Why People of Color Deserve More Lollipops

Why People of Color Deserve More Lollipops

Recently, when giving lollipops to two of my grandsons, the youngest said, “Papa, you gave my brother a lollipop yesterday and I didn’t get one. Can I have two today?”  Before I could respond, his older brother replied, “That wouldn’t be fair.”  Without any thought, I sided with my oldest grandson and said, “What happened yesterday doesn’t matter. Today, you both get one lollipop.”

I’ve thought a lot about that exchange, especially in the days since the Department of Justice announced an investigation of colleges and universities for discrimination against white students in admissions. In essence, the Department of Justice hopes to reverse the practice of affirmative action and its goal of increasing the number of people of color in higher education.  Critical of this decision, I’ve wondered if I handled the situation with my grandsons correctly.  My response to my younger grandson was remarkably similar the attitude of the Department of Justice.  What happened in the past doesn’t matter.  Equality is only measured by what is happening today.

At least in the situation with my grandsons, the inequality between the number of lollipops was merely happenstance. I love my grandsons and have always treated them both generously.  If my younger grandson had been with me the previous day, I would have given him a lollipop.  Unfortunately, if we’re talking about racial discrimination, there is a mountain of evidence that not all of Uncle Sam’s nephews and nieces have been treated with equal generosity.  If lollipops represent the resources our nation has allocated for specific groups, we who are white have been given far more lollipops than others.  In such circumstances, what does fairness look like today?

Like many people in the United States, my two grandsons disagreed on what equality should look like. The younger, aware of a historic inequality, was asking me to rectify an injustice.  He was arguing that equality could be measured over two days as easily as over one.  The oldest, aware of an immediate inequality, was demanding a judgement limited to the present moment.  He made his complaint of injustice even though he knew that – when measured over two days – he would be the recipient of one more lollipop than his brother.

My oldest grandson’s strategy is one of the pillars of systemic racism. When we who are white argue that what happened in the past doesn’t matter, we are not arguing for equality and fairness; we are defending our advantage.  When we say college admissions should be administered blindly today, we are intentionally ignoring the historic reality that Lady Justice was peeking from behind her blindfold in the past.  Though she systemically denied justice and opportunity to minorities for centuries, we act as if those facts are irrelevant.  Everyone should be judged by their merits.

However, when this argument is judged by its merits, it fails horribly.  Limiting the measure of equality to the present is an arbitrary decision.  In criminal cases, our courts often address past injuries.  Indeed, for some serious crimes, there is no statue of limitations.  Sadly, our unwillingness to address past racial injustices implies we don’t see these injustices as serious or criminal.

Equality without a memory is almost always unjust.  Once Lady Justice peeked from behind her blindfold to deny people of color of their rights, she can’t escape behind it when they complain.  Pretending there is a level playing field is a lie designed to protect white privilege.  A Department of Justice that suddenly requires colleges and universities to be completely objective makes a mockery of what it purportedly defends – justice.

My younger grandson’s plea for a second lollipop represents the legitimate complaint of people of color across America. He knew – probably because his brother proudly announced it – that his older brother had received something he had been denied.  Confronted with an obvious opportunity for that injustice to be rectified, he made a fair request – give me what I was previously denied.  He hoped that his grandfather would see the righteousness of his appeal.

I failed him.

I wish I could say I denied him a second lollipop because I didn’t want him to ruin his dinner, but that wouldn’t be true. I chose to give each grandson one lollipop, not because that was just, but because that was easiest.  I knew, once my older grandson complained, that to give my younger grandson a second lollipop would result in a conflict.  Once he proclaimed, “That wouldn’t be fair,” I was cowed.  Limiting equality to the present moment was the easiest decision.

I lied to my youngest grandson.

What happened yesterday does matter, especially when we’re talking about centuries of slavery, the genocide and marginalization of the Native Americans, decades of Jim Crow, the exploitation of migrant workers and countless other injustices.  While it is certainly easiest to limit equality to the present moment, it is seldom just.  When our courts try to ignore the past, they nearly always multiply its injuries.

