Truth in labeling: It’s ‘White racism,’ not ‘racism’

by Jack Daniel

More than 20 cities and counties, including the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, along with the states of Michigan, Nevada, and Wisconsin have declared “racism” a public health issue. Across the nation, leaders of colleges and universities, foundations, and corporations have waxed eloquently regarding the need to reckon with “racism.” A plethora of scholars have documented the systemic/pervasive nature of “racism” (See, for example, How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi).

Because of what is widely labeled “systemic/pervasive racism,” Blacks experience significant disparities in [1] rates of cancer, diabetes, heart attacks, infant mortality, death during pregnancy, and Covid-19 infections; [2] educational achievement; [3] viable employment; [4] gun violence victims; [5] home ownership; [6] life expectancy; [7] murder by a police officer; [8] public transportation availability; and [9] the building of wealth. What is labeled “racism” is so destructive that we must be very clear regarding how we label the pathology in question—just as clearly as the federal government insists that we truthfully label food products.

Imagine the drastic consequences for diners with allergies if they were not warned that what was being served contained caffeine, peanuts, soy, fish, shellfish, sugar, cow’s milk, monosodium glutamate, or eggs. Consider the critical importance of listing side effects on the labels of medicine. Given the life destroying effects of “racism,” it too should be labeled properly, i.e., it should be labeled “White Racism,” not simply “racism.”

It is not “racism” perpetrated by the indigenous people of America that contributes to Blacks disproportionately dying from Covid-19, police brutality, and inadequate health care. The Latinx population is not engaged in systemic “racism” that adversely impacts Blacks in terms of home ownership and wealth accumulation. The educational achievement gaps experienced by Blacks are not a function of systemic “racism” caused by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color).

On the other hand, it was a White racist who fired 7 shots into the back of Jacob Blake. During the subsequent protest, it was a 17-year-old White racist who killed two people and wounded a third. In terms of a prime example, I agree with others who assert that POTUS 45 is a White racist, given his attacks on Hispanics, Muslims, President Barack Obama, Senator Kamala Harris, the citizens of Atlanta, Baltimore and Haiti, and too many more incidents to enumerate.

We must label correctly when a Black grade school child watches a news account of Jacob Blake being murdered and, in despair, throws her arms in the air; declares in anguish, “So, they killed another Black man;” and then tearfully asks, “Why?” She must know that “they” are White racists who disproportionately punish Black school girls for the same offenses committed by White school girls. “They” are White racist who view Black girls as chronologically older than they are, very aggressive, and deserving of harsh punishment. “They” are White racists who caused the deaths of Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor. “They” are White racists who, tragically, might unjustifiably kill her.

Healing begins with truth telling and, therefore, people healing from alcoholism say, “I am an alcoholic.” They don’t say euphemistically, “I have a problem with drinking.” “Racism” too is a euphemism, i.e., a toned- down, indirect word substituted for “White Racism” which is considered too blunt and embarrassing for Whites. “Racism” is used to appease Whites, to make a concession to them as potential racist aggressors, and, in doing so, those pursuing equity and social justice slow down the progress of dealing with “White Racism.”

At historically White educational institutions, while consciously and unconsciously doing so, it is appeasement when Black faculty, staff, students and administrators identify “racism” as contributing to institutional policies and practices that lead to low Black student enrollment and few Black faculty hires. References to “racism” permit the incumbent White administrators, faculty, and staff members to refer to the nebulous “institution” being at fault; to how an abstract “system” must be changed. As such, the White leaders don’t focus directly on the fact that they are personally and professionally responsible for addressing “White Racism” at their institutions, that they might be White racists, or, at a minimum, they are the Whites who are responsible for administering White racist institutions.

Defeating “White Racism” must include White institutional leaders acknowledging the famous quote, “We have met the enemy and the enemy is us.” White leaders must take ownership as did Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher when he stated, “But this is also a time to turn the lens inward and consider our institution’s own role in perpetuating unfair structures and systems…” They must acknowledge truths such as, “…The University of Pittsburgh is a longstanding leader in our region. Yet, for all of our remarkable accomplishments, African Americans living within the Cathedral of Learning’s shadow are still confronting an alarming opportunity gap. We can expand our efforts to translate our work into practice and spur a local renaissance in our surrounding neighborhoods and communities…”

As with Chancellor Gallagher, in the case of Western Pennsylvania, White leaders such as Mayor William Peduto, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, and Governor Thomas Wolf along with the heads of entities such as Bayer, PNC Financial Services, and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center must lay down the gauntlet against “White Racism.” Its fine that White senior managers’ “hearts are in the right place,” that they “get it” when it comes to understanding “racism is a public health issue.” We also need them to, with all deliberate speed, lead an assault on “White Racism.”

If all concerned wish to demonstrate that Black Pittsburgh Matters, if they wish to do as John Lewis advised, i.e., “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and redeem the soul of America,” then they must end the politics of “White Racism Appeasement;” they must cease “going along to get along;” and they must “call a spade a spade” by appropriately labeling the “racism” destroying Blacks as “White Racism.”

(Jack L. Daniel is Vice Provost and Professor Emeritus, University of Pittsburgh, and author, Negotiating a Historically White University While Black.)

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