YOUNGS: What I Didn’t Know About Racism


What I Didn’t

Know About Racism

By CONOR YOUNGS • Special to

Over the last two weeks, Americans have voiced their anger, frustration and shock over the murder of George Floyd through large-scale protests across the county, including in our very own Oneonta and Cooperstown.

These events reminded me of something I wrote in one of our local newspapers right after the 2016 election as a college senior interning with Otsego County Judge Brian Burns. The piece was entitled, “Does implicit racial bias exist in the criminal justice system?”

Conor Youngs, a graduate of Georgetown Law School, is an Oneonta native and a member
of OHS 2012 State Champion
baseball team.

Its purpose was to explain implicit racial bias and the research behind it, how such bias manifests itself into significant racial disparities in our criminal justice system, and what Judge Burns was doing to prevent it in our local court system.

In the short four years since writing that piece, I’ve graduated from college and law school. Four years ago, I thought I had a good understanding of racial bias and its impact on America. I thought I could easily identify explicit forms of racism and had become aware of my own implicit racial biases. But, after having made a greater effort to study racism in all its forms – explicit, implicit, and institutional – I realize I knew very little.

Importantly, what I did not understand was the historical context that sits beneath racism in America today. This historical context is not taught to white Americans like me and is one that I would not have learned if not for attending law school.

The context I did not understand was the extent to which lawmakers and judges, throughout American history, have used our legal system in explicit and implicit ways to preserve a racial order, giving continued life to the institution of slavery hundreds of years after it was formally ended.

Four years ago, I did not understand the pattern by politicians of exploiting rural white Americans and their racial biases to seize power, leaving those same Americans in the dust while inflicting enormous injustices against minorities – the effects of which our nation still lives with today.

I did not realize that “law and order” was a phrase originated by George Wallace in his attempt to stoke fear and racial resentment in white Americans and maintain white supremacy and racial segregation.

I did not realize that President Nixon also used “law and order” and other dog whistles in his Southern Strategy, which was unfortunately successful.

And, I did not understand how all of this manufactured fear and racial resentment led to white flight to suburban America, further deepening our racial divide and maintaining racial segregation it even after it was formally banned.

Four years ago, I also did not understand how the Supreme Court since the 1970s
has written opinions that curtailed much of the civil rights progess acheived in the 1960s, making it extraordinarily difficult to win racial discrimination cases today.

And, I did not understand how this has all been part of a deliberate strategy by a major
ity of the Supreme Court’s justices to uphold racially biased institutions and eliminate the court system as a meaningful avenue for minorities to seek justice and equal protection under the law.

In sum, I did not understand the horrific cycle of racial discrimination that our country has maintained. From slavery to Jim Crow, and now to mass incarceration, racial discrimination remerges through a new ugly mechanism created and sustained by lawmakers and judges.

I’ve heard a lot in the past two weeks that what happened to George Floyd was “not who we are” as a country. But the truth is, it is exactly who we are and who we have been.

In 2008, as a 14-year-old watching our first black president get elected, and unaware of our history, I believed that America was finally moving beyond race.

Just as America believed racism was on its way out after the end of slavery, just as America believed racism was on its way out after the end of Jim Crow and segregation, many Americans like me naively believed racism was on its way out after the election of President Obama. But what I’ve learned, and what has become even more obvious these past weeks, is that we are far from that.

Author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates has talked about a “national reckoning.” When discussing reparations, he says that what black Americans want and need is more than a payout for past injustices, what is needed is a national reckoning.

As Coates put it, such reckoning is a “revolution of the American consciousness, a
reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.” Simply put, we must all begin to “see America as it is” – a request being made by protesters’ in the streets today.

What has disappointed me the most in the time since I wrote about implicit racial bias in 2016 is the lack of understanding of our history and unwillingness by many Americans to recognize that we are a deeply imperfect union. I myself continue to have a lot to learn. But it is disheartening to watch the reluctance by some to join the current movement towards a national reckoning and greater racial justice.

In response to these protests, many have chosen to fall into the same, tired trap of racist appeals like “law and order” and other dog whistles that exploit our implicit racial biases
and further deepen racial oppression.

Although some believe that strength is reflected through racist appeals, removing peaceful protesters from a public square, or talking tough on Twitter, real strength is having the courage to become informed, reconcile with our nation’s history, and not give in to racism in any form.

Like the protesters on our streets today, I have hope that this country will someday overcome systemic racism. Of course, I’ve learned over the last few years that it will not be solved in months or years, and certainly not through a single election. However, today’s protests have demonstrated that more Americans are starting to join together for this overdue national reckoning.

And, I maintain hope that when I sit down to write another article four years from now, understanding and not intolerance, progress and not decline, will have been chosen by America this time around.

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