I wish my older grandson had responded to his younger brother’s request with kindness. If he’d said, “Papa, he’s right. He should get two lollipops,” I would have quickly agreed to their request for restitution.  When this didn’t happen, I did what our legislatures and courts have done for far too long.  I took the easiest route, the one least likely to solicit the complaints of those who have previously had the advantage.  I missed an opportunity to teach my grandsons about the complexities of justice.

I don’t know what the courts will do when the Department of Justice challenges the practice of affirmative action, but I fear they will do what I did. They will weigh the resentful complaints of white people and do what is easiest.  They will limit justice to the present moment rather than do the far more difficult work of trying to remedy their past indiscretions.  They will pull the blindfold tight in order to avoid seeing the obvious – their complicity in injustice.

Thanks to my grandsons, I see my responsibility. I need to do what I would have wished of my oldest grandson. I will advocate for an application of justice that is  measured by decades and centuries.  I will acknowledge the legitimacy of calls for some kind of restitution.  I will say, “They’re right.  They deserve more lollipops.”

Choosing Sides In Charlottesville

Choosing Sides In Charlottesville

In most situations, there is value in finding middle ground. Society is complex and solutions are seldom simple.  There are often multiple perspectives.  We are wise to consider various points of view, to resist the temptation to choose a side.  We must seek compromise and unity.  In most situations, these things are true.

Not in Charlottesville.

In most situations, people should be allowed to express their point of view, even if it be offensive and immoral. We are a country that champions freedom of expression.  We value the public square and the free exchange of divergent opinions.  We tolerate even our uglier voices.  In most situations, these things are true.

Not in Charlottesville.

In most situations, the President of the United States should avoid taking a side. They should seek to represent all the people of the United States.  They should condemn in the strongest terms, any egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, regardless of the source.  In most situations, the President should maintain objectivity.

Not in Charlottesville.

Let’s be clear about what happened in Charlottesville. White supremacists and Nazis gathered by the thousands to flex their political muscle, convinced they were newly empowered to terrorize and intimidate. They came with shields, weapons and torches.  They reenacted the rallies of the Ku Klux Klan and reminded us of the Kristallnacht of Nazi Germany.  They chanted their hatred for people of color and for Jews.  They did not come seeking middle ground.  They were not interested in the free exchange of opinions.  They came to do violence to the very fabric of our nation.

Mr. Trump, in his remarks yesterday, implied there was hatred, bigotry and violence on both sides of the confrontation in Charlottesville. This is a false and dangerous equivalency.  On one side was a group of people committed to all the ugliness above.  On the other side were people opposed to this immoral and abhorrent philosophy. Though Mr. Trump doesn’t seem to understand it, the choice in Charlottesville is clear and straight forward.  Which side are you on?

One side sees white people as a superior race deserving of special status and privilege.

The other side sees all people as equal, endowed with the same inalienable rights.

One side looks back on the days of the Southern Confederacy and the reign of Hitler’s Third Reich with nostalgia.

The other side looks back at these historic periods as atrocities.

One side hates all those who are not white, blaming others for their own inadequacies.

The other side values a diverse culture, celebrating our various unique contributions.

One side came to Charlottesville convinced many Americans, perhaps even the President, share their racist viewpoint.

The other side came to demonstrate most Americans do not.

Yes, both sides chanted their opinions. Both sides screamed their disdain for their opponents.  Both sides perpetrated acts of violence.  But do not make the mistake of our President.  This does not in any way or form make both sides equally culpable for the deaths and injuries in Charlottesville.  One side was an attack on human decency.  The other was in defense of human goodness.

In the days ahead, be prepared for the attempts to spread the blame in Charlottesville.  Some will avoid the necessary task of choosing sides. These efforts are both unnecessary and suspect.  If you cannot see which side to align with in Charlottesville, your moral compass is broken.  The blame for what occurred belongs in one place and one place only.  It belongs with the white men who organized this rally and who thought yesterday would begin the restoration of a more racist America.

