What “Most Americans” Think About Racism Is Usually Wrong

What “Most Americans” Think About Racism Is Usually Wrong

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”  Mark Twain

Suppose a factory with a hundred employees – fifty men and fifty women – was dealing with accusations of a sexually hostile workplace. Suppose that in response, the factory manager took an anonymous survey of the employees on their opinions about sexual harassment and announced that “Most Employees” reported they did not find the workplace to be sexually hostile. Should the factory manager and his survey be trusted?

That would depend. If 95% of the employees – men and women – did not report a sexually hostile environment, that would be good news. Unfortunately, if all 50 male employees reported the factory was not a sexually hostile environment and 49 of the 50 women reported the factory WAS a sexually hostile environment, the factory manager could legitimately report that “Most Employees” (51%) found the factory safe and welcoming. However, we can all agree that if 49 of 50 women at a factory reported it as a sexually hostile environment, that factory is a very ugly place to work.

This is the problem with statistics. As Mark Twain suggested, they often obscure deeper truths and sustain lies. They can be manipulated to state or imply things that are not accurate. This happens often when our nation tries to understand the state of racial relations in America.

This past June, the Gallup Poll took its annual pulse of racial relations in the United States, using a set of questions they’ve been using for almost 20 years. Based on this polling, the state of racial relations in the United States looks pretty good. Most Americans believe the following…

  • Blacks have as good a chance of getting a good job as whites. (55%)
  • Blacks have as good a chance of finding good housing at whites. (60%)
  • Blacks are not discriminated against in the workplace. (65%)
  • Blacks are not discriminated against while shopping. (66%)
  • Black children are as likely to get a good education as white children. (64%)
  • Blacks are not discriminated against while receiving healthcare. (66%)
  • Racial relations in the United States have improved. (69%)
  • Reparations to black people are not needed. (67%)

Of course, none of these statistics take into account our national demographics where 62% of the population identifies as White and only 13% identify as Black.  Think about our imaginary factory. If 80 of the 100 employees had been men and all of them reported the factory was safe and welcoming, the factory manager could have bragged that 80% of his employees found the factory a safe environment. However, if all twenty female employees reported a hostile environment, this is far more important than what “most employees” say or think.

When trying to understand the state of racial relations and discrimination in the United States, the opinions of those most impacted by the alleged societal injustices are far more important than the opinions of those who are not targets for this discrimination and may even be its beneficiaries. Let’s look at the opinion of black people to the same set of questions…

  • Blacks have as good a chance of getting a good job as whites. (31%)
  • Blacks have as good a chance of finding good housing at whites. (36%)
  • Blacks are not discriminated against in the workplace. (37%)
  • Blacks are not discriminated against while shopping. (39%)
  • Black children are as likely to get a good education as white children. (38%)
  • Blacks are not discriminated against while receiving healthcare. (36%)
  • Racial relations in the United States have improved. (57%)
  • Reparations to black people are not needed. (25%)

As you can clearly see, regardless of what most Americans think about racial relations, the opinions of those most impacted by racism – Blacks – are vastly different. Too often, when we read “Most Americans” in an article, it is actually reporting the opinions of “Most White Americans” and implying those are the only opinions that really matter. Sadly, this statistical device sustains racism in our society, allowing the opinions of those who benefit from racism to control the dialogue.

Statistics can deceive.

For example, you may have noticed that most Blacks (57%) reported that racial relations are improving in the United States. That seems encouraging. A newspaper could even write that “Most Black Americans Think Nation Improving.”  While statistically true, this would be deceptive. It implies Black people are feeling better about racial relations in the United States.

This is not the case. The Gallup Poll allows us to track opinions over time.  In 2013, 81% of all Black respondents thought the state of racial relations in the United States was improving. This June, only 57% thought so. In 2008, 72% of all Black respondents thought racism was widespread in the United States. This June, 84% thought so.

Here is an irony. While most white Americans consistently suggest Black people are not facing serious discrimination, one of the chief areas of agreement in the polling is on the very first question – Would you say relations between — White and Black people — are very good, somewhat good, somewhat bad or very bad?  Most Americans (57%) think they are somewhat or very bad. Most White American (56%) think this. Most Black Americans (66%) agree. Even most Hispanic Americans (56%)  – the only group excluded from this question – say relations aren’t good.

We continue to live in a nation where a strong majority of Black people find our society a hostile environment. That white people can’t see this is no more relevant than the men in my imaginary factory who couldn’t see the sexual harassment. Giving white opinions about racism extra weight suggests we’re defending the status quo rather than seeking positive change.

The statistics suggest that more and more Black people are experiencing our nation as racially hostile. We are moving in the wrong direction.

When it comes to racism, the opinion of “Most Americans” is usually wrong.

Going Through The Motions

Going Through The Motions

This fall, our daughter Ella has been playing high school soccer.  At the beginning of each game, we are asked to rise, remove our hats, and face the flag for the national anthem.  Our daughter is one of three girls – all black – who choose to take a knee.  Each game, in solidarity with them and millions of other people of color, my wife and I have also taken a knee.

In so doing, we’ve seen the world differently.

Before this fall, standing and singing the national anthem was more cultural custom than meaningful ritual.  The national anthem was simply what you did before a sporting event or other occasion. We seldom sang.  We stood awkwardly.  While occasionally we saw older men – probably veterans – moved by emotion, we were going through the motions.  Kneeling in solidarity with our daughter and other people of color has altered that experience.  For the first time in our lives, the national anthem is a serious moment of reflection.

In the past, during the national anthem, we seldom gave much thought to what we were honoring or what we were singing.  We didn’t reflect on the history of our nation, its successes and tragedies and its unfinished possibilities.  At best, it was singing the team song.  At worse, it was meaningless drivel.

This fall, the national anthem has become a moment when my wife and I are confronted with our nation’s resistance to living up to its highest principles.  Looking out on the field, we are aware of the differences between the life experiences and possibilities for the black girls kneeling and the white teammates standing next to them.  We are also aware of how many of our white peers see the kneeling as more disrespectful than the inequities that kneeling represents.

Kneeling has given us a deep respect for those like Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Colin Kaepernick who lifted a fist or took a knee during the national anthem at events attended by thousands and watched by millions.  My wife and I laugh at suggestions that these are acts of grandstanding or marketing, designed to draw attention to the individual rather than a cause.  Going against the crowd rather than through the motions always takes courage and seldom gleans accolades.  I can feel my anxiety whenever I kneel, knowing I am in the minority.  I cannot imagine the fortitude necessary to act when your entire career is at risk.

Kneeling isn’t easy.  My wife – an introvert – finds kneeling emotionally painful even though we’ve never had anyone verbally attack us.  Indeed, we’ve never had anyone acknowledge our kneeling in any way.  No middle fingers or thumbs up.  We’re not sure what to think of that.  While we certainly don’t wish for harassment, being ignored is also troubling.  It is exactly what most people of color experience as they navigate our society.  They don’t want to be harassed but being invisible is also an issue.

