The Legacy of Race

Sticks and Stones: Racist Comments Affect Policy, Law and Discrimination

Pam King says people think it’s OK to make racial comments to or in front of her because she’s white. But she says such talk is insidious and reflects a continuation of racist attitudes. (Photo by: Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

One time she was in a beauty salon when it happened, Pam King remembers. Another time, she was in the drug store. One time it happened while she was driving down the street in Vestavia Hills.

In each instance, another white person — someone she didn’t know — decided it was OK to say something to her that was racist about Black people.

“You can hear it every day. You can hear it …  anywhere,” King said. “You hear from white people, constantly, ‘Well, did you hear what the Black people are doing?’ Just all kinds of little comments, every day. It’s part of the conversation.”

Racial attitudes seem to come to the foreground in big race-focused events — major protests over Confederate symbols or violent attacks on racial and ethnic minorities, for instance. It remains pretty easy to find expressions of racist attitudes in print and online, as well, even though media groups such as and social media organizations such as Facebook have started cracking down on hate speech.

Even with the current wave of social pushback against anything connected to hate speech and overt expressions of racist views, negative attitudes that signal disdain, mistrust or denigration of racial groups are still around.

It’s a legacy of America’s segregated past that remains.

Pay attention to the daily news. Or maybe, pay attention to some of your neighbors.

“I don’t know how you can miss (that) all of those insidious attitudes that were prevalent in the ‘50s and ‘60s are still prevalent now,” said King, a retired professor of history from UAB. She said she hears racist attitudes toward Blacks expressed to her by other white people, “all the time.”

“They don’t think it’s racist, either. They really don’t,” she said.

“You know, during the election, I would go to the gym, and you would hear comments all the time about, well, about Obama, even before the election … just snide sort of remarks that were about race. There was almost nothing you could denigrate him about — his education, his sophistication, everything was just right there on display. So it would just be these snide remarks,” King said.

King recalls that she frequently heard such comments after Obama became the nation’s president.

“I was getting my nails done and this man came in who was probably at that time, 70. I think he was bringing his wife to get her nails done and he came in and just sort of announced how funny it was to think about … Mt. Rushmore,” she said. Imitating the man’s accent, King said, “‘Now isn’t that going to be something? Isn’t Obama going to look good?’ He was so offensive. And those kinds of things were said a lot and without any worry that there might be somebody in there that might be offended. And there were black people that worked in there, too. That was just not unusual at all.”

King cited another example. “I had an Obama sticker on my car in Vestavia. We were stopped at the light and a guy, young white guy, I think he was in a fancy car… came up and he was motioning to roll down my window. Well, I thought he was going to tell me something that I needed to fix — my gas thing being open or something. So I rolled down my window and he said, ‘He sure looks a lot like you, doesn’t he?’ It was so angry and vicious, it scared me.”  King believed the man considered her a “race traitor,” and she should only vote for white people. He was angered that a white woman would vote for a black candidate.

What King related are hardly the worst examples of overt racist expression; celebrities and CEOs have been shown the door for worse, or at least more persistent and public, statements. Despite widespread public shaming for people whose mouths and attitudes get them into trouble, research shows that hate speech and racially insensitive commentary are still common.

What the Survey Says

One of the most comprehensive looks at racial attitudes in the U.S. is the Pew Research Center’s Race in America 2019 report. That report outlined the responses from 6,637 people — representing 71% of those they questioned about all sorts of race-related views, attitudes, beliefs and, to some degree, practices.

Pew’s research reports that expressing racist views is not uncommon — whether secretly or out in the open. A few revealing statistics, taken from the Race in America 2019 report, bear that out.

With majorities of Americans believing it is more common for people to express racist or racially insensitive views, and with significant numbers of people across ethnic and racial backgrounds saying they hear people from their own racial background expressing racist or racially insensitive views, speech that casts a negative light on minorities is still baked into the country’s culture.

In more recent days, Pew has reported that since the coronavirus outbreak began, Blacks and Asians are seeing not only an uptick of discriminatory behaviors, but specifically, an uptick of racist speech. “Black and Asian Americans are also more likely than their white and Hispanic counterparts to say they have been subject to slurs or jokes because of their race or ethnicity, but Asian adults are the most likely to say this has happened to them since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak,” Pew reports.