Not in Charlottesville.

Not now.

Not ever.

One Last Try At Explaining Racism To White People

One Last Try At Explaining Racism To White People

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend over the first nine months of writing this blog. In e-mail exchanges, Facebook interactions and face to face conversations, I have spent a majority of my time trying to explain racism to white people who are convinced they are not racist.  Too often, instead of talking about the injustice done to people of color and how we rectify those inequities, I’ve focused my energies on soothing the hurt feelings of white people offended by the insinuation that they might be racist.  After nine months, I’m exhausted.

I’m also enlightened. I better understand the great frustration on the part of people of color with the lack of serious conversation about racism in the United States.  When a large percentage of the white population refuse to acknowledge racism exists and even imply they are the oppressed ones, making progress on righting injustice is nearly impossible.  When a common white response to “Black Lives Matter” is “All Lives Matter,” I can understand why people of color are tempted to violence.  I’ve wanted to pound my keyboard during more than one recent conversation with a white person.

I’ve begun to wonder whether such conversations are futile. If a white person is unable to see the evidence of racial prejudice and bias in our society, they are either unobservant or willfully ignorant.  While I understand no problem can be solved that isn’t first acknowledged, every exposed injustice is also an incentive for white people to pretend there isn’t a problem.  When the game has been stacked in our favor so long and so well, why change the rules.

Ironically, I often hear white people talking about the need for minorities to be more accountable and responsible for their behavior. Yet white people are extremely resistant to any accountability for a racist system that has benefited them and their ancestors for centuries.  I’m tired of hearing white people disavow any responsibility for the injustices of today.  These are the same people who are offended when I suggest their attitudes and behaviors are racist.

I’ve thought a lot about why so many white people insist they aren’t racist.  A primary factor is our collective misunderstanding about the causes of racism in America.  Many white people associate racism with the hatred of people of color.  Since we feel no great animosity toward people of color, we assume we can’t be racist.  Some of our friends and even family members are people of color.   This affection for a few people of color convinces us that we cannot be racist.

Unfortunately, equating racism with hatred is a seriously flawed understanding of racism. Consider this analogy.  We’d find it odd if, when asked if they loved their spouse, someone replied, “I don’t beat them.”  A lack of hatred and abuse for your spouse is hardly evidence of your affection and concern.  Yet I have had many white people, when I’ve suggested their attitudes and behaviors might be racially motivated, reply, “I don’t mistreat people of color.”

Let me state this as clearly as I can. Finding a sign reading, “No Dogs, Negroes or Mexicans” offensive does not mean we are not racist.  It means we aren’t assholes.  As with our spouse, the proof of our affection and concern for people of color is in what we do to enhance their lives; not in our lack of abuse.  While hatred can certainly cause someone to be racist, hatred is not at the core of America’s racial malaise.  It is the inconsistency, inattention, carelessness and power of white people that has entrenched racism so deeply into our societal systems.

Inconsistency

Inconsistency in behavior is at the heart of all racism. While most white people do not actively seek to harm people of color, we are quite comfortable treating people of color differently than other white people. We do this so unconsciously that we aren’t even aware of our bias.  Yet this bias has been demonstrated scientifically again and again.

Studies have repeatedly found that police officers pull over people of color at a much higher rate than white people. Juries convict more people of color.  Judges pass harsher sentences.  Landlords are less likely to rent to people of color.  Banks make loans at a higher rate of interest.  Job applicants with minority sounding names are less likely to be interviewed.  I could go on and on.

These inconsistencies are evidence of a racial bias. While they may not be intentional or conscious, they are still racist.  When someone responds to the killing of people of color by the police with Facebook posts declaring “Blue Lives Matter,” but posts nothing when a black officer kills a white woman, that inconsistency reveals their racism.  Blue is not the color motivating their behavior.

