not all are insincere, and annoying as they may be, such attitudes might still be better than the negatively racist alternative. If you are white and recognize in yourself such characteristics, those are signs of racism, too, and should be abandoned. It is not about you.

When a black person expresses anger to a white person, the proper response might not be “yes I know, I would feel that if I were in your shoes” but rather, “please tell me more”. One can train oneself from refraining to assume the other’s feelings, while also practice to become a better listener. Perhaps this is similar to a method of dialogue developed by physicist David Bohm in which participants “suspend” one’s own beliefs, opinions, judgements, agendas, etc. and practice listening and develop communication skills that seek consensus. Politically and pragmatically, the need to have a unified fighting front is perhaps more important than internal strife. Therefore, identity politics should be put aside and the bigger, necessary goal of altering the system should be prioritized.

Emotions are not some side feelings to important political issues. They make alliances and moving forward possible. The different reactions to violence and looting are most likely and primarily differences in these immediate emotional affiliations and identifications, rather than moral beliefs or what one “thinks.” Racism operates at this level of visceral feelings. This is why “theories of justice” or “moral arguments” cannot “touch” the issue of racism. One must directly be able to reflect on your relation to the facts of desperation and “lovelessness.” More importantly, one ought to develop the humility to listen. Without this emotive content and skill, alliances are harder to form. Without alliances, it is difficult to go forward in shifting our political landscape. The shifts in these emotional affiliations are slow but they are possible. At the same time, the public discourse on the history of institutional racism must also become the standard way in which we talk about American history. To reach such a point, it may take several generations but it is never too late to begin. Political culture is dynamic and human beings are capable of strategy, transcendence, and love.[7]

“Human beings are magical. Bios and Logos. Words made flesh, muscle and bone animated by hope and desire, belief materialized in deeds, deeds which crystallize our actualities.”
Sylvia Wynter, 1995.[8]

© Yoko Arisaka

Yoko Arisaka is currently a research associate and an adjunct professor at the Institute for Philosophie at the University of Hildesheim. Before coming to Germany, she was an associate professor of philosophy at the University of San Francisco. Her fields of research include political philosophy (including philosophy of race and gender issues), modern Japanese philosophy, and phenomenology.


[1] https://newpol.org/cornel-west-america-is-a-failed-social-experiment/
[2] See https://blackcentraleurope.com/ for a good collection of resources on racism in Germany.
[3] https://www.sleek-mag.com/article/structural-racism-awareness-undo-george-floyd-black-lives-matter/
[4] The full speech is available at: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1964/king/lecture/
[5] “Mord darf keine Waffe der Politik sein,“ in: Die Zeit Nr. 39 (16. September 1977). Republished in New German Critique 12 (1977), pp.7-8. The translation is available online at: https://www.marcuse.org/herbert/publications/1970s/1977-murder-is-not-a-political-weapon.pdf
[6] A good general list to start might be found here: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/29/books/review/antiracist-reading-list-ibram-x-kendi.html There are also numerous excellent books in philosophy of race. Black feminist writers are also very helpful. Please contact the author if you would like further recommendations.
[7] I would like to thank the following colleagues for their helpful comments and communications: Peter de Schweinitz, Jeanette Ehrmann, Gereon Kopf, Julie Pildal, Michael Thomas, and Dan Zahavi.
[8] From her essay, “The Pope Must Have Been Drunk, the King of Castile a Madman: Culture as Actuality, and the Carribbean Rethinking Modernity,” in Alvina Ruprecht and Cecilia Taina, eds: Reordering of Culture: Latin America, the Caribbean and Canada (in the Hood), Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1995, pp. 17-42.

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