Shifting Mainstream Understanding of Individual Racism

As the academic semester comes to an end, in my contemporary racism class we have been discussing and connecting various concepts to develop our understanding of the role of modern racism and its consequences to marginalized identity groups in the United States. We discussed how, under the influence of mainstream media, we tend to focus on individuals who exhibit old-fashioned, overt acts of racism and the obvious, direct consequences to people of color. This leads many to immediately reach the conclusion that civil problems within society are because of those individuals who hold overt racist attitudes, and addressing those individuals will solve U.S. racial inequality. However, I have learned in class that social disparities are created and maintained by institutions of authority through systemic and systematic discrimination in the socioeconomic, political, educational, and health aspects of life. We see widening disparities between people of color and white people that are not solely the result of overt racism: in fact, these disparities are exacerbated by an individual form of implicit racism typically exhibited in liberal, well-educated white people. These people are called “aversive racists” and explicitly believe in egalitarian principles and equality for all. However, as a result of negative socialization in the form of biases and stereotypes, those people still implicitly hold negative attitudes toward people of color. Aversive racists do explicitly hold, and want to be seen as having, egalitarian values. Thus, in racial interactions where it is easy to determine how to socially interact with a person of color they act accordingly. The implicit, negative attitudes manifest in racial interactions where the appropriate social actions are not clear, or the consequences of bias for people of color are not obvious to the aversive racist.

One of the biggest distinctions between the expression of overt racism and aversive racism is that, for aversive racists, the negative racial attitudes do not always manifest as negative racial behaviors. For example, implicit racial attitudes can be expressed by those individuals as the justifications for the differential pattern of treatment and discrimination we see in today’s society. Individual forms of aversive racism become even more problematic when they are held by individuals in positions of authority in institutions directly affecting socioeconomic, political, educational, and health sectors of society. Aversive racists can justify the differential pattern of treatment and discrimination toward people of color through enacting policies they believe are based on “equality” and “universality” but which actually fail to address the additional vulnerability of people of color.

We need to lessen the focus placed on overt forms of racism as the central cause for modern civil issues in U.S. and acknowledge the role of implicit forms of racism that normalize the discriminatory and differential treatment. I’ve come to the conclusion that maybe as a society we need to begin shift our understanding: overt racism exhibited by the few is the not the cause of inequality issues in the U.S. but, in reality, is the result of aversive racism enacted by the many. Which leaves me with this question: would shifting the mainstream media’s influence on the perception of racism – from an overt expression to more of aversive implicit attitudes – help the more people recognize the systemic discrimination contributing to the disparities between people of color and white people?

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