by PROFESSOR BINNA KANDOLA
Co-founder and senior partner, Pearn Kandola
“[RACISM] has been solved long ago.” These are the words of Academy-Award winning
actor, Jon Voight, in a video response to the tragic shootings in the US last week.
Voight talks about how “it seems the angered left and angered minorities want to hold
president Trump accountable for past lives”, and explains the problem of racism in America
was, in fact, solved by its forefathers.
The question though, is whether there is any truth to such a claim.
The answer? Of course not. What we are witnessing is a perfect example of modern racism in action.
Racism has been likened to a virus that mutates, taking on different forms as it adapts
to a changing environment. Its mutation is made harder to observe by it being deeply
embedded, not only in our traditions and institutions, but also in our unconscious lives.
Our public attitudes to race have certainly changed, and this evolution has been measured
over many decades. Today, racist acts are widely condemned, rather than being condoned
as they were in the past. It is no longer socially acceptable to express racism directly,
and perhaps this is the change that Voight is alluding to.
However, the impact of negative images and stereotypes we have inherited is more difficult
to eradicate. A lack of tolerance of hostile behaviour is not the same thing as genuine equality of opportunity.
The forms of prejudice we live with today have different names, one being modern racism.
Modern racists neither express nor endorse racist views and stereotypes. They believe
in greater integration between people. However, they also believe racial equality has
been achieved and we need no further policies to promote equality.
Modern racism reveals itself at opportune moments though, is more oblique than confrontational, and often leads to a conflict in our own personal values. Racial prejudice has not disappeared, it has merely mutated.
Today, racism manifests itself in numerous ways – first, by avoiding any meaningful
contact with the minority group; second, by practising racial discrimination when the
circumstances allow it; third, rather than criticising a minority group, those with racist
beliefs will use a policy or action as an outlet for their attitudes; and fourth, by
making a distinction between groups in terms of their ‘values’.
I have no doubt that Voight’s comments were made with the best of intentions. He
genuinely believes racism is no longer a problem, and, in his defence, we must recognise
that there has been a significant reduction in society’s acceptance of overt racism.
However, we must also recognise the evidence of the existence of modern racism, the
race pay gap, the black attainment gap or the clear racial hierarchy that exists in the modern workplace, to name just a few examples.
An unwillingness to acknowledge this evidence – as well as our own unconscious motives
and attitudes – often leads to people adopting a supposedly colour-blind approach.
It’s as if we pass legislation and the job is done. The attitude of ‘I don’t notice a person’s
colour’ is so ingrained that I’ve even heard directors of diversity and inclusion say it.
Regardless of his intentions, Voight’s message will do more harm than good. Instead
of denying its existence, our understanding of racism must become more sophisticated in
order to match its increased subtlety and elusiveness.