Sometimes when I’m kneeling, I imagine what it would be like if someday my white peers would see my wife and me kneeling and join us.  I think about the power of my daughter’s white teammates joining her on a knee.  What would it take for that to happen?  That is something I can’t imagine.  If a white police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for eight and half minutes until he was dead wasn’t enough to drop you to a knee, I am not optimistic.

Sometimes I imagine another team hurling racial slurs at my daughter – something that has happened often to black players in the past.  I wonder if our team and fans would find that so objectionable that they’d take a knee.  But then I remember that loyalty to the white team is generally stronger than any loyalty to a sports team.  When Kaepernick knelt, many hardcore white supremacists boycotted their favorite football teams.  For blacks, kneeling is a protest.  For white people like us, to kneel is to acknowledge that we continue to be beneficiaries of a nation built on the exploitation of people of color, often on the very sports fields where we kneel.

Kneeling has become a way of determining which of my white peers are serious about creating a better world for my daughter.  After all, if the symbolic act of taking a knee during the national anthem at a high school soccer match is too intimidating,  my wife and I probably shouldn’t expect those same people to advocate and work for justice in the real world.  We understand when black people grow frustrated with white allies whose only advocacy is “kneeling at the anthem” and “putting up a Black Lives Matter” sign, but the fact that so few white people do either is evidence of how culturally difficult it is to stop going through white supremacist motions.

Kneeling during the anthem will not change our nation, but every time we kneel, we remind ourselves that our nation needs to change, that singing the same lyrics is not unity, that standing together is not solidarity and that facing a flag is not a communal commitment to justice.  As we listen – really listen – to the words of the anthem, we are aware of how pathetic it is as a proclamation of national pride and how little it celebrates our highest principles.  Only near its end does it offer any hints at what should make our country special.  It declares us “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Since we’ve been kneeling, we’ve realized an irony.

There is nothing brave about doing what everyone else is doing.  Bravery is defined by those three black teenage girls kneeling in the center of a sports field.

Who Gets To Define Racism?

Who Gets To Define Racism?

I am often accused of being racist.

Occasionally, this accusation comes from a person of color.  When it does, I take it very seriously.  As a someone raised in a white supremacist society, I realize I have racial prejudices and habits of which I am unaware.  I appreciate these corrections.  Know better, do better.

However, most of these accusations of racism come from white people who, enraged by something I’ve posted or written about white history, culture, behavior, or language, accuse me of being anti-white.  They remind me that racism is “prejudice, discrimination or antagonism toward others on the basis of race.”  By this definition, my antagonism toward certain white people is racism.  They argue my support of affirmative action, reparations and the like is racist since these discriminate against white people.  They think my statements condemning white society as white supremacist are prejudicial, so I am a racist.

When I suggest their definition of racism is inadequate and obsolete, they become even more angry because…

  1. Their definition is the dictionary definition of racism and therefore the only acceptable definition of racism.
  2. To discuss racism, all others must accept and abide by their definition.
  3. All other definitions are perversions of this pristine definition.
  4. Their definition can never be changed.

Ironically, those defending the “dictionary” definition of racism know little about the history of the word they so vehemently defend.  The words “racist” or “racism” are fairly recent inventions.  They don’t show up in written English language documents until the 1930s and were originally used to criticize Nazi philosophy that categorized certain races as inferior to others. However, racism doesn’t show up in the Oxford English dictionary until 1989 where it was defined as “the theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race” and “the belief in the superiority of a particular race.”

If you’re shocked to discover “racism” wasn’t in a dictionary until 1989, I was, too.  Indeed, I didn’t believe this Wikipedia notation initially, but have read widely enough to confirm this fact.  In my research, I was also reminded that prior to advent of computers and the internet, revising dictionaries was a tedious effort that often took many years.  Dictionary definitions always lagged behind usage.  While the word “racism” began to be used more widely in the late 60s, it was largely an academic term.  It is unlikely that you and I used the term “racism” in conversation until the 1980s.  Why?  Because a belief in the superiority of white people was still so normative in the United States that a word critical of this belief only grudgingly became common.

Even when a definition of racism appeared, it was not initially all that helpful.  It used words like theory or belief and did not define behavior.  The definition of racist and racism gradually broadened as it was applied.  The Oxford English dictionary expanded their definition to read: “Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.”  This redefining attempted to move racism from the theory to practice.  However, it was careful to connect practice with supremacist theory.

Notice racism – despite what my accusers claim – is not simply prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism toward another race, but those acts or attitudes based on a belief of one’s own superiority. When white people separate the first three characteristics from this underlying belief, they attempt to make racism any negative statement about another group of people rather than something philosophical and systemic.  White people often misquote the definition.  This allows them to claim “anyone can be racist” even when there is little evidence of black or brown people arguing for their own racial superiority.  While prejudice, discrimination and antagonism are certainly possible in any person, racism requires a deeper philosophical commitment.

More recently, many critics have argued these broader definitions are still inadequate, that they imply racism is solely an individual opinion or act.  In 2020, Merriam Webster added, “the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another” as the second definition of racism.  This revision acknowledged the power differentials that make racism in America a primarily white problem.  By this definition, the power to enforce my prejudice, discrimination or antagonism is a necessary ingredient for racist behavior.

This is a very important distinction.  People of color have long been antagonistic toward white people and rightly so.  For their own safety, they’ve held prejudicial opinions about all white people.  The caveat that “not all white people are evil” was dangerous assumption.  Prejudice and antagonism were legitimate responses to how they have been treated by white people and the systems white people created.  However, without any power to enforce such an opinion, calling this attitude racism seems rather silly.

It is equally silly to call a white person racist when they are critical of white supremacy and systemic racism.  I have never claimed any group of people are biologically or culturally superior.  Indeed, I reject all such arguments.  My criticism is not based on a commitment to the superiority of any specific group.  My criticism has been of systems – and their defenders – that oppress, discriminate, and abuse others based on such assumptions.  In the United States, this has almost universally been a white problem.  No reasonable definition – past or present – would define my criticism of other white people as racist.

Those white people who argue most vehemently for the broadest possible definition of racism reinforce the argument that racism is always rooted in beliefs in superiority.  In insisting that their definition is the correct definition of racism, they imply definitions created by white people are inherently superior to those offered by people of color.  They demonstrate how the mechanisms of defining words – as with many other systems in our society – have long been used to protect and empower white people.  Those who have been the most often victimized by even their broad definition of racism are not allowed to offer their perspectives.  These white people are incensed that society is finally listening to those voices and adjusting our definitions accordingly.

The adjustments being made by Oxford English and Merriam Webster dictionaries represent changes in understanding and usage around the terms “racist” and “racism.”  They demonstrate a new commitment to listen to all voices in defining terms.  They are designed to help us better identify and describe what they define.  Those who oppose such revisions are suspect.  Using an obsolete or incomplete definition of racism to sustain power – ironically – is racist.  It is an attempt by white supremacy to deflect attention from its own ugliness by suggesting others are guilty of its crimes.  I, for one, am done with such arguments.

Who gets to define racism?

Millions of us do.

