The anger and violence of the white nationalists who marched on Charlottesville has awakened many people to the in-your-face racists who supposedly had been left behind to another era. Now you know — Jim Crow’s grandchildren have goose-stepped their way into the 21st century.
But we as a nation cannot afford to overlook the more subtle strains of racism that are just as harmful as hate-spewing marchers dressed in khakis and polo shirts. I’m talking about institutional racism, which creates and perpetuates racial disparities in pay, employment, wealth and the administration of justice.
The problem is that many whites who would never associate with the Charlottesville protesters — and quite a few black people — discount the impact of institutional racism, if they even acknowledge that such a thing exists.
A 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center found that when it comes to discrimination against blacks, 70 percent of whites say “individual prejudice” is a bigger problem than institutional racism. Only 19 percent think that’s the problem.
Among blacks, 48 percent say individual prejudice is a bigger problem; 40 percent cited “discrimination that is built into the country’s laws and institutions.” But the same poll found that 7 in 10 black people believe that racial discrimination makes it more difficult for them to succeed.
Any black person who thinks that’s the result of “individual prejudice” needs to think again.
Of course, it’s much easier to condemn a hateful violent group of individuals that march across the University of Virginia campus shouting racial epithets than to wrap one’s arms around the policies that can hold an entire people back.
Most people have no trouble condemning a man who would plow his car into a group of protesters and then hit reverse and strike again. (Although President Trump was slow to do so, and has gone as far as to blame some of the counterprotesters. It may have slipped his mind that one of those counterprotesters was killed, and nearly two dozen more were injured.)
But the everyday racism that doesn’t involve violent confrontations can be easy to miss.
In 1921, torch-carrying white mobs burned down black homes, businesses and churches along the “Black Wall Street” of Tulsa. In 2008, Wells Fargo was accused of targeting black and Hispanic homeowners in the Washington and Baltimore region for unfavorable loans.
The bank was accused of using a tactic known as “reverse redlining,” in which banks steer minority buyers — including those who quality for more favorable terms — into riskier, more expensive mortgages.
In 2012, Wells Fargo agreed to pay at least $175 million to settle a federal lawsuit over the policies, but officials denied any wrongdoing. Apparently, it takes a torch to garner widespread, bipartisan opposition to racism, because it took a nationwide housing crisis to move Congress to action over banking policies that left black people with bad loans. By then, the mortgage scam had cost them hundreds of millions of dollars in home equity and contributed to the largest wealth gap between blacks and whites in over two decades.
These are the kinds of discriminatory policies that will affect black people for generations to come.
We have a right to be enraged over white nationalists, their obscenity and violence. But torches, bottles and clubs aren’t the only ways that racism rears its head. Nor are they necessarily the most harmful.
And black people should never be intimidated by those who would equate the fruits of justice and equal opportunity with a undeserved handouts.
The racial discord Trump promoted during his campaign, and most recently by belatedly condemning the neo-Nazis and Klansmen at the Charlottesville rally — and saying counterprotesters shared blame for the violence — only serves to distract both blacks and whites at the lower ends of the economic ladder from realizing how badly both groups are being shafted.
There is precedent for that kind of behavior. In Colonial Virginia, there was a time when enslaved Africans, indentured white servants and Native Americans got along just fine. But then the oligarchs decided to make black people slaves for life. That meant the friendships had to be killed.
Whites were needed to work as slave catchers and plantation overseers. So the wealthy landowners literally invented “race,” made up a concept called “white superiority” and began a centuries-long effort to teach white people how to hate black people.
The racist hate is now self-sustaining, passed down from one generation to another. It is insanity. You’d think those white nationalists would be protesting on Capitol Hill, where their elected officials tried to take away affordable health care that benefits lots of working-class white people.
Instead, they were marching around the U-Va. campus evoking the spirit of Adolf Hitler and the Confederate dead, so blinded by racism and hatred that they cannot see that black people, or Hispanics, or Jews, or whomever they’ve been told to blame aren’t the root of their problems.
We’re a nation wealthy enough for everybody to have a share of the economic pie — if only we could rid ourselves of the policies set up to divide us.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.