Black Like Me documents the many kinds of overt racism that play out in everyday life, but it also looks at the ways in which black Americans are oppressed on a broader, institutional level. Indeed, Griffin upholds that racism manifests itself in the very structures of power in the United States, working its way into the country’s economic, educational, judicial, and religious institutions. What’s more, because these forms of discrimination aren’t as apparent as the kind of overt bigotry that occurs when a person says something hateful, they often go undetected in white society. In fact, many white people manage to ignore their own implicit biases against black people while simultaneously perpetuating policies that actively oppress African Americans. Griffin, for his part, is cognizant of these broader forms of prejudice. He focuses particularly on the educational and economic effects of systemic racism, ultimately demonstrating that these kinds of disenfranchisement create cycles of poverty and hardship that make it more and more difficult for black Americans to attain upward mobility. Worse, racists often point to African American failure as evidence that black people are intrinsically inferior to whites, ultimately refusing to consider that it’s nearly impossible for a black person to succeed in such an unjust system in the first place. In turn, readers see that African Americans are forced to confront not only the pain of everyday bigotry, but also unexamined forms of systemic racism that turn failure into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
For a white person, education is often a viable path toward upward mobility. However, Griffin discovers that this isn’t necessarily the case for young African Americans, who often find themselves at a loss after college. He learns this in a conversation with an elderly black café owner, who says, “You take a young white boy. He can go through school and college with a real incentive. He knows he can make good money in any profession when he gets out. But can a Negro—in the South? No, I’ve seen many make brilliant grades in college. And yet when they come home […] they have to do the most menial work.” It’s especially worth noting the café owner’s point that young black students don’t have a “real incentive” to pursue education, since doing so won’t help them in the job market. Furthermore, it’s important to remember that it’s quite difficult for a black Southerner to even get into a good college in the first place, since there aren’t many resources to help him or her achieve academic success. As such, it becomes clear that African Americans face difficulties in the country’s educational and economic systems that white people simply don’t experience.
The challenges black Americans face when it comes to education are essentially economic challenges, since even an educated black person is at a disadvantage when trying to seek gainful employment. The café owner makes this clear in his conversation with Griffin, saying, “The economic structure just doesn’t permit [upward mobility] unless [a black man] is prepared to live down in poverty […]. Our people aren’t educated because they either can’t afford it or else they know education won’t earn them the jobs it would a white man.” By saying this, the café owner calls attention to the fact that there is a disincentive for African Americans to seek out education, whereas white people have legitimate reasons to go to college because it will help them become upwardly mobile. Continuing his consideration of the ways in which this kind of large-scale racism influences young blacks, the café owner says, “They make it impossible for us to earn, to pay much in taxes because we haven’t much in income, and then they say that because they pay most of the taxes, they have the right to have things like they want. It’s a vicious circle, Mr. Griffin.” In this moment, the café owner highlights the cyclical nature of systemic racism, which disenfranchises people and then faults them for their inability to overcome disenfranchisement in general.
Unfortunately, systemic racism creates a false narrative about African Americans and their ability to contribute productively to society. In turn, this narrative works its way into white society’s unconscious beliefs, forming an implicit bias that enables people to disregard how hard it is for black people to succeed in America. This, the café owner upholds, takes an emotional toll on young African Americans. “A lot of them, without even understanding the cause, just give up,” he says, referring to the ways in which young black people respond to disenfranchisement. “They take what they can—mostly in pleasure, and they make the grand gesture, the wild gesture, because what have they got to lose if they do die in a car wreck or a knife fight or something else equally stupid?” Denied support or a path toward upward mobility, young African Americans seek emotional refuge in worldly pleasures, which whites then hold against them.
