Confronting Racism

Posted on Categories Civil Rights, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public, Race & Law

Plessy_markerIn Plessy v. Ferguson, Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote “[o]ur constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” [1] Today, most people might say they too are color-blind. However, race relations have been prevalent in the news as of late because the state of racism in America has mutated. Racism is rarely as bold as the cross burnings of yore, but no less insidious. [2]

Because racism is different, our understanding of our inherent biases must also become different. I believe the modern definition of racism has shifted. I define racism as taking a negative action towards someone, whether explicitly or implicitly, on account of their race. This means that people can take racist actions without being aware that they are doing so.[3] We can no longer oversimplify racism, and instead need to confront it within ourselves and as a community.

As a country, we need to do a better job confronting racism. A plethora of high profile incidents, involving police brutality and campus outrage, have given us another opportunity to confront our inherent biases. Unfortunately, too many “color-blind” people have not heeded the second part of Justice Harlan’s dissent and have instead tolerated or even justified the systemic mistreatment of classes of citizens. [4]

Indeed, even as a campus community, we must do a better job of destroying the castes we unknowingly assign to people. Far too often, we as a campus have been disinterested in efforts to address racism. However, we all have a role to play, especially as developing lawyers, to end racism. Pretending racism does not exist on this campus is the same as tolerating that same racism. [5]

And this is what my generation must fix. This is what we can fix. We have come a long way since Plessy v. Ferguson, but we still have a long way to go. That requires an affirmative effort; tolerating the systemic mistreatment of classes of people is no longer acceptable. While it is important to be proud of whatever culture one comes from, that pride need not come at the expense of others. I encourage you to take the Implicit Association Test as a first step towards addressing the inherent biases we all hold.

[1] 163 U.S. 537, 559 (1896), overruled by Brown v. Bd. of Ed. of Topeka, Shawnee Cty., Kan., 347 U.S. 483, (1954).
[4] See

3 thoughts on “Confronting Racism”

  1. John,

    A very interesting and thought provoking article. I intend to take the Implicit Association Test.


  2. You are correct that racism is still present in many distressingly powerful ways. However, I would define it differently than you do. Racism need not involve “negative action” but rather could be a matter of attitudes and assumptions. It is racist, in my opinion, whenever somebody considers one race superior to another.

  3. I would encompass attitudes and assumptions within negative action, as thinking or assuming are (metaphysical) actions. As blatantly racist attitudes and assumptions are increasingly fading, however, I think it is important to remove the mens rea element from the definition of racism. Indeed, as I previously mentioned, people can do racist things without knowing that they are acting out of racism.
    Additionally, people who hold racist inherent biases may be more willing to admit to those biases if they know social punishment for their thoughts is not imminent.

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