“About four-in-ten U.S. adults (39%) say it is more common for people to express racist or racially insensitive views about people who are Asian than it was before the coronavirus outbreak, while 30% say it has become more common for people to express these views toward people who are Black. Smaller shares say that, compared with before the outbreak, it is more common for people to express racist or racially insensitive views about people who are Hispanic (19%) or white (14%),” the report states.

Why It Matters

Does it really matter? Does the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech make racially insensitive speech OK in America?”

The First Amendment does make hate speech legal. “There is no legal definition of ‘hate speech’  under U.S. law, just as there is no legal definition for evil ideas, rudeness, unpatriotic speech, or any other kind of speech that people might condemn,” the American Library Association states.

However, as slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, federal redlining and many other examples have demonstrated, being legal doesn’t always prevent an action from being harmful.

“Critics of hate speech argue not only that it causes psychological harm to its victims, and physical harm when it incites violence, but also that it undermines the social equality of its victims,” wrote William M. Curtis, assistant professor of political science, University of Portland, in an article in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

“When aimed at historically oppressed minorities, hate speech is not merely insulting but also perpetuates their oppression by causing the victims, the perpetrators, and society at large to internalize the hateful messages and act accordingly,” Curtis wrote.

The United Nations says hate speech, no matter who is targeted by it, is a step toward violence and other discrimination.

In the May 2019 “United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres made the connection between attitudes, speech and action:

“Around the world, we are seeing a disturbing groundswell of xenophobia, racism and intolerance – including rising anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim hatred and persecution of Christians. Social media and other forms of communication are being exploited as platforms for bigotry. Neo-Nazi and white supremacy movements are on the march. Public discourse is being weaponized for political gain with incendiary rhetoric that stigmatizes and dehumanizes minorities, migrants, refugees, women and any so-called ‘other.’

“This is not an isolated phenomenon or the loud voices of a few people on the fringe of society. Hate is moving into the mainstream – in liberal democracies and authoritarian systems alike. And with each broken norm, the pillars of our common humanity are weakened. …

“Addressing hate speech does not mean limiting or prohibiting freedom of speech. It means keeping hate speech from escalating into something more dangerous, particularly incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence, which is prohibited under international law.”

Hateful Speech: An American History

Does hate speech affect the way policy is formed in the U.S. or the way that people are treated by law and practice? Yes, according to some scholars.

For one example, Andre M. Perry, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote that racist rhetoric often affects policy. “Many policies are unwritten or are implied through communicated rhetoric,” he wrote in an article about President Trump’s telling four American congresswomen of color to go back where they came from. “Many voters make decisions and vote on racist rhetoric just as they would act on issues of foreign policy or social security,” Perry wrote.

Historically such language has caused significant social damage, Perry said. “Racism should never be diminished as a distraction — history shows well that the strategic deployment of bigotry is a default practice used to undercut democracy,” he wrote. “Inserting nativist, xenophobic language has been the reliable prelude to codifying bigotry into law.”

In America, hateful rhetoric has resulted in unequal treatment for more than just black and brown people. The Know Nothing Party of the 1800s worked successfully to keep Catholics and immigrants from holding office. At one point its adherents included more than 100 elected congressmen and eight governors, Perry wrote. Racist comments about native-born Americans of Japanese descent preceded government action that put more than 100,000 people — Americans — in internment camps during World War II because of the color of their skin.

The president’s comments about Mexican immigrants preceded separating children from families at the southern border.

Racist language has large-scale effects on black communities, Perry wrote. “Racial attitudes baked in Baltimore’s housing policy in 1910 became a model for racial housing covenants across the country. Baltimore’s then mayor J. Barry Mahool’s dim view of blacks was laid bare in his explanation of the policy. ‘Blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidence of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into the nearby White neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the White majority.’”

Perry drew a line connecting racist rhetoric with America’s own extensive period in which human rights for Blacks didn’t exist, when atrocities committed against slaves were legal and when Klan terrorism was widespread — as well as other ongoing legacies of historic racial discrimination.

“Establishing that black, brown, and Asian people don’t belong or aren’t real Americans is how our democracy ended up with legal segregation, internment camps, housing discrimination, racially biased criminal justice systems and immigration policies,” Perry wrote.

“Trump clearly didn’t create this practice; he adopted it from his predecessors,” Perry wrote. “Those who study policy and dismiss racism as a distraction aid and abet in its proliferation.”