John M. Crisp: 2 ways of thinking about American racism

Consider the depth and breadth of American racism.

Let’s start with the depth: Several recent events are troubling evidence of the persistent presence in our society of individuals capable of the most brutal acts of evil driven by racial hatred.

On May 26 Jeremy Christian boarded a commuter train in Portland, Oregon, and began to shout racist insults at two women who appeared to be Muslim. When three bystanders intervened, Christian fatally stabbed Ricky Best and Taliesin Namkai-Meche. Micah Fletcher was treated for serious injuries.

In February, Adam Purinton began harassing two engineers, immigrants from India, in a bar in Olathe, Kansas, using racist slurs and asserting that they did not belong in the United States. Purinton was ejected from the bar, but he returned in a few minutes and shot to death Srinivas Kuchibhotla and wounded Alok Madasani.

And then there’s Dylann Roof, the young white supremacist who on June 17, 2015, murdered nine African-Americans during a prayer service in Charleston, South Carolina. Pure, cold-hearted, racist evil.

The acts of Christian, Purinton and Roof, individuals deranged by delusions of white supremacy and their own sense of inferiority, are expressions of deep racism. But what about the breadth of racism, the extent to which it ranges broadly through society, but in less dramatic ways?

We should also be troubled by an incident at the Smithsonian Institution last week: someone left a noose in a public gallery at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Another noose was left at the nearby Hirshhorn Museum.

And on May 31, someone painted a racist slur on the front gate of the West Los Angeles home of LeBron James, one of the premier stars of the NBA.

James’ poignant response is worth quoting in full: “No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is — it’s tough. And we got a long way to go for us as a society and for us as African-Americans until we feel equal in America.”

The incidents in Oregon, Kansas and South Carolina are acute outbreaks of a racist disease; racial slurs painted in the dead of night or nooses planted anonymously in order to evoke fear are a low-grade cultural fever that does more subtle, but serious, harm to our society over time.

It’s the sort of tacit, background racism that provides the context for states such as North Carolina, Alabama and Virginia to design voting districts that intentionally concentrate, and therefore dilute, black voting power, according to recent rulings by the Supreme Court.

It’s the reason that more than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court abolished segregation in public schools, American students continue to be divided into their separate schools in ways that reflect race. In fact, according to several reports, black students are more isolated in public schools than they were 40 years ago.

It’s the reason white supremacist, alt-right groups continue to thrive in our nation and, in fact, seem to have achieved a foothold in the White House itself.

And it’s the reason that long after the odious “N-word” should have been retired completely from our vocabulary, well-credentialed liberal comedian Bill Maher let it slip out in an unguarded moment last Friday during his show “Real Time.”

Of course, our nation has made real progress since the unvarnished racism current at the time of its founding. Lynching is a thing of the past, and so are all-white drinking fountains and the poll tax. And sometimes real heroes such as Ricky Best and Taliesin Namkai-Meche, of Portland, lose their lives for standing up against blatant racism.

But we can’t seem to get rid of the background noise of race in our culture. I’m not saying that he made the best choice for protest, but does this help explain why San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was reluctant to stand up for “The Star-Spangled Banner”?

.neFileBlock {
margin-bottom: 20px;
.neFileBlock p {
margin: 0px 0px 0px 0px;
.neFileBlock .neFile {
border-bottom: 1px dotted #aaa;
padding-bottom: 5px;
padding-top: 10px;
.neFileBlock .neCaption {
font-size: 85%;

John Crisp is an MCT op-ed writer. (MCT) Crisp is an MCT op-ed writer. (MCT)

By John M. Crisp, Tribune News Service

John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at [email protected].