A Splendid Failure

A Splendid Failure

If you’re white, you probably don’t know much about what happened in the United States between 1865 and 1877. For most white people, our rudimentary understanding of American history skips from the assassination of Abraham Lincoln to the Wild West to World War I.  What transpired in the southern United States following the Civil War is largely unknown to most white Americans. This is tragic because the events of the Reconstruction are a tale of missed opportunity, full of lessons for our present day.

Michael Fitzgerald, the author of “Splendid Failure: Postwar Reconstruction in the American South,” opens his fascinating study with these words from W.E.B DuBois, “If the Reconstruction of the Southern states had been conceived as a major national program of America, whose accomplishment at any price was well worth the effort, we should be living in a different world. The attempt to make black men American citizens was in a certain sense all a failure, but a splendid failure.”  Fitzgerald goes on to describe this moment of incredible racial equality and possibility.

Consider these facts from this period of history…

  • Over 1500 African-Americans held political office with two serving as US Senators and eight serving as US Representatives. After this period, the next African-American Senator wasn’t elected until 1967. Black representation in the Congress didn’t exceed the Reconstruction until 1969.
  • Nearly 190,000 African-Americans served in the US Army during the Civil War, many becoming leaders in the south after the war. Black regiments were used in the Indian Wars in the west with great success. This competency was soon forgotten. Black men who had served with courage and valor were soon labeled as lazy, less intelligent and inferior.
  • Many African-American military units remained in service during the Reconstruction, enforcing civil rights and helped crush the Ku Klux Klan. President Grant named the KKK a terrorist organization and had thousands arrested and imprisoned. After the Reconstruction, the KKK quickly reappeared and was a constant threat to blacks, enforcing racial discrimination with intimidation and killings.
  • During the Reconstruction, blacks served as sheriffs, sat on juries and were elected or appointed as judges. While there were outbreaks of violence toward blacks, many black communities formed armed militias and defended themselves. Most black men owned a weapon. After the Reconstruction, blacks were disarmed. Between 1882 -1951, one black was lynched each week in the United States, many for defending themselves against white aggression.
  • In 1868, 500,000 black men cast votes in US elections. This was over 50% of the eligible black voters. In 1940, only 3% of eligible black voters in southern states qualified to register to vote. Black voting in numbers equal to the Reconstruction didn’t occur again in the US until after the Voting Rights Act of 1965.


Until the 1960s, it can be argued that the single greatest period of racial equality in the United States occurred between 1865 and 1877. After the Civil War, with the assistance of the federal government, blacks gained political power.  Long before Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of his dream, the United States briefly experienced the possibility of racial reconciliation.  Allied with progressive northern whites, blacks demanded and received their civil rights.  As DuBois suggests, if this splendid moment could have been sustained, we would live in a much different world.

Unfortunately, the rights and liberties gained in the years following the Civil War were ripped from the hands of black men and women. For nearly the next one hundred years, though technically free, black people experienced an oppression parallel with what they had experienced during slavery.  Enforced by law and lynching, they were told in a myriad of ways that they were not valued human beings.

What happened in the late 1870’s to destroy this hopeful moment?

  • A president – Rutherford B Hayes – was elected on a platform that valued the economic needs of southern whites more than the civil rights of blacks. Hayes withdrew federal troops from the south and removed many of the legal protections of the Reconstruction. In the course of a single year, nearly all of the advances of the previous decade were erased.
  • The mechanisms to guarantee black voting rights were systematically dismantled, allowing whites to remove all black officeholders, even in the many locales where blacks were the majority. Districts were gerrymandered and voting restrictions were created that essentially disenfranchised millions of black voters.
  • White supremacy movements were normalized. In 1882, the US Supreme Court found the Ku Klux Act unconstitutional. White supremacy became the de facto political force in the United States. The KKK would eventually become a national organization numbering in the millions and including many prominent politicians.
  • Laws were passed that allowed southern states to incarcerate blacks for a vast number of minor indiscretions, allowing southern governments to “enslave” thousands of black men under the auspices of law and order.
  • Northern whites became fatigued, frustrated with the resistance of other whites to racial reconciliation. Labeled carpetbaggers and scoundrels, thousands of whites who’d come south to assist in the Reconstruction were threatened and even killed. This began a long tradition of lynching white people who supported black people. Many northern whites fled from the south.

If all of this sounds strangely familiar, it should. After the eight years of the Obama administration – an administration that gave great hope to people of color – we have seen a president elected whose entire campaign placated angry, white people.  In a single year, we have watched much of the work and accomplishment of the Obama administration destroyed and dismantled.

