Meredith Roman, professor at New York State University, specializing on racism.

Question: Is racism universal? Can you compare Russian racism and American racism?

Roman: I think there are important similarities and important differences. It comes down to the fact that, in both countries, the major similarity is that racism is based primarily on appearance and skin color. So what you have operating is a “pigmentocracy” where those who are lighter in skin tone are afforded more power and privileges while those with darker skin tone are usually criminalized or at least targeted, whether by police on the streets or in stores by sales clerks. Racial profiling and various forms of this pigmentocracy are universal to Russia and the United States and societies throughout the world. I think that’s probably the most important similarity between the two. The most important difference is the ability of law enforcements officials, and extremist groups in Russia, to perpetrate mass violence or random violence against those who do appear to be “black” or non-white. Extremist groups and law enforcements officials get away with a whole lot more in Russia, which fuels the perception that there’s no law and order, that there are no checks and balances or accountability. This is the major difference between racism in the United States and Russia.

Question: In Soviet times, the Soviet propaganda machine worked extremely hard to propagate the idea of a friendship between the Soviet Union and African-Americans. But Russian racism exists now, just one generation after the propaganda machine was broken. What is the root of this problem?

Roman: That’s a good question. In regards to African students and non-Russian nationalities, some scholars and sociologists have pointed to resentment, the perceived idea that Africans and some non-Russians were benefiting more than Russian people under the Soviet system and that Russians were being penalized. For example, many believed that African students especially, or Asian students or Arab students were being pampered and getting special treatment. I think that, to some degree, there is a degree of resentment at work.  As far as Soviet anti-racist propaganda, my work actually looks at the attempts during the Soviet period, especially during the 1920s and 1930s, to reject and indict racism, and indict the United States and the Western European powers. I think that during the 1920s and 1930s the ideology of building a new society where racism was absent was somewhat appealing to citizens.  Obviously I’m not claiming that racism was ever eliminated, but at the same time that this ideology of inaugurating a better world, of speaking anti-racism, did have a degree of popularity during the interwar era.  And while it may have been propaganda, during the 1920s and 1930s, and beyond, Soviet anti-racism did afford some protection for those who, now, in post-Soviet society, have basically no protection. Hence while racism at the level of society never disappeared during the Soviet period, it was kept in check by official anti-racism.  This no longer exists and hence racism is allowed to develop unfettered in the post-Soviet space.  This, together with perceived resentment, and the desire to find a scapegoat to explain the problems of Russian society, all play a role in the existence of racism in modern Russia.  The Russian media doesn’t help the situation by criminalizing those who have darker skin color or features by reporting, just like the US media does, crimes committed by those who are not of “European descent” in disproportion to the actual number of crimes that they commit. It’s basically looking for someone to blame, somebody visible to blame for the problems of crime, poverty, etc. That’s not necessarily inherent to Russia, that’s going on throughout Europe and happens still in the United States. But I think it is just magnified in Russia because of the intensity or degree to which it goes on unchecked.

Question: Do you think racism is innate to each individual or simply a product of society?

Roman: It’s definitely the result of our modern civilization. We are taught race from an early age from our parents and our society.  This practice of categorizing people by this notion of race, of ranking people as racially inferior or superior was developed during the European Enlightenment in order to justify Europeans’ exploitation and oppression of other groups. Hence, although race is a biological myth, it’s a social reality. I try to live my life and teach to the theories of Frantz Fanon, who basically dedicated his life to eradicating the destructive notion of race from the human consciousness.  In wanting to move beyond race, he emphasized that it is not natural for us to walk into a room and see people as “black” or “white,” that without society these categories would have no meaning.  We will obviously never be able to be blind to the color of someone’s skin but we need to get to a place where it won’t have any meaning in society or to institutions. Since it’s not human nature to identify someone as “black” or “white,” I think we can get to that place.  However it will be extremely difficult because it is reinforced every day in ways we don’t even understand, which makes it even more dangerous.

Question: A lot of nationalistic groups, in Russia and around the world, propagate the idea that racially homogeneous countries are more stable and more prosperous. What do you think about that? Does the future belong to the national state?

Roman: The idea of these pure, national states where political boundaries coincided with ethnic boundaries never really existed except in nationalist myths. This idea of returning to this homogenous, ethnically pure nation-state which provides stability is really a myth and a farce that extreme nationalists and extreme racists, who do not necessarily want to appear to be extreme, use to justify their policies against “outsiders.” These politicians often claim that they are exercising mere common sense rather than an explicitly racist agenda.  In reality, all of these “ethnically pure” states did not emerge naturally in history but were the result of leaders’ attempts to create what a French person was, or what a British person was or what a German was. The nation-state as we think of it was created by political bodies, it did not emerge naturally. So the notion that we need to return to a time of this ethnically homogenous state is basically returning to a fiction that never really existed but that political entities created.

