Racism 101

photo by Lauriel

by Ahjamu Umi

Is the Occupy movement racist? The obvious answer is yes, but there are still going to be plenty of people who wouldn’t agree with that assessment. In fact, it’s a pretty safe bet that a significant number of activists within Occupy would argue Occupy isn’t racist. It’s also probably true that many of those people, whether White or of color, would erroneously argue that any people, regardless of their nationality (color) can be racist. It’s this rampant confusion that merits an analysis of racism. What is racism? How does it function? And, who benefits from it? Yes, we understand race is a social construct, but that’s really only relevant to people who aren’t regularly victimized by racism. It’s an important topic, but one for a different article.

For this piece, we will focus on race as the major social phenomenon that it is in this society. So, first, let’s dispel the unscientific conclusion that racism is an attitude one person has about different races. This attitude people talk about is actually prejudice: judging people based on preconceived notions that are not based in any scientific theory or practice. Everyone can be prejudiced and everyone is prejudiced, but prejudice cannot be confused with racism.

When we speak of racism, we are talking about institutionalized discrimination against people of color. In other words, a system that is designed to repress, subjugate, and discriminate against people of color. How does it work? Well, you combine over five-hundred years of racist mis-education with systematic discrimination e.g. preventing people of color from advancing and keeping them exploited and oppressed. You ensure all of the institutions of the society such as church, school, the workplace, media, etc., all operate using racism as their foundation. The end result of all of that is what we have today. A system that discriminates against people of color so seamlessly that most White people don’t see it and many people of color aren’t even aware when they are being discriminated against.

Predatory lending is an excellent example of racism, but if you are confused and think racism is simply an individual attitude, you won’t understand how predatory lending works because you will be erroneously looking for the redneck racist banker as the culprit. Instead, if you truly want to understand how this happens, you have to look at the over five-hundred years of programming mentioned previously. Then you have to understand the type of conditioning such programming generates.

In ethnically-European people, it generates the benefits of feeling confident and able to maneuver within a system that offers you acceptance and nurtures your sense of self. For people of color, it offers feelings of repression and inferiority and a sense of inadequacy. So consequently, people of color learn to not make waves because doing so gets you in trouble. Bankers, being pressured to make as many sales as possible, learn how to get that sale through the path of least resistance.

People of color won’t complain about price nearly as much as ethnically-European people because we are trained to just accept police mistreatment. To just accept shabby service in a restaurant. Just accept discrimination on the job. Just accept higher prices. As a result, the banker learns to add points to the loan rate (the way he/she makes more money) on the applications of people of color because they are much more likely to just pay it; whereas, that banker doesn’t even try that with European applicants because for many reasons, they are more likely to complain.

Police are much more likely to harass and arrest people of color because they are much less likely to have legal representation and money, and no one is going to complain because we’re criminalized anyway, right? It reminds of me when I tell ethnically-European people how many times I’ve been pulled over, they’re first response to me, whether they are right-wing hacks or so called progressive liberals, is “what did you do?” These are just two examples of which we could go all day. The point is the discrimination is systematic, not individual. And, because it’s systematic, most European people don’t see it. Consequently, to them, it doesn’t exist.

What is the solution? That’s an entirely different article that we’ll delve into soon enough, but we will say institutional racism is a byproduct of capitalism. In the meantime, do the work by studying about White privilege. People of color have work to do as well. We need to stop internalizing this system of oppression and we all need to become voracious about learning more. We praise the Women’s Caucus and any other groups for having study materials. We all need to be doing this. If you don’t engage in any studying that combats the backward aspects of this system, then you are going to be influenced heavily by those backward aspects no matter how smart you think you are. If you don’t believe that, check yourself the next time someone of color is talking about their experience with racism and they can’t get a word in edgewise because of your arrogant desire to educate them about how you have overcome racism in your White privileged life.

  26 comments for “Racism 101

  1. Gareth
    January 30, 2012 at 2:51 PM

    I agree that institutionalized racism is a problem in the US, and around the world.