The days when white supremacists get all the votes are over.

My Conversation With Bradley Gitz, Anti-Anti-Racism Advocate

My Conversation With Bradley Gitz, Anti-Anti-Racism Advocate

(Full disclaimer.  I have never met or spoken with Bradley Gitz.  I have, however, run into several of his opinion pieces in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. Since he represents a whole line of anti-anti-racism thinking, I thought it would be interesting to reframe one of his pieces as a conversation.  His original piece was entitled “Our Racial Meltdown.”  I have not changed the train of thought of Mr. Gitz’s remarks and ninety-nine percent of his comments are taken verbatim.  Occasionally, I had to add a few words to make him more conversational.)

Me:  Brad, thanks for talking with me today.  I know you often write about racism in America.  How would you like to start our discussion today?

Brad:  How about some observations on our continuing descent into a racial madness that threatens to undo much of what the civil rights movement accomplished.

Me: Wow, I think we would all be concerned about undoing the civil rights movement.  Can you share an example?

Brad:  That’s easy.  The NFL, in its ongoing quest to out-woke other sports leagues, has decided to play the “Black national anthem”  – “Lift Every Voice and Sing” – before all its games this fall.

Me: How is singing an anthem of the Civil Rights movement going to destroy the accomplishments of the Civil Rights movement?  That seems innocent enough.

Brad: Obviously, this will make the real anthem something less than that and thus less capable of serving as a national unifier.  I mean, if we have a “Black” national anthem, does that make the “Star Spangled Banner” the “white” one?

Me:  Well, I’m not sure the Star Spangled Banner is great unifier.  It was written by a white slave holder who including the idea of killing slaves in its second stanza?  Regardless, I don’t hear anyone asking to replace it.  What could be wrong with singing both songs?

Brad: (Ignoring my question)  Or how about Juneteenth?  Does Juneteenth become a rival to the Fourth of July and the shoddy “1619 Project” an alternative founding to 1776?

Me: So you don’t think it is possible to celebrate both days?  Or to mention different narratives of our nation’s founding?

Brad:  How does all this not take us back to “separate but equal?”

Me: You do realize the problem with separate and equal was never the separate part, but the equal part?  Equal would mean considering the needs and desires of Black people as being as important as the needs and desires of white people.  Like singing one of their songs as often as one written and enjoyed by white people.  And why do you call the 1619 project shoddy?  It did receive the Pulitzer Prize, the highest honor for literary writing in America.

Brad: I call it shoddy not just because of all the lies and distortions it contains but because of the shameless way its supporters refuse to even attempt to respond to prominent historians of the American founding on both left and right (Gordon S. Wood, Sean Wilentz, etc.) who have pointed out those lies and distortions.

Me: I agree that some historians have disputed specific details and assertions in the Project, but even Gordon Wood said, “Let me emphasize my wholehearted support of the goal of the project to demonstrate accurately and truthfully to all Americans the importance of slavery in our history.” That hardly sounds like condemnation.

Brad: (ignoring my response) Contrary to what the “1619 Project” claims, slavery was not introduced to the Americas in 1619.  It was practiced by the Spanish in the New World long before that, and also by a number of Native American tribes.  It wasn’t a unique, defining American experience because it existed just about everywhere in 1619 and in many places long after 1776, or even 1865, and the American Revolution was most definitely not fought to preserve it.

Me: I think you rightly point out one of the overreaches of the 1619 Project.  The Revolutionary War was fought for a great many reasons.

Brad: My point exactly.

Me:  But I am not certain I understand what else you are claiming   How does people practicing slavery in Brazil lessen the relevance of the advent of slavery in the English colonies in 1619?  How exactly does the fact that the Native Americans may have practiced some type of slavery make those events irrelevant?  And how does the normative nature of slavery in 1619 excuse its ugliness?  The point of the 1619 Project was to help us see how impactful the introduction of enslaved persons has been to our nation.

Brad: There is no reason why the historical equivalent of creationist science should be treated with respect, let alone entrenched in school curricula.

Me: How is the story of 1619 like the creation story?  The creation story is about events that no person saw or recorded.  The landing of the White Lion to disembark and sell enslaved people is a recorded, historic fact.  Shouldn’t that be part of any thorough history of the United States?

Brad: (ignoring my question) Those supporting critical race theory (CRT) claim that all they want is to ensure that our history of slavery and racism is taught in schools.  Fair enough, and something we should all be able to agree on.

Me: Well, that’s a relief.

Brad: I challenge you find an American history textbook that is widely used in high schools across the country that doesn’t already extensively cover slavery, the Civil War, reconstruction, Jim Crow, Martin Luther King, and the civil rights movement.  You won’t find one and wouldn’t have two or three decades ago either.

Me: Of course, it is how we talk about those subjects that matters. In 2015, the Texas Board of Education introduced a social studies curriculum that came under wide criticism for its whitewashing of the brutalities of slavery in the American South.  One of the more damning revisions was the statement, “The treatment of enslaved Africans varied.  Some slaves reported that their masters treated them kindly.”  Does that strike you as a lie or distortion?

Brad: (Ignoring my question) The problem with those pushing CRT in schools is that race is just about all they wish to see taught, which would produce a depiction of the American experience every bit as distorted as airbrushed versions that left such topics out.

Me: I don’t hear anyone pushing for race to be the only thing taught.  I do hear people asking that we study both these past events and their impact on our present society.

Brad:  The demand for racism is now outstripping the supply; hence the need to find it in all kinds of things that no one even a few years ago would have considered racist like rocks on university campuses, three-time “Jeopardy” winners holding up three fingers, and fans yelling the name of team mascots at baseball games.

Me: Those hardly seem like the primary focus of anti-racism movement.  I think people are more concerned about injustices in our legal systems, the death of George Floyd and the more blatant racism that President Trump inspired.  But isn’t any racism worth challenging?  Wouldn’t growing awareness mean we’d see racism where we didn’t previously?

Brad: The “anti-racist” movement requires lots of racism for fuel, and – when it can’t easily be found – a rube out in Montana who utters a racial slur under his breath causes a national crisis.

Me: So there isn’t anything wrong with a Montana rube using a racial slur?  I wish I thought your Montana rube was the exception, but most Black people I know would find it laughable that you think racism is hard to find in America.

Brad: To point to statistical disparities as evidence of “systemic racism” ignores the fact that disparities have existed across all ethnic and racial groups in all societies throughout history, and in many cases for reasons that have little or nothing to do with racism – usually because of cultural differences we aren’t supposed to notice or talk about.

Me: Cultural differences?  You do know that argument is a classic white supremacist trope, that Blacks are culturally inferior, and this explains disparities?  For example, that Blacks have less wealth because they are lazy or have a poorer work ethic.  Study after study has drawn a direct connection between historic racial discrimination and these disparities, even when considering alleged cultural differences.

Brad: If racial disparities between whites and Blacks are all that are needed to prove that American society is based on white supremacy, couldn’t comparable discrepancies between Asians and whites also prove that it is built upon Asian supremacy?

