The Absurdity of ‘Racial Realism’

The mass shooter in Atlanta embodied the flawed logic that racial stereotypes reflect fact-based truths

Activists outside Gold Spa following Tuesday night’s shooting, where three women were gunned down, on March 18, 2021, in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo: Megan Varner/Getty Images

Racism introduces absurdism into the human condition. Not only does racism express the absurdity of the racists, it generates absurdity in the victims.

— Chester Himes

Our nation is mourning the recent attacks on the Asian American community. On Tuesday, a man murdered eight people at three Atlanta-area massage parlors. This comes amidst the global pandemic where anti-Asian hate speech and violence are on the rise.

As we watch the coverage of this tragedy, many of us are privy to the absurdity of racism in America. This absurdity was even articulated by the man who carried out the killings. The mass shooter claimed the attack was not racially motivated, even though six of the eight victims were Asian American women. Cherokee County sheriff’s Capt. Jay Baker told reporters that “he apparently has an issue, what he considers a sex addiction, and sees these locations as something that allows him to go to these places, and it’s a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.”

Most of us will have a visceral response to that statement. It’s absurd in the conventional sense of the word — an insistence that what we all know to be obviously true isn’t. It’s gaslighting. But I also think there’s an element of “racial realism” in him that so many Americans subscribe to, even if most Americans would never do something as vile as he did.

“Racial realism” is the idea that when folks make what others consider to be racist statements, spread ideas, or do racist actions, they are merely seeing the world as it is. It has a kind of logic that says, “Well, doesn’t 2 + 2 = 4?” This line of thinking is harder to dispel than outright bigotry, because of its simplicity. Yet it’s too narrow to fully grasp the complete context; the equation of race and racism is more calculus than simple arithmetic. But it helps folks justify racist actions to themselves, from using racial slurs in a joke to going as far as committing a horrific mass murder, and truly feel like they have “not one racist bone in my body.”

Racial realists think they are being descriptive about race, even in places where it is framed and mediated. Racial realism treats the morsel of truth in a stereotype (for example, Black people like chicken) and substitute it for the truth of the whole experience. The problems racial realists have and cause are twofold: They don’t see or understand the limits of realism, and they don’t understand why racial realism isn’t different from racism in practice.

Under this framing, racism is perpetuated under the veil of data, which falsely provides “evidence” of a perceived reality. Data gives it credence, but racial realism overlooks (and in some cases outright rejects the existence of) the power dynamics in sociological data production. An easy-to-understand example here is race and crime statistics:

In a hypothetical scenario, Officer 1 catches and arrests three Black teenage shoplifters.

Officer 2 catches three white teenage shoplifters, but instead of arresting them, he calls their parents.

Crime stats for Black kids: +3

Crime stats for white kids: 0

You look at the stats which are “true” (realism) about race (racial realism).

You don’t see these other key dynamics (limits of realism) and how you are perpetuating anti-Blackness (racism).

This is why racial realism is so ubiquitous. People may observe these crime stats and believe they are drawing reasonable conclusions based on the data. It’s very different than the image of the Nazi they think of when they hear the term “racist.”

To use a different analogy, if you asked folks who generally think police killing Black people is never about racism, and generally believe the murders are justified, few are likely to outright to say “I hate Black people.” Most of them are going to say something to the effect of “Black people are more likely to be violent criminals, so are more likely to be killed by police in interactions. So it isn’t about the cop being anti-Black, its about Black people (insert what they should have done).”

In order to believe this is the truth, there’s so much additional context they have to either ignore or not know about. They certainly wouldn’t understand how this idea would perpetuate anti-Blackness. Racial realists are the folks who say “I don’t see color” and keep “Black-on-Black crime” statistics in their back pocket.

The irony is neither racists or (if you want to draw this distinction) racial realists are persuaded by forms of empiricism that don’t fit into their worldview. It evokes the truism that folks who are the most assured that they are non-ideological are often the most ideological among us.

That man in Atlanta killed those people, in part, because he likely believed a stereotype that Asian women who work at massage parlors are secret sex workers and he attached his “morality” to it. Even aside from the fact that sex workers are human beings and those women didn’t deserve to be murdered even if they were sex workers, there isn’t any “Well, only 0.002% of them are sex workers” statistic that would convince him.

That man believed stereotypes about Asian women, killed them, and still didn’t think he was racist. This is the absurdity of racism.

Joshua Adams is a staff writer at Colorlines.com from Chicago. UVA & USC. Taught media and communication at DePaul & Salem State. Twitter: @journojoshua

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