This week the big news on the Racism Watch is the New York City cops who have been discussing on Facebook black attendees of Brooklyn's West Indian American Day Parade in classically unsavory terms: "Animals." "Savages." "Drop a bomb and wipe them all out." And it would hardly be hasty to assume that terms even meaner than those were bandied about; we are only being told about snippets of a thread since erased from the site.
Typically, news like this is classified as evidence that racism in America is still "out there," and in ways more significant than what is acknowledged by those who claim it is on the wane. People like, yes, me.
I thought it might be useful to spell out how someone like me receives news like this business with the New York cops. I have always stressed that conflict between the cops and, especially, young black men is the keystone reason for a sense among blacks that white America stands united against them. Racism manifests itself in other ways, but most of those cases are not the kind that make healthy people feel as if a nation is set against them. As Ellis Cose has said, "Rage does not flow from dry numerical analyses of discrimination or from professional prospects projected on a statistician's screen."
Rage does flow from being pulled over and maybe even roughed up by the cops for no good reason. Or, if it doesn't happen to you, it happens regularly to your husband, brother or cousins. This is much of why I advocate the end of the war on drugs. If just one generation of black men grew up without a sense of the cops — mostly white — as an invading enemy, I firmly believe that we would be well on our way to truly mending the white-black rift in our social fabric.
However, even news of what these cops have been posting on Facebook leaves me convinced that while racism exists, it is not what America is all about, and saving ourselves will require something beyond trying to make people less racist.
Take the first point: The cops are not America. They have a disparate impact on black lives, especially in that the war on drugs often means that even middle-class and affluent men get stopped and manhandled for no reason. (What happened to Marc Lamont Hill last year is useful here.) However, the way white cops often think of black people is, in large part, a matter of class. Racist sentiment, at least of the open variety, decreases with education — and to be a cop is to have only so much education.
I know, educated people can harbor racist biases deep down. But here we are back to the "dry numerical analyses of discrimination" that Cose described. What really shapes how you feel about the world is straight-up racism. That's the kind of thing much more likely to come from "Joe Barstool" cops.
Orlando Patterson nailed this nicely in his The Ordeal of Integration, which I'll paraphrase: It's not that America remains as racist as it used to be. It's that for too many black people, the white people they are most likely to meet are cops, who are last bastions of a kind of racism that used to be common among whites of all walks.
So as repulsed as I am by the way those cops discussed black people on that site, I do not see them as "white America." They are some whites. We cannot scream to the heavens when whites imply that blacks are monolithic and then read about these cops and say, "That's white people for you," as if it were 1959.
And then the second thing: Is it our job to somehow make these sons and grandsons of Archie Bunker less racist? Well, I'm not sure how we would do that — especially given that their problem with West Indian Day is not just that its attendees are black. Let's face it: What motivated the posts is the violence the parade attracts year after year, often leading to cops getting shot, too.
The sense that West Indian American Day means shootings is, sadly, not a stereotype. This year two cops were shot, and more importantly, three other people were killed. One was an innocent bystander; two were gunmen themselves. There were deaths or shootings at the parade in 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2007 as well, and in 2009, two men were shot dead at a barbecue celebrating the parade, which is essentially the same thing.
Now, who among us is really comfortable saying that the reason for these shootings year after year is racism? Or is it even the main lesson from these deaths and injuries that institutional racism exists?
I submit that no conception of black pride could really allow that conclusion. Clearly, we need to address the community in which this kind of thing is the norm at what is supposed to be a celebration. I repeat: The cops are hardly models of social probity, either. I have written about the injustice of what happened to City Councilman Jumaane Williams and public-advocate aide Kirsten John Foy at this year's parade. This was pure stereotyping and ignorance, and sure, racism played a part in it.
But there is no logical reason that those arrests were somehow more important than the death of that bystander, 56-year-old mother Denise Gay, who was killed — in front of her daughter — during a firefight initiated by black men. No one would look her survivors in the eye and say that what killed Gay was racism. And none of us could look them in the eye and tell them that we'll have to treat Gay's death as ordinary until racism doesn't exist.
We have done better than that in the past, and we should now. Even if the cops say disgusting things about us on Facebook.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor to The Root.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.