Chapter 7: Centering Race, Getting to Systems

Part 1: Southerners’ focus on the individual is a barrier to collective solutions

The Cultural Common Sense in the South and Southern Midwest on the topic of racism is fractured and fraught.

Our recent five-state survey found that the vast majority of people (85 percent) across Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Alabama, and Georgia acknowledge that racism persists and that Black people, in particular, experience ongoing racial discrimination.

And most people in the region (81 percent—across states and demographics) when asked “which is closer to your view” chose the following option: “racism will not go away on its own; it’s up to each of us to do our part to address it” over the idea that “racism is going away naturally over time.”

These are promising findings. But despite overwhelming agreement that racism persists AND that we must each do our part to address it, the qualitative data concurrently reveals significant hurdles to getting people on board with an anti-racist public policy agenda. 

From analysis of 300 in-depth interviews, we find that constructive conversations about potential collective solutions to address racism—particularly through policy—can break down quickly.

Why? The reasons are multifaceted, but an especially important consideration is that people tend to hyperfocus on racism as it occurs between individuals, with relatively little organic discussion of racism as a structural phenomenon.

This tendency lends itself to sustaining a culture of looking to individual-level solutions. And across demographics – though for very different reasons – adulating those who more successfully navigate the many obstacles that persist as a function of systemic racism.  Seeing racism primarily through an Individual Lens also blinds people to historical, structural and systemic racism and encourages harmful individual explanations for the pervasive and durable racial inequities in the region.

The Individual Lens

Interpersonal racism is a damaging and persistent presence, and certainly should not be underestimated; people’s physical, mental and emotional safety are at risk. From an advocacy standpoint, however, seeing racism primarily through an individual lens relegates collective action and systemic solutions to the periphery.

In our qualitative interviews, many people—especially Black and brown people, some liberal white people, and younger people across demographics—see, feel, and talk about the palpable presence of racism, and specifically white supremacy, in the region. 

“We have a store here in Monticello and the first time I went in that store, and I was just walking around, there wasn’t nobody waiting on me. And it was like I had some kind of disease or something. And finally I said something—I went in there more than one time, and the younger people would wait on you, but the older people, they look at you like you have some kind of disease or something.” 

– 64-year-old Black man, Democrat, Monticello, AR

“I was a junior in high school when I first moved here and I had never confronted racism until I moved to this town. I was shocked at, of course, I’m a young kid at the time, but I never had to worry about me being Mexican in a predominantly Anglo city. But I was confronted with, ‘hope you speak English.’ And I’m like, ‘well, why wouldn’t I? I’m an American citizen.’ …But yeah, that was a shock because I had been to several different places in the United States. My dad traveled around, we were stationed in different places, and I never, ever, ever had confronted it until we got here. And it’s still running rabid. In fact, it’s even worse now.” 

– 64-year-old Hispanic woman, liberal, Democrat, Hutchinson, KS

“Unfortunately, especially if you go more toward Kansas City, Overland Park, there’s a lot of [racism] in the richer neighborhoods. You’ll meet a lot of older people who just… Before I started working here, I worked for Google Fiber. So I was walking around neighborhoods, kind of doing what you were doing, talking to people. And unfortunately, you meet a lot of people with very ignorant ideas, and they’re not afraid to share them… I’ve met some older people who still think segregation was a good idea, things like that…And it’s just like… that stuff, it belongs in the past. It definitely does.”  

– 22-year-old white man, liberal, Independent, Kansas City, MO

Whether or not they have personal stories of experiencing or witnessing racial discrimination, people in the South and Southern Midwest know that racism is closely tied to the region’s reputation, and many are eager to distance themselves  from this “racist Southerner” stereotype (potentially as a way to belittle or ignore the magnitude of white supremacy).

For some, the region’s racist history and its present repercussions are a source of shame. For others, the reputation is well deserved, but considered exaggerated. For many, it conflicts with a strong self-image of the American South as a welcoming and friendly region—or at least one that is no less neighborly than the North.

“I mean, southwest Missouri, northwest Arkansas are both… I want to say they are diverse, but there is also… a little bit of white supremacy going on, especially in north Arkansas. I feel a lot of people will see the Midwest as just racist and just hillbillies, and I mean, they’re kind of right, but they’re also very off and wrong.” 

– 21-year-old white male, liberal, Democrat, Springfield, MO

“I believe we are very poorly portrayed in the media. In television programming, movies, we’re always these backwoods, ignorant kind of… I don’t see that here. And on the other side of the coin, I don’t think that people of different races where you might have seen or heard of those kinds of things, I don’t think they necessarily think that about us either. I think we all just get along here.” 

– 58-year-old white female, very conservative, Republican, Trinity, AL

“I’m surprised of the stories they tell me and I be like, ‘And you from where?’ Just the blatant racism. It’s everywhere, but the places that we assume that it’s not, or we’ve grown up thinking that it wasn’t and they were living this life and things, and then when you hear the stories… I was talking to a friend last week and she lives in Texas but she’s actually from New York. And she got offered a job in New York. And she was like, ‘There’s no way I’m going back to New York. They’re racist.’ And I was like, ‘What?’ I was just shocked. So we have our issues, but it’s not as bad as people think it is.” 

