In 1965, the United States Congress passed legislation requiring all cigarette packaging to contain the following warning – “Surgeon General’s Warning: Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema and May Complicate Pregnancy.” While part of a larger effort to reduce smoking, there is compelling evidence that these warnings contributed to the 59% decrease in smoking that has occurred since 1965. Millions of lives were lengthened and billions of dollars in health costs avoided because we used political force and legal regulation to destroy the pretense of ignorance. People could continue to smoke, but they could no longer pretend they didn’t know it caused cancer.
Publicly proclaiming a truth matters. Humans have a strong inclination to avoid negative information, especially when that information reminds us of an ugly truth. Being repeatedly reminded of something we would rather ignore makes it difficult for us to sustain a delusion. Indeed, studies have shown that the larger and more prominent the warnings on cigarette packaging, the greater likelihood that someone will quit smoking. You can’t be subtle if you want societal change. This is true whether you’re talking about smoking or racism.
Think about this for a moment. How would our country be different if we had applied the same approach to fighting and ending systemic racism as we did to reducing smoking? What if we had used our political will to destroy the pretense of ignorance and exposed the evidence of systemic racism all around us? What if we had publicly proclaimed the truth about systemic racism by requiring labels in the many places where it has or is occurring?
For example, we know hundreds of FHA financed housing developments were built from 1945 until the early 1970s with stipulations that people of color could not purchase or live in those homes. If you are white, there is a high likelihood your grandparents or parents purchased one of those homes and lived in one of those developments. These policies intentionally segregated our society and forced people of color into ghettos. This is an ugly truth many of us ignore.
Unfortunately, when the Supreme Court finally prohibited these discriminatory policies with a 6-0 decision (three justices lived in such a development and recused themselves), most white Americans were oblivious. The court ruled against the practice, but did nothing to challenge the pretense of ignorance. How would our nation be different if they had also required truth in labeling? Imagine hundreds of suburban housing developments with these words underneath their entrance signs, “This subdivision, in violation of the US Constitution, was intentionally and maliciously created to exclude and marginalize people of color.”
Or how about the banks that refused to provide loans to people of color, even when they meet every qualification except white skin? Some white people know about redlining, but most of us have been able to sustain the pretense of ignorance. We can pretend white people are wealthier because we work harder and not because the game has been fixed in our favor. We can argue that people of color live in certain neighborhoods because of their desire to live near each other. Imagine if every bank in the US had a large sign on their door that read, “This bank, in violation of the US Constitution, created ghettos by refusing to provide people of the color with legitimate loans for housing and business.”
Or how about the many towns that had laws on their books denying people of color permission to live, work or shop within their boundaries? It didn’t just happen in the South. You would be hard pressed to find any organized municipality without this type of activity in its past. Indeed, many municipalities were first organized to either exclude or remove people of color from predominantly white areas. If your grandparents or parents lived in such communities, they probably voted for the officials who created such restrictions. What if every single one of these towns and villages had to add these words below their welcome signs, “This community historically and shamefully denied people of color their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Or, if this labeling seems radical, how about at least acknowledging the most heinous acts of racial discrimination and hatred in our past? Between 1882 and 1968, there were 4,743 incidents of whites lynching a black person or a white sympathizer. What if Congress had simply required every single town where a lynching occurred to raise a monument with the words, “Never Again.” Certainly, most white people would agree that lynching was a violation of the most basic human and civil rights and should never occur again. Wouldn’t we?
Unfortunately, unlike with smoking, our white controlled society has consistently denied, diminished, obscured and ignored our complicity in some very ugly and racist habits. We’ve done all in our power to maintain our pretense of ignorance. We’ve refused to publicly acknowledge what our grandparents and parents intentionally and maliciously did to people of color. We’ve sanitized our text books. We’ve limited the truth in labeling to a few museums and plaques.
In so doing, we have done terrible damage not only to people of color, but to our national psyche. Donald Trump and his racist policies are only possible because millions of white people have been able to sustain the pretense of ignorance. Only this pretense makes it possible for a presidential candidate say “black communities are disasters, full of crime and decay” with a straight face. Only this pretense allows mobs of white people to scream “Make America Great Again” without even a hint of shame or sarcasm. By not acknowledging our past, we have endangered our future.
Imagine for a moment a society where the Supreme Court ruled smoking caused cancer, but didn’t require any significant changes in governmental policy or legal regulations. Imagine a society where millions of people died of lung cancer and emphysema every year, but most people continued to express puzzlement about the cause. Imagine a society where people were outraged not by these deaths, but by any suggestion that smoking was the cause of societal ills. Does that seem ridiculous?
That is precisely the kind of society we have created in response to historic and systemic racism. Many white people are more outraged by the accusation of system racism than its reality. Is it really any surprise that white people resist the idea of reparations? We haven’t even accepted and acknowledged what our grandparents and parents did. Instead, we have chosen the pretense of ignorance.
I see this pretense all around me. I see it in politics, in the media, and in the conversations I have with friends and family. I see it in myself and my ignorance about many historic facts. Sadly, without some national truth in labeling, I see little hope. As our national battle against smoking has taught us, you can’t be subtle if you want societal change.
Postscript: For those interested in being less ignorant, I would highly recommend the book, “The Color of Law” by Richard Rothstein. Much of my new understanding of the facts in this post come from that book.