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Byron Williams: Is America a racist country? Depends on your definition
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Byron Williams: Is America a racist country? Depends on your definition

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Is America a racist country?

I suspect that many Americans, depending on the street corner they inhabit, have a prepared answer for the aforementioned closed-end question.

Vice President Kamala Harris and S.C. Sen. Tim Scott, separated by less than 24 hours, stated that America was not a racist country. Each, however, offered caveats.

Scott’s caveats, or perhaps more accurately his contradictions, came during his rebuttal to President Biden’s April 28 address to Congress, when Scott offered that America was not a racist country — but minutes before that declaration, he acknowledged that some “progressives” had referred to him as an “Uncle Tom” and with the infamous N-word. Harris also said America wasn’t racist, but that the nation must “speak the truth” about its history with racism.

If one offers the “America is not a racist country, but” observation, is one not suggesting that on some level America is indeed a racist nation? Perhaps the observations by Harris and Scott, given their public platforms, oversimplify an issue that requires a deeper analysis.

Racism has loomed large over the American narrative since the nation’s inception. Its definition is murky, but fits neatly into the subjective analysis of the one invoking it.

Because of racism, even the nation’s origin differs by some 157 years (1619 vs. 1776). Moreover, largely because of race, 156 years after the conclusion of the nation’s greatest crisis (the Civil War) there is still not a comprehensive acceptance of the reasons that prompted it.

When Harris and Scott offer that America is not a racist country, what do they mean? How are they defining racism; and what did the rest of us hear?

Are we commingling racism with prejudice? Is it the former Eugene “Bull” Connor variety with his police dogs and fire hoses, redlining practices by local banks or something more systemic? Can one’s understanding of racism be honed by the extreme?

When it comes to racism, are we simply content to stand by former Supreme Court Associate Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity, “I know it when I see it”? One may know racism when one sees it, but everyone doesn’t see it, hence the frustration.

An overwhelming majority of Americans believed they saw racism embedded in the 9:29 video that captured the murder of George Floyd, but racism in the 21st century is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. To further complicate matters, there is the notion of institutional racism, which is less perceptible.

Brown University professor Tricia Rose, talking about institutional racism, offers: “Every aspect of life, jobs, employment, wealth, discrimination criminal justice, media, housing, health, mental health, has elements of racial disparity.” Was this the definition that Harris and Scott were refuting?

Many within the public discourse seem content to operate in a vortex of certainty without the burden of defining the parameters. Without clarifying terms on how racism is defined, we have merely justified the art to talk “at” each other, abdicating any expectation that the other side will listen.

Beyond debating the efficacy of Harris and Scott’s contention that America is not racist, is it more beneficial to know how they are defining the term? Can there ever be a judicious conversation about race that doesn’t include courageously walking across the street to view racism from the adjacent corner?

But that requires one to leave one’s silos of certainty to discover there might be an additional perspective one had not considered. The perspective from the opposing street corner is invariably illuminating because it reveals something that is often missed from the safety of one’s preferred domicile.

America is too complex for key issues to be debated on a binary terrain. The oversimplification that we cavalierly apply to others for the benefit of our own perspective becomes increasingly complicated should we dare to see the world from the contrarian perspective.

The overarching American narrative consists of myriad subplots. These subplots are delineated by race, gender, economics and sexual orientation, as well as other considerations. Even then, they are unable to tell the complete story.

It is the toxins of certainty that impair our collective ability to have judicious conversations about race. Is racism the ubiquitous answer for every challenge the nation faces? Has the statute of limitations expired on the country’s origin, which was fortified by what could be defined as racist underpinnings? Is anyone prepared to offer that racism was merely a phenomenon of a bygone era, defeated by the enlightenment endowed by the 21st century?

Racism, however defined, continues to be the ever-flowing tonic that insures the nation’s arrested development.

The Rev. Byron Williams (byron@publicmorality.org), a writer and the host of “The Public Morality” on WSNC 90.5, lives in Winston-Salem.

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