OPINION: The matter of race and the redeemed racists in America

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Black Lives Matter protest in Jackson, MS after the murder of George Floyd. (Photo: Jay Johnson)

Perhaps, most adult African Americans and many children realize that there is this problem in America called racism. For shorthand, it is the phenomenon of white privilege. The brilliant writer Isabel Wilkerson labeled the problem as one of “caste.” Regardless of how it is labeled, in every aspect of American life, it can be witnessed to some degree.

Americans may not have created the rascal, but they certainly embraced him, actively developing the concept of white people and Black people. Prior to popularization of the concept, there were just French, German, English, Egyptian, Nigerian, Kenyan, Chinese, Indian, Arabian, and other such people, even as they wandered into North America.

For sure, when one observes the country today, rather than William J. Wilson’s prediction of “the declining significance of race,” racism is even more vigorously displayed and promoted since the rise of Donald Trump than was the case in 1990. Indeed, it is the “in” thing amongst devoted followers of the likes of Ron DeSantis, Greg Abbott, Tate Reeves, and Marjorie Taylor Greene.

During the John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations, it appeared that racism had become unpopular. It seemed as if “active racists” were dying out, that “opportunistic racists” were keeping a low profile if not rapidly losing influence, and that more white Americans were becoming “redeemed racists.”

Today’s developments, however, have caused the writer to go back and dust-off his notes on the types of racists that he could clearly identify during his days as an employed teacher. There were the active racists, the people who openly expressed their opposition to Black people and/or engaged in activities that were clearly anti-Black. They included many more average citizens than KKK members and sympathizers. Such racists still exist. While they reject the label and protest being called racist, they are not willing to change their behavior. 

There are the opportunistic racists – the people, especially politicians and business owners, who promote or support whichever is most popular or profitable at the time. Beyond the politicians and businesspersons, many other average citizens are opportunistic racists in the sense that they will go with the crowd, especially the leaders. 

Thirdly, there are the passive racists. These are people who almost never say anything on the issue of race. They simply continue to enjoy the privilege and advantages of being white. Their silence puts them in no jeopardy but enables them to get ahead in the game of life where racist structures, policies, and practices are the order of the day. Many of the passive racists may even be unconscious that the structures, policies, and practices in which they operate are race-based. Many others, of course, are aware but turn a blind-eye. All of them object to being called racist.

Because racism is so embedded in the structures, institutions, policies, laws, and everyday life of the average white American, the socialization, the orientation, the enculturation process which they undergo as children and adults causes them to naturally develop as racists. This brings us to the final type of racist with which we have grown up. These are what the writer calls redeemed racists. (They are and always have been small in numbers and the exceptions to the rule.) According to this definition, redeemed racists are white Americans who have somehow – through education, experiences, and/or associations – been extricated from or who have somewhat overcome the mental illness/social plague of racism.

We realize that in the logical sense, if one has been so redeemed, he/she is no longer a racist. For the rhythm of the expression, and in order to clearly drive home the point of how contagious and wholesale the infection is, however, we use the term redeemed racist – racist individuals who have been redeemed. 

The United States of America was born in racism – the racism that decimated the native or indigenous people of the land called North America. It was greatly accelerated or boosted with the arrival of the African people who were forced into slavery by the same phenomenon. As Asians, Latin Americans, and others found their ways to these shores, through Jim Crow policies and practices, they, too, were subjected to various levels or degrees of racial oppression.

What the ebb and flow of America’s history shows, of course with more ebbs than flows, is that while the country has generally remained racist, at times when the active racists have lost ground and not been as stirred-up by the opportunistic racists, a small contingent of redeemed racists have led advances toward pluralistic democracy. Since the ascendancy of Donald Trump, the Tea Partiers and the Make America Great Again (MAGA) crowd, however, the redeemed racists have been awfully challenged to stand-up in their “redeemed” status.

We offer these comments not because they are so new but in order to encourage the redeemed racists to stand strong and challenge the victims of racial oppression to welcome and stand with them despite the fact that it has often been difficult to identify them. It has often been easier to write-off all white Americans as racists. It is important to make the distinctions and act accordingly. 

In that same sense, we must never fail to talk about American racism and its destructive effects. To relent would be to give racism that much more room to breathe and grow. We must be out to destroy it before it completely destroys the American dream, the human right of freedom, and equality of all humankind.

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OPINION: The matter of race and the redeemed racists in America

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
March 21, 2023