Me: You do know that the Black experience in America and the Asian experience was vastly different?

Brad: The most obvious refutation of the idea that America is a land of incorrigible racism is that so many people of color continue to try so hard to get here, and that the vast majority choose to stay despite all of the alleged oppression they experience and when they could so easily leave because of the “freedom” part.

Me: Could this have more to do with the vast disparities in wealth between the US and other countries and less because people of color see the US as a racially progressive nation?  I mean, I see the incorrigible racism of America and I don’t want to leave.  I just want to make our country an anti-racist place.

Brad:  No society on Earth has struggled so hard to provide equality and opportunity and been as successful at doing so than the United States, or inspired others to do so.

Me: I think lot of countries would dispute that claim.  Frankly, until the 1960s, the US was pretty much an apartheid society, one in which Hitler and South Africa found inspiration for their use of power and legislation to control minority groups.  However, I would agree there have been many Americans – especially those of color – who have worked to make the US a nation of equality and opportunity for all.  Sadly, they have done so over the objections of many white people diminishing and obscuring the problem of racism.

Brad: My belief that America should always be open to mass immigration has been bolstered in recent years by the realization that so many of those coming to our country, legally or even illegally, like and appreciate it more than many of our own citizens do.

Me: I agree with you there.  Many Americans don’t seem to appreciate what makes our country so wonderful – the commitment to being a more and more inclusive and diverse nation.  But I’m not sure your support of mass immigration will win you much support in your circles.

Brad: In the end, a fundamental conflict has emerged regarding race and race relations in America.  The original vision of the civil rights movement was based on the idea of color-blindness and integration and instructed us to treat everyone as individuals, regardless of race.

Me: Well, that would be one of those lies and distortions you despise.  That is a whitewashed description of a movement that was far more complicated and varied.  Remember, it included people like Malcom X as well as Martin Luther King, Jr.  Even King would find your description inaccurate.  The Civil Rights movement sought to equalize the application of the laws for all people.  It wanted our legal system to be color blind and not our society.  It was more interested in empowerment than integration.  While it did hope for a day when everyone would be judged as individuals, it also understood the tremendously entrenched powers of white supremacy.

Brad: Well, the new “anti-racism” replaces these assumptions with racial essentialism and separatism and demands that we see people purely in terms of skin color, and then place them in the assigned oppressor or oppressed group.

Me: Brad, I don’t know any respected leader of the anti-racism movement making such demands.  Maybe there is some Harlem rube spouting such nonsense, but you already mentioned how silly it is to give such people inordinate attention.  Anti-racists believe skin color as one of the significant determinants of whether one is treated equally and cannot be ignored.  They also recognize that in our present system that oppression is most often white to black.

Brad: Wrong!  True Americans embrace American ideals and demand that we do a better job of living up to them. Anti-racists condemn those ideals and America itself.

Me: That couldn’t be farther from the truth.  Anti-racists are precisely the people who deeply treasure that promise of “life, liberty and justice for all” and have held America to that promise since Emancipation in 1864.  They have heard all your arguments time and again, that Blacks are somehow to blame for their condition, that integration means leaving their music, culture and memory behind, that the story of their arrival and treatment in America is irrelevant, that they should be grateful to live in this nation and not in the “shithole” countries they came from, and that their demands for America to live up to her stated ideals are un-American.

There is nothing new here.  You’re simply regurgitating the same white supremacist tropes of your parents, grandparents, and great grandparents.   You are not anti-anti-racist.

Brad, you are just racist.

Why Do People Vote Against Their Self-Interest?

Why Do People Vote Against Their Self-Interest?

I only saw Steve enraged once.

Steve was in his 70s.  He was friendly and well liked.  He went to church every Sunday.  Having retired from a job with no pension, he lived a frugal life on Social Security, Medicare, and a small inheritance.  He never complained about that.  Indeed, he often told me his healthcare was the best in the world.

Steve did complain about people who he said,  “lived off the government teat.”  A faithful Fox News watcher, Steve consistently voted for Republican politicians who ran on reducing governmental programs, privatizing Social Security, and cutting Medicare.  The day Steve got enraged was when I pointed out that, with his Social Security and Medicare, he was one of those people “living off the government teat.” Rather than acknowledging this irony, he raged, “Well, then take all that away from me!” 

Over the years, I’ve often wondered why some people vote against their own self-interest.  Why do voters elect politicians who blatantly advocate positions that would seem completely counter to their own benefit?  Consider Owsley County, Kentucky, where 46% of the population is on government assistance and yet 88.1% of the county voted Republican – the party that consistently reduces funding to programs providing government assistance.  How can that be?

After reading Heather McGhee’s book “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone,” I’m no longer baffled.  Steve and those Owsley, Kentucky voters do not vote against their self-interest.  They vote based on interests that aren’t immediately obvious.  Many are motivated by a deeply ingrained and often unconscious white supremacist trope – “I may be poor and white, but at least I’m not Black.”   Steve and 98.7 % of Owsley County, Kentucky is white.

McGhee’s book makes a strong argument – through story, research, and analysis – that racism remains the one of the strongest determinants of behavior for much, if not most, of the white population in the United States.  Though Steve and the citizens of Owsley, Kentucky might not be aware of this motivation, it still drives how they respond.  McGhee writes, “The US economy depended on systems of exploitation – on literally taking away land and labor from racialized others to enrich white colonizers and slaveholders.  This made it easy for the powerful to sell the idea that the inverse was also true: that liberation and justice for people of color would necessarily require taking something away from white people.”

In this zero-sum understanding of America, any advance in the prosperity of Black people is always seen as a loss for white people.  This assumption drives many white people to oppose policies that would also benefit them.  Indeed, the more likely a policy is to benefit Black people, the less likely these white people will support it.  Politicians who evoke this fear can energize the white electorate.  When Reagan wanted to reduce welfare programs, all he needed to do was talk about the “Black welfare queens.”  For Steve and many others, the those of “those living off the government teat” always has a black face.  Steve was enraged because I implied he shared something in common with Black people.  Once I made that connection, he was willing to lose it all.

McGhee demonstrates this dynamic powerfully in her description of what happened after the 1953 drowning death of a 13-year-old Black boy named Tommy Cummings in Baltimore’s Patapsco River. That summer, the NAACP sued the city of Baltimore to end its policy of prohibiting interracial swimming.  On June 23rd, 1956, they won that case, opening swimming pools across America to Black families. 

In response, white controlled municipalities across the nation did one of two things.  They either sold their public pools to white only clubs or they closed or destroyed their pools.  In Oak Park, Mississippi, the city responded by completely defunding their Parks Department and filling their Olympic sized pool with cement.  It was better for white people to lose their access to a swimming pool than share it with Black families. 

In St. Louis, the city opened the Fairgrounds Park swimming pool – the largest swimming pool in the world – to integrated use.  On the first day, a mob of five thousand white people surrounded the pool and attacked any Black person who approached the pool.  After police established order and cleared access for Black families, McGhee writes, “That first integrated summer, Fairgrounds logged just 10,000 swims – down from 315,000 the previous summer.  The city closed the pool six years later.  Racial hatred led to St. Louis draining one of the most prized public pools in the world.”

