Protesters, the council and the many meanings of racism

Published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, online on August 18, 2017 5:59 PM

At last Tuesday night’s meeting, City Councilman Brian Byrd and Mayor Betsy Price chafed at protesters who labeled them “racist.”

Indeed, both sides of the debate over whether Fort Worth should join other local governments in litigation against Senate Bill 4 — the so-called “show-me-your papers” or “sanctuary cities” law — hinged on its larger meaning.

Councilman Byrd noted, “tonight is not a vote on whether we are or are not racists.” The mayor added, “Calling people names and threatening people will only divide people.”

While the immediate issue centered on immigration, the real discussion was all about race, racism, and racial inequality. The problem that surfaced was that the citizen protesters and council members harbored different understandings of those very terms and concepts.

The defensive posture of Byrd, Price and their colleagues stemmed from a conception of “racism” that is attitudinal or behavioral. In other words, they don’t hold racist beliefs, they said, and they don’t hurl racial epithets or defend slavery, so therefore they can’t be racist. In the wake of last weekend’s events in Charlottesville, it’s clear that they are sincere — they aren’t intentional racists.

But for decades, scholars of American race relations have moved toward a more sophisticated understanding of racism that emphasizes its structural and institutional forms. Prejudice still matters, but it is its wedding to power that creates white supremacist outcomes. In some cases, attitudes or intent remain relatively unimportant.

What matters is the impact of a given policy or institutional norm. We ask, “Does a law or practice produce results that are measurably unequal for members of different racial groups?” If so, if it leads to disparate outcomes that reinforce racial inequality, we call the act or practice “racist.”

One could also call it “white supremacist,” not because it is wrapped in Confederate colors, but because it extends the racial wealth, opportunity or other gaps — and thereby reinforces a system that confers advantages on white people (as a group) and disadvantages people of color.

Senate Bill 4 fails this test. Whatever its intent, the bill appears likely to produce racially disparate outcomes. Police chiefs across the state have stated that the law will make it more difficult for them to do their jobs. Fort Worth Chief Joel Fitzgerald reassured the council and audience that he would create new safeguards against racial profiling, but the crowd remained skeptical.

Citizen-activists shared countless stories of confronting discrimination in law enforcement and of the ubiquitous fear of deportation in Latino communities. Over two meetings, some 150 community leaders, most of them Latino U.S. citizens, called on the city to join the lawsuit, exceeding those on the other side by a 10-to-1 ratio.

As the council finally took up to the motion after midnight, I felt certain that one of the four white men on the dais, or the mayor, who is white, would heed the advice of the people who were most affected by the bill and who stood to lose the most from its implementation.

Instead, the five city leaders who voted against the lawsuit coldly ignored the experiences, perspectives and pleas of Fort Worth’s communities of color. They made it clear that they weren’t racist in the attitudinal sense, but that their feelings had been hurt, and that they wanted ongoing dialogue with the people whom they had just ignored. Above all, they reminded us that they, the white city mother and fathers, knew what was best for their most vulnerable constituents — not the people themselves.

Such a stance represents racial paternalism at its worst.

Before the civil rights movement, which I study, self-styled “moderate” local officials in the South delayed integration for years. They claimed that they supported justice but that the time for change, or the means of protest, or the process of reform just weren’t yet right. Instead they advocated gradualism and dialogue, and they truly believed that they alone knew what was best for their cities.

Yet the reality soon exploded in their faces because they flatly refused to listen to — to really hear — the people of color who stood before them and patiently explained their grievances, dreams and desires. How can dialogue take place in that context? What can the scared immigrants and their relatives and allies conclude except that city leaders are insincere in their desire to represent and support all Fort Worth residents?

Last week’s council majority does not carry torches or hold any racist views, but their vote against joining the lawsuit was still an act of racism. It reinforces white supremacy as a system and further divides the community they claim they wish to unite.

Max Krochmal is an award-winning author and associate professor of history and director of comparative race and ethnic studies at Texas Christian University.

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