– 56-year-old Black female, conservative, Democrat, Birmingham, AL

From people expressing racist viewpoints toward their neighbors to alarming examples of publicly operating terror groups like the KKK, people tend to discuss racism on primarily interpersonal terms; that is, to see extant racism as primarily a function of individual mistreatment of another person.

Survey results illustrate that for most Southerners, the association of racial discrimination with “racist views” comes preliminary to associations with “policies, systems, and institutions.” While white, non-Hispanic respondents are particularly likely to hold this individualistic view of racism, our survey confirms it is widespread across demographics:

Source: Topos Partnership, Southern Mindshift, 5-state survey, May 25-29, 2023

Within this Individual Lens, people—mostly white people—deflect

When discussing the topic of racism, (mostly white, many conservative) people tend to deflect. There are three common patterns that allow people to avoid the conversation without seeming to avoid it:

1. Many people assert that “it’s better than it was,” which seems to acknowledge racism, but then allows people to quickly move past the topic. It’s an evasion that doesn’t feel evasive. The assertion that things have gotten better makes it more challenging to lift up the need to take further action on racism. Notably, for some Black respondents, the notion that some things have gotten better since the last half century doesn’t erase the ongoing need for progress, a perspective that allows the conversation to proceed.

2. Some participants, especially those who identified as conservatives and/or Republicans, described themselves as open-minded people who are accepting of others. When seen through an Individual Lens, this response indicates that they feel they are doing their part. Collective action for systemic change is (sometimes intentionally) outside their field of vision.

3. Critically, since people tend to define racism as overt, hostile discrimination by racist individuals, many can claim that they don’t see much of these behaviors any more. People of color and some white (mostly liberal) people see and talk about racism in daily individual interactions, while white conservative people are less likely to say that they even witness it. According to the survey, Republican men in particular are more likely than other groups to say “Black people do not experience very much racial discrimination in our society anymore” (26%).

Hear from Southerners and Southern Midwesterners (Click on the image to access the video):

The Individual Lens Prioritizes Individual-Level Solutions 

Most people see and acknowledge how racial disparities plague their communities. Neighborhood segregation, a dearth of Black-owned businesses, underfunded schools in communities of color—these are all seen and noted by Black, brown, and white people across the region.

While one might expect that a conversation grounded in common and widespread racial disparities would lead to systemic solutions, this hardly appears to be the case. As mentioned previously, the widespread tendency to hyperfocus on interpersonal racism—as opposed to systemic and structural racism—lends itself to sustaining a culture of looking toward individual-level solutions.

Even if one accepts that racial disparities exist, it is easy for some—regardless of race—to suggest that such outcomes are largely a function of poor individual decision-making or lackluster work ethic. And while these perspectives across demographics often sound similar on the surface, closer examination reveals a striking nuance.

Conservative white people tend to demur on the impact of racial discrimination, redirecting to talk about Black and brown people who get ahead through hard work, determination, and an aversion to making excuses (see also Chapter 4 on the Deservingness Trap). Black and brown people often adulate similarly on individual-level determinants as keys to success, albeit with a more sobering diagnosis of America’s racial realities and an implicit nod to systemic obstacles.

“So many Black people that have done way better than others, because they provide theirselves. They didn’t say, ‘society owe[s] me’, they said, ‘there was a problem, I’m going to fix it.’” 

– 60-year-old white man, conservative, Republican, Derby, KS

“….for me, I worked three jobs to go to school and took out loans to pay to get an education. Nothing was given to me. And I think that’s how it should be with everybody. Everybody should work for what they have.” 

– 49-year-old white woman, conservative, Republican, Monticello, AR

“I’m more of the thought process that if you put the work in, it’s going to be hard for individuals to deny you. So I feel that if you do everything… For instance, I never had a record. I never had things within my resume that would kick me off the list. I’ve always been a person that kept myself in good graces, to say the least. So I feel that it’s more what you do than what others may feel about you. It doesn’t matter if someone maybe doesn’t like you or maybe is racist or whatever, it doesn’t really matter. You can only do that’s within your ability. So I can only worry about what I can control is essentially what I’m trying to say.”

– 31-year-old Black man, very conservative, Independent, Birmingham, AL

“And it doesn’t matter your race or background. Well, does it play a part? Of course, it all plays a part, but if you get a LLC and get your credit right, you can make it in America, in my opinion.”

– 26-year-old Black man, political leaning unknown, Macon, GA

We tested multiple messaging approaches to push systemic thinking, but when we tried explicitly linking the two concepts of racism and racial disparities—emphasizing that racism leads to racial disparities, this approach missed the mark. We tried arguing that racism creates the disparities that need to be addressed, but knee-jerk defensiveness and general discouragement about this discourse didn’t show much evidence of changing minds. It didn’t shift the distorting effects of the Individual Lens.

The Individual Lens makes the topic of systemic racism and the pressing need for systemic solutions seem almost entirely off limits. 

Our next chapter will explore ways to expand the Individual Lens to get to a more productive conversation about systemic issues that require systemic solutions.

Stay tuned.