In 2013, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was essentially voided by the US Supreme Court. In the years since, multiple states, especially those in the South, have created new obstacles to voter participation.  Combined with profiling by police departments, we have incarcerated thousands of black men, eliminating their rights to both arm and vote.

In Charlottesville and through Breitbart, we have seen the normalization of white supremacy groups with many politicians aligning themselves with movements that obscure their racist motives behind claims of nationalism and patriotism. Like Rutherford B Hayes before him, our present president reassures us that many of those who are part of these groups are “fine people.”

Progressive whites, though initially outraged by the election of Donald Trump and his administration’s policies, have gradually become less engaged. Those who have persisted in calling out the racism of this administration have been called divisive. Many white people, like southern whites during the Reconstruction, actually see themselves as the victims.

Make no mistake. When it comes to racial equality, progress is not inevitable.  The history of the Reconstruction stands as a vivid reminder of how easily liberties and rights can be removed.  As splendid as many of us found the election of Barack Obama, millions of white people greeted his election with the same disdain as southern whites greeted the emancipation of blacks in 1865.  Both groups yearned for an America of the past, where people of color were diminished.

If those, who do not know their history, are bound to repeat it, an America that does not know the tragic story of the Reconstruction has every potential to repeat that splendid failure. Those of us who do not want to see the cause of racial equality reversed should glean two important lessons.  First, when progressive whites work closely with people of color, great things can happen.  Second, when racists resist and oppose racial progress, we cannot grow fatigued.  The stakes are too high.  The rights and liberties of people of color are at risk once again.


Angry White Men

Angry White Men

According to recent news stories and opinion pieces, America has a growing racial problem. It is a problem that can no longer be ignored and must be addressed. Shamefully, our nation has forgotten an entire segment of our population, disregarding their plight and their legitimate resentment. In the land of liberty and justice, these citizens have been neglected and marginalized. They are righteously angry and demanding our attention. According to these pundits, Donald Trump won election because he spoke to them, giving voice to their pain. And who are these long forgotten and mistreated citizens?  Angry white men.

Indeed, a recent national poll found 55% of white Americans believe discrimination against white people exists in the United States today. This same survey found 19% of white Americans have actually experienced a situation where they believe they were discriminated against for being white.  Many of these respondents were white men who referenced being discriminated against in employment opportunities and promotions.  According to their reports, affirmative action has allowed less qualified and incompetent people of color and women to displace white men.  These men, enraged by this injustice, have responded by voting for Trump, voicing their disdain for their inferiors and marching in protests and rallies. They’ve filled the internet, including the comment section of my blog, with their indignation.

Sigh. Deep breath.  Take this seriously.

However laughable we may find the argument for white oppression, when white men – who have had nearly all the power in our culture – begin to present themselves as enraged victims, we need to take them seriously. This narrative usually presages danger for people of color and for women.  Angry white men are prone to violence. In 1863, one of the worst race riots during the Civil War involved disgruntled New York City white men, who in their rage over the newly instituted draft, spent three days hunting down hundreds of black men, women and children and murdering them.  In 1913, in Washington, DC, thousands of enraged white men descended on a peaceful women’s suffrage parade and attacked the women. Though no one was killed, hundreds of women were injured. In 2015, we witnessed what one angry white man can do in a black church in Charleston.

This is the dilemma. Though claims of discrimination against white men may seem ridiculous, ridiculing these men has often ended badly. Though voiced in similar fashion, such claims are not complaints against injustice. They are justifications for future violence, for the right of white men to reassert their dominance and power, by any means necessary, against those whom they consider inferior – people of color and women. And, when and if this violence comes, we should not expect a government, court or police department dominated by white men to intervene. Repeatedly, those institutions have failed to protect people of color and women.  Ignoring, diminishing or ridiculing the 55% of white men who think white men are being discriminated against is a little like yanking the rusted chain of a vicious dog and expecting its smirking owner to protect you.

For this reason, some on the far left have begun to arm and advocate for responding to violence with violence. This was evident in Charlottesville where armed and angry white men were met by equally aggressive opponents.  This is evident in public discussions on the ethical dimensions of punching a Nazi.  This is why some of the protests in Ferguson became violent when the police appeared in riot gear and military equipment.  People of color and women know – though they will be heavily criticized for the mildest acts of violence – that white men have never hesitated to use violence and murder to defend and assert their dominance.  It is tempting to meet oppressive violence with righteous violence.