    Looking outside the prism of the US though I think we have to regard racism as an issue which originates from and in bound up with individual prejudice.

    I think looking at the world as containing only ‘whites’ and ‘people of color’ is a false dichotomy.

    As such making blanket assumptions like that all light skinned people have ‘privileged lives’ is factually incorrect and does little to further your cause.

  2. Alexander Fitzhugh
    January 30, 2012 at 3:09 PM

    This is an interesting essay but it really needs some editing. There are simply too many places where you make a point that you treat as common knowledge but which many people will not be inclined to treat as such. I don’t want to take issue with each individual point because it’s not the argument I disagree with. But if you aren’t going to take the time to support a controversial statement then you should not waste time including it.

    More importantly I cannot disagree more with your assertion that institutional racism is the only actual form of racism. Perhaps institutional racism is the most important form of racial prejudice in your personal experience. Perhaps institutional racism is the most pernicious and widespread form. Perhaps it is really what we should be concentrating on attempting to change. But saying that the word racism no longer means the belief that inherent different traits in human racial groups justify discrimination is simply disingenuous. You should not attempt to constrain the broad spectrum of possible meanings down to but one. Institutional racism is simply the most accurate term for what you are discussing.

  3. John Springer
    January 30, 2012 at 3:17 PM

    Good article. We need more like this. In my somewhat limited experience, nothing changes attitudes like knowing and working with people. There’s actually a lot of opportunities for this within OP. makes the whole movement stronger.

  4. terri
    January 30, 2012 at 3:28 PM

    Very good definition of racism. Thank you

  5. Chris
    January 30, 2012 at 3:49 PM

    So… because the Occupy movement exists within a racist paradigm, even though it is rebelling against it, it is inherently racist?
    In what way does the Occupy movementqualify as, “…institutionalized discrimination against people of color. In other words, a system that is designed to repress, subjugate, and discriminate against people of color.”?
    I understand the urge to point out implicit racism and the differences between prejudice and racism. Great job of it in this article. Why call out Occupy as racist? I don’t see that the case has been made or proven.

    • Justin
      February 11, 2012 at 10:09 AM

      Have you seen Occupy Portland? especially since it moved to the Catholic Church? It is almost exclusively white people, and we have done little to nothing to reach out to other communities in the Portland-area. Even the lack of thought and effort in this area reaks of racism. I know you are dealing with having your little bubble burst, but lots of liberals are racist, they just do a good job of convincing themselves otherwise.

  6. Tom Klein
    January 30, 2012 at 5:12 PM

    How exactly does Occupy inflict “institutionalized discrimination against people of color”?

    What specific part of the Occupy movement enacts “a system that is designed to repress, subjugate, and discriminate against people of color?

  7. E. Cooper
    January 30, 2012 at 5:18 PM

    Please give actual, concrete examples that you have observed or dealt with from the Occupy movement and from occupiers. Institutional racism is everywhere, but to illustrate your opening statement,in order to understand and learn from your observations, we need to know what behaviors and experiences you are specifically referring to.

  8. rothstei
    January 30, 2012 at 7:29 PM

    As said in the essay, there is a difference between having bigoted or prejudiced opinions, and passively taking advantage of institutional racism. The whole point of institutional racism is that it has nothing to do with individual’s behavior or specific situations or groups. If you can’t grasp that any and all groups fall under the institutional racism of society, then that is the need to call out Occupy as one of these groups. It is a reminder–no one escapes the racism, nor the privilege, associated with skin color. Merely being opposed to racism is no claim to be free of it.

