We need to talk about what it means to be a racist. After my stint as courtroom sketch artist on the Dylann Roof trial and the recent election, it seems the definition of racism has evolved.  When  people’s feelings get hurt because someone is suggesting what they are expressing is racist we basically have two choices: silence the accuser or silence the victim.

Definition of racism

  1. 1 :  a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race

  2. 2 a :  a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles b :  a political or social system founded on racism

  3. 3 :  racial prejudice or discrimination


Judge Gergel charges the jury.

A broad historical swipe of the brush will divide most into either belonging to the oppressed or the oppressor. The left paints a picture of white people being the ancestors of slave owners and somehow culpable for the oppression of people of color, the ancestors of slaves. The right sees this historical perspective as irrelevant. These wrong-headed historical backdrops color our attitudes toward racism today, which is causing intense conflict. We all are experiencing racial oppression as a form of slavery which keeps people of every color in an endless cycle of fear and retribution.  Everyone seems to be saying, “I am not a racist, THEY are.”

Forensic testimony of Dylann roof trial

Forensic testimony at the Dylann Roof trial

It is important to distinguish between the feelings shared by individual members of these racial groups and what we can call Institutional Racism, “a political or social system founded on racism,” from the definition above.

Fear, hatred and mistrust are feelings unfortunately shared by millions of individuals within all racial groups toward those of other racial groups. Let’s call it “The Other Syndrome.”

Institutionalized Racism, however, refers to the systematic oppression of a group or groups by another ruling group who make laws affecting everyone, but which tend to benefit the members of the ruling group at the expense of another. There is little question which group is which, particularly after the recent election. The white male, and his interests, are firmly in control of every level of our governmental system. But until our country rids itself of both individual and institutional racism we simply cannot evolve as a society.

Dylann Roof sketches

Roof decides to represent himself.

Here are examples of institutional racism: If you believe corporate person-hood (the result of the famous Citizens United decision by the SCOTUS), voter suppression laws, gerrymandering are not racial issues then you might be among those supporting racial oppression. If you think the minimum wage should provide anything less than a poverty existence then you might be an institutional racist, because people of color are the most likely to be harmed by voter disenfranchisement and low wages. If you don’t have a problem with a for-profit prison system that creates incentives to incarcerate a disproportionate number of people of color then you might be tacitly supporting institutional racism. If you think welfare and food stamps keep people from achieving their potential but corporate welfare in the form of tax breaks, subsidies and not paying workers a livable wage is perfectly okay, you may inadvertently be supporting a system of oppression. These are but a few examples in a system designed to keep mostly people of color from the societal benefits the rest of us take for granted.

I don’t think the right sees it that way. And I’m beginning to think beating them up for it isn’t helping the situation. Saying someone is benefiting from white privilege is a not-so-nice way of saying there is a problem in the system. They might answer, “The system is the system. I’m not the problem.  I earned my privileges. My enjoying the benefits I’ve earned is only a problem for those who haven’t earned it.” And their conclusion is, “if people of color want those same privileges they need to step up and earn those privileges, like I and so many others have. Therefore, there’s no such thing as white privilege.” But the reality is 1) everyone wants those privileges 2) most people, white and black, are willing to work to earn those privileges (the assumption that certain groups are lazy and don’t want to work is racist and that’s the problem) 4) whites didn’t earn those privileges; they were born into better schools, receive a better education, and generally have far more opportunities to make something of themselves, while people of color have to work 10 times harder just to get to square one. That it is POSSIBLE for people of color to succeed if they work really hard to escape their communities, does not make it fair, equal or just.

Dylann Roof Jury Trial

Jury selection at the Roof trial

As an individual, I have been the brunt of racial anger, simply because I’m white. And I know many people of color who have felt the wrath of white rage. These conflicts are a response to the societal inequalities built into the system. Everyone will react to this imbalance in different ways at different times. As an individual, as a child of God in particular, I am charged to go way beyond mere tolerance. I believe we must love our neighbor as ourselves. I try to practice love, although not always successfully. But I try, because that’s something that brings me closer to God.

Like most people, my feelings about race fluctuate slightly depending on circumstances. But one thing that hasn’t changed for centuries is that I am a member of the white ruling class. I am part of the institution of racism, not because of anything I did but because of who I am. I enjoy inherent benefits because I am a white male. This doesn’t make me or other white males bad or guilty; it just is what it is. This may be hard for white people to accept, but it’s true. It’s the Elephant in the room. People of color have to navigate obstacles the white male simply doesn’t have to deal with.

Dylann Roof during Jury selection

Roof during Jury selection

I hear white people say, “But I am not a racist” all the time. And it always sounds ridiculous because no matter how well intended they are, they are members of the oppressing ruling class. Again, that is nothing they need to feel guilty about, but it must be acknowledged if we are ever going to change society. Personally, I don’t enjoy being a member of a group that oppresses another group. So I choose to actively address racism rather than deny its even a problem.  

I’m NOT proud of my white heritage. That’s why listening to a Dylann Roof for the last couple weeks or the thought of a Donald Trump presidency makes me so sick. That’s why we  must continue fighting for justice and equality for all.  Not because you or me or someone we meet in a grocery store or in a courtroom is personally a racist or not. That’s immaterial. You can call this “white guilt,” PC or cry about reverse discrimination if it makes you happy. You may feel I’m painting with too broad a brush. But really all I’m calling for is a passionate desire for balance, a knowledge that without true equality NONE of us will ever really be at peace. None of us will ever know freedom.


Robert explores racism and other important issues in his recent book, Quench.”

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