Part of the implicit bias whites develop against blacks has to do with their failure to see that the behavior they think is disreputable is actually a very human and understandable response to systemic racism. Griffin encounters this ignorant viewpoint in a conversation with his dermatologist, who claims that he has no problem with African Americans but that he believes they’re naturally “destructive.” “How can you render the duties of justice to men when you’re afraid they’ll be so unaware of justice they may destroy you?—especially since their attitude toward their own race is a destructive one,” he says. What the dermatologist fails to grasp is that African Americans are (obviously) not naturally predisposed to destruction. Rather, this is a response to widespread oppression that has worked its way into the very structures of society. If white society “render[ed] the duties of justice” to African Americans in the first place, nobody would feel the need to make the “wild gesture[s]” of recklessness the café owner suggests are reactions to economic injustice. Unfortunately, the dermatologist doesn’t see this because he has cultivated an implicit bias against black people, one that allows him to say he’s not racist while simultaneously setting forth bigoted generalizations. In this way, Griffin shows readers that systemic racism and implicit bias feed off of one another, as institutional oppression puts black people in difficult positions that sometimes lead to the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes about African Americans as a group—stereotypes that bigots use to justify systemic racism.
Implicit Bias and Systemic Racism ThemeTracker
Implicit Bias and Systemic Racism Quotes in Black Like Me
This may not be all of it. It may not cover all the questions, but it is what it is like to be a Negro in a land where we keep the Negro down.
Some whites will say this is not really it. They will say this is the white man’s experience as a Negro in the South, not the Negro’s.
But this is picayunish, and we no longer have time for that. We no longer have time to atomize principles and beg the question. We fill too many gutters while we argue unimportant points and confuse issues.
The Negro. The South. These are details. The real story is the universal one of men who destroy the souls and bodies of other men (and in the process destroy themselves) for reasons neither really understands.
“You don’t know what you’d be getting into, John,” she said. She felt that when my book was published, I would be the butt of resentment from all the hate groups, that they would stop at nothing to discredit me, and that many decent whites would be afraid to show me courtesies when others might be watching. And, too, there are the deeper currents among even well-intentioned Southerners, currents that make the idea of a white man’s assuming nonwhite identity a somewhat repulsive step down. And other currents that say, “Don’t stir up anything. Let’s try to keep things peaceful.”
“Do you suppose they’ll treat me as John Howard Griffin, regardless of my color—or will they treat me as some nameless Negro, even though I am still the same man?” I asked.
“You’re not serious,” one of them said. “They’re not going to ask you any questions. As soon as they see you, you’ll be a Negro and that’s all they’ll ever want to know about you.”
I believe in the brotherhood of man. […] I respect the race. But I can never forget when I was an intern and had to go down on South Rampart Street to patch them up. Three or four would be sitting in a bar or at a friend’s house. They were apparently friends one minute and then something would come up and one would get slashed up with a knife. We’re willing enough to go all the way for them, but we’ve got this problem— how can you render the duties of justice to men when you’re afraid they’ll be so unaware of justice they may destroy you?—especially since their attitude toward their own race is a destructive one.
I realized I was “going against the race” and the subtle tug-of-war became instantly clear. If the whites would not sit with us, let them stand. When they became tired enough or uncomfortable enough, they would eventually take seats beside us and soon see that it was not so poisonous after all. But to give them your seat was to let them win. I slumped back under the intensity of their stares.
I learned a strange thing—that in a jumble of unintelligible talk, the word “nigger” leaps out with electric clarity. You always hear it and always it stings. And always it casts the person using it into a category of brute ignorance. I thought with some amusement that if these two women only knew what they were revealing about themselves to every Negro on that bus, they would have been outraged.
“Until we as a race can learn to rise together, we’ll never get anywhere. That’s our trouble. We work against one another instead of together. Now you take dark Negroes like you, Mr. Griffin, and me,” he went on. “We’re old Uncle Toms to our people, no matter how much education and morals we’ve got. No, you have to be almost a mulatto, have your hair conked and all slicked out and look like a Valentino. Then the Negro will look up to you. You’ve got class. Isn’t that a pitiful hero-type?”
“And the white man knows that,” Mr. Davis said.
“Yes,” the cafe-owner continued. “He utilizes this knowledge to flatter some of us, tell us we’re above our people, not like most Negroes. We’re so stupid we fall for it and work against our own. Why, if we’d work just half as hard to boost our race as we do to please whites whose attentions flatter us, we’d really get somewhere.”
