Where I Agree With White Supremacists

Where I Agree With White Supremacists

In about 1754 BC, a Babylonian king by the name of Hammurabi had his opinion on the proper human order chiseled onto a large stone. The Code of Hammurabi argued that God had placed him in power to enforce a society where men were considered superior, women were subordinate to men and most people – slaves – were so inferior they could be considered property.  For the next 3500 years, this was how most societies were organized.

In 1776 AD, Thomas Jefferson offered a new and controversial opinion about the proper order of humanity. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson argued that “all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.”  While this more enlightened opinion was certainly a departure from thousands of years of human political thought, we shouldn’t celebrate it as a triumph of human emancipation.

Unfortunately, Thomas Jefferson probably meant “all males” when he wrote his declaration. His words were a challenge to the privileges of kings and nobility, but did little to alter the remainder of the Code of Hammurabi.  Women were still subordinate, unable to own property or vote.  Jefferson continued to own slaves.  Finally, he based his opinion on the same claim of divine authority.  Why was his opinion superior to that of Hammurabi?  God said so.  However, while Jefferson’s arguments were flawed, the Declaration of Independence was the beginning of a clash between two very different understandings of human order, a struggle which continues today.

The Code of Hammurabi has been – and still is – the worldview of many in the United States. Since 1776, those committed to including more and more types of people in the term “all men” have fought for greater equality against those who believe some – by virtue of their gender or the color of their skin – are superior to others.  Make no mistake; the Civil War was a violent clash of these two worldviews.  The Civil Rights movement was another battle in this effort to defeat a white supremacy built on the Code of Hammurabi.  What we are experiencing in the United States today is another skirmish in that conflict.  When Trump and his supporters say they want to “make America great again,” it is not a call to a Jeffersonian world where all people are equal and have certain unalienable rights.  Roy Moore and his like are calling for a return to a world where the Code of Hammurabi reigned.

As I’ve fought against the minions of Hammurabi over the past forty years, my opinions and arguments have shifted. For example, I once found solace and strength in the idea that the truth of equality was self-evident, ordained by a God who loved and valued every person equally.  Gradually, it became apparent to me that the claim of divine blessing has sustained rather than solved this conflict.  Both Hammurabi and Jefferson argued their worldview was ordained by God.

Sadly, in this clash of worldviews, God has been more of a team mascot than the arbiter of truth. History has shown that religions and sects have aligned on both sides of this conflict.  Racism and sexism – as well as God’s equal regard for all – have often been trumpeted by holy men.  The opinion of God seems largely irrelevant in this struggle.  If we are ever to resolve this conflict over the proper order of humanity, I suspect we have to look beyond religion for aid.

I no longer believe people were created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. Equality and rights are not attributes that are bestowed.  If women and people of color have taught us anything, they have demonstrated that equality and rights are the spoils of hard fought battles with the defenders of the Code of Hammurabi.  Perhaps God – or the idea of God – has given the oppressed and marginalized comfort and courage, but it is their blood, sweat and tears that have changed the world.

I have also come to question the validity of the idea of the equality of all people. In this, ironically, I am in agreement with white supremacists.  Not all people are equal.  Some are inferior.  While I believe every person has worth, I am absolutely convinced that many of the defenders of the Code of Hammurabi, of white supremacy and of white and male privilege are inferior human beings. They are not just. They are not good thinkers.  They are not reflective.  They are not well informed.  Indeed, they are attracted to the Code of Hammurabi precisely because it offers them an unfair advantage in a world where they fear competing with brilliant women and people of color.

In recent years, I’ve realized why many conservatives hate the theory of evolution so much. It is not that it challenges their view of God as much as it is an affront to their opinion about themselves.  Evolution does not care whether you are Christian, a white man or an American.  It bestows its blessings without discrimination.  All people are not born equal.  Some are more intelligent, creative, innovative, reflective and compassionate than others and the distribution of these talents has nothing to do with gender or race.  Creating a human order that denies or ignores this reality is detrimental to human society and progress.

This has become my primary objection to racism and sexism. Any understanding of the human order that suggests homogeneity is ordained or preferable is dangerous.  A society, company, or organization dominated by white men will always be inferior.  By excluding the brilliance and creativity of those who are other, it makes the same mistake of European royal families in the past.  Human evolution has determined that inbreeding always results in deformity and inferiority.  Diversity is a hallmark of evolution and the driver of human progress.

For this reason, I am not a proponent of equality for equality’s sake. I am a proponent of equal opportunity, for the leveling a very unleveled playing field.  I am an opponent of racism and sexism because these systems – based on an archaic and non-scientific code – diminish the opportunities for large portions of the human race to flourish.  White supremacy must be opposed, not merely because it is immoral, but because we now fully understand the importance of human diversity.  This is not a political opinion, but a scientifically proven fact.