We don’t have to hate people of color to be racist. We just have to treat them differently than we would treat another white person.  Racism – at its core – is an inconsistent application of basic human rights and privileges, or the tolerance thereof.

Inattention

Inattention is another sign of rampant racism. To push my earlier analogy further, being a negligent spouse – while less destructive than being an abusive one – still exposes a lack of affection and concern.  Yet many white people, though we do not actively seek to harm people of color, are perfectly willing to ignore, diminish or tolerate the unjust treatment of people of color.  Quite simply, for many white people, even when we acknowledge racism in our society, it isn’t worth our time and attention.

White people often tell me that since they have not actively caused the injustices done to people of color they have no responsibility to rectify them. Yet what would we think of a person who, upon finding out that their spouse was being mistreated at work, responded, “I’m not the one mistreating them so it isn’t my responsibility.”  If we care about someone, we take the injustices they experience personally.

A lack of national outrage over the historic and current racial inequities in America is ample evidence of this deeply entrenched racism. We don’t have to hate people of color to be racist.  We only need to look the other way when they are mistreated.  This inattention reveals both a lack of compassion and a lack of identification.  They are not like us; therefore their treatment is of little concern.  Racism thrives on this inattention.

Carelessness

Carelessness – in every sense of the word – defines the racism of most white people. We don’t hate people of color.  We simply “care less” about the racial injustices of our present system.   We refuse to look carefully at our own prejudices for signs of latent racism.  By defining racism as hatred, we can ignore all of our daily micro-aggressions toward people of color.

This careless attitude about the struggles of people of color may seem rather harmless, but it is insidious in its ugliness. Indeed, in some ways, hatred toward people of color is more respectful.  At least hatred acknowledges them as a legitimate threat and opponent.  When white people treat people of color carelessly, we demonstrate a deeper disdain.  They are not even worth our emotional investment.  We care less because they are worth less.

Power

Finally, no thorough discussion of racism can avoid questions of power.  While any person of any color can be inconsistent, inattentive and careless in their attitudes and behaviors toward people of a different color, only those with power can systematically damage and diminish the lives of those whom they disdain.  In a society where white people have controlled the levers of power, racism is a direct product of white society.

White people can be inconsistent, inattentive and careless in their behavior toward people of color with little risk or consequence.  We can treat a Latino worker with disrespect without censure.  We can be inattentive to a police officer without danger.  We can be careless about racism without any effect on our quality of life.  This is not true for people of color.  A person of color who complains about disrespect is often fired.  A person of color who is inattentive to a police officer can be killed.  A person of color who is careless in their interactions with white people will eventually be punished.  This power differential turns common bias and prejudice into an uniquely white ailment – systemic racism.

In fairness, I am aware of the inconsistency, inattention, carelessness and power of white people largely because this described my attitudes and behaviors for nearly fifty years. I have been part of the racial problem in America.  Even now, I am a recovering racist at best.  As such, I am well positioned to see the racism of other white people.  It takes one to know one.

Unfortunately, I am also learning most white people don’t appreciate and value my new found ability to see racism. I experience far more resentment than appreciation.  I am seen as disloyal rather than helpful.  So I’ve decided to no longer argue with white people about their racism.  When they disclaim or dispute the prevalence of racism in America, I will ask them to read this essay.

If they are unconvinced, I will move on.

I will identify them for what they are – the reason racism continues to thrive in America.

Habitually Racist

Habitually Racist

Note to my white self…

You are not a white supremacist. You don’t hate people of color.  You don’t consciously think of them as inferior.  You never use derogatory language to describe them. You believe people of color deserving of the same civil rights and legal protections as you have.  Unfortunately, none of these behaviors or attitudes are admirable.

While I’m glad you think such things, these convictions are hardly noble. It is a little like bragging that, when it comes to your children, you “put food on the table and a roof over their head.”  Of course you do.  You and every other decent parent.   Likewise, not being a white supremacist isn’t an achievement.  It is a reasonable expectation.  Not belonging to the KKK doesn’t mean you are not racist; it means you are not morally deficient.

