DACA Was Not The Dream

DACA Was Not The Dream

I am an enthusiastic supporter of the Dreamers, the 800,000 undocumented young adults who have lived nearly all of their lives in the United States. In any just society, these young people, who were brought into the United States by their parents while minors, should not be held responsible for the actions of their parents or the gridlock of our political system over immigration policy. Sending them “home” to countries most of them don’t even remember is cruel and unusual punishment. For most of them, the United States is the only home and culture they’ve known.  No ethical person, regardless of their position on immigration, can justify their deportation.

However, I am not a fan of DACA.

Even President Obama, in establishing the DACA program, admitted it was a stop gap measure designed to clarify the legal status of the approximately 65,000 undocumented young people graduating from US high schools every year. While DACA made it possible for these young people to obtain a driver’s license, attend college and find employment, it actually created an unsustainable and unjust status for these young people.  Mr. Trump was right to suggest that Congress should come to some bipartisan agreement on their status.

Consider the Faustian bargain offered to DACA participants. They were allowed to remain in their homeland as long as they accepted a diminished and unequal status.  They can work and pay taxes, but are denied many services.  They must pay into social security though they are denied access to its benefits.  They can attend college, but must pay a higher tuition without any loans or assistance.  They can live in US, but they cannot vote.  They can only leave the US with permission.  If they are arrested, they can be denied due process and immediately deported.  Every two years, they must pay $500 to renew their participation in this charade.

This is what we have offered these young people who’ve attended our elementary schools, who’ve graduated from our high schools with honors, who’ve excelled on our sports teams, who’ve entered our armed forces, who’ve worked in our companies and who’ve fully assimilated into our culture. While many of them seem genuinely appreciative of the DACA program, they shouldn’t be. It is not just or fair to punish them for the crimes of their parents.  They deserve much better.

Those who want to send them away make Uncle Sam into a father who refuses to acknowledge his illegitimate children. The illegitimacy does not reside in the children, but in circumstances beyond their control.  Only the conditions of their birth are questionable. In every other way, they are legitimately American.  Indeed, they fit the conservative litmus test for a “good” immigrant.  All of them speak English.  Most have little or no allegiance to their country of birth.  They are fully committed to our values. They understand themselves as Americans.

Though most conservatives will not admit it, their chief flaw is the color of their skin. They are not white.  It is this, though it is seldom acknowledged, that makes them so frightening to those who would have them deported. They threaten white supremacy and must be racially profiled and demonized.  Fortunately, while Trump and his administration have tried to justify rejecting immigrants of color as being dangerous and criminal, the DACA participants stand as 800,000 counter arguments to that racist rhetoric.  We call them dreamers because they so perfectly exemplify the American dream of taking advantage of this land of freedom and opportunity. Rejecting them makes a mockery of our cultural myths and values.

Those of us protesting the termination of the DACA program need to be very careful. In opposing this action by the Trump administration, we need to oppose the injustice of their status and not defend the legitimacy of the program.  The goal of our efforts should not be the restoration of the DACA program, but the creation of a path to citizenship for these young people.  Anything short of this could inadvertently create the foundations for an American apartheid, where a whole class of people is given a permanent second class status.

The United States will continue to debate our immigration policy and process. We can disagree about how to best guard our borders.  We can design better ways of meeting our economic needs without encouraging undocumented workers.  These are all valid and important discussions.  What we cannot do is punish these children for our own ambiguity.  If our elected representatives in Congress refuse to protect the Dreamers, they have no real commitment in the American dream.

Advertisements

Claiming “Everyone Is Racist” Is Racist

Claiming “Everyone Is Racist” Is Racist

Note to my white self…

Claiming “everyone is racist” is racist.

I know other white people are telling you that anyone – regardless of their color or ethnicity – can be racist. They’re quoting the definition of racism from the dictionary – “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.”  They’re arguing people of color can be biased or antagonistic toward white people, that everyone is equally capable of being racist.  They tell stories of when they’ve been personally attacked or mistreated by someone of color.  Or they point out situations in the world where people of color have marginalized another group.

Don’t be confused.

In most cases, these arguments are attempts to normalize racism and not to end it. Indeed, once they’ve convinced you that everyone is racist, racism is no longer a problem requiring societal change.  It becomes a personal issue.  After all, if everyone is racist, white people have no greater responsibility for addressing and combatting it than others.  Ironically, while these people are fighting for an equal application of the definition of racism, they are far less concerned about actual social inequities, such as the power to define language.

When we who are white insist on a definition of racism which includes everyone, we are arguing that we – and not people of color – get to define the term. When we quote from Merriam-Webster, we seldom acknowledge George Merriam, Charles Merriam and Noah Webster were all white men, or that the academic and publishing worlds continue to be dominated by white people.  This assumption that our definition of racism trumps alternative definitions, especially those of people of color, exposes a dynamic white people seldom want to discuss – the differences in political and economic power in America.

Systemic racism is so insidious because it permeates every societal institution, including the publishers of dictionaries. Thankfully, in recent years, alternate definitions of racism have gained credibility.  Most sociologists define racism within a societal structure where there are significant differences in power.  They understand what most people of color know intuitively – without power – prejudice, discrimination and antagonism toward someone of another race is powerless.  It can do little systemic damage. In America, while anyone can be biased and prejudiced, it is only white people who have the power to be racist.

Think about this. Obviously, black people were antagonistic toward their white oppressors during the era of slavery.  Was this antagonism racist?  When they ran away, or killed their owners, or led rebellions, should these actions be seen as reverse racism?  Of course not.  Most people would acknowledge that their actions were a legitimate response to their mistreatment.  Yet, today, if a person of color expresses anger or resentment about their mistreatment, many white people want to define their behavior as racist.  Don’t be confused.  Resisting oppression is not racism.

When you confront other white people with this reality, don’t be surprised when they call you racist. When white people call other white people racist for challenging racist attitudes or behavior, they demonstrate how little they really care about Merriam-Webster’s definition.  By that definition, it is impossible for you – another white person – to be racist toward them.  What they are upset about is your lack of loyalty.

Merriam and Webster did get one part of their definition correct. Racism has always included a deep seated conviction that one’s own race is superior.  This loyalty to your race is vital to sustaining injustice.  It is difficult to justify inequality if we acknowledge the worth of another group of people.  Racism thrives on an underlying assertion of superiority.  This makes the claim that everyone is racist, when mouthed by white people, even more ugly.  If we who are white want to emphasize our common humanity with people of color, offering them equality in the propensity toward racism seems a ridiculous place to start.

Theoretically, is it possible for any group of people to be racist?  Of course.  If Africans had preceded Europeans in the Industrial Revolution, colonized North America, brought over Europeans as slaves, oppressed white people for generations and resisted every attempt to create a just and equitable society, it would be possible to legitimately accuse people of color of racism.  However, short of that, claiming everyone is racist…is racist.  We live in a country where racism is a white affliction that can only be cured when we who are white acknowledge this ugly disease and seek treatment.

Here is my challenge to you.

Work for a society where people of color have enough power that they can be rightfully accused of racism.  Create a society where power is distributed so evenly that blame and responsibility for injustice can be equally shared.  This will not happen by accusing everyone of racism.  It will only happen when white people surrender the power of defining and dominating the conversation.

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 statute 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.