This is where I and the white supremacists radically disagree. They believe America would be great if we could restore the dominance of white men.  They applaud pictures where all our political leaders are white men.  I find this dangerous and harmful.  A racially diverse nation is dynamic and vibrant.  Systemic racism and sexism make America far less than we can be.

I think white supremacists – though they seldom admit it – do understand this.  They realize at some deep level that – without inordinate power – they may struggle to compete.  When the marchers in Charlottesville chanted, “You will not replace us,” they revealed their deepest fear.  They did not say “you cannot replace us.”  They are smart enough to see the writing on the wall.  Without the Code of Hammurabi, they will be rightly replaced by women and people of color.  This will happen not because their replacements are inferior, but precisely because they are superior.

I hold this truth to be self-evident. All people are not created equal. We are born into an incredibly diverse world.  This reality is an opportunity and not a threat.  Allowing the most talented and thoughtful to lead is good for all of us.  If we are willing to give all people equal rights, then and only then will life, liberty and happiness flourish.

(Special thanks for Yuval Noah Harari, who juxtaposed and critiqued both the Code of Hammurabi and the Declaration of Independence in his fascinating book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. His thoughts provoked mine.)

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Why White Men Should Feel Ashamed

Why White Men Should Feel Ashamed

November was an enlightening month.

In late October, I posted an essay entitled “How To Tell If A White Person Is Racist With One Simple Question.” Though my blog is generally read by a couple of thousand people, in this instance and to my surprise, my post generated over 120,000 views over the next few weeks.  I received hundreds of comments, many of which I could not approve because of their ugliness and profanity.  If I had any doubt about the premise of the post – that people’s negativity toward the question of reparations is a fairly good indicator of their blatant or latent racism – the response to the post dispelled them.

Throughout November, I engaged – both publicly and privately – in lengthy exchanges with angry, white men over the legitimacy of reparations and the present state of racial relations in America. These conversations led me to write two follow up posts outlining a reasonable approach to reparations as well as my own personal commitment. I also became more aware of the present and potential dangers of angry, white men.

During this encounter with white masculinity, I gradually realized the responses of angry white men to reparations echoed what I was hearing from other angry, white men about sexual harassment. As you know, November was also the month of Harvey Weinstein, Louis C. K., Charlie Rose, Roy Moore, Matt Lauer and Al Franken, of countless allegations of sexual assault and harassment, and of denials and justifications.  As I was engaging in one discussion while listening to another, the similarities in the responses became more and more obvious.  It was almost as if racist and sexually inappropriate men were reading off the same script.

Deny or Question the Veracity of the Injury

As I talked with white men about slavery and racial discrimination, I was amazed by how often they denied the existence of racism today. According to them, America was a level playing field and any disparities between blacks and whites were the fault of people of color.  Some actually argued that, if racism existed, they were its target. While no one claimed slavery didn’t happen, they were quick to diminish its impact. One man even quoted Muhammed Ali, who – while boxing in Africa – once quipped, “Thank God my granddaddy got on that boat.”  In this twisted manipulation of Ali’s opinions on racism, slavery was actually a positive historical event bringing Christianity and prosperity to black people.

This same willingness to deny or discount a past injury was echoed in many of the responses of men accused of sexual harassment. Even when the past harassment was acknowledged, men were quick to suggest that the incident was trivial, even unmemorable. Franken apologized, but admitted he couldn’t even remember the incidents. One defender of Roy Moore actually argued that Moore’s behavior was somehow similar to that of Mary and Joseph in the Bible. Moore wasn’t a creepy pedophile. He was a Biblical patriarch.

Question the Timing of the Injured Party

Those accused of sexual harassment were quick to question the timing of the allegation. They asked why, after so long, these women were finally claiming injury.  There was little recognition of how – if the accusations were as described – these men had used their power to intimidate and harass their victims, to even threaten them should they expose the injury. Ironically, our patriarchal culture makes it extremely difficult for women to expose sexual assault and harassment and then castigates them for their reluctance. Only the recent number of successful exposures has given some women the courage to speak out.

Angry, white men express similar irritation with the timing of calls for reparations. They too asked why, so many years after the end of slavery, black people were demanding reparations.  There was little recognition of how – for most of the past 150 years – powerful white men responded to calls for reparations with everything from laughter to lynching.  As with victims of sexual harassment, people usually expose past injuries when they feel some modicum of safety.  A nation that only apologized for slavery in 2009 shouldn’t be surprised by the sudden upsurge in calls for reparations.

