White Space

White Space

I recently read a Facebook post in which a woman of color lamented how often she is forced to step aside on the sidewalk to make way for a white person.  After describing several recent instances, she complained of how galling she found such behavior – offensive in its entitlement and disturbingly reminiscent of a time when there were codes requiring her to make way.  When she spoke of refusing to step aside in the future, several white people chastised her for encouraging rudeness.  Ironically, even the space on her Facebook page wasn’t immune to white encroachment.

Her remarks prodded me to examine my behavior.  In many situations, when I encounter other white men on a sidewalk, I too have experienced this game of chicken, where men assert their dominance, forcing me to step aside. Though I don’t understand my masculinity in such terms, I do find their behavior irritating.  It never occurred to me that, if they behave this way with another white man, they would most certainly expect deference in their encounters with women or people of color.  Nor did it occur to me that my irritation at having to step aside for another white man might be the result of how rarely I’m placed in such a position.

Closely observing my own behavior, I’ve discovered an entitlement of which I had been unaware.  I often walk in public spaces with little concern for or awareness of those around me, assuming they will make way for me.  When this assumption is challenged by another person, I step aside, but often with either irritation or a sense of superiority.  They were either rude or I was being gentlemanly, graciously allowing them to proceed through my space.  As a white male, I unconsciously expect deference in public space.

While some of this self-absorption is probably universal, white people are especially prone to the assumption that the space we inhabit belongs to us.  We look at our neighborhoods, organizations, businesses, governments, country and even the world as “white space.”  They are places created by and for us.  All others are interlopers and invaders, free to remain as long as they behave properly and respect our ownership of the space.  When this expectation is violated, we quickly assert our prerogatives.

This assumption of white space drives the repeated instances of white people calling the police on people of color. Swimming pools, coffee shops, parks and golf courses were once exclusively white domains.  Though legally free to all, many white people – consciously or unconsciously – still claim those spaces.  When a person of color irritates them in any way, even by their presence, many white people feel entitled to request their removal.  When people of color walk through our neighborhoods, even if they are doing political canvassing, selling a product or delivering the newspaper, we feel justified in challenging their right to be in our space.  We often rationalize this as a concern for safety, but it is driven by a racist defense of our space.

Whether most white Americans recognize it or not, we define this country as white space, created by and for us.  While we’re irritated by the presence of blacks in our space, we know as some deep level that we brought them here against their will.  Latinos are a different situation.  They are invading our space, speaking their language, asserting their culture. The rhetoric around illegal immigration is driven by a defense of white space.  Trump says he is protecting us from MS-13 and Mexican rapists, but most of us know this isn’t the chief concern.  His recent statement that “immigrants are destroying European culture” is far more honest.  Trump rode this fear of non-white encroachment into the White House, replacing a black man who many thought did not belong there.

For many white people, the election of Barak Obama was a wake-up call.  If they had to share the “White House” with a person of color, what else would they have to share?  This was especially threatening to non-educated, working class, white men – the men who so often assume they own the sidewalk.  As in the days of Jim Crow, they were willing to accept the dregs of the American economy as long as they still felt they owned the country. Social and economic inequities within white culture were tolerated as long as they experienced countless examples of their special status as white.  For them, becoming a minority in the United States is an existential threat.

And rightly so.

This understanding of our nation must end. The United States of America is not inherently white space.  Four hundred years ago, it was solely inhabited by people of color. Two hundred years ago, large portions of the southwest were largely populated by Hispanic people.  Ironically, the space many white people are defending from invasion is space we once invaded. White people are experiencing precisely what we inflicted on others, though in a far less violent manner. We are being challenged to accept an alternate reality, where the space we inhabit it shared rather than owned.

Space is always open to renegotiation. As strident and ugly as the present tensions around immigration and race have become, they are probably necessary to this renegotiation. The days when white people could demand people of color leave a space is finally being challenged. Those who attempt this as individuals are being arrested, fired, censured and shamed. Hopefully, in the near future, those who extol this in public office will also be rejected.

More and more people of color are not standing aside on the sidewalk or in society.

This is not rude.

It is long overdue.


The History of My Entitlement

The History of My Entitlement

Last week, my wife and I took a walk through our middle class, white neighborhood in the cool of the evening. The streets lights were coming on as we walked and my wife remarked, “You realize it would be dangerous for Ella (who is our black daughter) to do what we’re doing right now.  First, because she is a woman and second because she is a black.”  We walked on in silence as we both struggled with the unfairness of that.  I was confronted by something of which I am usually oblivious – my entitlement as a white American man.