For you and many others, your racism is far more subtle. It is not an intentional commitment to see people of color harmed or diminished.  Your racism is more like a bad habit, gradually developed from observing your grandparents, parents and peers in a racially prejudiced culture.  You had these habits reinforced by the media, in school and even by your religion.  In such a culture, it would be nearly impossible for you to not be racist.

I know it is difficult for you to see this. Your racism is a habitual behavior.  These behaviors – like all such habits – seem ordinary, innocent and normal.  Identifying the race of someone of color in describing them.  Assuming drug dealers are people of color.  Using phrases with racially derogatory histories.  Checking your car locks when a black male appears.  Fearing people of color who haven’t straightened their hair.  These are bad habits shared by many white people.  They are habits that often take an outside observer to point out.

Unfortunately, when someone points out a racist behavior, you tend to hear this as a moral indictment. You hear an accusation of some heinous crime.  Often, your conversation partner simply wants you to be aware of a bad habit.  They are not claiming that you belong to the KKK.  They are reminding you that you’re a white person raised in a racially biased culture with a long history of racial injustice.  They are not accusing you of being evil, but of being oblivious.

Understanding your racism as a bad habit should lessen your defensiveness. Your racism is not a character flaw.  You can continue to see yourself as a good person.  Indeed, you are such a good person that you appreciate when someone points out a bad habit that you need to correct.  The proper response is, “Thank you.  I wasn’t aware of how off putting and offensive that behavior or attitude could be. I will try to act and think differently.”

Understanding your racism as a bad habit suggests a course of action. You know how to eliminate a bad habit.  You’ve addressed them before.  Awareness is the first step, but you must actively work to change your patterns.  This involves quickly altering your behavior when you catch yourself in an old habit.  Initially, you’ll catch yourself often, but each incident will reinforce your awareness of your negative behavior and increase your desire to change.  Every time you hit your car locks, you’ll be aware of your behavior’s racist overtones.  Instead of that behavior reinforcing your prejudice, it will make you aware of it. With vigilance, eventually you will find yourself developing more positive behaviors and attitudes.  When it comes to racism, you can become less and less racist if you are committed to eliminating racist habits.

Finally, understanding your racism as a bad habit suggests racism can be greatly diminished in our society. You know of negative behaviors and attitudes – smoking, sexual harassment, gender inequality, homophobia, domestic violence, etc. – that were once either ignored or silently condoned within our culture.  While none of these societal habits have been completely eliminated, we’ve made progress.  This progress has largely been the result of more and more people understanding such behavior as negative and unacceptable.  Many people have rejected the behaviors and attitudes they learned from their grandparents, parents and peers and acted differently.  This is equally possible in the case of racism…if you acknowledge you have a problem.

So start acknowledging your racism today. Your subtle racism may not be immediately obvious to you, but it will be if you are willing to accept outside critique.  If you are open to this critique, people who are more aware of racial bias can point out your bad habits.   When they do so, hear it for what it is – an opportunity to become a better person, to be a little less racist, and to help create a more wonderful world.

The Benefit of the Doubt

The Benefit of the Doubt

Note to my white self…

You did it again.

You gave the benefit of the doubt to the white person.

This is what happened. A black woman described a situation where she felt racially profiled and mistreated and, instead of acknowledging her pain and the injustice of the situation, you thought to yourself, “I wonder if the words and actions of that white person were really racist.  Maybe this person of color misunderstood the situation and the intent of that white person.”

At least you didn’t openly question the veracity of her description. I suppose that’s progress.  There was a time when you would have argued with a person of color about whether a situation which they experienced was really racist.  You would have acted like you, a person who has never been the victim of racism, were the expert and they, someone who had been the target of racism often, were the novice.  Ironically, you would have been oblivious to how your willingness to give the white person the benefit of the doubt is a clear manifestation of our prejudice and privilege.