This all seems illogical and counterproductive.  Why would white people deny themselves the benefit of a publicly funded swimming pool?  Why would they close or destroy public works that had cost millions of their taxpayer dollars?   The answer is both obvious and sad.  It was better to be poor, white, and sweaty than to share a swimming pool with a Black person.

McGhee’s book is full of stories illustrating how racism does damage to both white and Black people, keeping our nation from improving the quality of life of all.  For example, there is a direct correlation between the increase of Blacks attending college and a decrease in government funding for college education.  When most college students were white, the federal government funded nearly 100% of the education of poorer students – Black or white.  However, as more Black students entered college, these programs were attacked, reduced, or eliminated by conservative politicians.  Many poor white voters supported these policies to the detriment of their own children.

When Obama proposed a healthcare plan created by Republican Mitt Romney, 100% of the Republicans voted in opposition to the plan.  Much of their opposition played on racial resentments, nicknaming the plan Obamacare and suggesting his plan was simply an expansion of Medicaid which, though a majority of its recipients are white, was seen as a program for poor Blacks.  Indeed, when white voters were asked if they supported the key elements of the Affordable Care Act, over 80% approved.  When those same elements were attached to a black president, support dropped by more than half.  White people denied themselves health care rather than share a program with Black families.

McGhee’s book looks at how this dynamic has played out in housing policy, affirmative action, education, police reform, environmental policy, taxation, voting rights and nearly every corner of American life.  Again and again, we can see how racism does damage to Blacks first, but the whole society over time.  Is it any wonder that nearly 75% of white Americans oppose reparations?  The idea of giving black and brown people something denied to white Americans is abhorrent to many white Americans, even if they are unaware of this abhorrence.  Essential to the white American identity is the possession of that which Blacks do not have.

While the history of this zero-sum thinking is ugly, McGhee’s book offers a new path.  In what she calls the solidarity dividend, she outlines the ways in which black, brown AND white lives would be improved if we could abandon this zero-sum understanding of America.  What Steve never understood was that solidarity with “those living off the government teat” would have made his life better.  Indeed, global crises like climate control and the pandemic are making it increasingly obvious that we all live under the same sky.

McGhee concludes her book with these words…

“It turns out that the diversity that is causing an often-unconscious racial panic in so many white Americans is actually our biggest strategic asset.  The research has borne this out in education, jurisprudence, business, and the economy.  Put simply, we need each other.  Our differences have the potential to make us stronger, smarter, more creative and fairer.  Once we abandon the false idea of zero-sum competition, the benefits of diversity become evident, from the classroom to the courtroom to the boardroom.”

While I applaud her vision, I am not optimistic.  Changing the hearts and minds of people like Steve will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, as long as one network – Fox News – and one political party – the Republicans – continue to promote zero sum thinking in millions of white Americans.  Those who have been taught to suspect the stranger, blame the immigrant and fear people of color seem willing to sacrifice anything – even a thriving democracy – in order to be able to think or say – “I may be poor and white, but at least I’m not black.”

The Hero of Tennessee

The Hero of Tennessee

In 1973, the Tennessee legislature passed a resolution calling for the installation of a bust honoring Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest in the State Capital.  In 1978, the bust was installed with pomp and circumstance, one of the over 37 statues, busts and memorials to Forrest in the state of Tennessee.  This summer, after years of protest and litigation and over the continued objections of Republican leaders, the bust of Forrest was finally removed.  Both the Senate and House leaders – both Republicans – objected to this denigration of a great Tennessee hero.

Who was General Nathan Bedford Forrest?

Nathan Bedford Forrest was born in a cabin in Chapel Hill, Tennessee to a poor settler family.  The oldest of twelve, he would leave home early in his life and begin working as an overseer on cotton plantations in Mississippi.  At the age of 20, he first made a name for himself by avenging the death of his uncle by fighting four men, killing two and severely wounding the others.  This act of Southern “chivalry” opened doors for this hot tempered young man.

In the 1840s and 1850s, Nathan Bedford Forrest would slowly amass a fortune as a slave trader and work camp owner, where Black men and women were systematically worked to death to harvest cotton.  By the early 1860’s, he was known as one of the richest men in the South and an ardent defender of the institution of slavery.

When the Civil War began in 1861, Nathan Bedford Forrest paid for and organized his own company of Confederate cavalry.  Soon promoted to colonel and then general, Forrest became renown for his brilliant cavalry maneuvers.  He would also become known for his brutality on the battlefield.  This would come to its most horrible fruition on April 12th, 1864.

On that date, Forrest and his forces surrounded Ft. Pillow, a Union fortification 40 miles north of Memphis, Tennessee.  When the Union forces would not surrender, Forrest attacked and quickly overwhelmed the defenders, 250 of which were Black soldiers.  Eyewitness accounts report Forrest’s soldiers refused to accept the surrender of Black soldiers and over 200 were butchered after laying down their arms.  At the time, this was considered one of the worst war crimes of the Civil War.  Sadly, after the war, Forrest’s crimes went unpunished and he was offered amnesty.

With his finances destroyed by the war and the end of slavery, Nathan Bedford Forrest began to work behind the scenes to organize his former soldiers into a new force – the Ku Klux Klan.  In 1866, in the first post war elections, Forrest and his hooded horsemen would terrorize and murder thousands of Blacks in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. Nathan Bedford Forrest would be the first Grand Wizard of the KKK.  Indeed, the term ‘Wizard” was adopted because this was one of his nicknames during the Civil War.

In 1868, Nathan Bedford Forrest would get into politics, becoming an ardent supporter of the Democratic Party, helping to nominate his close friend, Frank Blair, as the vice-presidential nominee.  The Democratic platform in 1868 was “Our Ticket, Our Motto, This is A White Man’s Country, Let White Men Rule.”  While the Democrats lost the presidential elections, they were much more successful across the South, placing KKK supported politicians in many offices.

While some argue that he eventually left the KKK and became less racist in his final years, it is important to know that his children and grandchildren carried on this legacy.  His grandson, Nathan Bedford Forrest II would become the Grand Dragon of the KKK in Georgia in the 1920s and 30s.  If his grandpa changed his white supremacist opinions, his grandson didn’t seem to know it.

This is the great Tennessee hero.

Slave trader.

Brutal cotton planter.

War criminal.

Ku Klux Klan founder.

Avowed white supremacist.

This is the most celebrated Tennessean, with more monuments than any other Tennessee figure, including President Andrew Jackson.

This is the man many Tennessee Republicans are still defending today.

When conservatives argue they are defending history and not racism, remember that politicians voted to place the bust of Forrest in their State Capital in 1971.  They did so with a clear message to those Blacks in Tennessee who were celebrating the Civil Rights Acts, the end of Jim Crow and the death throes of segregation – what Nathan Bedford Forrest did to your people can happen again.