Question the Motive and Character of the Injured Party

During my exchanges, I repeatedly heard reparations described as the strategy of “money grubbing black people.” Instead of legitimate compensation for centuries of economic exploitation, reparations were often defined as an injustice to white people.  According to this trope, white people are hardworking and responsible. Our affluence has nothing to do with past oppressive. Inversely, black people are greedy and irresponsible. Their present challenges are the result of their own flaws.  While only the most bigoted came right out and said black people were lazy, stupid or immoral, much of the rhetoric implied as much.  In the end, these arguments often ended by suggesting white people were the victims.

Most of the men exposed as sexual harassers would have us believe they – rather than their accusers – are the victims. The women are money grubbing liars motivated by a desire for fame. Often, in diminishing the credibility of their accusers, the unrelated or incidental failings of their accusers are paraded publicly.  While few men come right out and say these women are loose and immoral, much of the rhetoric implies as much.  Ironically, though the men deny assaulting or harassing the women, they also imply their accusers are the kind of women who invite or deserve such treatment.

Diminish the Impact of the Injury

Many of these men also suggest their actions were trivial, playful or even well intentioned. The injury, if acknowledged at all, is presented as minor. Moore asked the mothers for permission to date their daughters. Franken was just kidding around.  All Louis C.K. asked was that they watch.  If the women weren’t liars, they were certainly exaggerating or misconstruing what happened. The victims of sexual harassment are either portrayed as pathetic losers trying to pull down their superiors or – if they are deemed successful women – as evidence that the past assault and harassment didn’t impact their careers.

Those opposing reparations utilize this same paradoxical argument. On one hand, the success of a few blacks is offered as evidence that there wasn’t really any injury.  How can racism exist in a country where Barack Obama was elected president?  Those people of color who have not succeeded are examples, not of systemic racism, but of their own inadequacies.  The racism that cannot be ignored is trivialized as the bigotry of a few white supremacists.  Micro-aggressions aren’t real.  Most of what people of color report as racist is either exaggerated or misconstrued.

Reject Any Responsibility While Normalizing The Behavior

Ultimately, the goal of angry, white men – whether in talking about reparations or sexual harassment – is to avoid any personal or corporate responsibility. Either they didn’t do anything wrong or they have no responsibility for the actions of others. Yet often, in avoiding any culpability, they express sentiments that suggest they harbor the cultural and philosophical positions that undergird racism and sexism.

While they quickly condemn the most horrific examples of racism and sexism, they often follow these condemnations with justifications and excuses.  Boys will be boys. White people should be able to celebrate their heritage. It was just locker room talk or bar banter.  Men can be sexually harassed by women, too.  Whites are the victims of racism as much as people of color.  Sexual harassment is simply the by-product of gender equality and sexual freedom.  People of color need to toughen up if they want to succeed in a free society.  And on and on.

It was usually at this point in a discussion that I would withdraw from the conversation. What had started out as a discussion of an injury had ended up as a rationalization for a system which empowers men to injure the less powerful.  By the end of November, I’d realized what opposition to reparations and reports of sexual harassment had most in common – angry, white men.  These were men desperately defending the very privilege that makes racism and sexism possible.  I began to suspect those complaining the most were probably also men with past transgressions.

Time and again, in this past month, I have heard men say, “I will not feel guilty about being white.” Initially, I assured them this was not my intent, that I wanted them to take responsibility rather than feel guilty.  By the end of the month, after hearing other men declare that they would not feel guilty for being men, such complaints began to ring hollow. There is a certain kind of white masculinity that should deeply embarrass all men.  This distorted masculinity is not solely exhibited in the David Dukes and Roy Moores of America.  It is deeply ingrained in the psyche of millions of white American men.

As much as I wish it were so, racism and sexism will not be solved by reparations or the firing of countless sexual harassers, though both of these responses are necessary. Our culture will only begin to change when more men accept some responsibility for the white patriarchy that makes David Duke and Roy Moore possible. They are not aberrations. They are representations. It is far past time for white men to finally feel ashamed about how we, our peers and our forefathers have treated women and people of color.  No more excuses.  No more justifications.

We need white men strong and brave enough to publicly abandon both the vestiges and the privileges of white patriarchy.  These are men willing to acknowledge the injuries of the past and to accept their continued complicity in sustaining systems that oppress people of color and women.  If white men want to be proud, let it be a pride in their commitment to stand up – not in defense of other white men – but in defense of those who have been defenseless for too long.  Until we are willing to do this, shame on us.

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.”