I am glad you want to see racism ended. I appreciate your desire to work for that outcome.  But that day is not today.  And pretending that the behavior of yourself and other white people doesn’t have a racial dimension doesn’t make that day come any quicker.  Indeed, that kind of thinking postpones that day.

Today, this is the reality. Based on our track record as a white dominated nation, there are probably a 100 interactions with some racial bias or prejudice in our society for every incident where a person of color misconstrues the situation.  Are there situations where they get it wrong?  Probably, but that isn’t the behavior that deserves your scrutiny.  The more troubling question is why anyone – based on those odds – would give the white person the benefit of the doubt.

I think you know the answer to that question. You give the white person the benefit of the doubt because in exonerating them, you also free yourself of responsibility.  Though you might defend your unwillingness to condemn the behavior of another white person as withholding judgment, in actuality you have already judged the person of color.  They are deluded at best and a liar at worst.  What they claim to have experienced isn’t real.

The black comedian W. Kamau Bell points out the absurdity of this common white behavior in his comedy show. He suggests questioning the racist experiences of people of color is as crazy as a black person challenging a white person’s claim they had pizza for lunch.

“How do you know it was pizza?”

“What are you talking about?  Of course, it was pizza.  I have pizza almost every day.”

“That’s what I think is suspicious. Why are you having pizza every day?”

“Because there is pizza everywhere in the world.”

“No, I don’t see all this pizza you’re seeing. I don’t think you had pizza.  Are you sure it wasn’t pita bread with cheese on it?”

“No, it was pizza!  I’ve eaten a lot of pizza in my life.  My parents ate pizza.  My grandparents ate pizza.  My great grandparents were brought to this country to make pizza.”

I think you get his point.

However, as disturbing as this behavior can be, it is your willingness to give the white people the benefit of the doubt that is most concerning. When a person of color acts violently, they are a thug.  When a white person is violent, they are mentally and emotionally disturbed.  When a person of color possesses drugs, they are a drug dealer.  When a white person has drugs, they are in need of treatment.  When a person of color is arrested, they probably did something criminal.  When a white person is charged, they are innocent until proven guilty.

Our society seldom gives the person of color the benefit of the doubt. Our police officers don’t give them the benefit of the doubt when they drive on our streets.  Our judges don’t give them the benefit of the doubt if they end up in our courts.  Our employers don’t give them the benefit of the doubt when they apply for a job.  Our store guards don’t give them the benefit of the doubt when they shop.  I could go on and on.  When you don’t give them the benefit of the doubt when they report acts of racism, you are just as racist as the police officers, judges, employers and guards you find objectionable.

So start giving people of color the benefit of the doubt.

When your knee jerk response is to doubt their experience and defend the behavior of the white person, recognize that for what it is – evidence of your deeply embedded racism. Admit it.  You cannot control it.  You can only acknowledge and apologize for it.

Only then, can you hope to listen and learn from the experiences of people of color.

The Umbrella

The Umbrella

My beautiful black daughter, Ella, turned ten. No more single digits.  No more little girl.  She’s grown two inches since December. She’s dealing with her first pimple.  She has the beginnings of a teenager’s sarcastic wit.  This is both wonderful and frightening.  It is wonderful to watch her becoming a young woman and frightening when I remember what it means to become a black woman in America.  While I celebrate her growing maturity and independence, I also realize my ability to protect her from racism is diminishing.

Last week, she and I went on a walk. For years, this meant her walking beside me.  Now I walk and she rides her scooter, exploring her burgeoning freedom to navigate this world. Vacillating between child and young adult, sometimes she rides next to me and sometimes she ventures far ahead of me, only circling back when I call out to her.

As we walk through our white neighborhood, I notice a new dynamic. When she is beside me, the white people we encounter greet us with warm smiles, wishing us a good day.  They recognize her as my daughter or granddaughter and offer her all the entitlements of my white privilege.  But when she ventures too far ahead of me, when it isn’t obvious she is connected to me, the demeanor of the white people she encounters shifts.  No one smiles and greets her. Some stare at her, obviously disturbed by this unaccompanied black girl in their neighborhood.  Only when I call out to her to slow down or come back, do they relax.

