So You Think You Are Not A Racist
Whenever I set out to write these kinds of articles, I think, “how can I, a white person, write about racism.” It has benefitted me, or at least not hurt me. I have not felt the backlash, the fear of being in the wrong place for my color, the fear of the police, or what neighborhoods I can go in, (or I have seldom had those concerns). Then I realize that I can, and must, write to white people, like in my last article.[i] It is important for white Americans to speak to other white Americans on this subject if we truly want change. I read a thought from a Facebook friend, Jim Allman, who made some good points about tone and scolding. He made the point that none of us responds well to scolding or accusation. So, I am hoping that I can write this with a humility, and a hope that my white friends will see this as an appeal not a scold. I also need and value input from my friends of color, you help me greatly as I work through these issues. Please help an old white man as I try to come to terms with how to play a small part in righting the injustice in this world. I know the sorrow I feel at the situation you have endured is not enough. But, perhaps it is a start? I want to do what I can to redeem the time I have left to shift the balance in favor of true equality and merciful justice.
This may sound bad in speaking about racism, but I have compassion for the trouble white people have in dealing with this. Most white Americans want to be good. We grew up as children wanting to be heroes and make things better. We didn’t build the system that hurts people of color. It was built block by block, lash by lash, injustice by injustice, long before we were babies in our mother’s cradle. When confronted we feel accused, hurt, angry, and helpless to do anything. When people point out our culpability in this evil by supporting the status quo we feel exasperated, we didn’t create the status quo and changing it is beyond the ability of any one of us. We feel helpless in the face of this, accused of things we cannot control or change. Then when accused of white privilege, we feel further hurt and defensiveness. We have struggled like all human beings. We have been poor, outcast and struggled with fear. In all our struggles we never felt privileged. When we look at the lack of funds to pay our rent, the struggle to put food on our table, we hurt and fear like all people. So, I want to let my white friends know we must find grace to accept what doesn’t feel like privilege and work to change it for others. This is not an attack on your whiteness. After all God made us white. This is a call to find that hero we wanted to be when we were children playing Superman and Wonder Woman. To step up and truly fight against an unjust system until we all have the same benefits, joy, and mercy. I am not looking to punish anyone, but to see that everyone is able to sit under their own shade tree with no one to make them afraid. Justice will be here when everyone regardless of race has the same safety, comfort and privilege. Until then we have work to do.
First, I want to consider how being in proximity to worse views than our own influence our perceptions of our own views. I don’t know how to write this yet. But here is my first try, I want to make it clear and not a ramble. A re-encounter with a once upon a time friend, now locked into a view that seems repulsive to me has prompted this. The encounter was painful, as we had once been close, and now he values his views on politics and race more than friendship. But, as I let the hurt and anger from the recent encounter pass, I began to consider what the real underlying issue is. It would be good if we could take our hurt and anger, follow it with reflection, and maybe, find a kinder gentler explanation for other people’s responses. I am trying to put an ethics of kindness into practice. I find it a daily battle. But here is an attempt to reconcile kindness with the need to bring change to an unjust system.
For several years I lived in St. Louis, Missouri (Ferguson, to be precise). A recent article in The New York Times reviewing a book by Walter Johnson, The Broken Heart of America, speaks to the issue that Saint Louis has a larger issue with race than many cities.[ii] Though it is of course not just a Saint Louis problem, racism is America’s original sin. But, Saint Louis, is also the most combative city I have ever lived in. Living in St. Louis taught me that everything was something someone was going to fight over. Race being one of the biggest.
This takes me back to the idea of how proximity to ideas worse than our own makes our own acceptable when they are not. St. Louis was a border city with the Slave holding, later Jim Crow, south in very close proximity. Seeing how much worse things were elsewhere, allowed residents of St. Louis to delude themselves into believing that they were better on the issue of race than others thus they were ok. I have no data to prove this, this is an opinion. But, I wish to follow it on as I think it does explain a lot of other issues regarding race and the seeming complacency that we have in dealing with it. So, please bear with me a little in my folly as I continue.
Another example of this idea of proximity is President Woodrow Wilson. His administration re-enforced segregation in Washington DC, after it had been partially desegregated, and he is now known as a notorious racist. The most famous event in this was the confrontation in the White House between William Monroe Trotter and Wilson.[iii] Trotter was there to protest Wilson’s re-segregation of Federal Departments, and Wilson was shocked by that protest as he felt he had done good for people of color. Any reader today would be aghast that Wilson would have expected anything different from Trotter. But, let’s remember, Wilson had embraced the separate but equal doctrine established by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson. We all now know that decision was not workable, and that it came to define racism and segregation in the Jim Crow South. BUT at the time, Wilson’s embrace of it made many of his southern supporters furious. He was reviled for embracing any idea that had the term “equal” in it. So, from Wilson’s standpoint, he had paid a price on the issue of race and assumed that Trotter would be happy (he, of course, was not).