I was not taught to see myself this way.  A sense of entitlement was the negative characteristic of others, of the welfare queens, those black women living large off the government dime.  Growing up, I was told of able bodied black men collecting government checks, of black parents selling their food stamps for drugs and of how entitlement programs were primarily handouts for people of color.  Good, hard working white people were bankrolling their laziness and luxury.

Then, as an adult, I moved to the city and discovered the truth – no one lives large on welfare, food stamps and Medicaid.  The people I met who used these programs – most of whom were white – only used them as a last resort.  What they received was barely enough to survive.  For those with no alternative, the application for this assistance was difficult, demeaning and time consuming.  What I had been taught about entitled minorities simply wasn’t true.

For many years, I thought my teachers ill-informed.  Today, I realize – whether they knew or not – they were articulating a racist defense of their own entitlement.  They had accepted a derogatory and inflammatory narrative about black people that allowed them to think well of themselves in comparison.  Condemning these programs and the people who used them allowed white people to label people of color as greedy, lazy, dishonest and criminal.  When challenged, they could pretend their animosity was for the programs and not for people of color.

While this racist subterfuge is ugly, it is also a deflection from one of the more damning truths about American society.  American society is and has always been a program of white entitlement.  From the moment white men landed at Plymouth Rock, they have considered it their manifest destiny to possess, exploit, abuse and monopolize all that they encountered.  Indeed, there may be no more entitled group of people on the planet than white American men like me.  Consider our history…

White American men like me felt entitled to take the land from people of color who already lived on this continent.  They felt entitled to kill those who resisted them.  They felt entitled to break every treaty they signed with the native Americans.  Adding insult to injury, they justified this brutality and dishonesty by labeling these people of color as savages.

White American men like me felt entitled to own people of color.  They felt entitled to buy and sell other human beings.  They felt entitled to collecting the fruits of their back breaking labor for hundreds of years while they cultivated the myth of the American gentleman, sipping lemonade from their plantation verandas.  They felt entitled to whip, torture, rape and brutalize their slave laborers.  When slavery ended, they felt entitled to all the wealth created by those they had unjustly imprisoned and exploited.  Audaciously, the descendants of these men continue to imply black people are greedy and lazy.

White American men like me, even after the horrors of slavery, felt entitled to deference from people of color.  They felt entitled to separate and unequal social amenities and societal benefits.  They felt entitled to harm, rob or even kill those people of color who forgot their inferior station.  They felt entitled to lynch any person of color who challenged this brazen injustice.  While they did little to earn it, they felt entitled to the respect of people of color, expecting to be treated as superiors.

White American men like me felt entitled to government support for all of their endeavors.  They felt entitled to the vote, political office, land grants, farmsteads, the New Deal, the GI Bill, federally subsidized housing loans, farm subsidies and mortgage deductions.  In each and every one of these government programs, white men were the chief recipient of government largesse.  In most circumstances, the rules of qualification were intentionally designed to exclude people of color.  Ironically, after generations of advantage, it is men of my skin color who are most offended by affirmative action.

White American men like me continue to defend their entitlement.  When their injustices are challenged by people of color, they suggest they “go back to Africa” as if white people are the true native Americans.  When they see non-white countries prospering, they complain that people of color are taking away “their jobs” as if they alone are entitled to prosperity.  When people of color argue that “black lives matter, they demand that “all lives matter” as if they actually believe everyone is entitled to what they’ve possessed.  When people of color rail against wealth and income gaps, they justify their monopolies and networks by labeling those who make less as greedy, lazy and incompetent.

Sadly, most white American men like me do this almost reflexively.  Like my walk through my neighborhood, they walk through society without any recognition of all the rights and opportunities extended to them and them alone.  Indeed, at even the slightest critique, they quickly complain of injustice.  There may be nothing more absurd in our world than the white American male playing the victim.

I am ashamed of white American men like me.  As much as I want to see myself as different than the generations of white men before me, to understand their behavior as something abhorrent, I suspect we have more in common than I’d like to admit.  They are my ancestors.  I am their prodigy.  Every day I benefit from our shared privilege without any awareness, embarrassment or guilt.

How could I?

I am a white American male.

I am entitled.