Yet, strategically and ethically, violence is seldom the answer. Indeed, any movement for justice must be committed to dismantling the systemic violence used to perpetuate injustice.  In response to the growing anxiety and resentment of white men, we need to be smarter as well as stronger.  Rather than ridicule the narrative of white male victimization, we need to use their perception or experience of being discriminated against as an opportunity to teach white men a skill that most have never had to nurture – empathy. We need to hear their pain, but unlike Mr. Trump, help them to move beyond blaming people of color and women and begin appreciating – that what they are experiencing as unjust and enraging – is the historic and common experience of many others.

And the “we” who needs to respond is not people of color and women. Asking people of color and women to take on the task of responding therapeutically to angry white men is simply another injustice.  Moving white men from rage to empathy is primarily the responsibility of other white men. We, rather than people of color and women, need to be on the front lines of this historic struggle.  This was the reason I began to write my blog.  Not because I am the most articulate on issues of racism and sexism, but because I am the most responsible for speaking out.

White men, who empathize with the historic plight of people of color and women, need to use the lessons we’ve been taught about appropriate responses to marginalized populations and apply these strategies to angry white men.

  1. We need to listen to them and acknowledge the pain of their experience. We need to agree that discrimination against someone for race or gender is horrible and should not exist in our society.
  2. We need to help them explore their anger and resentment. Why are they so enraged? How does it feel to have their pain ignored or diminished? What do they believe should be done about their injury? What would a more just society look like?
  3. We need to help them connect their experience to the experience of others. The same poll that found 55% of white Americans believe they have been discriminated against because of the color of their skin found 92% of all African-Americans believe discrimination against black people exists in the United States today and, in a separate study, 71% of all blacks report experiencing racial discrimination. We need to point out that 43% of women say they have been discriminated against in the workplace compared to only 18% of men.
  4. We need to ask them, now that they understand the pain and anger of discrimination, to think about the pain and anger that people of color and women have experienced for centuries. Rather than simply focusing on the injustice of their experience, can they find common cause with others who’ve previously experienced such injustice?
  5. We need to ask them to commit to a just and equitable world for all people. Not merely for themselves, but for everyone. As long as the incidence of discrimination for white men is lower than that of other groups, white men must act as advocates and not as victims.

In honesty, I have not approached angry white men in this manner. I have generally responded to their anger with ridicule and derision.  As a white male, this is a comfortable response.  Treating others as inferior and diminishing their experience is culturally condoned white male behavior. However, it is not a productive one.  I do not want my response to goad already angry white men toward the violence to which we are so prone.  Especially when I know that it will probably be people of color and women – and not me – who will be the targets of that violence. While I will not coddle angry white men or suggest their pain and fear is more legitimate or important than the pain and fear of people of color and of women, I must also take responsibility for addressing their deficiency in empathy.

I have never experienced discrimination in my life because of my race or gender. Not once.  This does not mean I cannot empathize with those who have.  I can empathize and join them in addressing systemic racism and sexism.  If I can do this, those white men who believe they have been discriminated against should be even more capable of empathy.  The problem with white male rage is not its existence, but its focus.  We must focus that energy – not on other victims of discrimination – but on systems that have caused such injustice for centuries.

President Lyndon B. Johnson, in talking about white men, once said, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” For far too long, powerful white men have manipulated other white men to perpetuate power and injustice.  If white men are responsible for encouraging and enflaming the anger of other white men, white men are also responsible for redirecting that anger toward real solutions.

Gentlemen, it’s time we got to work.

Paying My Reparations

Paying My Reparations

Note to my white self…

I’m really glad you understand the depth of the injustice inflicted on people of color in the United States. You’ve done your homework.  You’ve educated yourself about the genocide of Native Americans, the horrors of slavery, the massacre at Wounded Knee, the reign of the KKK, the exploitation of Chinese workers in mines and on the railroad, the institution of Jim Crow Laws, the exclusion of people of color from the New Deal, the internment of the Japanese, the oppression of migrant workers and the continued mass incarceration of people of color.  You’ve expanded your understanding of history beyond the whitewashed version you were taught in school.

I’m glad you’ve become a proponent of reparations, of systemic compensation for systemic oppression. This isn’t a popular position in a white culture enamored by the myth of a level playing field.  You can expect to be mocked and vilified for suggesting white people have a responsibility for the racist acts of their ancestors, for pointing out the presence of systemic racism today and for acknowledging the need to balance the scales.  Stand firm.  Your verbal support for reparations helps deconstruct justifications for past and present injustice.

But verbal support isn’t enough.

