Systemic Racism: Overt to Abstract

In reading through the history of racism in America, I was surprised to learn that there was a conscious decision to make racist ideas “abstract.” A very basic outline of how that occurred follows:

President Nixon recorded everything. As such, we have his recorded views on the superiority of the white race over other races. Incidentally, the War on Drugs began under Nixon in the 1970s.

Here’s what John Ehrlichman, Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs said about the War on Drugs, “You want to know what this was really about? The Nixon Campaign in 1968 and the Nixon White House after had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin and then criminalizing both heavily we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night.”

The hippies might have disappeared, but black citizens did not have this luxury. Surely though, these laws were scaled back and corrected since institutional racism is a myth, right? Wrong. These policies were ramped up in the 1980s and it was a coordinated strategy rooted in racism. 

Lee Atwater, a Republican strategist that worked on the Reagan campaign gave in an interview in 1981 that was recorded and can still be listened to today. He said:

“You start out in 1954 by sayin, ‘[n-word, n-word, n-word].’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘[n-word]’ – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites.”

So, at the highest levels of our government, when it was no longer acceptable in the public sphere to use racial slurs, turn fire hoses on protestors, and lynch, politicians became more “abstract,” and used their power to further target black citizens. That is exactly how institutional racism works, and nothing has ever been done to roll back these laws. In fact, they have continued and been strengthened.

The story of our nation isn’t finished though. It is within our power to work towards liberty and justice for all. It starts with awareness of our own prejudices and biases (more on my own in later posts) and of awareness of our history and its impact. Then, with the problem in sight, we can work towards reform by supporting local organizations and political action.

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