The Injustice of Charity

The Injustice of Charity

My daughter attends the performing arts school connected with our much maligned urban public school district.  It is a school located in the middle of a low income neighborhood with a high predominance of children of color.  While we love this school, we realize it faces many challenges that other schools avoid.  One of those challenges is how to understand its “adoption” by a large white suburban church.

Years ago and before I adopted a black daughter, I would have applauded their efforts to provide resources, volunteers and assistance to an urban school.  I would have appreciated their acts of charity and their sensitivity to the needs of these children.  I wouldn’t have cringed when they described their mission as “service to poor, underprivileged children of color in the inner city.”  I wouldn’t have understood how unjust such acts of charity can be.

Today, I understand what it means to adopt someone.  To do so is to claim them as your own.  Treating your adopted child differently than a birth child is the ugliest of acts.  So it offends me when a large group of white people claim they are adopting a large group of children of color.  Especially when I know the schools that their children attend are in modern buildings with higher paid teachers using the best technology.  Somehow planting flowers and donating coats doesn’t seem equivalent.  While I suspect they are using the word “adoption” in the loosest sense, I wish they wouldn’t.  It reinforces my suspicion that they don’t fully understand the society in which they live.

I wish they would ask themselves why the children at my daughter’s school are poor.  It isn’t God ordained.  The poverty of these black and Latino children is systemic and intentional.  It has been perpetrated for centuries by the parents, grandparents and great grandparents of the volunteers.  There is a terrible irony is “helping” those who we’ve systematically denied the most basic of human resources.  I can’t help wondering if these volunteers realize the parents of these children may be serving them their “value meal” at the McDonald’s drive up window or roofing their house for the lowest bid.

These volunteers recognize that these children are “underprivileged,” but I wonder if they connect that with their own privilege.  These children and their families aren’t lazy.  Many of the parents work two jobs.  These children and their families aren’t satisfied. They dream of college and financial security.  These children and their families aren’t different from the children and the families of the volunteers except in one very important way.  They aren’t white.   They do not have the privileges that the volunteers and their families take for granted.

When I read their description of my daughter’s school and their obvious pride in their acts of charity, I sense their ignorance more than their malice. They want so badly to think of themselves as good people. They want to make a real difference in the world. They are doing more than most of their white peers.  So I hesitate to criticize.  What harm are they doing?  Isn’t our school better off with them than without them?

I used to think the answer to that question was an obvious “Yes!”  Now I am not so sure. I wonder if their presence simply reinforces the status quo.  White people are presented to children of color as “givers” even though historically they have been the opposite.  I worry that these volunteers are using my daughter’s school to justify their privilege and escape any deeper accountability for the systemic injustices built into our society and so vividly exemplified by the differences between our schools.  A recent mega survey in the state of Pennsylvania found that schools with a majority white population received on average between $3,000-$4,000 more per student in educational resource.  The adopted children are being neglected.

Do these volunteers understand this inequity?  Do they care?  Are they committed to eliminating this gap?  Do they realize that this injustice in our education system is simply one manifestation of the injustice of charity?  Most of the foundations in the United States are giving away money that was created by white men through the exploitation of people of color.  We are the robber barons.  What we give in charity is simply what we’ve stolen in the past.  This paradox requires the victims of systemic racism to express gratefulness to their oppressors.  No wonder we react so badly to people chanting “black lives matter.”  We who are white have been conditioned to expect gratitude instead of challenge, appreciation instead of criticism, and adulation instead of censure.

I wish these white volunteers would REALLY adopt our school, that they would commit to treating these children as their own.  With their privilege, they could accomplish so much. They could express their outrage in this treatment of their children, demanding their political representatives alter the formulas that determine school funding.  They could require an explanation for why some of their children are being treated with so much less regard than others.  I know the power of an enraged white parent.  Government officials and school administrators fear their wrath.   I wish, when these officials explained the need to increase taxes, these white people responded, “These are our children you are talking about.  Do whatever is necessary!”

I suppose that is wishful thinking.

The truth is that those of us who have adopted a child of color are rare.  We cannot expect those “playing” at adoption to fully understand the ramifications of loving a child of color.  It changes you  – and how you see our society  – completely.  Without that, I suppose planting flowers and donating coats might seem sufficient and even charitable.

To me, it just seems unjust.

Is White Pride Even Possible?

Is White Pride Even Possible?