When white people tell you white supremacy and systemic racism have ended, ask them to explain why in 2021, the Tennessee Legislature, controlled by Republicans, still argued Nathan Bedford Forrest was a Tennessee hero.

Nine Hard Steps To Becoming A Better White Human Being

Nine Hard Steps To Becoming A Better White Human Being

Eleven years ago, I became the father to a three-year-old Black daughter.  Little did I know how that moment would alter my life, perspective, and identity.  It would eventually change my understanding of America’s past and today’s society.  I became aware of racism within myself and others as never before.  I vowed to address that racism.  Though the transition from an unconscious racist to an anti-racist has often been painful, I am a better white human being for it. 

Identifying myself as a white human being was part of that transition.  Eleven years ago, I categorized everyone other than myself by some racial designation.  They were Black, Asian, or Latino.  They needed such describers, but I did not.  I was normative.  Others – though I was unconscious of this bias – were deficient and inferior.  Acknowledging this ugliness in me took time.  Gradually, I recognized my prejudice and began to reconstruct my understanding of myself and of the world. 

Looking back, I can clearly see the steps of that journey.  While I suspect there are more steps ahead, here is a quick summary of my steps in becoming a better white human being.

  1. Step One: Acknowledge Your Racism

Like in AA, acknowledgement is necessary before any other progress can be made.  As a child I had been taught that racists were bad people.  Since I was not a bad person, I concluded I could not be racist.  This is a common white misunderstanding.  This allows us to ignore deeply embedded and mostly unconscious racist thoughts and behaviors.  It is impossible for a white person growing up in a white supremacist society not to internalize certain prejudices.   If you disagree with this, you can stop reading further.  If you’d like to explore this further…

  1. Step Two: Read and Listen to Non-White Voices

Early in this journey, I found a list of the best 100 books written by Black authors and discovered I had only read five.  If you are serious about becoming a better white human being, you must begin reading and listening to non-white voices.  They are the voices most likely to see and point out ugliness in yourself and white society to which you are oblivious.  One of my early commitments was to intentionally read and listen to non-white voices.  If you’re ready to take this step…

  1. Step Three: Relearn American History

One of my biggest shocks in addressing my racism was discovering how little I knew about both the minority experience in America and about the history of white brutality.  Though I thought myself well-educated, I soon realized my understanding of American history has been whitewashed.  It is hard to become a better white person when you don’t even know your own history.  Once you begin listening to non-white voices, you are going to hear them reference many historic events of which you were unaware.  If you’re ready to relearn…

  1. Step Four: Identify with Non-White People and their Causes

One of the first actions you can do to become a better white human being is to publicly acknowledge your racism on social media.  Talk about your realizations and new understandings.  Share what you are learning.  Put a Black Lives Matter sign in your yard or wear a Black Lives Matter t-shirt.  While these may seem to be token actions, the fact that so few white people do them suggests how much pressure there is for white people not to break solidarity.  If you’re ready to take this step…

  • Check out my post Kindly Be Just
  • Start posting anti-racist articles on your social media.
  • Buy a BLM shirt and wear it to the grocery store.
  1. Step Five: Alienate and Influence Friends and Family

If you have taken step four, you will experience step five.  You cannot become a better white human being without alienating some friends and even family.  Those who remain may see you as odd, irritating or fanatical.  Many will not appreciate or value your quest to become a better white human being.  This is the cost of being anti-racist in a white supremacist society.  If you are experiencing this loss…

  1. Step Six: Learn How To Be The Minority

In the first 55 years of my life, I do not remember ever being in a place or situation where I was not in the majority.  This is both evidence of my segregated life and of my white privilege.  No person of color has this luxury.  Over the past five years, I have intentionally – and that is the only way it happens – put myself in places and situations where I am in the minority.  All my reading did not prepare me for the power of hearing non-white voices speak in person.  If you are ready for this step…

  • Check out my post I Need People of Color
  • Intentionally find a minority group or event with which to engage.
  • Go, listen and observe. DO NOT CENTER YOURSELF.
  1. Step Seven: Develop Friendships With Non-White People

The best white human beings have non-white friends.  Unfortunately, seventy-five percent of white people do not have any people of color as friends.  In a white supremacist, highly segregated society, this is not surprising.  I grew up in a town with one black family.  Developing genuine and mutual friendships with a person of color doesn’t happen very often unless we intentionally seek it out.  Unfortunately, seeking out a person of color to befriend to accomplish this step WON’T be a genuine friendship.  This step takes time and a willingness to wait for a person of color to choose to befriend you.  If you are open to this step…

  1. Step Eight: Give Time and Money to Racial Equity

There are many well-meaning white people who do this step first.  Unfortunately, when we begin with this step, we are probably trying to avoid the first seven steps I’ve outlined.  We may be motivated by shame or guilt.  We hope our generosity buys us credibility.  It does not.  Indeed, without doing the hard work of becoming a better white human being, you will probably see your investment as a point of pride rather than reparations.  Only once we’ve done the hard work of changing ourselves can we truly invest our time and money in changing our world.  If you are ready for this step…

  • Check out my post Paying My Reparations
  • Begin making monthly donations to non-white led organizations working for racial equity.
  • Determine a non-white led organization with which to volunteer.
  1. Step Nine: Influence Public Policy of Racial Equity

Use your white privilege and power to influence public policy.  Speak out at City County meetings, School Board meetings, and other public forums.  Write and call your political representatives until they know your voice and name.  Attend BLM protests.  Vote for anti-racist politicians and anti-racist policies.  If you are ready for this step…

I am sure there are more steps ahead in my journey to become a better white human being.  I am also certain I will need to occasionally revisit some of these earlier steps.  I have discovered this path is not linear.  I must retrace my steps often.  I am also aware of how careful I must be in looking back.  It is very easy to become complacent or even proud.  These are not the attributes of a good white human being.  If you think you’ve accomplished all nine steps…

Another Bloody Outrage

Another Bloody Outrage

“This is a massacre that will go down in history as one of the bloodiest outrages against humanity.”  Marcus Garvey, July 1917

Marcus Garvey couldn’t have been more wrong.

The bloody massacre he was referring to happened 35 miles from where I grew up.  I drove through the town where it happened a hundred times during my childhood.  There was no memorial to the victims, not even a historical marker.  My teachers and parents never told me about the tragedies of the first week of July in 1917.  I don’t blame them.  I suspect they didn’t know of these events either.  In 1965, when I entered elementary school, “one of the bloodiest outrages against humanity” had been buried even deeper than the Tulsa Massacre of 1921.

Yet, in July of 1917, every newspaper in the United States and many in the world carried headlines about these events.  President Woodrow Wilson called for an investigation.  Former President Theodore Roosevelt demanded the perpetrators of this violence to be hunted down.  Marcus Garvey’s speech about the massacre launched his career at an anti-racist Black leader.  How is it possible that an event of such magnitude was completely obscured?  I didn’t become aware of it until this past winter while reading the biography of Ida B. Wells.

Here is what I discovered.

