Browsing in my favorite social change bookstore, I overheard two customers talking. One asked, ‘Have we ever had a more racist president than this one?’ And the other replied, 'Maybe Andrew Johnson?'
As a woman of color in Vermont, I’m frustrated by this type of exchange, a current obsession in the media. Calling someone a racist does not improve race relations. Rather, it usually leads to a give and take where 'racist' is used as a personal and subjective insult, which obscures the larger meaning of the word – and threatens to trivialize institutional racism, one of the most urgent problems we face today.
Racism is not an insult to be flaunted. It’s a societal reality, which describes the systematic disadvantages imposed on a racio-ethnic group by another, based on supposed differences between them. In this country, ‘whites’ are deemed superior than others ‘of color.’ And based on this fallacy, people of color are discriminated against in many ways.
Racial insults, stereotypes, and other forms of denigrating people who are not white are part of what experts call ‘everyday racism.’ But my concern is that when we focus on the racial harassment of individuals of color, we may avoid a serious debate about racist policies that impact whole populations of color - like the current policies and actions against immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers of color - or the taking back of public and Native American land for private use and profit.
‘So what about Bill Clinton?’ I want to ask the Vermonters in the bookstore. Unlike Reagan, he wasn’t recorded calling an African delegation to the UN 'monkeys still uncomfortable wearing shoes.' But he was responsible for two of the most devastating policies that continue to harm people of color in this country: more stringent requirements for receiving welfare benefits, and the ‘three strikes and you’re out’ rule, which continues to send people of color to prison in record numbers.
We need to confront the reality that if examined honestly, all presidents have enacted racist policies - because Racism, with a capital R, is in the DNA of this country. We should be single-minded in our efforts to dismantle the policies and actions that support it.