Race, as we know, is a social construct used to define groups of people with similar physical and cultural characteristics. Racism is a system of structuring opportunity and assigning value based on how one looks. Racism unfairly advantages some communities and unfairly disadvantages others.
Why am I defining these terms? Because they are not the same, they are not interchangeable, and using them incorrectly leads to different strategies and outcomes.
Someone probably should have told Fox News’ Chris Wallace this before he moderated the first presidential debate.
Last week, Wallace laid out five debate topics, including one titled “race and violence in our cities.” The phrasing of this topic completely conflates race and racism, implying race is an issue, as opposed to addressing the true problem of racism.
This question is nakedly partisan and blatantly favourable to Trump, as the phrasing reinforces anti-Black fear mongering.
In the months since George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police, the President has fought to keep the focus on the violence that has marred some of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations against police brutality, rather than talking about the police misconduct that prompted the protests in the first place.
Wallace's approach also ties Black people to violence.
It is telling that the only subject where Wallace mentions race involves violence perpetrated by or in the name of Black people, a framing made clear by including the phrase, "in our cities.”
If Wallace wanted to actually bring forward the issue of politically inspired unrest, he could have framed it as "Violent Protests and Domestic Terrorism." That way, he could have invited participants to engage in both the torching of sections of Portland, as well as white extremists marching in Charlottesville, or driving vehicles into crowds of peaceful demonstrators.
Yet, when it comes to protests over racial injustice and inequity, we focus more on the means than the substance.
We rightly lionize Martin Luther King, Jr. for his example of nonviolent civil disobedience, but in his time he was vilified by many local and national leaders for leading mass marches and accused of provoking violence by angry white mobs or by police.
When professional athletes took a knee to protest police violence, they were consistently peaceful and dignified in their actions. Yet these acts became the focus of public condemnation, led by the president himself.
Their small act appeared to have bothered many more than the violence which they were protesting in the first place.
While there has been violence at marches over the spring and summer, it hardly compares in scale or significance to the long awaited reckoning Americans are having with the challenge of being a multi-racial, multi-ethnic democracy and how to make that signature and inspiring experiment work.
By and large people have marched peacefully to express their outrage over repeated use of excessive force by police. They have rightly linked that reality to structural habits that exclude and marginalize Black citizens, especially those who are poor.
It is a profound disservice to focus on the violence of a few instead of the peaceful demand of the many, who have been denied their birthright for justice and peace.
If you’re going to moderate a presidential debate, I would urge you to understand the different connotations between race and racism. So, Mr. Wallace, if you want to advance the national dialogue, my advice would be to press the candidates on how to abolish police brutality and systemic racism, not clamp down on protests and the wailing cry for basic human rights.