If you want a commentary on the Trayvon Martin case, this is not it. The situation was terrible, and we should mourn the loss of life. I understand that many want to read about the case, though, so go read John Hawthorne’s excellent sociological critique of the situation.
However, the Trayvon Martin case has highlighted for me that, as far as we have come with civil rights in America, the specter of racism still lingers, but it has taken new forms since the mid-20th century. What we used to know has mostly died. It is no longer polite conversation in white society to speak negatively about black people as a race. Aside from the racism that will literally die off with the older generations for whom racism was normative, what we have traditionally called racism has likely receded to as low a level as we will ever see it. Unfortunately, there will always be, and there always have been, people who see their own people group as superior. Xenophobia is a natural human tendency which has plagued every era since the dawn of man.
Our current problem, however, is much more complex than the issues we faced prior to the 1960s. Most white people have African American friends whom they genuinely appreciate, and so accusations of racism often fall flat or get lost in translation. In the traditional sense of racism, most people aren’t racist. The temptation is to think that because we no longer discriminate solely on race, we have won the war on racism. Mission accomplished. Of course, we are fooling ourselves if we think we have achieved racial equality or eliminated racial prejudice. We have a long way to go and a lot of work to do along the way. However, we can’t continue with the same strategies that worked in combating racism as we once knew it.
To this end, I suggest the development of a new set of vocabulary to add sufficient nuance to the discussion. Let us call traditional racism “first-order racism,” defining this as the direct disparagement of individuals based solely on skin color. First-order racism still exists, but it is no longer normative in most places, especially in larger cities with diverse populations. Second, third, and higher orders of racism imply levels of abstraction away from first-order racism which still contain large racial components.
Second-order racism is very common. A person who does not dislike black people per se may still engage in activities like profiling based on assumptions about culture, with race as an essential cue in identifying that culture. Second-order racism of this sort likely killed Trayvon Martin, assuming of course that Zimmerman was not outright racist in the traditional sense. I have personally seen second-order racism in the form of suburban white folk coming together to petition against building an apartment complex in the zone for my high school — we don’t want those poor kids sharing our schools, now do we? Similar phenomena may include rezoning of schools to send all the poor kids to one high school or gerrymandering representative districts (take a look at the convoluted districts in the major cities in the linked map) to disenfranchise certain neighborhoods.
The immigration debate, too, exhibits second-order racism. While the surface concern of immigration control is obedience to US law, the underlying concern is to control the influx of other cultures and of the poor; otherwise, we would also be discussing the placement of walls along the Canadian border.
None of those actions are strictly drawn on racial lines; they are primarily judgments about socioeconomic status, culture, and language barriers. Functionally, though, they almost exclusively target non-whites. The slight degree of abstraction away from race gives people engaging in such practices a significant degree of plausible deniability when accused of racism, because theirs is not the first-order racism which they know is unacceptable.
Third-order racism involves two levels of abstraction, and it may be difficult to identify. One glaring example, however, is the so-called “war on drugs.” Impoverished communities, often consisting of minority racial groups, are prime targets for criminal vice, in that it is easier to manipulate someone desperate just to have food on the table than someone who is well-off. When we throw people in jail for possession or sales of drugs, then, we perpetuate the poverty which drives vicious activity by tearing apart families and communities. The war on drugs as we presently conceive of it makes jail time more likely than college or a stable job.
The really tricky thing about higher-order racism is that there is real legitimacy to some of the issues involved other than race. The problems presented by poverty, drugs, language barriers, immigration, and so forth are serious issues which we will never solve in one fell swoop. We need real solutions, and that means we have to involve ourselves with those communities which are suffering, not just impose our solutions from our comfortable positions on the outside (see A Philosophy of Solidarity).
If I had to suggest a single concrete step toward fixing racial inequality in America, I would suggest the decriminalization of drug-related offences. Hard drugs like crack cocaine and heroine present problems, but they are not criminal problems; they are social and health problems. The war on drugs is a direct violation of my philosophy of solidarity, coming in with force and authority to impose a solution on a group of people rather than to try to work with those people to reasonable ends. I will remind my Christian readership that Jesus did not come in like a divine policeman and throw all the sinners in jail, which is tantamount to what we are doing to poor communities; He came alongside us, experienced our problems, and lived a life we are to imitate, even at the expense of His own life.
But as I said before, there is a long way to go and a lot of work to do along the way. Ending the war on drugs will help, but it will not be a magic fairy who then grants us racial equality. Hopefully, the new framework and vocabulary presented here for understanding modern day racism will help us identify and eradicate its present-day incarnations.