White people often argue that if there can be Black Pride, Native American Pride and Latino Pride, why shouldn’t there also be White Pride?  Why can’t white people be proud of their heritage and skin color?  Why can’t there be white history month or an annual parade?  Why is appreciating your race applauded for people of color, but seen as racist when expressed by white people?  Isn’t this an unjust double standard?

While – on the surface – this complaint may sound reasonable, it seriously – and often intentionally – misunderstands the reasons that black, Native American and Latino people are proud.  While celebrating their heritage and skin color is part of these movements, people of color are primarily proud of something that we, as a white people, cannot fully understand or claim.  They are proud that they and their ancestors survived.

In each instance, these movements emerged in the face of horrible oppression, discrimination and violence, largely perpetrated by the dominant white culture.  In the face of a culture that defined and treated them as less human, these movements asserted their pride in their self-worth.  They were proud of being black, Native American or Latino in a society that questioned their value and threatened their existence. They were also proud of their resistance, resilience and perseverance. They celebrated those instances when people like them, not only survived, but thrived.

This makes the claim of White Pride suspect, especially when in response to expressions of Black, Native American and Latino Pride.  What is the white person proud of?  Are we proud of Christopher Columbus, the Trail of Tears, and hundreds of broken treaties?  Are we proud of chattel slavery, the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow?  Are we proud of the economic exploitation of farm workers and the dehumanization of Latino immigrants?  For five hundred years, white people in the America have thrived by using and abusing people of color.  White Shame, rather than White Pride, seems a more appropriate response to this history.

Of course, those asserting White Pride will remind you that not every white person has had it easy in America.  They will note the experiences of Irish, Italian and other European immigrants, who were often mistreated and exploited when they first landed in America.  While these stories are tragically true, they obscure an important aspect to this oppression.  In each circumstance, these groups were initially identified as “less than white.”  In early American history, Anglo-Saxon Protestantism was the dominant identity.  These darker skinned European groups were initially mistreated because they were identified as non-white in some circumstances and less white in others.

In this context, offering Irish, Italian and other European immigrants as examples of resistance, resilience and perseverance does not equate to White Pride.  If anything, it should be support for Immigrant Pride.  Unfortunately, as we are discovering in the present rhetoric around immigration, the dominant culture have always been suspicious and abusive toward immigrants.  Those who find the story of the Irish immigrants cause for pride should be ardent supporters of Latino immigrants.  Unfortunately, unlike blacks, Native Americans and Latinos, the story of Irish, Italian and other European immigrants is one of integration rather than segregation.

These groups – based on their “nearly white” skin – were eventually offered a path to white assimilation.  Indeed, they earned their white citizenship, not by identifying with people of color, but by demonstrating their derision and disregard for people of color.  The New York City Riots of 1863 are one such example of this white rite of passage.  Irish immigrants, upset about the draft and the employment of freed black slaves, rampaged for three days in Manhattan, killing 120 black people, burning down a black children’s orphanage and forcing thousands of people of color to permanently flee the city.  Acts like this contributed to Irish credibility and their eventual assimilation into the white establishment.  Sadly, a chief qualification for “whiteness” has always been disdain for people of color.

Of course, some of those asserting White Pride will point out that not all white people have participated in the oppression of people of color, that some white people have stood side by side with blacks, Native Americans and Latinos throughout history, that thousands of white men died to free the slaves.  While this is certainly true, it is important to remember that more white men died to defend slavery than to emancipate slaves.  It is equally important to acknowledge that there are far more statues honoring Confederate General Robert E. Lee than the general who defeated him – Ulysses S. Grant.  While it would be admirable if White Pride was about lifting up and honoring those who have opposed the oppression of people of color throughout history, this is seldom the desire of those proposing White Pride.  Indeed, it is usually just the opposite.

In an August 2017 Washington Post/ABC poll, pollsters found about 9% of Americans found holding neo-Nazi or white supremacist views acceptable.  This equates to nearly 22 million Americans and nearly 25% of white Americans.  This is a group that is also generally supportive of White Pride.  For many of them, White Pride is a pride in a past where white people committed genocide on Native Americans, enslaved millions of black people and exploited people of color in countless ways.  In this cultural context, it is nearly impossible to proclaim White Pride without associating yourself – directly or indirectly – with a celebration of some of the most horrific actions of the last five hundred years.