I’m not criticizing these people. How can I?  They are like me.  Their reaction has been my reaction when I’ve encountered people of color where I did not expect them.  Discomfort.  Suspicion.  Even hostility.  Yet, as I watch the reaction of white people like me, I am also ashamed.  This is white privilege exposed.  It is not an academic abstraction, open to debate.  It is a visible manifestation of a deeply embedded inequity and cruelty.

It is as if I am carrying a large umbrella on our walk. When Ella is near me and underneath that umbrella, she is afforded all the rights and respects of my white privilege.  But, when she ventures outside my umbrella’s shadow, she immediately loses those benefits. She is judged differently. She is greeted with discomfort and suspicion. She is no longer endearing. She is a threat.

So I am finding her tenth birthday bittersweet. I am so proud of who she is becoming, of her intelligence and creativity, her passion for life, her kindness to others and her genuine outrage over injustice.  On our walk, I asked her who – in her class – she thought most likely to become the President of the United States and she replied, “Me, of course.”  I love the confidence with which she approaches her future.  I have so much to celebrate on her birthday.

But I am also aware of the forces that will do everything in their power to keep my beautiful black daughter from becoming the President of the United States. She will spend less and less of her life walking under the umbrella of my white privilege.  She is moving out into a world where she will have many opportunities to be outraged at injustice.  What she does not fully understand is how often she will be the victim of those injustices.

She is why I write these posts. I wish I had thought and written such things long ago, but I didn’t understand my complicity in racial injustice until I became her father. Without becoming her father, I would still be oblivious.  For this reason, I try to be patient with those – who in their ignorance – continue to downplay the role of racism and white privilege in our nation.  How can they understand?  They can’t see the umbrella under which they walk.

This is why I speak out even though I often irritate friends and family. Speaking out is the least I can do for Ella.  I can try to make visible what is invisible, to illustrate what seems abstract or absurd to many white people.  I write because I want my daughter to grow up in a world where the possibility of her becoming the President of the United States is neither ridiculous nor improbable, where the white people she encounters see what I see – beauty, intelligence and incredible potential.

I cannot give Ella that gift for her tenth birthday, but that is the gift she deserves.

The Pretense of Ignorance

The Pretense of Ignorance

In 1965, the United States Congress passed legislation requiring all cigarette packaging to contain the following warning – “Surgeon General’s Warning: Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema and May Complicate Pregnancy.”  While part of a larger effort to reduce smoking, there is compelling evidence that these warnings contributed to the 59% decrease in smoking that has occurred since 1965.  Millions of lives were lengthened and billions of dollars in health costs avoided because we used political force and legal regulation to destroy the pretense of ignorance.  People could continue to smoke, but they could no longer pretend they didn’t know it caused cancer.

Publicly proclaiming a truth matters.  Humans have a strong inclination to avoid negative information, especially when that information reminds us of an ugly truth.  Being repeatedly reminded of something we would rather ignore makes it difficult for us to sustain a delusion.  Indeed, studies have shown that the larger and more prominent the warnings on cigarette packaging, the greater likelihood that someone will quit smoking.  You can’t be subtle if you want societal change.  This is true whether you’re talking about smoking or racism.

Think about this for a moment. How would our country be different if we had applied the same approach to fighting and ending systemic racism as we did to reducing smoking?  What if we had used our political will to destroy the pretense of ignorance and exposed the evidence of systemic racism all around us?  What if we had publicly proclaimed the truth about systemic racism by requiring labels in the many places where it has or is occurring?

For example, we know hundreds of FHA financed housing developments were built from 1945 until the early 1970s with stipulations that people of color could not purchase or live in those homes. If you are white, there is a high likelihood your grandparents or parents purchased one of those homes and lived in one of those developments.  These policies intentionally segregated our society and forced people of color into ghettos. This is an ugly truth many of us ignore.