You’re not naïve. You know, in this present political climate, the odds of reparations becoming a reality are slim to none.  You know that for the past twenty-five years, US Representative John Conyers has introduced the HR 40 bill, calling for a study of the impact of slavery and appropriate remedies, and has watched both Republican and Democrat Congresses ignore that bill.  You know rhetoric is unlikely to make reparations a reality.

So don’t be guilty of what conservatives claim. Don’t let your support for reparations be an act of virtue signaling.  It is far too easy to support reparations when they are unlikely to ever occur.  You can claim nobility without any personal cost.  If you really support reparations, you don’t have to wait on other whites to agree.  You don’t have to wait on a Congressional study committee.  You don’t have to wait on legislation remedying past injustices.  If you truly believe in reparations, you can begin paying them today.

Here are a few simple suggestions…

  1. Make a significant monthly donation to organizations that work with or for people of color. Treat that donation as a monthly debt obligation and not as an act of charity. Give enough to notice the difference in your bank account.
  2. Seek out businesses and professional services owned by people of color even if they aren’t the lowest bidder. Invest in the entrepreneurial endeavors of people of color, knowing that traditional sources of capital are often denied to them.
  3. Offer your products and services to people of color at a discounted price. Eliminate any economic behavior that exploits people of color. Make certain domestic workers, roofers, and landscapers aren’t being exploited for your benefit.
  4. Tip people of color twice the norm when they serve you.
  5. Assist a person of color in attending college or vocational school.
  6. Attend events and performances created and sponsored by people of color. If you are never the minority at an event, make that happen.
  7. Financially support people of color who are seeking political office.
  8. Consider including people of color and their causes in your will, thereby redistributing your accumulated wealth.

Since you are in favor of reparations, begin today.  Until you begin doing these things, your economic footprint is exactly the same as that of a white supremacist.  You both benefit equally in the advantages of white privilege. Neither of you are paying your debts.

Be the change you want to see. If thousands of white people like you began to pay reparations, the economic scales in America might begin to subtly shift.  In that process, more people of color will be empowered and political momentum could change.  Perhaps, if enough people commit to personal reparations, “justice will finally roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

(This post is the third in a three part series on reparations.  The first post in the series was “How To Tell If A White Person Is Racist With One Simple Question” and the second post was “A Reasonable Reparation.”

A Reasonable Reparation

A Reasonable Reparation

Our nation owes people of color a great debt. If not for their service, this nation would not be the strongest, most affluent country in the world.  Yet we too often forget the price people of color have paid for our good fortune. Many people of color have been killed, maimed, tortured and traumatized both physically and emotionally. Those who survived often passed this trauma to children and grandchildren. Those of us who have not experienced the inhumanity that people of color experience are not in a position to judge them.  We do have a responsibility to respond to their injury.

Our nation cannot repay our debt to people of color. However, there are many ways in which we can express our appreciation for their contributions. We can pay the tuition and living expenses of people of color in college and vocational school.  We can offer people of color low cost mortgages guaranteed by the government. We can provide people of color with low interest loans to start businesses. We can give businesses who hire people of color significant tax credits.  We can provide inexpensive healthcare to people of color.  In these ways, while we never fully compensate people of color for their injury and loss, we demonstrate our commitment to their success.

Now that you’ve read this argument, pause for a moment to check your emotional response. Are you sympathetic or angry? Convinced or offended?  Do you find the suggestions for specific reparations reasonable or an injustice to white people?  Once you’ve determined your emotional response, reread the opening two paragraphs and insert “veterans” wherever you read “people of color.”

If you found the argument for reparations for people of color offensive, but find those same sentiments reasonable when applied to veterans, what does this say about you? Why would you support the benefits of the GI Bill, but oppose any legislation offering these same benefits to people of color?  And, before you try to diminish the parallels between the experiences of people of color and veterans, consider what your support for veterans indicates.

1. You believe our nation has a responsibility to those injured in service to our nation, even if this injury was many years in the past.

2. You believe it is possible to target compensation to a specific group of people.

3. You believe the nation has the economic ability to offer a specific group of people special benefits,

4. You believe that all members of this specific group, regardless of the extent of their injury, by their inclusion in this targeted group deserve the same benefits.

So, if you are opposed to reparations for people of color, your opposition must be motivated by something other than the reasons above. If not for racial bias, why would you oppose this response for people of color when you so enthusiastically support it for veterans?

People of color and veterans cannot be compared

While the experiences of people of color and veterans are not identical, they are comparable. In both circumstances, every American has benefited from their pain and trauma.  In both cases, the success of our nation is directly connected to their service and work.  With each group, the white person or non-veteran should be grateful and not resentful.  Indeed, you could argue that people of color are more deserving of these benefits than veterans.  Many veterans volunteered to serve.  People of color were enslaved and face systemic discrimination without their consent.  Veterans served for a specific time.  People of color are burdened for a lifetime.