  9. StJason
    January 30, 2012 at 8:00 PM

    This is a good point that isn’t brought up often enough. We tend to think of ‘racists’ as people who dress up in hoods and burn crosses in people’s yard. Instead, racists are often completely unaware that they are doing it. It isn’t the guys in the hood, it is the boss who goes with a gut feeling and chooses the white guy over the black guy. It is the woman who crosses the street to avoid the dusky-skinned fellow walking the other way. It is the businesses that purposefully avoid areas with high crime rates, which are incidentally full of brown people. Racism isn’t calling out racial epithets, it is so subtle that you don’t notice it until you’ve done it and been called out on it.

    I am a racist. But I’m trying to be better.

  10. Anonymous
    January 30, 2012 at 8:58 PM

    We live within a white supremacist system. It’s the chief way that the ruling elite maintain control, by conferring special benefits to the white working class so that they side with the system and against their fellow working class. This is done in all sorts of ways, one of the most notable is treatment by the police. Which is why when a largely white Occupy Portland discounted the very real concerns of people of color concerning the police, telling them that we need to welcome everyone, that they are part of the 99%, it was an expression of this inherent privilege that prevented them from being allies with people of color. Same goes with the statement of condemnation directed towards David Burgess. Obviously Occupy Portland is racist. And all of these defensive responses are really just refusals to examine and challenge one’s own privilege. This is the single greatest weakness of the system – the vulnerability to a united working class that rejects white privilege. Which is why they try so hard to prevent it.

  11. darek
    January 30, 2012 at 10:34 PM

    I agree with the author’s explanation of racism and the clarification of institutional racism, but I don’t see how Occupy, who is fighting to break down the current institutions are inherently racist just because it is currently working in a racist society.

    However, I definitely know that protestors, especially young white anarchist types, get away with a lot due to their social class and ethnic privileges. I included social class because the article forgets to mention this important aspect. It’s why college kids were able to camp in parks around the country without being immediately arrested, but a homeless person is harassed the moment he/she lays down on a bench.

    Anyways, I would have liked a better analysis of the actual Occupy Movement, not just an overview of what institutional racism is in our country.

    Food for thought though! I like anyone who challenges current modes of thinking.

  12. jerry
    January 31, 2012 at 2:20 AM

    Racism 102

    Your article was racist.

    OED entry for racism-
    a.a The theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race.

    In insisting that Occupy is racist, you are either alleging that Occupy holds that distinctive human characteristics are determined by race or you are misusing the word racism.

    “many of those people, whether White or of color, would erroneously argue that any people, regardless of their nationality (color) can be racist.”

    Many people would argue that, and given the actual definition of racism , those people would be correct.

    Again from the OED
    Prejudice-II.II †2.II.2 a.II.2.a A previous judgement; esp. a judgement formed before due examination or consideration; a premature or hasty judgement; a prejudgement.

    “but prejudice cannot be confused with racism. ”

    Prejudice should not be confused with your fictitious definition either.

    “When we speak of racism, we are talking about institutionalized discrimination against people of color.”

    That is true when we are speaking of some forms of institutionalized racism.

    “Predatory lending is an excellent example of racism”

    So I guess the millions of middle-class whites that were also victims of predatory lending just don’t exist?

    “institutional racism is a byproduct of capitalism.”

    Racism is as old as humanity, it was present in tribal societies. However, racism became institutionalized under Feudal Colonialism. Capitalism has actually worked to ease racism because a “white-only” work force limits the amount of available labor. Capitalism has also worked to erase gender differences into order to turn women into wage slaves as well (when women are homemakers then half the population doesn’t work for wages and pay taxes).

    However, it’s apparent from your tone that you don’t want equality, you want dominance. Not surprising, the victimized always learns to secretly emulate and aspire to be the victimizer.

    • StJason
      February 3, 2012 at 5:09 AM

      Excellent. You have justified the Status Quo. Does that make you feel good? Do you feel like you have served your people? Become a paragon to emulate? Pointing out existing racism is not itself racism. Any more then pointing out a bank robber in the middle of robbing a bank is not actually robbing a bank itself.

      Or, to misquote a pithy take on it: “Why is there a Black History Month and no White History Month? Because every month is White History Month.”