Unfortunately, when the Supreme Court finally prohibited these discriminatory policies with a 6-0 decision (three justices lived in such a development and recused themselves), most white Americans were oblivious. The court ruled against the practice, but did nothing to challenge the pretense of ignorance.  How would our nation be different if they had also required truth in labeling?  Imagine hundreds of suburban housing developments with these words underneath their entrance signs, “This subdivision, in violation of the US Constitution, was intentionally and maliciously created to exclude and marginalize people of color.”

Or how about the banks that refused to provide loans to people of color, even when they meet every qualification except white skin? Some white people know about redlining, but most of us have been able to sustain the pretense of ignorance.  We can pretend white people are wealthier because we work harder and not because the game has been fixed in our favor.  We can argue that people of color live in certain neighborhoods because of their desire to live near each other. Imagine if every bank in the US had a large sign on their door that read, “This bank, in violation of the US Constitution, created ghettos by refusing to provide people of the color with legitimate loans for housing and business.”

Or how about the many towns that had laws on their books denying people of color permission to live, work or shop within their boundaries? It didn’t just happen in the South.  You would be hard pressed to find any organized municipality without this type of activity in its past.  Indeed, many municipalities were first organized to either exclude or remove people of color from predominantly white areas.  If your grandparents or parents lived in such communities, they probably voted for the officials who created such restrictions.  What if every single one of these towns and villages had to add these words below their welcome signs, “This community historically and shamefully denied people of color their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Or, if this labeling seems radical, how about at least acknowledging the most heinous acts of racial discrimination and hatred in our past? Between 1882 and 1968, there were 4,743 incidents of whites lynching a black person or a white sympathizer.  What if Congress had simply required every single town where a lynching occurred to raise a monument with the words, “Never Again.” Certainly, most white people would agree that lynching was a violation of the most basic human and civil rights and should never occur again.  Wouldn’t we?

Unfortunately, unlike with smoking, our white controlled society has consistently denied, diminished, obscured and ignored our complicity in some very ugly and racist habits. We’ve done all in our power to maintain our pretense of ignorance.  We’ve refused to publicly acknowledge what our grandparents and parents intentionally and maliciously did to people of color.  We’ve sanitized our text books.  We’ve limited the truth in labeling to a few museums and plaques.

In so doing, we have done terrible damage not only to people of color, but to our national psyche. Donald Trump and his racist policies are only possible because millions of white people have been able to sustain the pretense of ignorance.  Only this pretense makes it possible for a presidential candidate say “black communities are disasters, full of crime and decay” with a straight face.  Only this pretense allows mobs of white people to scream “Make America Great Again” without even a hint of shame or sarcasm.  By not acknowledging our past, we have endangered our future.

Imagine for a moment a society where the Supreme Court ruled smoking caused cancer, but didn’t require any significant changes in governmental policy or legal regulations. Imagine a society where millions of people died of lung cancer and emphysema every year, but most people continued to express puzzlement about the cause.  Imagine a society where people were outraged not by these deaths, but by any suggestion that smoking was the cause of societal ills.  Does that seem ridiculous?

It shouldn’t.

That is precisely the kind of society we have created in response to historic and systemic racism. Many white people are more outraged by the accusation of system racism than its reality. Is it really any surprise that white people resist the idea of reparations?  We haven’t even accepted and acknowledged what our grandparents and parents did.  Instead, we have chosen the pretense of ignorance.

I see this pretense all around me. I see it in politics, in the media, and in the conversations I have with friends and family.  I see it in myself and my ignorance about many historic facts.  Sadly, without some national truth in labeling, I see little hope.  As our national battle against smoking has taught us, you can’t be subtle if you want societal change.

Postscript: For those interested in being less ignorant, I would highly recommend the book, “The Color of Law” by Richard Rothstein.  Much of my new understanding of the facts in this post come from that book.