Making reparations to people of color would bankrupt the nation

Few would make such an argument against offering these benefits to veterans. The passing of the GI Bill in 1944 was applauded as just and reasonable.  Granting this largesse to veterans did not bankrupt the country. Indeed, economists consider the GI Bill as one of the primary wealth creators of the 20th century, catapulting millions of white families into the middle class.  Raising the economic status of people of color could have a similar impact on the American economy, inviting millions of people of color into the middle class.  Reparations should be seen as a national investment and not a redistribution of wealth.

It’s too hard to determine who qualifies for how much reparation

A veteran is someone who joined the armed forces. A person of color is someone who is not identified as white by our culture.  Ancestry and DNA is irrelevant. Systemic racism is targeted at people who society identifies as non-white.  Determining the extent of the damage is also irrelevant.  All veterans receive benefits even if they were uninjured.  Likewise, descendants of slaves may have experienced a more serious injury, but every person of color in our society has and does experience the wounds of racial bias and discrimination.  No one would demand to see a veteran’s scars and no one should require a person of color to prove injury.

I won’t be motivated by guilt for something I didn’t do

Those of us who did not serve in the armed forces should not feel guilty, but we should feel a genuine responsibility for aiding those who did. Those who have not directly participated in the discrimination and oppression of people of color should not feel guilty, but we too should feel an ethical responsibility to right this wrong.  If we can make the distinction between guilt and responsibility for veterans, we can make it in responding to people of color.  However, it is important to remember that when it comes to veterans, the injuries were caused by others.  When it comes to people of color, the injuries were caused by our nation.  Therefore, our responsibility is even greater than for a veteran.

I am opposed to any redistribution of wealth

It is possible to oppose reparations for people of color and not be racist.  If you are opposed to any redistribution of wealth, opposing reparations – while ethically questionable – is a consistent position. However, to hold this position, you must be willing to apply your objections to both reparations and programs targeting veterans.  If not, it is probably time to examine your racial bias and reflect on why you’re able to justify one redistribution and vilify another.

If we do this, when will it ever end?

With both our support of veterans and of people of color, we must offer these benefits until they are no longer necessary. When wars cease, we will no longer need a GI Bill.  When systemic racism ends, we will no longer need reparations. When the economic vitality of people of color is no different than that of white people, we will know we have succeeded.  Reparations can end.  Until that day, our nation has a responsibility to pay its debts.

(This post is the second in a three part series.  The first post was entitled “How To Tell If A White Person Is Racist With One Simple Question.”  The third post was entitled “Paying My Reparations.”)

How To Tell If A White Person Is Racist With One Simple Question

How To Tell If A White Person Is Racist With One Simple Question

If you want to quickly determine if a white person in the United States is comfortably racist, I’d recommend a single question. Ask them, “Should our nation pay reparations to black people for the enslavement, mistreatment and economic exploitation of them and their ancestors over the past four hundred years?” If they immediately reject this proposition, you can be fairly confident you’ve identified a comfortable racist. On the other hand, if they’re willing to give this question serious consideration, you’ve probably identified an ethically responsible and racially conscious white person.  It’s really that simple.

There is simply no compelling argument against the payment of reparations. The studies and research have been done.  The historians, economists and ethicists have spoken.  While there can and should be considerable debate over how reparations should be made, any white person who argues against reparations is either ignorant, immoral, racist or all of the above.  Additionally, if you encounter someone opposed to paying reparations, you can be fairly certain they will offer one or all of the following three arguments…

“I have no responsibility. Neither I nor my ancestors owned slaves.”

Though I doubt most of these people have the genealogical support for their claim, such evidence would be irrelevant. The economic advantages of slavery were not limited to slave owners.  Though the highest concentration of millionaires in the United States in 1840 was in the Mississippi valley, the wealth created by slavery flowed north to the textile mills, banks and, ultimately, to every white family. Cotton was the single greatest economic driver in early American history. Without the millions of hours of slave labor provided by black people, the American economy would not have thrived.

The affluence generated by this labor, though unevenly divided amongst the white population, was limited to white people.  You didn’t have to be a slave owner to benefit from the enslavement of black people.  You only had to be white.  Indeed, the recognition of this reality fueled the strong southern support for defending slavery during the Civil War.  Though only a quarter of southern whites actually owned slaves, all of them were keenly aware of the benefits they produced.  Indeed, at the time of the Civil War, slaves constituted the single greatest financial asset in the United States.

