Written by Jen Graves; Originally published at The Stranger
One day in front of a class of art history students at Cornish College of the Arts, I say, “Raise your hand if you’re a racist.” I hadn’t planned on this.
That class period I was focusing on James Baldwin and Glenn Ligon, both gay men, both African American, and it hit me that because there wasn’t a black person in the room, things were getting abstract. This art is valuable and has to be taught—there really is no arguing against Baldwin, and Ligon’s painting Black Like Me #2 was one of the first President Obama brought to the White House—but how do you teach someone to have a relationship to it?
So I throw it out there: Raise your hand if you’re a racist.
As my students do that thing where they sort of just look at you, perplexed, I raise my own hand. I am deeply embarrassed, but I feel I have to be honest if I am asking them to be.
“You’ve never had a negative thought based on racial bias?” I ask.
Very slowly, arms begin to rise. I understand their confusion. Theirs is a generation in which we have elected a mixed-race president, but affirmative action has been struck down for being racist.
It was white Seattle parents (and a few from Kentucky, too) who fought all the way to the United States Supreme Court in 2007 so that race would be eliminated from consideration as a tiebreaker in competitions for placements in public schools. Despite the fact that racial inequities remain steady year after “post–civil rights” year—across indexes of health, wealth, and education—racial balancing, according to the 2007 ruling, is no longer a “compelling state interest.”
The racial tiebreaker in Seattle was originally instituted to end de facto educational racial segregation. But now segregation across Seattle schools is worse than it was in the 1980s. A few years ago, the Seattle Times published mind-blowing maps of the data; this same backslide has happened around the country.
“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” declared US Supreme Court chief justice John G. Roberts Jr., in 2007, siding with the Seattle parents whose kids didn’t get into Ballard High because they were white. This is legal color blindness. It has dubious precedent: In 1883, 18 years after the abolition of slavery, US Supreme Court justice Joseph P. Bradley wrote a majority opinion that ended reconciliation laws because former slaves must “cease to be the special favorite of the law.”
Today the same argument is made under the precious neologism that laws intended to redress racial inequity are themselves racist. “Racist is the new nigger,” says Riz Rollins, the writer, DJ, and KEXP personality. “For white people, the only word that begins to approximate the emotional violence a person of color experiences being called a nigger from a white person is ‘racist.’ It’s a trigger for white people that immediately conjures pain, anger, defensiveness—even for white people who are clearly racist. ‘Racist’ is now a conversation stopper almost like that device where you can skew a conversation by comparing someone to Hitler. It’s an automatic slur. And only the sickest racists will own up to the description.”