  13. brock
    January 31, 2012 at 11:30 AM

    I think you also need to take in the institutional bias against poor people in general if you are going to talk about institutionalized economic racism. Our system of capitalism thrives by maintaining a significant portion of the population locked into a cycle of poverty. One of the mechanisms they use is to foster racism among the poor. Poor non-whites blame racism and poor whites blame civil rights laws and foreign brown people for stealing jobs and forcing down wages. When it comes to solutions, if you make your argument all about race you’re going to alienate the most significant part of the population that you need to reach out to.

    • StJason
      February 3, 2012 at 5:15 AM

      Oh, no doubt that poverty is a huge issue as well. The question is where is the line? Is a poor latino poor because he’s poor or poor because he’s Latino? Is a poor white guy just poor because he’s lazy? Because he has opportunities that other races don’t have, right?

      This is one of the things that I love the 99% motto for. Because the real fight is about the class system. Race, ethnicity (take a look at the up-down trip that the Irish-Americans or the German-Americans took in American history), religion… Anything to stop people from saying “Hey, you aren’t so different after all!”

      However, there is a built-in assumption on the part of many that ‘working together’ means ‘working the white way’. Most people won’t even think about it. And awareness should be the number one job at Occupy.

  14. Trudy
    January 31, 2012 at 2:18 PM

    Some of these responses to Ahjamu’s article seem to me to reflect some of the key points he is making,both in this article and in his earlier one. Most notably, that white people get defensive and start arguing about definitions and asking for examples and then present their own re-definitions…. All this is (apparently) meant to invalidate the first hand experience of the person who knows the dimensions and effects of racism, in ways white people simply cannot. And as Ahjamu pointed out earlier, once we start our rebuttal, we can go on for quite some time, telling the brown person what it “really” is like for them, or putting her / him down as a complainer… It would be nice to see and hear more responses like, “wow. tell me more,” or “I’d like to understand this better…” or, “I realize that I’ve not had your experience…” I do see there are a few like that here….

    I’m wondering how many of us realize the courage it takes to bring up something that the majority culture will reject outright, and in the process of doing so, add insult to injury.

    If I am wrong to assume that people who reacted this way were “white,” then please tell me that. I would like to understand this better…

  15. MK Gundlach
    February 1, 2012 at 12:08 AM

    rac·ism   [rey-siz-uhm] Show IPA
    a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.
    a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.
    hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.
    1865–70; < French racisme. See race2 , -ism

    I have found that when most start using the term "racism" they re-define it. The Occupy movement is not racist by the accepted definition. I believe this article makes several good points, but the points made do not fit the definition of racism.

    • rothstei
      February 1, 2012 at 10:17 PM

      Dictionaries deal with the common usage of a term or concept. Ethics and politics are often arguing for an, unfortunately, uncommon usage of a term or concept. The whole point is, many people do not understand the definition of racism in a way that is politically useful. Hence, they are still racist. Ask any bigot: “I’m not racist, I just don’t like _____ people.” Apparently, the definition of racism needs some work, then. Wouldn’t you think?

      If I never say another dictionary-copy-and-paste in an Internet comment thread, it would be too soon.

  16. jerry
    February 1, 2012 at 3:31 AM

    This article is clearly a racist diatribe.
    “Most notably, that white people get defensive and start arguing about definitions and asking for examples”

    Of course. When a writer argues that an entire race is guilty of some crime regardless of their own actions, perceptions, and motivations while (ironically enough) accusing THAT race of racism, even an 11 year old child of average intelligence can spot the flaws in that argument.

    His argument makes absolutely no sense. Regardless of the fact that he makes up his own definitions as it suits him, he repeatedly contradicts the fundamental elements of his argument.

    First, he says this-

    “It’s also probably true that many of those people, whether White or of color, would erroneously argue that any people, regardless of their nationality (color) can be racist. It’s this rampant confusion that merits an analysis of racism.”