Question: How dangerous is racism for the modern state?

Roman: I would say it’s extremely dangerous. Obviously it assumes various forms in different countries. It’s more in your face or obvious in Russia currently where racial violence is nearly a daily occurrence. But it’s also very much a problem in the United States where you have more subtle forms of racism and where the large majority of the population believes that racism is over. Most white Americans believe that the US Civil Rights Movement solved racism and eliminated racial inequalities, when some forms of racial inequality between blacks and whites are actually worse than they were in the 1960s and 1970s.  For this reason, in some ways it’s even more dangerous in the United States. The UN in August recently told Russia that it needed to get itself in line in terms of placing a check on some of the racial violence being committed, but the US, as usual, slips under the radar because it doesn’t have these overt acts of racial violence. That’s wonderful, but at the same time, there are subtle forms of racism which are very powerful and too many white Americans don’t even realize it or don’t want to see that they still exist. Institutional racism is still very much a problem in this country and the poverty and racial inequalities between blacks and whites are still very much a problem. The fact that the majority of the white population refuses to see it, and will use the example of Barack Obama to claim that there is no more racism in the United States, that we have really moved beyond this problem or the problems are very minor, I would argue makes racism more dangerous to the modern United States. In my opinion racism is very much still a problem for the modern state.

Question: Who should be taking the leading role in the struggle against racism? Society itself, the media, the government, law enforcement?

Roman: I think all those forces that you mentioned need to do something in order to seriously address the problem of racism and to put us on the path to moving beyond racism. But I believe it has to start from the populace itself, demanding that the media, the government and the law enforcement officials take action. The problem is, as I’ve said, most white people don’t see that racism is still a problem that needs to be addressed in a serious systematic way and on a systemic level. Part of my job as an educator is to try and enlighten future generations to see that there are still real problems in the United States and around the world in terms of issues of race. Race still very much dictates how national and international business and relations take place.  I think it has to be demanded by the populace itself. Only then will the government and those in power be willing to institute the necessary measures. But until white people, especially in this country, realize that with whiteness comes power and privilege, until they recognize that and are willing to give up some of that power and privilege, I don’t think the government, law enforcement officials or the media is going to change. Initially, that call for change has to come from the populace itself, then mobilizing and demanding that the media, government and law enforcement officials be held to a higher standard in terms of, for example, education and enforcement of drug policies. Even the Human Rights Watch group in Helsinki has investigated just how racist is the enforcement of the war on drugs in America and just how disproportionately African Americans are being imprisoned and prosecuted for drug offenses when white people abuse drugs at five times the rate of black people. It’s a problem but I think in order for those problems to be addressed, it has to come from the citizens first. It has to come at that level and they have to demand a higher standard of those people who have a lot of power in the media and law enforcement and government.

Question: Why is racism dangerous for the racist individuals?

Roman: The biggest problem is that most white people would not claim to be racist, at least in this country.  I don’t think most Americans want to be called racist and do not classify themselves as such. So I think the major challenge is to first get them to see just how much they really are benefiting from being “white” and how much those who are not “white” are placed at a disadvantage.  Only then will they be able to see just how much our society is suffering by the continued oppression of groups not identified as “white.”  Only then will they be able to realize that society is not benefiting from the existence of white privilege and that our society is not progressing in ways that it possibly could if it did not exist. Until then most whites in America will just continue to see themselves as non-racists, and believe that we are beyond racism and that racial minorities just need to get over it and stop complaining.  What makes racism especially dangerous is that it encourages whites who do not think they are racists to perpetuate inequality in ways that they don’t even realize.  As a result, the problem is to make them recognize how they have been duped into believing that everyone is equal, and that in actuality we don’t have the equal society that has reached its full potential that we claim it has. 

Question: Will racism last forever?

Roman: I hope it’s not forever. On a lot of days, especially with teaching and reading the news, I would agree that it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. But at the same time, I can’t believe that because then my life would have no purpose.  My research, my writing, and my teaching, would have no purpose if I believed that racism was forever. So I have to dedicate myself as much as possible to trying to eradicate, in whatever way I can, this notion of race, which really just divides and destroys humanity. It divides us and it prevents us from fully being the people and reaching the potential that we all could. Because we created race, because humans created race and created racism in order to oppress people, I can only believe and hope that we also have the keys to unmaking race and unmaking racism. Even though I am a pessimist and most days I don’t think it’s changing, especially with the current political climate in this country and even around the world in regards to race, I still have to believe that it is possible and that we can’t give up the fight to try and unmake this racial albatross that we as humans have gotten ourselves into.

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