Neal Milner: Global Protests Are Just One Step Toward Ending Racism - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

The remarkable protests over the police killing of George Floyd are a product of two forces.

One — the here and now — gets the attention. For the media it is more than the dominant narrative. It is the only narrative.

The other force is America’s ever present, historical institutional racism that has been part of our culture and the root of white dominance since the first slaves arrived in the 17th century.

The first force is easy to grasp. The second is easy to ignore.

For that reason it’s all too easy to wrap ourselves up in the passion and justice of the moment and blind ourselves to the staying power of institutional racism.

Demonstrators hold signs during Black Lives matter Peaceful Protest at the Duke Kahanamoku statue. Supporters marched from Ala Moana Beach park to the statue.
Institutional racism is centuries old and much harder to resolve than a police killing. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

I want to be clear. What’s happening right now will be tremendously significant.

Police departments will adopt new rules of engagement that eliminate choke holds. Police will be held more accountable and, as they have in some cities, become less violent.

What a victory for justice it will be if African American parents no longer have to give “the talk” to their children about police violence.

But as important as that is, it’s just one step toward ending racism.

How can those of us who support today’s movement avoid the false optimism that comes from being captured by the moment? How can we keep institutional racism in the picture as a force without being paralyzed by its complications and complicities.

Let’s begin by taking a closer look at each of the two forces.

The Forces Of Racism

More than 60 years ago in its response to the urban riots of the late 1960s, the Kerner Report described institutional racism this way: “What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

That language is a little dated, but it accurately described where this country was before 1968 and in fact where it remains now.

It does not take much to see that institutional racism is a different animal entirely. It is more than an issue. It is a presence, which time after time has limited change or kept change from happening at all, often violently.

Black bodies have been violated by many institutions besides police departments.

I don’t have to spend much time describing the “here and now” because you see it, feel it. It triggers memories. Your children may be involved. In Hawaii where we are so often isolated from these things, it is happening all around us.

The “here and now” idea is easy to grasp. It’s a great motivator, something that any movement needs.

Sad but true, people would not be on the streets of 700 cities in the United States and many cities around the world if George Floyd had not died a horrible, graphic death at the hands of a police officer that was recorded on a video for the whole world to watch.

Not even the horribly disproportionate African American COVID-19 death rates have this effect.

The concept of institutional racism is different. It is abstract, general, in the background somewhere. The term has — you should excuse the expression — a political science professorial tone about it. Not such a good motivator, not your personal story of fighting injustice.

Black Lives matter Peaceful Protest supporters arrive at the Duke Kahanamoku Statue after marching from Ala Moana Beach Park.
Thousands of people marched together to protest racism on a day of demonstrations that stretched around the globe. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The thing about institutional racism is not simply its long history and its intractability. Institutional racism involves a lot of subtle, often unknowing complicity, rules and behavior “not about race” that are in fact about race.

That makes the concept harder to grab on to even if you believe that this racism exists.

Think of how easy it is for you to tell a story about the last nine minutes of George Floyd’s life.

Now think of how much harder it is for you to create a story about institutional racism in such compelling, individual terms.

I may have already gone well past my white-mansplaining limits, so you are not going to get some grandiose “next steps” strategy from me.

But I at least want to offer some ideas about making narratives about institutional racism more visible, compelling, and easy to grasp so that they can be incorporated into the broader struggle that rises from today’s protests, especially because so many of the protestors are young.

Let me just list some types of stories that can expand people’s knowledge and their consciousness.

They are stories that are more about institutions than individuals and based on the idea that “America has never fully recognized racism as a complex cooperative system dependent upon its institutions — academic, political, commercial, and otherwise — to resign themselves to complicity.”

Stories of historical repetition: e.g., why urban schools have re-segregated and gotten worse.

Stories of the Federal government’s historical role in maintaining racism.

• Stories of things “not about race” that are in fact all about race: schools, cities suburbs, and space, as in the architect Bryan Lee’s words: “For nearly every injustice in the world, there is an architecture that has been planned and designed to perpetuate it.”

• Stories of widening inequality from pre-birth to death.

• Stories of the coronavirus, the most imminent and compelling case study of institutional racism around.

Many of these stories are not about ”those racists out there” or violent cops. They often implicate ardent, concerned and sympathetic white liberals (like me) whom Richard Reeves, an expert on intergenerational mobility, calls “dream hoarders.”

And many more. These kinds of stories have to become much more a part of the understanding of racism in order to figure out how to move on from the right here right now.

Obviously, white people don’t have compelling experiences as victims of white racism. They may very well have experiences as perpetrators of this racism, and even that may be hidden in plain sight.

That leads many well-meaning folks to call for “racial healing.” When I hear that term, my whole body begins to itch. “Healing” is a feel-good, happy-talk term glossing over racism’s insidious complexities and injustices. You can’t heal what has never been healthy.

A better metaphor for confronting institutional racism, is, as a Rolling Stone writer recently put it, a “demolition job.”

Because that is what an understanding of institutional racism teaches.

Read this next:

Antiracism Demands More Than A Hashtag

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Your article about racism, police conduct, problems with blacks, etc., is not a doable situation.Many leaders have tried, but failed.  The greatest leader, in my opinion, tried way back when with people who were tormented by cruel dictators, etc.  He is still trying without his presence to continue to bring peace among all people but still has not been able to fulfill his objective.  Humans, regardless of color, are our own worst enemy.  I am not questioning your intelligence, great words for those that can understand high education wording, but the facts are facts, we are our own worst enemy and we are refusing to bring peace in this world.  That is human nature.  With love, there is hate.  They go together like peanut butter and jelly.

Monty80 · 2 years ago

I look on the protests like getting slapped in the face with an akule. Not pleasant but it sure gets attention and wakes you up. But for real progress, ALL sides have to make changes and we don't seem to be at the point where practical compromises are acceptable. 

CatManapua · 2 years ago

Mahalo, Neal. From when I first met you when I took your class back in 1980 until now, you’re still an inspiration. You bring me, and others, to another place in our thinking... always. I hope you never stop writing for CB. Aloha!

Aisha · 2 years ago

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