When you assert your White Pride, you are not merely proud of the color of your skin.  You are not proud of the resilience of your Irish ancestors.  You are not glorifying that minority of white people who have sometimes defended or allied with people of color.  In our present culture, White Pride is a signal that you are not ashamed of the actions of your ancestors, of people who systematically abused, tortured and killed people of color.

There is certainly an argument that many poor white people have much in common with poor people of color.  The dominant culture has often left poor white people behind as well.  Many poor white people have had to be resilient in order to survive.  Poor white people should be natural allies to people of color.  Unfortunately, instead of being sympathetic to the people of color with whom they have shared this experience, many poor white people have counted it as a point of pride that “they are still better than blacks, Native Americans or Latinos.”  Unlike the Black, Native American and Latino Pride movements, White Pride is the only such movement that relies primarily on the argument of superiority to unite its adherents.

It seems self-evident that, in our present culture, White Pride is suspect at best and shameful are worst.  The only kind of white pride that might have some credibility would be a pride in the capacity of white people to acknowledge our checkered past and work to rectify the injustices perpetuated by our ancestors.  While this kind of movement is gaining some traction, in our present culture, this identity is still most often derided as unnecessary and inappropriate white guilt.  According to this narrative, white people have nothing to be ashamed of.

Indeed, that may be the very definition of White Pride.  Many white people – whether they acknowledge or not – are proud of their ignorance of past injustice, of their blindness to present racism and of their false confidence in their “well deserved” privilege.  Don’t confuse us with the facts, especially when those facts are so damning.  Don’t tell us you’ve been mistreated when we just can’t see it.  Don’t disturb our conviction that we deserve everything we’ve got.

Is white pride even possible?

Probably not.

Why White Americans Fear Black Americans

Why White Americans Fear Black Americans

Recently, a friend asked me, “Why has there been such an increase in unarmed black people being killed by the police?” While my friend was genuinely curious, let me unpack the problem with that question. It naively implies that racial tensions have somehow escalated, that there have been more incidents of violence towards blacks in recent years, and that there was a time when the killing of unarmed blacks was rare. These assumptions couldn’t be further from the truth. In actuality, what has changed is not the number of unarmed black people being killed, but the number of killings caught on video. Sadly, in America, the killing of unarmed black people by the police has been fairly commonplace for two hundred years.

In the past, these killings were nearly always justified with the blame laid at the feet of the dead black person. However, even in recent years and with damning video evidence, public outrage, long investigations and occasional trials, most police officers are cleared and acquitted. The officer gets away with murder. Each time this happens, people shake their heads in bewilderment, confused about how killings we’ve watched on video could prove justifiable. Yet the explanation for these exonerations isn’t mysterious. It is the expected outcome of a system designed to justify the killing of black people.

Let me explain. In justifying the police shootings of unarmed black people, courts have consistently set a low bar. Based on rulings by the United States Supreme Court, if the police officer was threatened, using their weapon to defend themselves or others is considered legally justifiable. Unfortunately, a primary factor in determining the legitimacy of a threat is the state of mind of the officer.  If the officer says they felt threatened, this is usually accepted as compelling evidence of a threat and justification for their actions.

In other words, using your weapon to defend yourself and kill an unarmed black person is only justifiable if there is a legitimate threat. How do we test the legitimacy of a threat?  We ask the officer who used their weapon to kill an unarmed black person if they perceived a threat.  If they say they felt threatened, most courts conclude their use of their weapon was defensible.  Once we understand this circular logic, we can see why so few police officers are found guilty of murder or manslaughter. Unless the judge and jury find the perception of threat unreasonable, the police officer is absolved of any crime.

Here is where the flaws in the system should be obvious. Most of the review boards, prosecutors, judges and juries being asked to determine if “the perception of threat was reasonable” are predominantly white.  They are people, who whether they acknowledge it or not, also feel threatened by the presence of black people. When a black person approaches them, knocks on their door, steps into the elevator or otherwise enters their normally white world, they too respond with fear and anxiety. Having experienced many of these moments of perceived threat, white people are predisposed to believe that the officer felt threatened. They can sympathize with the officer and not with the victim.

Almost instinctively, most white Americans fear black Americans.

This wasn’t always the case. In the 1700s, white people did not see black people as a threat.  They saw them as property.  They bought and sold them.  Raped, whipped and killed them.  They forced them to work long hours.  Black people were no more threatening than farm animals.  As long as they were disciplined and domesticated, black people weren’t dangerous.  A single white person could keep dozens of black people cowed and docile.  If one slave misbehaved, they were quickly and severely punished.  If they ran away, their family paid the consequences.  If black slaves had been considered threatening, people wouldn’t have purchased them by the millions.

