Share story

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva says improving race relations in the United States will require a social movement, active anti-racists and steady attention to everyday racism rather than reactions to hot incidents.

He wouldn’t wait for a fire, then call in Jessie Jackson or Al Sharpton to say the same things they’ve been saying for 30 years, because the battle lines have moved. Racism these days can be quiet, polite and damn near invisible in its execution, but not in its impact.

I called Bonilla-Silva to talk about his ideas because he’s going to be speaking in the area this weekend and because what he has to say is important and different from most conversations about race.

Bonilla-Silva is a sociology professor at Duke University who has researched and written extensively on racial inequality, democracy and human rights. The title of his best-selling book says a lot: “Racism Without Racists: Colorblind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States.”

The problem of race, he said, is not racists, but racism, not individuals doing or saying something obviously racist, but people collectively being complicit in systems that privilege one group while damaging others. Racism is more than prejudice, it’s a social system, and a very adaptable one.

Bonilla-Silva said it’s true the United States is moving away from a white majority but that we can’t expect that will erase racism.

“I’m a black man from Puerto Rico,” he said. The racial hierarchy operates differently there and elsewhere in Latin America. There’s inequality, but people don’t acknowledge race, so how do you fight racism in a place where people say there is no race? He fears the U.S. could become like that.

In the U.S., some people are pressuring the Census Bureau to stop tracking race. Bonilla-Silva said most countries in Latin America keep no racial statistics so it is difficult to quantify the inequalities that follow racial lines and address them.

Bonilla-Silva believes that if we don’t act, “in 20 years we may look back and realize we’ve developed multiracial white supremacy.” Some people — assimilated, light-skinned Latinos and Native Americans and some Asians — could be part of a new “white” group.

His next book is about the United States evolving into perhaps a three-tiered racial system. Rather than a black-white line, there might be white, “honorary white” and “collective black,” with skin color and class affecting where people fit. In his black category, for instance, he includes reservation-bound Native Americans, some Southeast Asians and dark-skinned Latinos.

The racial system has changed before. Its language and ideology adapted to new conditions as the system moved from slavery to Jim Crow to a new system of practices that are seemingly nonracial yet produce racial outcomes that show up in data on everything from imprisonment rates, to wealth, to school outcomes and loan rates.

The dominant ideology, he said, moved from labeling black people biologically inferior, to using black culture rather than discrimination to explain the persistence of inequality.

Bonilla-Silva argues that racism hides in seemingly neutral language, such as someone saying “urban problems,” “urban youth” and so on, when they mean black.

Colorblind discourse also allows someone to say, “I’m all for equal opportunity, which is why I’m against affirmative action,” Bonilla-Silva said. That makes no sense, he said, because it’s based on the false premise that we have reached racial parity, that we are beyond race.

Exhibit A for that premise is having Barack Obama in the White House. It’s a nice symbol, but, Bonilla-Silva said, symbols don’t pay the bills. He notes that Obama has mostly stayed away from race and from directly trying to improve conditions for his most loyal supporters. “I get elected, you disappear,” Bonilla-Silva said. In fact, “Having a black man in the White House has put off dealing with race.” Many blacks and Latinos don’t want to demand more from Obama for fear of a white backlash against him.

Electoral politics have limitations as a way to work toward racial equality, he said. Black people vote for Democrats because at least they’re not Republicans, but it doesn’t yield much.

Bonilla-Silva is not big on conversation as a way to get beyond racism, saying talk doesn’t do anything unless it is preceded by a social movement. And he said older activists haven’t understood the changes of the past three decades. In Ferguson, Mo., some older leaders tried to restrain people in the streets, urging them to protest politely, he said.

Bonilla-Silva said we should heed the words of Frederick Douglass, who said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

He said, “We have a right to be mad,” and to say so — to say, “No justice, no peace.” A movement can be forceful without being violent. He sees hope in young people coming together to address racism.

He said many white people may “want to think, ‘I’m a nice person, I’m beyond race,’ ” but passively cooperating in a racist structure (biased school-discipline systems or bank-loan practices, for example) means being part of the problem.

Become actively anti-racist, he said. Call out racism when you see it and work toward more equality. Don’t take inequality for granted. “We all should become leaders,” he said. And he said any movement against racism needs to form connections with people working against other oppressions, whether based on gender, class or some other part of a person’s identity.

Forcefully confronting unfairness no matter who it affects is the only way to shut down systems and practices that perpetuate inequality.

Bonilla-Silva is scheduled to speak Sept. 27, as one of four keynote speakers at the 2014 Race & Pedagogy National Conference at the University of Puget Sound. Angela Davis will speak Sept. 25, and Winona LaDuke and Henry Louis Gates Jr. will speak on Sept. 26.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com