On July 1st, 1917, a black Model T driven by several white men cruised through a Black East Saint Louis, Illinois neighborhood shooting into Black residences.  Concerned Black leaders armed themselves and when they saw a black Model T reenter their neighborhood, fired on the vehicle.  Unfortunately, that car carried two white detectives who had been sent to investigate the first incident.  One of those detectives died that night.

On July 2nd, a crowd of nearly 1000 white men, women and children gathered to view the blood-stained vehicle.  Stirred by racist rhetoric, they marched into Black neighborhoods, beating or killing any Black man, woman and child they encountered.  Their first victims were a Black family of four returning from a fishing outing.  They murdered the father and 13-year-old son and beat the mother and her small daughter, leaving them for dead.

In the next 24 hours, this white mob would grow to several thousand.  They would burn down hundreds of Black residences, killing those who tried to escape from the flames.  They would hang nearly a dozen Black people.  They would rape, torture, and maim, all while the local police either ignored their rioting or encouraged it.  When hundreds of Black families tried to flee over the bridge to St. Louis, the East St. Louis police chief closed the bridge, forcing them to either return into their burning neighborhoods or swim across the Mississippi.  An untold number drowned in the river.

On July 3rd, the governor of Illinois sent in the National Guard to bring order, but many of the Guard troops joined in the rioting.  On July 4th, refugee Black families in St. Louis listened to screams from across the river as the night sky glowed with a different kind of fireworks – the embers of their homes and possessions.  It was July 7th until order was finally fully restored.  By that time, the “official” toll was 39 dead Black men, women and children, though later estimates put the death count as high as 250, with hundreds of injured.  Nearly 6000 Blacks were left homeless.  Those who returned to intact houses found all their possessions had been stolen by the white mobs. Nearly 10,000 Black men, woman and children were forever traumatized.

That is what happened in July of 1917, thirty-five miles from my childhood home.  In elementary school, I would be taught about the Boston Massacre, where British soldiers killed five people, but not of the events of 1917. In junior high, I would read about the St. Valentine’s Massacre where Al Capone killed seven of his competitors in a gang war, but nothing of East St. Louis. In high school, I would learn about Custer’s Last Stand, where a group of 40 white soldiers were “massacred” by Sioux warriors, but have no lessons about the 250 black victims.  In college, I would study the Kent State Massacre where National Guard killed four students protesting the Vietnam War, but no one would mention Garvey’s bloody outrage.

While I am not suggesting those other events don’t deserve attention, I am angered that one of the bloodiest massacres in American history, which happened thirty-five miles from where I was born and only forty years before my birth didn’t merit a single mention in a schoolbook or history class.

Why?

Because these were Black bodies.

Because white people controlled what was taught or not taught, remembered, or not remembered.

Because those same white people were deeply ashamed of what they knew was another vivid and brutal example of the racism and violence of white Americans.

This is why I am so enraged when white Republican lawmakers talk about their concerns that white children might feel ashamed if we teach about America’s racial past, that “both sides of the story” need to be told.

It is long past time for us to be ashamed.  You don’t get to be proud of the Pilgrims, Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, Abraham Lincoln and the New Deal without acknowledging the other side of the story.

As to honoring “both sides of the story,” white people have never been interested in addressing these stories precisely because our side of the story is so barbaric.  Our irritation is that we can no longer bury stories like East St. Louis in 2017.  When George Floyd was murdered, the whole world watched.  All white people can do now is spin “the other side of the story.”

I wonder how Fox News would have spun the East Saint Louis riots…

Would they emphasize that Blacks started it by killing the white detective?

Would they point out nine white men were also killed during the riots?

Would they note ten white people were convicted of crimes after the riots?

Would they offer the white chief of police resigning as “justice?”

Those are all facts.  So are these…

There is evidence whites – angered by an influx of Black workers at the local steel mills – had been planning these riots for several weeks and the death of the detective was the excuse rather than the cause.

The nine white men killed were killed by Blacks defending themselves or their homes.  Only one person was executed for his role in the riots.  It was a Black man.

While ten white people were convicted of crimes, thirty-five Blacks were convicted, including a prominent Black dentist Dr. Leroy Bundy, who – ironically – was convicted of inciting a riot.

The white chief of police was charged with no crimes though there is considerable evidence that he encouraged and assisted the rioters.

Here is the most important fact…

There is absolutely no excuse that “one of the bloodiest outrages against humanity” has not been taught to every child in the United States.

There is only one possible explanation for why white politicians, educators, and historians – then and now – intentionally obscured and buried the East Saint Louis Massacre.  It is the same explanation for why present Republican leaders are so afraid of “critical race theory.”

They feel guilty and ashamed of our racial history.

And they should.

We all should.

No. I Will Not Listen to Candace Owens

No.  I Will Not Listen to Candace Owens

Note to my white self…

You do not need to listen to Candace Owens

This is not being close minded.

This is not ignoring an important Black voice

This is not racist.

When white people recommend you listen to Candace Owens, they are not doing so out of some deep respect for her careful analysis of racism in America.  They are recommending her because she says things they agree with.  More disturbing, she says things white supremacists believe.

You do not have to take them or her seriously.  She does not speak for Black folk.

Candace Owens says racism is not widespread in the United States.  In polling, eighty-two percent of Blacks disagree with her.

Candace Owens says Trump is not a racist.  Eighty percent of Blacks beg to differ.

Candace Owens says white nationalism is not a threat in the United States.  Seventy-nine percent of Blacks say it is “the most lethal terrorist threat in the United States.”

If someone looks at this polling and replies, “Some Black people agree with her,” they are not interested in what Black people think unless those Black people think what they think.  They are only interested in Black voices that make them comfortable and support the status quo.

When it comes to racism, Black Americans are largely in agreement.

Seventy-nine percent are dissatisfied with how they are treated in our society.

Seventy-nine percent believe Blacks are more likely to be mistreated by police.

Seventy-six percent believe the justice system is biased against Black people.

Seventy-three percent think the government should make cash payments to the descendants of enslaved persons.

Seventy-two percent support affirmative action.

Sixty-nine percent think a qualified Black is less likely to get a job.

Sixty-four percent believe racial relations in the United States are bad or very bad.

Sixty-two percent think Blacks are discriminated against in obtaining housing.

This is what a majority of Black people believe about racism in America.

If anyone genuinely wants to address racism in America, the opinions of these Black people must be taken seriously.

Those who are really interested in listening to Black voices need to listen to those who speak out of this majority view.  There are plenty of options – Cornel West, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Rev. William Barber,  Alicia Garza, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Heather McGhee. Michelle Alexander and Ibram Kendi are just a few of the more prominent voices.  They echo the work of W.E.B DuBois, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison,  James Cone, Octavia Butler, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

These are the writers you need to read.  These are the voices you should take seriously.

Why?

Because a majority of Blacks take them seriously.

Next time a white person suggests you listen to Candace Owens, point out how out of sync she is with a majority of black people.  If they insist those with a minority view should be taken seriously, ask if they are in support of minority opinions in the white community because…

Thirty-five percent of whites think Black children get a poorer education than white children.

Thirty-four percent of whites think Blacks face discrimination in housing.

