Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on DiversityInc.com. Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.
In my response to a question about Kanye West’s comments about President Bush and his subsequent apologies, I asserted that racism can only flow down a chain of power. This power can be easily defined in economic terms; for example, white households average ten times the wealth of Black households in this country. This is because of roughly 200 years of legalized slavery and another 80 years of Jim Crow laws. The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act (1964/1965) ended most legal racism, and the final major piece of anti-racism legislation passed with the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977—so you can say that the beginning of leveling the playing field started 33 years ago, but we still have almost 300 years of lawful racism to overcome as a society.
This definition of racism sparked a lot of reader response, including this thoughtful comment:
I understand the logic behind Luke’s definition but respectfully disagree. I believe that prejudice is about perception, bigotry is about attitude and racism is about actions. If someone is placed under your power and you act in a way to intentionally injure them based on their race … it is racism.
The person who posted the comment is a regular contributor to DiversityInc and we enjoy an online friendship, which is highlighted by the fact that we’re both veterans—although I will note his service extended many more years than mine—and he still serves in a civilian capacity. Here is my response:
I understand your logic as well, but I don’t agree. Allow me to pose a scenario: A Black Major assigns a white Captain to stand watch every holiday because she doesn’t like white people. This is about power (a Major outranks a Captain), but is it racism or bigotry? I’d say it’s bigotry. In the total scope of our society, no matter how senior a person is (including the president of the United States or the CEO of American Express), the economic conditions of our society, which have sorted themselves out through centuries of oppression based on race, dictate that the power is flowing from the white majority to the Black minority. Therefore, it can only be defined as bigotry.
Suppose the scenario was that the Major is Asian and the Captain is Black? I’d still call it bigotry; read up on the Asian Exclusion Act, National Origins Quota, Chinese Exclusion Act, Immigration Act of 1917 and United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind. This scenario has a person from one oppressed group being a bigot toward another member of an oppressed group. There is only one majority—and please don’t be fooled by numbers; although white people will be less than 50 percent of our population in 2043, Black household wealth will not catch up to white household wealth for about 1,000 years at the current rate of closure. Shows you what a head start will do—but, readers, PLEASE don’t e-mail me with your family’s story of individual trial and tribulations. Although they are important parts of our American story, please don’t think your ancestors did it without the help of white privilege. White people had centuries of affirmative action. Read Ira Katznelson’s “When Affirmative Action Was White” for a history lesson.
Where I’m sure we’ll both agree, and what is REALLY important here, is that the Major (in either case) needs to processed out of the Marines. Her behavior is in violation of the UCMJ and is a terrible detriment to unit cohesion, combat readiness and effectiveness. I’m confident that this is what would happen in today’s military; in fact, I’d say that a bigot or racist wouldn’t get too far into basic training, officer’s candidate school or the service academy before being sniffed out and ousted. Unlike the rest of government service, which I would say is now behind corporate culture in general, the military knows that someday you will have to depend on your life on the actions of other people. You cannot tolerate a bigot or racist because in a life-or-death situation, the white door gunner isn’t happy about the lead flying at him because his Black pilot in command was left out in the cold by a racist co-pilot.
Another veteran gave me a good insight: After a talk where I discussed race and trust, a Black man came out of the crowd. He had a Vietnam Veteran pin on his lapel. He asked, “Do you know why you trust Black people?” I told him I couldn’t pin down a reason. He asked, “Who fixed your helicopters?” The face of the senior chief petty officer in charge of fixing helicopters during the night shift (when most of the heavy repairs were done, and most of my work as a functional test pilot was debriefed) popped into my head: a Black man (who led a very diverse team of skilled mechanics). The Vietnam vet smiled and said, “You trusted your very life on the work of Black people.” He was right and it made me happy to have that insight.
By the way, if you want to read a good book about race, racism and the service, I most highly recommend Ezell Ware’s “By Duty Bound—Survival and Redemption in a Time of War.” Ware retired as a Brigadier General from the California Guard but started his career as an enlisted Marine. The book centers around being shot down and having to survive, resist and evade with a racist in Vietnam.