While it is certainly possible to argue that some white people benefitted more from slavery than others, it is difficult to argue that even the poorest white person has received no benefit. And it is irrefutable that the chief producers of all of this immense wealth – black people – received absolutely no financial benefit from their labor.  More damning, in 1865 when they were freed from legal bondage, they were paid no back wages.  Most black people were left so destitute that they quickly became sharecroppers, which was often even more economically oppressive than slavery.

For these reasons, the huge disparities in accumulated wealth and economic status between white people and black people today have their roots in this historic injustice. Those who argue against reparations because they or their ancestors didn’t own slaves are like people who fill their homes with property they know was stolen from others.  They may not be thieves, but they are hardly examples of responsibility and integrity.  When forced to face this reality, they usually offer this argument.

“That was wrong, but it was long ago. I haven’t directly benefitted from racial injustice.”

Once we’ve established the incredible injustice of the past, we have two choices. If we’re ethical white people, we take responsibility for the injustices of our ancestors.  If we’re immoral and racist, we throw our ancestors under the bus.  We argue for our innocence and blamelessness.  We pretend the oppression of black people ended in 1865.  We ignore the evidence that most white people living today have directly benefitted from racial injustice.

As lucrative as slavery was, our ancestors weren’t the greatest beneficiaries of the oppression of black people. The single greatest economic increase in American wealth was not in the 1800s.  It happened in the years after World War II, between 1950 and 1970.  Billions and billions of dollars of wealth were created.  Indeed, this period marked the high water mark of the American middle class.  A vast majority of this wealth was intentionally limited by governmental policy to white people.

If you are white and bought a home or grew up in a home purchased between 1934 and 1977, you likely benefitted from government programs that awarded millions of tax dollars solely to white people. If you inherited a home purchased during those years, you reaped the spoils of racial injustice.  If you, your parents or grandparents went to college between 1944-1964, you likely benefitted from government programs that excluded black people from millions of dollars in educational grants.  If you, your parents or grandparents have received Social Security benefits, you have likely benefitted from a program that initially excluded up to 65% of all black people. It is difficult to find a single government policy between 1877 – when the Reconstruction ended – and 1977 that didn’t give preferential treatment to white people or exclude black people.

Indeed, most white people today are recipients of one of the greatest governmental affirmative action programs in history. Between 1934 and 1977, billions of tax dollars were funneled exclusively or primarily to white people.  Since any argument for equity would require an equal distribution of this government largesse, we can fairly say that the greatest recipients of racial injustice are not long dead slave owners, but middle class white people today.  When forced to face this reality, those who oppose reparations usually default to more obviously racist rhetoric.

“Well, that wasn’t fair, but what can you do. You can’t just give black people cash.  They’d just waste it.” (Or some other generally disparaging remark about black people.)

Once we’ve established the incredible injustice of the present, we have two choices. If we’re ethical white people, we take responsibility for the injustices of our present system and seek to rectify them.  If we’re immoral and racist, we throw black people under the bus.  In arguing for their inadequacy and incompetency, we verify our ancestry.  Like our forefathers, we justify the oppression of black people with the same paternal racist rhetoric.  We miss the obvious.  Once you’ve acknowledged the resources were stolen, what they do with any compensation is irrelevant.  It’s their money.

How reparations are paid shouldn’t be up to white people. I can’t imagine any court in the land that would leave the terms of compensation up to the thieves.  What we must do as a country is determine an appropriate amount of compensation for the damages done to generations of black people.  That’s going to be expensive.  And it should be.  The debt needs to be paid back with interest.

It is time for white people who are ethically responsible and racially conscious to voice our support for the payment of reparations.  It is time for our nation to finally pay its debts to the black people upon whose backs we’ve built the most prosperous nation in human history.  It is time to ask black people to tell us how they want us to make these payments.  It is far past time.  And when some white people complain of the injustice of it all, we who are ethically responsible and racially conscious must identify that opposition for what it has always been – racist and immoral.

(Special thanks to Ta-Nehesi Coates’ for his essay, “The Case For Reparations,” which should be required reading for every white person in America. My short post is a poor reflection of this masterful essay.)

(This post is part of a three part series.  The second post is entitled “A Reasonable Reparation.”  The third post is entitled “Paying My Reparations.”