Twenty-eight percent of whites believe the government should actively work to improve the lives of Black people.

Twenty-seven percent of whites think Blacks face discrimination in the workplace.

And, since they are really committed to minority views, sixteen percent of white Americans think the descendants of enslaved persons should receive cash payments.

Suggest they begin advocating for these minority viewpoints.

That ought to shut them up.

(The majority of these statistics were taken from recent Gallup polling. However, some examples came from a variety of other polls.)

Fear and Shame In A Racist America

Fear and Shame In A Racist America

There has been a lot of commentary this summer about Critical Race Theory (CRT) and how we should or shouldn’t teach the history of racism in the United States.  Many conservatives claim – falsely – that children are being taught to be ashamed of being white.  They argue – again falsely – that CRT teaches that white people share collective guilt for the sins of slavery and racial discrimination.  These claims remind me of the conservatives who have accused me of being a victim of white guilt or of trying to shame them with my writings.

Defenders of CRT often take the same tack I’ve taken in defending my blog.  We argue we’re not trying to make white people feel guilty; we’re trying to make them feel responsible for helping to right past wrongs and deconstruct a racist system.  Of course, implicit in this response is the suggestion that if they feel no responsibility then they should feel ashamed.  So perhaps they are right in claiming that we want them to feel guilty for their inaction or apathy about racism.

All of this has made me think more deeply about the use and utility of both shame and fear in our long national discourse on racism.  How have fear and shame motivated and moved us?  Historically, white supremacists have used fear to motivate their adherents and the general white population while abolitionists and anti-racists have used shame to oppose both slavery and racial discrimination.

Consider the early proponents of slavery in the South.  They were unabashedly unashamed about the institution of slavery, arguing both its divine sanction and social benefits.  Indeed, until 1791, they were also largely unafraid.  It was in that year that Haitian enslaved men and women overthrew their white torturers and forced them to flee the island.  Many of those enslavers fled to the United States, bringing their newborn fear with them.  This fear was heightened by the Nat Turner Rebellion in 1831, when rebellious slaves killed about 60 “innocent” men, women, and children.  Ironically, killing the families of enslavers was shameful, but enslaving entire families was not.

While racial fear came first to white Americans, shame was not far behind.  Much of this shame came with the invention of the cotton gin in 1794.  With the cotton gin, the planting and harvesting of cotton exploded, allowing nearly all Americans to wear cotton-based clothing.  Suddenly, those Northern whites who had worn homespun clothing were complicit with their Southern compatriots in benefitting from the sweat and tears of enslaved men, women, and children.  The abolition movement used this reality to shame Northerners, turn the tide of opinion in the Northern states and set in motion the willingness of so many to fight and die to end slavery.

In the South, fear reigned.  Whites were told that the freeing of the slaves would destroy their way of life, that blacks would rape their women and kill their children, perhaps voicing the retribution they knew they deserved.  These fears motivated many to fight and die to protect slavery.  In the Civil War, after 600,000 deaths, shame temporarily defeated fear.  Black men and women experienced a short-lived modicum of freedom and opportunity.  The ten years of Reconstruction proved Southern fears unfounded.  Their way of life did not end.  Their women and children went unharmed.  Southerners, aware of how quickly black men and women were succeeding, become afraid of something new – competition.

The establishment of the KKK enshrined fear once more as the central foundation of white supremacy.  Though white supremacist leaders repeatedly accused blacks of savagery, inspiring fears in the hearts of Southern whites, it was the white mobs that did a vast majority of the brutality, exceeding one another in the atrocities they perpetuated on black families and communities.  Lynching became an accepted part of American life, designed to put fear in the hearts of “uppity” successful blacks.  Shame largely disappeared in America’s conversation about race.

Shame would not reemerge until the 1950s when television did what the cotton gin had once accomplished.  Images of non-violent, black men, women and children being beaten, arrested, and even killed for the audacity of using a drinking fountain, sitting on a bus, entering a restaurant, trying to register to vote or attending a school forced our entire nation to confront the evils of Jim Crow and the apartheid of America.  Again, white northerners were unable to excuse racism as a Southern affliction.  Orators like Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made us ashamed of past and present injustices.  The laws of our nation were cleansed of blatant racism.

In the years since, white people have been neither afraid or ashamed.  We have been proud.  We’ve gloried in our magnanimity, even though what we did in 1964 should have happened a hundred years before.  Though we paid no reparations for 400 years of slavery and racial discrimination, we thought ourselves freed from both guilt and responsibility.  We pretended the slate was clean and the scales were balanced.  We had nothing further to be ashamed or afraid of.

This is what makes this present moment so poignant.  It was not the election of Donald Trump that brought back fear; it was the election of Barack Obama.  For white people who’d grown comfortable in believing white dominance and supremacy normative, he was a wake-up call, evidence that once again the white way of life was under attack.  The white supremacist chants of “we will not be replaced” at Charlottesville exemplified this fear.  Trump harnessed this angst to motivate millions of white people to vote for the most common and despicable of white men as our new president.  Millions did this without any shame.

In response, people like myself have called for a new campaign of shame – shame that black families have so much less wealth; shame that black men are more often targeted and killed by police; shame that black children attend far less funded schools; shame that blacks have a much tougher time voting and shame that a black vice president can still be labeled a Jezebel and a whore by white conservatives.  Where shame once exposed blatant racism and inequities, we seek to address latent and systemic discrimination.

When white supremacists chastise us for shaming them, we should not be ashamed.  What we identify as shameful clearly is.  While we do not believe white people inherently racist, we do believe the system they have created guilty of that crime.  While we do not want white children to be ashamed of being white, we also don’t want them oblivious to its continued benefits and our checkered history. Those who are unwilling to have such conversations should – in our opinion – be ashamed.

However, some within progressive circles worry shame is counterproductive, that we need to educate or nurture or lure or seduce white people away from their fears.  They call us to be aspirational, to remind people of the high-minded ideals of our Declaration of Independence.  They want to change people’s hearts and minds, to bring about a shame-free revolution.  Those who want this are mostly white.  They are the type of white people who thought slavery could end without a war and that civil rights could be won without protest.  Though they preach non-violence and gentle persuasion, they ignore the words of Dr. King from the Birmingham Jail, that “freedom is never given voluntarily by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

We who oppose white supremacy in its newest forms – voter suppression, the outlawing of critical race theory, the filibuster and gerrymandering – are not waiting for white supremacists to voluntarily end these practices.  White supremacists are motivated by fear and calls to higher aspirations will not move them.  They never have.  We use shame again because using shame to counteract white supremacy has a rich and successful history.  Where shame once ended slavery and Jim Crow, we hope shame can also end systemic racism.

For these reasons, I will no longer apologize for making other white people feel uncomfortable, responsible, guilty or ashamed.  If the shoe fits, wear it.

Indeed, what I am most ashamed of is how many of my white peers are neither motivated by fear nor shame.  They are simply apathetic.

I call them out because I know what history teaches, that only when the apathetic become ashamed will systemic racism end in the United States.