    Ok, here he gives the impression that only persons of certain races can be racist. Later, he says-

    “When we speak of racism, we are talking about institutionalized discrimination against people of color.”

    OK, so “people of color” are the ones that racism is focused on. The race that’s exempt from this racism is whites, so it’s safe to say that his earlier comment is explained as only whites can be racist.

    But hold on, he says that racism is institutionalized discrimination. He also says-

    “let’s dispel the unscientific conclusion that racism is an attitude one person has about different races.”

    Wait a minute, now he’s saying that racism ISN’T defined by the attitude of individuals, but is the attitude of institutions. If that’s the case, can’t anyone working in the interests of those institutions be racist, making it possible for racists to be people of all races? Not according to him, only whites can be racist. Clarence Thomas gets a pass because the color of his skin and yet every white is guilty because of the color of theirs.

    The crap this guy is disseminating is the very definition of racism. He starts with very valid observations, but then goes a thousand miles an hour in the wrong direction, arriving at the same types of conclusions that any redneck that’s donned a bed-sheet and burned a cross on a lawn has drawn. Whites can’t fully understand racism against people of color- fair enough. I agree. On the other hand, how does he expect to understand what it’s like to live as a white person with “white privilege”? What, people of color can understand our social world fully but we can’t understand theirs?

    The blanket accusations and double standards this guy defends are just ludicrous, and anyone with a shred of intellectual integrity will admit to that.

    And, the most important aspect of it, is that he has no realization that he is racist. All racists think their racism is just a statement of facts, this guy (and yourself) are no different.

  17. Bill Peterson
    February 1, 2012 at 9:04 AM

    The central three paragraphs of the eight total, the meat of an essay where you provide the evidence that supports your case, offers as evidence for the racism of Occupy the fact that bankers practice predatory lending…

    Oh the irony!

  18. Jamie Partridge
    February 1, 2012 at 1:08 PM

    Thanks to Brother Ahjamu for his insightful (inciteful?) anti-racism educational. He is a true warrior writer, who walks his talk as a consistent organizer and activist within Occupy Portland. Clearly white privilege blinds many of us to the true nature of racism and the brother does a beautiful job of explaining. Racism is perpetuated by OCCUPY when people of color are not leading, bringing forward the unique issues oppressing particularly Black and Brown peoples, such as predatory lending, employment discrimination, police racial profiling, wholesale incarceration, school harassment and expulsions, access to health care, destruction of immigrant families, etc.

    But OCCUPY also helps opens the door to anti-racism organizing by its emphasis on fighting inequality and injustice, its support for Troy Davis, against police abuse and for the D 17 immigrant rights action. Clearly OCCUPY activists want to be part of a movement which embraces anti-racism and is inclusive. And people of color have not been passive in response to the OCCUPY movement. Occupy the Hood and its off-shoots in various cities has given birth to Decolonize Portland, Occupy the Dream and Occupy North East, all people of color centered groups relating to OCCUPY Portland.

    Brother Ahjamu opens the discussion about institutional racism and points to capitalism as its cause. Few of us anymore are supporters of capitalism and many understand that the 99% is by and large made up of working class people. We do the work, the 1% gets the goodies and runs the show. Our task is to unite as a working class to get the goodies, distribute them equitably and run the show.

    While understanding white privilege opens the door to embracing people of color leadership and prioritizing the demands of the most oppressed, it is not primarily white people as a whole who benefit from racism. It is the 1%, who use racism to drive down the wages and quality of life for Black and Brown people, lowering conditions for all workers, with the 1% walking off with the profits. Statistical evidence confirms the correlation between the degree of income inequality between whites and Blacks and the degree of income inequality between whites. Studies have shown that in those areas where the white/Black income differential was greatest, the percentage share of white income received by the top 1% of whites was greatest. Racism in the south, and the lower unionization rate as a result, does not benefit white workers. As one author writes: “But what is most dramatic – in each of these blue-collar groups, the southern white workers earned less than northern Black workers…”

    White workers will embrace Black and Brown liberation when they understand how the anti-racist struggle benefits all. From the Civil War against slavery to the CIO organizing Black and white workers into industrial unions to the Black freedom movement of the 60’s, each upsurge strengthened the working class movement overall (the civil rights movement inspired the anti-war, student, labor, women and gay movements) and materially benefited all workers.