White Inferiority

White Inferiority

In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ newest book, We Were Eight Years In Power, he begins with a fascinating essay about the Reconstruction period immediately following the Civil War.  He argues that this brief experiment in black empowerment, with blacks voting and holding elected office in the former states of the Confederacy, ended because of white resentment and fear.  The resentment came from seeing their former slaves so quickly elevated to positions of superiority.  The fear came is seeing those same slaves govern effectively.  Coates quotes W.E.B. Dubois, who wrote, “If there was one thing that South Carolina feared more than bad Negro government, it was good Negro government.”

I’ve thought a lot about that essay and quote in the past week. The parallels to what has happened in the United States over the past year are startling.  While many white conservatives express hatred for Barack Obama and his administration, when challenged to point out his failings they seldom offer much beyond conspiracy theories and racist rhetoric. They never mention his success in pulling the nation out of the worst recession since the Great Depression. They ignore his reinvigoration of the Justice Department, his expansion of civil rights and healthcare for many and the lowest number of corruption scandals in modern presidential history. While I know they will never admit it, I suspect many white conservatives resented and feared Obama, not because he was a bad President, but because he was such a good one.

During both the Reconstruction period and the Obama presidency, one of the central tenets of white racism was proven false – white superiority. In both situations, it was not the failings of black leaders that was so infuriating to many whites as much as it was their success.  In both situations, the response of white people was to reassert their dominance.  In the 1890’s, this meant disenfranchising blacks, passing Jim Crow laws and legislating the superiority that had proven so false.  In 2016, this meant electing the most inferior and openly racist of the possible white options for president.  Though my conservative friends like to claim they voted for Trump because they hated Clinton so much, this does not explain why they chose Trump over more worthy Republican white men and women in the primaries.  Whether conscious or not, Trump was a response to a successful black president.

Oddly, all of this has made me reconsider the power of white supremacy in America. There was a time when white racism was built on a conviction of white superiority, but that claim seems increasingly hollow.  People of color are excelling in nearly every area of our national life.  White people are being replaced by people of color in every strata of society.  While whites often diminish their hard won success as some kind of affirmative action, this argument is harder and harder to sustain.  Consider the one place in our culture where there is a clearly level playing field – sports.  In nearly every sport, it is people of color who are the best players.

Or consider the recent events in Charlottesville. The chants of white supremacists reveal a far less confident white psyche.  Gone were the claims of black inferiority that once characterized the Klan.  This generation of white racists chanted “We will not be replaced” instead of “We cannot be replaced.”  In response to “Black lives matter,” they felt the need to argue “White lives matter.”  When a white supremacist has to argue that white lives matter, something significant has shifted.  Gone is their confidence in their ability to succeed in an American meritocracy.  They expose their fears of inferiority even as they champion white supremacy. They guard their white privilege so carefully because they worry that without it they cannot succeed.

For several years, I’ve been worried about white supremacy.  I’ve begun to fear white inferiority.  When people with inferiority complexes hold power, they almost always use that power to reassure themselves and diminish others.  Indeed, only in diminishing others can they feel superior.  For whites with such a complex, electing Donald Trump must have been wonderfully reassuring.  They did not elect him because he represented the best the white race could offer, but because he mirrored their own sense of inferiority.  They saw in him their many insecurities and, every time he claimed something was the best or the greatest, they heard their own defensive bluster.  His election confirmed their hope that they still lived in an America where an inferior white man had more power than any woman or person of color.

Unfortunately, while I understand the events of this past year more deeply, this understanding does not bring me much comfort. Trump’s systemic dismantlement of every Obama policy is too reminiscent of the actions of resentful and fearful whites during the Reconstruction.  “Making America Great Again” is not much different than the efforts of white southerners in the 1880s to make blacks slaves again.  History tells us that whites with an inferiority complex are capable of incredible ugliness to retain their power and privilege.  It is also teaches that liberal whites can be easily distracted.  Much of the impetus for abandoning efforts at reconstructing the South ended when Northern whites faced an economic recession in 1873.

In the days since the Trump election, I have watched many of my white friends distance themselves from the role of racism in our culture and politics. Progressives have spoken out against the identity politics of people of color while completely ignoring the white identity politics of the Republican Party.  Democrats are being told they must reassure the white working class.  Clearly racist policies are being disguised as efforts to combat voter fraud, or eliminate discrimination against whites, or bring back law and order.  These are not new arguments or strategies.  Indeed, they all saw their creation in the 1870s when whites used them to reassert their supremacy.

President Obama often cited the Martin Luther King, Jr quote, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It fit his hopeful optimism.  President Obama also reassured Ta-Nehisi Coates – in a pre-election interview – that Donald Trump could not win.  I fear this optimism may have blinded him to a historic reality.  The Reconstruction period demonstrated that racial progress gained by the death of nearly 700,000 Americans in four years of bloody conflict could be largely lost in a matter of a few years.  What if the arc of the universe is merely half of a circle leading us back to the immoral place we began?

