Michelle Obama and Saida Grundy cannot be ‘reverse racists’

Laws and media perpetuate racism. In America, racism is anti-black.

Updated: Friday, July 3, 12:40 p.m.

On July 1, the National Youth Front, an offshoot of the white supremacist American Freedom Party, hung flyers across the Boston University campus using the phrase “Black Privilege” and posted their exploits online, according to Boston Magazine. The group wants BU to fire Professor Saida Grundy for statements on her Twitter publicized in May by conservative outlets.

If this doesn’t expose the underlying racism of attacks on Grundy, what will?

The Southern Poverty Law Center says that the American Freedom Party was “established by racist Southern California skinheads” with the goal of returning “the United States to white rule.” The National Youth Front is a recruitment booster program for the AFP, which focuses on colleges in order to increase youth support. Recently, the youth offshoot posted anti-immigration flyers on the Arizona State University campus that stated, “America is ours, and we are tomorrow.” Their online posts decry “anti-White hate.”

Chris Sweeney wrote that university police are “investigating the posters and will prosecute to the fullest extent of the law if they make an arrest,” paraphrasing a BU spokesperson’s statement to Boston Magazine.

Tuesday, June 23, 1:30 p.m.

“Reverse racism,” in name or concept, wiled its way into the news cycle in May over First Lady Michelle Obama’s commencement speech at historically black Tuskegee University and several tweets from Saida Grundy, incoming professor of sociology and African American studies at Boston University. Mainly white audiences and pundits have taken issue with these statements, arguing an effort by Michelle Obama to “gin up” black communities and “divide this country” and accusing Grundy of “anti-white racism.”

Obama discussed her lived experience with racism as a black woman in America last weekend. She said that she and her husband have felt “frustration” due to the “assumptions” made about them and the “daily slights” of being followed around stores, being treated as “help” at black-tie events, or having their “intelligence” and “love of… country” questioned.

But critics like Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck attacked the first lady’s words, saying that she and the president couldn’t possibly “be invisible,” or that the endgame of racial equality is people who “can’t read” getting into Princeton. Ian Tuttle at National Review argues that just because Obama “feels discriminated against,” doesn’t mean she actually faces discrimination.

An author—who Fox News identifies as Nick Pappas—at small-time aggregator SoCawlege—on which Pappas’ name never appears—collected some of Grundy’s tweets, many addressing race and ethnicity, and posted short editorial captions in opposition to her statements. Pappas says that a reference to college-age white men as a “problem population” makes Grundy “unqualified” to evaluate white students due to a “special bias against them.”

When Grundy wondered why white America won’t identify problematic behavior in young white men, I wonder if she was thinking about violence like Dylann Roof’s assault on black sanctuary in Charleston last week, events like UMass Amherst’s Blarney Blowout and Keene’s Pumpkin Festival last year, or the countless white youths who participate in riots after sports championships—win or lose—and who don’t get called “thugs” on national television.

Marsh Plaza on the Boston University campus. (Henry Zbyszynski/Flickr)
Marsh Plaza on the Boston University campus. (Henry Zbyszynski/Flickr)

Grundy and Obama cannot be racist because racism stems from institutions, like government and media. In the American context, racism is not solely an individual belief, but the system of courts, law enforcement agencies, news outlets, schools, universities, businesses, legislatures, realtors, hiring agencies, prisons, television shows, admissions offices, and many others that perpetuate racial stereotyping and discrimination. These organizations have been created and shaped largely by white Americans. There will never be Jim Crow laws for white people.

Historian Richard Rothstein reminded Fresh Air listeners in May of the federal policies that created the ghettos bemoaned today as breeding grounds of “black-on-black crime.” In May, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan signed a budget that left out $11.6 million in funding for Baltimore schools. The day before, he provided $30 million for a new jail for the city’s kids.

When we obscure American history with ideas like “reverse racism,” we allow real racism to creep into our everyday lives, and we watch communities of color receive money for jails, not schools, and then watch the same politicians blame those communities for the crime that comes when kids don’t get the education they deserve.

Obama and Grundy face attacks because they are using their hard-earned privilege to criticize systematic injustices they had to overcome. When people of color, especially women of color, invoke strong arguments against a system that privileges people with light skin, they are torn down with racist accusations perpetuating the idea that people of color are inferior—that Obama got into Princeton because of “affirmative action,” or that Grundy represents BU’s “VERY (sic) low” standards for hiring professors.

People of color can still hold foolish prejudices. People of color can stereotype, invoke hate, and perpetuate bigotry, but those individual prejudices are not the same as a system of racial oppression. To quote Josh Odam, “when (a white man) looks in the mirror, he sees a man.” Odam sees “a Black man.” That disparity in identity is the foundation of the Black Lives Matter movement and exposes “reverse racism” as a diversionary tactic.

“Reverse racism” diverts attention from attacks on black voting rights, continued underfunding of urban education, and the fact that only three percent of students are black at Grundy’s new employer in a city where 24 percent of the population is black. It also diverts attention from BU’s planned closure of its African Presidential Center, the director of which argues that if the “program invit(ed) European presidents,” it wouldn’t have gotten “the same treatment.”

Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase torpedoed “reverse racism” in their 1975 “Word Association” sketch on Saturday Night Live. There’s no white equivalent for “n****r” because it represents a combined history of oppression, slavery, murder, violence, and death for which there is no white equivalent. Violence is Pryor’s only possible response to Chase’s use of the word.

At least he gets a few weeks of reparations.

Zac Bears can reached at zac@dblstand.com.

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