I have a cousin named Jerry*.
He is 10 years older than I am. He was a virtuoso drummer who you would have been willing to swear had four arms and three feet if you had ever heard him play. He became a prodigy on the piano even though he never owned a keyboard. He is so charismatic that I once watched him jokingly talk a group of women into believing there was a piece of muscle near a pig’s hind legs that was not pork. He is shockingly handsome, and when he takes his shirt off, he looks as if he were chiseled from a slab of chocolate marble. Everyone who meets Jerry (both men and women) immediately falls in unshakable love with him, partly because he has seemingly been bequeathed every talent that God could bestow on a human being.
He also smokes crack.
One of his most endearing qualities is that he is openly honest about his struggles with addiction. He is willing to tell you stories about how he bamboozled innocent people for money to buy narcotics. He will share the intimate details about the infinite numbers of drug programs he's tried.
Jerry is not shy about telling his story, but as he regales spellbound listeners with the story of his lifelong fight with addiction, replete with sordid tales and sprinkled-in cuss words, he never mentions the specific drug he uses. There is something about the notion of smoking crack that bothers him. It rips him apart when someone says it aloud. He will admit to all his flaws, willingly offer that he is an addict, but he will not say that he smokes crack.
Jerry's unwillingness to acknowledge his crack addiction is similar to that of white America's unwillingness to acknowledge racism. As black America attempts to shed the remnants of oppression that has bound us for all of our existence in this country, perhaps the biggest barrier we face is the resistance by a large number of white Americans to even accept the premise that racism is a problem.
Even in the face of hard numbers—like the fact that black teens are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by a police officer than their white counterparts. Even in the shadow of the mountainous pile of video footage showing police using Tasers on and choking and shooting unarmed black men and women to death. Even with the voluminous stack of numbers showing that black people are hired less often, earn less money, and are fired more frequently than whites with equal education and qualifications. A large number of white Americans won’t accept that there might be a scintilla of racism inside the borders of the beloved country. It must be a lack of work ethic. It must be the “gimme culture” black people buy into. It must be happenstance. It can’t be racism. They will not say it. They will not admit to it.
Last week I watched a group of white men and women sit around MSNBC’s Morning Joe roundtable during this segment and pontificate about how they’ve known Donald Trump for years and have never seen or heard the presumptive GOP presidential nominee do anything racist. They said they believed he had a good heart. They even pointed to how he had hired minorities and how he had a Jewish son-in-law. They were genuinely perplexed about his constant use of racial undertones. Even though they had seen and heard the man who is percentage points away from being the leader of the free world repeatedly offer—not just thoughts—but proposed policies designed to target and exclude people because of their race, they still would not call him a racist.
Then it hit me:
Maybe they don’t understand what racism is.
When confronted with charges of racism, many offenders will issue the defensive retort that “there’s not a racist bone in my body.” They offer apologies with the caveat that others don’t know what’s “in my heart.” They believe they are good, fair-minded Americans who don’t hate black people or want them wiped from the face of the earth, and therefore they can’t be racist. After all, racism must be hate. They simply misunderstand the definition of racism, so they absolve themselves of all responsibility.
Let’s start with Merriam-Webster’s two definitions of racism:
Racism is: 1) a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race; 2) racial prejudice or discrimination.
We will dispense with the first definition quickly. There is no way to concretely know what anyone believes. Contrary to popular sentiment, black people do not care what is buried inside white hearts. It is the actions that affect us.
The second definition is the key. When stripped of all prerequisites and dressings, prejudice and discrimination can still exist without animus or intent. Racism has nothing to do with hate. It just is. Whether I hatch an intricate plot to kill another human being or take a life in a drunken driving accident, I have still committed homicide.
The suggestion that the United States stop people from entering the country based on ethnicity and religion is inherently discriminatory. According to the dictionary of the language we all speak, that is a definition of racism.
Therefore, by definition, Donald Trump is a racist.
Racism is building a multigenerational whiskey empire and then admitting you stole the recipe from a slave after years of denial. Even if you meant no harm.
Racism is going to the Supreme Court because you believe your family's history as a legacy college entrant should trump more qualified students, and that efforts to offer entry to diverse students are against what you see as your constitutional right to get into college.
Racism is gerrymandering districts and restricting voting rights not because you hate the black vote but because you want to win.
Racism is ignoring young black lives lost to gun violence in Chicago, but sprawling across the floor of Congress when it happens outside of “the hood.”
Perhaps the biggest group of resistors to these facts is the law-enforcement community. Anyone who tries to confront the disparities in the way in which police treat African Americans is immediately rebuffed. There is widespread resistance for anyone who states the obvious:
The police are racist.
That is not an incendiary statement. That is a fact. Until we overcome the stigma attached to the term, we will never solve the problem.
There can be no dispute. All the numbers and figures dealing with law enforcement and justice show that black people are arrested more often than whites for the same crimes. They receive harsher sentences. They are stopped by police more often. They pay more police fines. They are disproportionately killed by police officers. They are falsely accused more often. Every single measurable statistic proves there is racial discrimination in every arm of law enforcement.
The police are racist.
That is not my opinion. That is according to the definition. That is according to the numbers.
But the inability to understand and accept that fact prevents us from solving the issue. With most gaps in understanding, both sides usually bear responsibility, but this case is different. The side with dead black sons and daughters don’t care if the corpses are the result of lack of training, malice, or a subconscious fear downloaded and installed by a country not yet a grandmother’s memory away from slavery. It just wants it to stop.
But the other side stops listening and bristles at the thought of even being reminded that black lives have worth. It interprets the phrase “Black lives matter,” not as a reminder, but as an accusation. It is not just the police, it is white America. It is willing to admit that we live in a country that needs to do something about its obsession with guns, tackle global warming, and figure out a way to stop amusement park alligators and petting zoo gorillas, but if you suggest that any of them have a problem with race, they plug their ears with their fingers. They don riot gear and grab bigger guns. They interpret any suggestion that there might be a racial problem within their ranks as an act of aggression.
They will gladly accept any solution that doesn’t insinuate that prejudice could possibly be part of the problem. They will not say “racism” because they think it carries the stigma of hate.
My family are loving, forgiving people. They know Jerry’s problem, and they keep trying to help him. But he won’t admit fully to his problem because it is embarrassing or demeaning or … I will not pretend to understand why.
During his weeks or months of sobriety, the family usually embrace him. He is beautiful then. He is Jerry then. But lately I’ve noticed they've grown a little weary of Jerry. Maybe they are tired of having their checkbooks stolen and their TVs disappear. Perhaps they are tired of fighting a battle that always ends in abuse. They know that—whether it is hate or crack cocaine—until men fully face the ugly truth, they can never solve their problem. They’ll just keep relapsing like they always do.
And they always do.
*Not his real name.