Embracing separate but equal allowed Wilson to champion the rights of Asian and brown people in other parts of the world, and his push to decolonize in favor of self government. They were after all elsewhere, thus separate. He is championed as a hero of self-determination around the world, and many small countries have statues to him and honor him as a champion of their liberation. But, he couldn’t see past his prejudices here at home. Embracing the idea of equal (though it wasn’t) made him feel like he was a progressive champion of black people’s rights, when he wasn’t. Again, proximity to something worse, paying some price to oppose what is worse, can blind us to how far we still need to go. The better can become the enemy of the ultimate good.
That brings me to my former friend, and took me back to the time during the Ferguson riots when we parted ways. This friend grew up in a poor white racist Southern family. I met his father (with whom he had a complicated relationship). His father was a full blown racist Southern truck driver. For my friend, the resistance to his father’s overt KKK style racism meant that he was not a racist. His father was a racist, he was not. And if you define racism that way, then I guess that settles it.
Two things happened at once to force his views into the open and cause he and I to part ways. I feel sure that he still sees this all as intransigence on my part. He, after all is not a racist. First, he entered politics running as a very conservative Republican for a state elected position. Second, the Ferguson tragedy. He was firmly on the side of law and order and firmly against any “black lives matter” idea. He was in the “all lives matter” “blue lives matter” mindset. (Though that also played to his political constituents as well). Politics in America are another problem in solving racism, they are fraught with puritanical rightness, and zero tolerance and inability to compromise. While I am not a believer in incrementalism on the issue of racial equality, I do understand that some compromise is needed to have true justice for all. That said, I realize now that my friend, who had come some way from overt racism, now believed that the problem was solved. Thus to him we were already in the perfect world, and any complaint on the part of people of color was shocking. He was blind to the systemic problems of race in America. He was Woodrow Wilson, Ferguson was William Monroe Trotter.
This brings me back to the issue of proximity to views worse than our own. My friend is indicative of a lot of White Christians. They would not be personally bad to a person of color. They would not personally support racist ideas, or at least not consciously. They don’t know what else to do, they feel hurt and accused, and don’t know how to get out of their white dream. Thus it is easier to think we have arrived, and just need some cosmetic fixes. We think that the progress we have made has fixed it, and do not see that we are not at the destination yet. The train is still several stops from where we need to go, so let’s keep moving.
Now I want to introduce another issue that needs to be addressed along side of racism. That is the issues of poverty in America. American style capitalism leaves poor people of all colors in the most insecure place of any industrial western country. (Middle class people too, as this pandemic has shown us.) This pandemic has highlighted that insecurity. That also underscores American racial issues, but at a class level rather than a merely racial level. If we are worried about losing our place, our job, our livelihood, then anyone who is trying to climb the ladder with us is competition for that limited pie. We look with suspicion and fear any time the rules are changed to help another group, because we feel insecure, and that anyone else’s improvement will come at our expense. That is scary to people who are on the edge anyway. Instead of seeing those on the top as the enemy, this flawed status quo has conditioned the lower and middle class to see those on the bottom with them as the enemy, the competition. This translates up the white racial ladder as most white evangelicals are on the bottom, or only a generation or two from that bottom. (86 percent of white evangelicals make less than $100,000.00, 57 percent make under $49,000.00)[iv]
We need to tie race and economic class together. That was what Dr. King was trying to do with his Poor People’s campaign, when he was shot in Memphis. He saw this competition at the bottom and wanted to stop it. If I was a conspiracy theorist (which I am not) I would say that it was this, not civil rights, that got him shot. It would be much easier to make the case that wealthy corporate power was more concerned about poor people finding each other and wanting to improve than they would be about different colored poor people having equality at the bottom.[v]
So, here is the ramble. I have not finished this journey or this thought. This is an installment on my way to a goal that is not yet entirely clear. What is clear is this, we white people MUST embrace our brothers and sisters of color in a common struggle for equal justice. We must use what ever tools we have, whether it be privilege or anything else, until we all have the same peace, grace, mercy, and joy. We must also struggle together for the bigger issues of economic justice for all. Until we deal with these twin issues we will continue to fall short of the goal.