Our people aren’t educated because they either can’t afford it or else they know education won’t earn them the jobs it would a white man. Any kind of family life, any decent standard of living seems impossible from the outset. So a lot of them, without even understanding the cause, just give up. They take what they can—mostly in pleasure, and they make the grand gesture, the wild gesture, because what have they got to lose if they do die in a car wreck or a knife fight or something else equally stupid?
They make it impossible for us to earn, to pay much in taxes because we haven’t much in income, and then they say that because they pay most of the taxes, they have the right to have things like they want. It’s a vicious circle, Mr. Griffin, and I don’t know how we’ll get out of it. They put us low, and then blame us for being down there and say that since we are low, we can’t deserve our rights.
Would they see the immense melancholy that hung over the quarter, so oppressive that men had to dull their sensibilities in noise or wine or sex or gluttony in order to escape it? The laughter had to be gross or it would turn to sobs, and to sob would be to realize, and to realize would be to despair. So the noise poured forth like a jazzed-up fugue, louder and louder to cover the whisper in every man’s soul. “You are black. You are condemned.” This is what the white man mistook for “jubilant living” and called “whooping it up.” This is how the white man can say, “They live like dogs,” never realizing why they must, to save themselves, shout, get drunk, shake the hip, pour pleasures into bellies deprived of happiness.
You place the white man in the ghetto, deprive him of educational advantages, arrange it so he has to struggle hard to fulfill his instinct for self-respect, give him little physical privacy and less leisure, and he would after a time assume the same characteristics you attach to the Negro. These characteristics don’t spring from whiteness or blackness, but from a man’s conditioning.
I concluded that, as in everything else, the atmosphere of a place is entirely different for Negro and white. The Negro sees and reacts differently not because he is Negro, but because he is suppressed. Fear dims even the sunlight.
I talked with some—casual conversations here and there. They said they knew the Negroes, they had had long talks with the Negroes. They did not know that the Negro long ago learned he must tell them what they want to hear, not what is. I heard the old things: the Negro is this or that or the other. You have to go slow. You can’t expect the South to sit back and let the damned communist North dictate to it, especially when no outsider can really “understand.” I listened and kept my tongue from giving answer. This was the time to listen, not to talk, but it was difficult. I looked into their eyes and saw sincerity and wanted to say: “Don’t you know you are prattling the racist poison?”
I was the same man, whether white or black. Yet when I was white, I received the brotherly-love smiles and the privileges from whites and the hate stares or obsequiousness from the Negroes. And when I was a Negro, the whites judged me fit for the junk heap, while the Negroes treated me with great warmth.
[…] the two economists, recognized that so long as the Negro had to depend on white banks to finance his projects for improvement and growth, he was at the mercy of the white man. They recognized that economic emancipation was the key to the racial solution. So long as the race had to depend on a basically hostile source of financing, it would not advance, since the source would simply refuse loans for any project that did not meet with its approval.
The news became known. I had spent weeks at work, studying, correlating statistics, going through reports, none of which actually help to reveal the truth of what it is like to be discriminated against. They cancel truth almost more than they reveal it. I decided to throw them away and simply publish what happened to me.
Our townspeople wanted to “keep things peaceful” at all costs. They said I had “stirred things up.” This is laudable and tragic. I, too, say let us be peaceful; but the only way to do this is first to assure justice. By keeping “peaceful” in this instance, we end up consenting to the destruction of all peace—for so long as we condone injustice by a small but powerful group, we condone the destruction of all social stability, all real peace, all trust in man’s good intentions toward his fellow man.
The most distressing repercussion of this lack of communication has been the rise in racism among Negroes, justified to some extent, but a grave symptom nevertheless. It only widens the gap that men of good will are trying desperately to bridge with understanding and compassion. It only strengthens the white racist’s cause. The Negro who turns now, in the moment of near-realization of his liberties, and bares his fangs at a man’s whiteness, makes the same tragic error the white racist has made.