The Changing Definition of the Racism Problem

by Hazel Lutz, a member of the Racial Justice Initiative

The last century’s format for addressing the problem of racism defined it as a problem of the actions of racist individuals. Certain individuals were viewed as  a cancer, so to speak, on an assumed, largely healthy society. Society-wide efforts to address racism focused on the removal of segregation signs; education, or re-education, of individuals; busing for educational equality and some government programs to give people living in poverty a “leg up.” The goal of equal opportunity was draped in words and phrases like “tolerance” and “getting along with each other.” Equal opportunity programs and the social safety net of government programs created during the War on Poverty, however, have slowly lost funding, been altered or closed down altogether through the last six decades in response to the attacks of politicians who blame the victims of racism and economic oppression for their situations.

The 21st Century format for viewing the problem of racial inequality has broadened the focus to include not just bigoted individuals, but the whole structure of our society; its history; American White culture; and the hearts and minds of every individual. Now we are looking at a societal problem — systemic racism. This is defined as racial prejudice + power. The overwhelming proportion of people occupying the positions of authority in government, businesses, churches, schools, colleges, museums, NGOs, etc. are white. They make decisions based upon assumptions and methods of evaluation originating in their European cultural heritage. The cultures of people of color have little chance to influence important decisions about our American life. In fact, the dominant white culture of our society’s leaders consciously, but more often unconsciously, work against the interests of people of color.