    While anti-Black racism has been the central tool of American capitalism to impede working class unity, it is also the lynchpin. When racism is challenged — especially when Black people take the lead in militant, radical and revolutionary politics, as they tend to because of their extreme oppression – the whole working class movement advances. Racism cannot be overcome without fighting capitalism. Capitalism cannot be overcome without fighting racism.

    Jamie Partridge

    • Kelly
      February 1, 2012 at 9:24 PM

      if we are not actively addressing racism and inviting people to the table then we are (however unintentionally) reinforcing the status quo of systemized oppression.

      Sure, many poor white people DO have a harder row to hoe than a middle class Aftrican American in many regards (as an example), but that is really not the point. The point is that To deny & dismiss peoples’ concerns, to whine about how white people also have it bad or whatnot, instead of listening, considering, being in solidarity, is only further injury.

      • StJason
        February 3, 2012 at 5:22 AM


        If Ahjamu came in with an article stating “Occupy is anti-disabled. As a paraplegic, I see this all the time.” Do you think that anybody would be denying it? Do you think he’d get offers of help or people figuring out unique and inventive ways to let a paraplegic join in? Do you think that we’d have to page through a half-dozen dictionary definitions of ‘ablest’? How many replies whining about able people getting footsore on a march do you think he’d get?

  19. walker
    February 1, 2012 at 11:46 PM

    For some of the commentators here:


  20. February 3, 2012 at 9:41 AM

    To Walker~ thanks for this link! It is an amazingly well thought through, experienced based, and funny bunch of insights about how our minds work when we enter “fight or flight.”

    But, for actual practical application: I’d love to see us in Occupy master the skills of dialogue (a framework that is different from “communication skills”, as it is about shifting mental models). Well facilitated and in a safe space, all parties (not just one) come out with a better understanding.

    we don’t tend to approach it this way, and there are a lot of reasons for that. One is the automatic presumption that anyone who brings up race intends to attack and blame the person who didn’t bring it up. What quickly follows is something like, “Hey! Dude! I didn’t own slaves! Get off my back.” This is a moment that doesn’t have to devolve, either into the typical track of, “let me educate you about your history of privilege,” or into a fast, “here we go again, I’m outta here” retreat on the part of the person who DID bring it up. Real dialogue asks a lot of us, but the guidance for these skills exists, and is regularly practiced. I think Occupy would benefit from going in this direction.

    Another reason things devolve (which is closely related to the first reason that I see, but is separate enough to justify its own description) is that it is hard for people on any side of this issue (or on many others for that matter, such as gender and ability) to clarify the distinction between institutional racism (prejudice + the power to hurt someone with that prejudice) and individual prejudice (biases picked up from various sources, mostly unconscious + mere benefit from the disadvantages of others). When we don’t get that we are all on the same side in this crappy system of capitalism, we get “horizontal hostility” instead.

    Many of these responses to Ahjamu’s articles are “horizontal hostility”–e.g., denying the voice or experience of the writer (“allow me to inform you of the real definition of your experience, by offering this dictionary definition), outright turning the tables (“it’s YOU who is the racist, for bringing this up in the first place”), and putting all the responsibility on the writer for clarifying the problem (“some good points, but you need to re-write this completely.”)

    What if we said instead (and some here did, of course), “thanks for helping me understand your experience better, because I’m sure it is different from mine,” or, “I’m still a little confused about what you want specifically from Occupy, can you tell me more?” or, “I appreciate your courage in bringing this up, and I hope we can all keep working on how to communicate well about this?”

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