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Racism is a House …or Something

When discussions of racism come up, folks are quick to remind me that race is not a real thing – it’s just a social construct. I agree. Race isn’t “real” in the sense that it’s not based in biology and it sure isn’t based on geographic difference. I mean, just check out Asia. What do Japan and Iran have in common other than some idea about the “Orient” invented by Europeans, right?

But this idea of race as a social construct is pretty academic. And folks often preface “social construct” with the word “just,” as if the fact that race isn’t natural (as in, from nature) means we can simply educate it away.

So let’s try that idea another way. Yes, race is a made up idea. But, based on that idea, we’ve built real structures, a whole society in fact, and the inequity created by those structures won’t go away just because we change our minds about race.

In this way, the idea of race is like one’s dream of a house. The dream is just an idea, but if you move from dream to blueprint and then from blueprint to construction, you end up with a real structure – a house, made of bricks and mortar (or wood and nails if you like). And, just like you can change your idea about your dream house but still be stuck in the one you built with your old blueprint, certain attitudinal norms about race can change without changing the structure of white supremacy.

In order for your old house to match your new ideas, you have to remodel or rebuild. In terms of race, what we have on our hands in the 21st century is less a remodel than a renovation. Surfaces have changed, but the structures are, for the most part, the same.

Based on the idea of race, we have, for generations, created blueprints in the form of our Constitution, public policy, and social codes, often enforced with violence. Based on those blueprints, we’ve built real structures like suburbs, ghettos, corporations, whole industries.

The legacy of this history lives on in our politics and our economy. Practices such as convict leasing of Black prisoners and the wide array of racist codes and practices in the South and the North – codes like exclusionary covenants, Jim Crow laws, red lining, immigration quotas and exclusion, etc., – have accumulated through history to create a wealth gap between whites and people of color that persists to this day and cannot be resolved unless we revisit this history and address its legacy. Until that happens, the wealth gap will continue to be an indicator of structural inequities as solid and consequential as that wall you wish you could get rid of between the kitchen and the dining room in your house.

I’m not trying to minimize the importance of voting rights protection and changing social mores. These things make a difference. But, structural inequality still exists because the changes we’ve won renovate, even improve, an existing structure that has built in inequities. And these improvements convince the folks that are the least affected by the structural problems that it’s fine in here, making those of us who continue to complain of real injustice look like a bunch of whiners.

So we’ve gotta focus on the structure. Giving too much credence to the ways in which society has (or hasn’t) been renovated rather than remodeled around race is a distraction. It allows us to avoid seeing and dealing with the need for change.

Scot Nakagawa

By Scot Nakagawa

Scot is a community organizer, activist, cultural worker, and political writer. He has spent the last four decades exploring questions of racial injustice and racial formation and effective forms of resistance and strategies for change through community campaigns, cultural organizing, popular education, writing, and direct political advocacy.

Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against vigilante white supremacist groups, white nationalism, Nativism, and authoritarian evangelical political movements. In this work, he has served as a strategist, organizer, and social movement analyst. Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow and the Association of Asian American Studies 2017 Community Leader. He is busy at work on a number of projects, including writing a playbook for anti-fascists, and a primer on race and power. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition; Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence; and Eyes Right!: Challenging the Right Wing Backlash.

2 replies on “Racism is a House …or Something”

Sorry to say this blog is beginning to look like a forum for racists. I grew up in an all white neighborhood. I went to an all white school where some white kids were segregated from other white kids because their parents didn’t make a lot of money. The only thing we were taught about Black history was that some Black guy invented peanut butter. It wasn’t until I attended a university that I learned about the second wife of Thomas Jefferson, Sarah (Sally) Hemings (The 1st Black First Lady) although no one will ever admit it, and then there were the little talked about “Black Slave Owners”. Today I live in a colorful neighborhood where at least three times a week a black man stands on the corner at the end of the block dressed in robes and preaches hate and damnation to every race except his own. I meet Native Americans who hate Mexicans, and Blacks who hate Whites and Mexicans, Asians who hate Mexicans, Native Americans, Italians. Germans, and most likely Whites when they’re not talking with me, Mexicans who hate Native Americans, Blacks, Whites, French, Italians, Germans, Asians, etc. There’s enough hate to go around for everybody and if you don’t think it gets into the work place and the schools and has an effect on your opportunities to get ahead no matter what color you are including. White. you are dead wrong. Racism doesn’t belong only to Whites. It is an equal opportunity obsession and this country is filled with people of all colors who practice it every day. I believe the government finds us easier to manage when we are separated.

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