In the weeks after the George Zimmerman verdict, I have appreciated much of the discussion. But some people’s comments have given me pause, and left me unsure whether these commenters truly understand the definition of Racism.

Sadly, Racism, Prejudice, Discrimination, and Bigotry seem to be used a great deal as though they are interchangeable. These words are not interchangeable – they are not all synonyms for Racism. Racism has to contain an institutional and structural power dynamic. Here in the United States, that power dynamic is held primarily by white, heterosexual, middle-aged, Christian, educationally-privileged men; these are the people who establish norms in our society and have a great deal of unearned privilege because of the color of their skin. This group, called the dominant culture, creates laws and policies – laws and policies that have an ugly history and were designed to help white folk while oppressing folks of color. Thus, Racism is: structural, institutional and systemic power that allows for discrimination and bigotry affecting someone’s health, well being, safety, and livelihood based on real or perceived racial or ethnic affiliation.

Perhaps a bit of a history lesson might be useful here. Let us keep in mind the multi-generational impact of these laws both economically and emotionally. The 1857 Dred Scott Decision: The Supreme Court said that all people of African dissent were not and could not be counted as citizens of the United States. Let us jump to 1935 with the start of Social Security – a great act to be passed, but sadly it did not initially apply to anyone who was not white, a significant economic impact. Now let us move to the 1945 GI Bill – great opportunity for soldiers returning from World War II. Sadly, this bill did not initially apply to any of the soldiers of color returning from World War II. Here we see a huge economic impact for generations of whites with great advantage and thus a huge disadvantage for generations of people of color. The GI Bill allowed for white soldiers to buy their first home and get a college education; this would qualify as unearned privilege due to one’s skin color.

Let us jump to 1954 when we witness the Termination Act. The Termination Act stripped all Native Americans from their identities and spaces as our government told all of these people: “Okay, you are white now, so you must live in the cities and turn over your lands to the U.S. government.” The cultural and financial impact on Native Americans was and remains profound.

Even more recent and disgraceful is SB1070 adopted by Arizona in 2010 and then adopted by Alabama in 2011, which demands that all Latina/os must have proof of citizenship on them at all times. If someone with dark skin that is, or is perceived to be, Latina/o and cannot provide documentation of citizenship, they can be put in jail.

I approach the work of equity and marginalization as a gay man. Working as an agent of change means I am also obligated to know about the start of Gay Liberation in 1969. The LGBT community has a long history of being targeted and imprisoned. Until 2003 with Lawrence v. Texas, it was against the law to be gay in the United States. Sadly, regardless of Lawrence v. Texas, it is still against the law in most states in the South. In fact, LGBT people have zero rights and protections in almost all of the South. My personal call to action is to stand in solidarity with all those who are oppressed by the dominant culture and to honor their narratives – to understand how LGBT people of color are targeted and why.

This history is carried with all targeted people and passed down from generation to generation, much in the way that if you are Jewish, your family knows about the Holocaust and its effects are likely still felt in your family. Of course, the impact is more severe if one carries more than one of these identities. For example, if you are a woman and a woman of color or if you are a man and a gay man of color, the impact is far worse.

Finally, let us illustrate the sad state of racism in the United States with the belligerent, bellicose, bigot Ted Nugent. As of late, Nugent seems to be the appointed spokesperson of the GOP. In response to the Zimmerman verdict, Nugent went on a racist tirade:

Why wasn’t Trayvon [Martin] educated and raised to simply approach someone he wasn’t sure about and politely ask what was going on and explain he was headed home? Had he, I am confident that Zimmerman would have called off the authorities and everything would have been fine. Why the nasty “creepy a- cracker” racism and impulse to attack? Where does this come from? Is it the same mindless tendency to violence we see in black communities across America, most heartbreakingly in Chicago pretty much every day of the week?…When you live in a fog of denial, usually inspired by substance abuse – you know with all the lies about dope being a victimless crime, I think you’re listening to the victims of this dopey crime, because their brains are fried. They’re either fried on substance abuse, and all of them know who I’m talking about.

The fact that the severely misguided and under-educated Nugent feels justified in making these very public racist comments, along with people like Rush Limbaugh and Pat Robertson, makes it quite clear that we still have a long way to go around issues of racial and gender equity.

Call to action: Imagine how powerful we could be if all of the targeted populations joined together to stop this type of oppression and even more powerful if we enlist the support of all of our allies that are within the dominant culture?

My hope in publishing this article is to encourage and invite people to engage in a meaningful dialogue around the issues of race, gender, power, and equity. I hope many will contribute to this conversation in a respectful manner and also correct me if I have committed any trespass in my exposition here. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below!

Michael Hulshof-Schmidt teaches Social Justice at the Portland State University School of Social Work. He is the Executive Director of EqualityWorks, NW, a company that provides workshops on racial equity and how to stand in solidarity with targeted populations. You can read more of his work, including an earlier version of this piece, at http://hulshofschmidt.wordpress.com.


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