Such concerns explain why Ta-Nehisi Coates subtitles his book, An American Tragedy. While I share his deep concerns and fears about the Trump presidency and what it reflects, I hope that conclusion premature.  Looking back, I wonder what our nation could have become if white Northern progressives had persisted in their insistence that southern blacks be protected and empowered.  How much sooner would we have elected a black president?  How much stronger would we be as a nation?  That seems such a lost opportunity.

In the weeks ahead, I plan to study the Reconstruction period; a period sadly and intentionally lacking from American education. How did progressives fail?  How was white supremacy able to reassert itself?  How can we avoid such ugliness again?  Unlike President Obama and Martin Luther King, Jr., I do not believe the arc of the universe bends toward justice.  Justice only comes when those committed to equality combat those, who in their feelings of inferiority, must champion and enforce their superiority.  If our nation is in the midst of a cultural civil war, it is imperative that those of us allied with people of color do not fail them again.  It is time to truly reconstruct America.

Reminders For Recovering Racists

Reminders For Recovering Racists

Note to my white self…

Congratulations! You have committed to being an ally to people of color in their struggle to end systemic racism in America.  You are sharing anti-racist memes, donating to anti-racist causes and even attending anti-racist protests.  Good for you.  However, don’t forget your most helpful contribution in this struggle.  First and foremost, address the unconscious racial bias within yourself.  Here are six daily reminders as you navigate life as a white person…

It is impossible to be aware of your unconscious racial bias.  If you were aware of them, they wouldn’t be unconscious.  This means, as a white person, you should never say, “I was not being racist.”  This implies you are aware of your every motive.  This is very unlikely.  When your motives are challenged, it is better to respond, “I was not consciously or intentionally being racist.  Thanks for making me aware.”   This is more honest and reflective.  It also implies a genuine interest in becoming aware of your unconscious racial bias.

When someone of color points out a racial bias, they are most likely correct. When interacting with people of color, they are much more likely to be aware of your bias – one they have consciously experienced countless times – than you are.  Could they be wrong?  Certainly.  However, it is more likely you were unaware of your bias.  Immediately responding “I was not being racist,” without carefully reflecting on their perception, may actually suggest another unconscious racial bias – people of color should not correct white people.

Being unconscious of a racial bias is not an excuse. An unconscious bias is not less problematic than a conscious bias.  It is just the opposite. An unconscious bias is much more dangerous.  You can address a conscious bias, but an unconscious racial bias can repeatedly do damage.  When someone makes you aware of a racial bias, don’t say, “I didn’t mean to be racist” as if this excuses your behavior.  If you were unconsciously standing on someone’s toes, you were still causing them pain.  The proper response, when a racial bias is exposed, is always an apology.

For every racial bias of which you are aware, you can assume there are several of which you are not. The racial bias of which you aware is usually the tip of an iceberg.  Therefore, when you become conscious of a racial bias, it is always worthwhile to dig a little deeper in your own psyche.  For this reason, having an unconscious bias challenged need not be understood as an attack on your character.  You are being offered an opportunity to better understand yourself.  Exposing one racial bias may allow you to become conscious of others.

In any interaction with a person of color or discussion about racism, it is best to assume you will be bringing some unconscious racial bias into the interaction or discussion. Assuming your interactions or discussions will be free of racial bias is arrogant. Accepting the likelihood that you will be acting out of your racial biases allows you to be receptive, rather than defensive, if someone challenges your attitudes or actions.  Remember, the person of color – based on many encounters with white people – already assumes you have conscious or unconscious racial bias.  They don’t expect you to be unbiased.  They expect you to respond to any challenge with defensiveness.  Surprise them.

Becoming aware of an unconscious racial bias does not eliminate it. A bias took many years to develop.  If it is an unconscious bias, it became so normative that you could not see it.  Becoming aware of an unconscious racial bias is merely the beginning of the process of becoming less racist.  Initially, you will continue to act out of that bias.  All that has changed is your awareness.  Only with time can you diminish the power of a bias to influence your behavior.  Expect to have your bias pointed out to you repeatedly. When challenged, respond, “Thanks.  I needed that reminder.” With each reminder, you will become less likely to act out of that racial bias.

In the battle against systemic racism, always remember  – as a white person – you are part of the problem as well as the solution. Purging the unconscious racial bias within yourself is the first and greatest contribution you can make.