Is Racism in our DNA?


President Obama in 2015, the last full year of his presidency, finally started to buck up the courage to speak about racism. He pointed out how the United States had ““the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination” was “still part of our DNA” as Americans.” Remember I am not pointing my finger at Americans from the perspective of us here in Canada being clean. We have the same problem here. Both countries have the same original sin namely racism and male supremacy. This is what Condoleezza  Rice called a birth defect.


Martin Luther King and W.E.B. Dubois both understood this as well. As Todd May and George Yancy explained in their New York Times article,

“Both men emphasized how the word is part of the institutional fabric of black oppression, that individual racist acts are not aberrations but the products of a larger systemic set of practices that, as the feminist scholar Barbara Applebaum argues, “hold structural injustice in place.” Central to those practices is policing, and the “bad apple” framing fails to confront its role in structural injustice.


If you just look at bad apples you fail to see or do anything about the tree, the structure, that holds them in place. People who are part of an unjust system may be good people, they may not appear to be exploiters or bad, but if they are part of a system that oppresses they are part of the problem. The philosopher Iris Marion Young wrote this:

Structural injustice occurs as a consequence of many individual and institutions acting in pursuit of their particular goals and interests, within given institutional rules and accepted norms. All the persons who participated by their actions in the ongoing schemes of cooperation that constitute these structures are responsible for them, in the sense that they are part of the process that causes them. They are not responsible, however, in the sense of having directed the process or intended its outcomes.”

That does not mean that everyone who participates in the system is a racist. But, everyone who is part of an unjust system—including me and you—have an obligation to dissent. We must voice our objections to that system or we are part of the oppression. If we acquiesce in the injustice we are racists. There is no way around this uncomfortable fact. The least we can do—we should do more—is to voice our objections. If we don’t do at least that we are complicit—we are aiding and abetting—and in law that makes us just as guilty as the perpetrator.

In 1987 in the Stanford Law Review, Charles Lawrence wrote this way about the bad-apple metaphor: “the bad-apple metaphor suggests a “perpetrator” model that fails to give an account of just how systemic racism is “transmitted by tacit understandings” and “collective unconscious.

The philosopher Charles Mills argued, “the perpetrator [of racist actions or beliefs] perspective presupposes a world composed of atomic individuals whose actions are outside of and apart from the social fabric and without historical continuity.”

The police—just like all of us—are part of a system for which we are partly responsible. We know that system harms a lot of people. Let’s face it for once. We all know that system harms a lot of people. It is time for all of us who benefit from that system to object to that system or we are culpable too.

Michael Eric Dyson, in his influential book, The Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America,” explained it well:

“That metaphor of a few bad apples doesn’t begin to get at the root of the problem. Police violence may be more like a poisoned water stream that pollutes the entire system. To argue that only a few bad cops cause police terror is like relegating racism to a few bigots. Bigots are surely a problem, but they are sustained by systems of belief and perception, by widely held stereotypes and social practice.”

So what do we do about it? It is important for all of us to understand this. As Todd and Yancy said,

“To truly confront problems of racist violence in our society, let’s not once again begin with the question of how to reform the police. Let’s instead start with the question of how to build healthy and safe communities of mutual respect and see which institutions we need to reach that goal. If anything that is to be called policing emerges from that inquiry, it should be at its end rather than assumed at the outset.’

Only such an approach can possibly lead to deep reform. That is the reform we need.


One thought on “Is Racism in our DNA?

  1. “estimated” barrister/estimado abogado

    i think that the use of the dna phrase is potentially very dangerous, given that racism is a social/political construction.

    it appears to me that your friend of white fragility fame comes much to close to considering white behavior to be genetically based.

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