Indeed, in the late 1700s, whites were so confident of black inferiority and submissiveness that the French colony of Saint Dominigue had 40,000 white people controlling, enslaving and brutalizing nearly 500,000 black people on sugar plantations. In those years, the lands we now call Haiti were considered some of the richest real estate in the world.  The French economy, like the American economy, was built upon this foundation of safe and free labor.  That all changed in 1791.

In that year, the slaves of Saint Dominigue, led by Toussaint Louverture, overthrew their enslavers in a bloody revolution that killed thousands of whites and blacks and established the first black democracy in the world. Though Louverture’s accomplishments have been largely ignored by white historians, what he created at the close of the 18th century is as historically significant as the French and American revolutions. Over the course of the next ten years, he and his armies would defeat one British and two French armies – the very crème of the European white society.

While few white Americans know of Louverture and the Haitian revolution, this event from two hundred years ago is directly connected to the present day fears of white Americans. In the years following the Haitian revolution, many of the white people who escaped from Haiti came to Charleston and New Orleans with their stories of black retribution. They came to a nation where many Southern counties had more black residents than white residents.  Their message that black slaves were dangerous resonated deeply.

The events in Haiti led to two very different responses by white people. In Europe, white people moved to end the slave trade and eventually outlaw slavery.  In America, white people passed draconian laws to control and punish the slightest act of disobedience or resistance on the part of black slaves.  White Americans, rather than seeing the similarities between their revolution from European dominance and the revolution of the Haitian blacks, responded to the righteous retribution of black slaves with even more brutalization.

This is the irony. White fear of black people is rooted in the real fears of 19th century white Americans.  While the white American ethos celebrates the throwing off of British shackles to demand equality and justice, our national history is much different. In the 1800s, in response to the Haitian revolution, Americans doubled down on injustice and oppression.  In this moment of existential reckoning, white Americans ignored what we held to be self-evident and – for the next sixty years – responded to the injustice of slavery with increased violence and exploitation.  No wonder our fears increased.  If the French enslavers in Haiti deserved their fate, what did we deserve?

In many ways, the history of racial relations in America has been a continuation of the vicious cycle that began in the early 1800s. White Americans, knowing what they were doing was evil, continued to oppress black people.  Afraid of the consequences of this evil behavior, they attempted to alleviate their fears by rigidly controlling, intimidating, diminishing, discriminating and – when all else failed – eliminating black people.  All of which increased the guilt and fears of white Americans.  This is the story of American slavery, of the KKK, of Jim Crow laws, of lynching, of the mass incarceration of black men and our present plague of unarmed black people being killed by police officers.  At some deep level, white Americans fear a long delayed retribution.

This is why many police officers feel threatened, but it is also why most of us are fearful and anxious when a black person approaches us, knocks on our door, steps into the elevator or otherwise enters our normally white world. We are afraid of them because they are evidence that we are not who we claim to be, that our highest principles have been fraudulent, that we did not hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  There is no greater fear than having your hypocrisy exposed.

Unfortunately, until white Americans are prepared to fully acknowledge the truth of our history, the depth of the injury we have done to black people and our continued fearful and violent response to the slightest perceived threat, our fears will remain. The only way to truly alleviate our fear is to end the behaviors that make those fears inevitable.

This is why we quake when black women stand before us and call out the names of those who have been killed. This is why we tremble when blacks take to the streets to protest that Black Lives Matter.  This is why we respond to the protestors in Ferguson with police officers in armored cars and riot gear.  It is not because black people are doing us violence.  It is because we know – if black people did – it would be justified.

This is where we are. After hundreds of years of enslavement, brutalization, oppression, discrimination and wanton violence, when a police officer kills an unarmed black person, we justify it as the legitimate response to a perceived threat.  We seldom acknowledge that the perceived threat might not be rooted in the actions of the black person, but rooted in our deepest guilt and fear.  Instead, as we have done for centuries, white Americans continue to blame the black people we brutalize for the fears we have. about them.

Reflections of A Recovering Racist

Reflections of A Recovering Racist

I’ve spent the past week rereading the 47 essays I wrote in 2017 about racism and white privilege. I did so with the hope of better understanding my journey over the past twelve months. What had I learned about our society, about race and about myself? While I awoke to my racism and privilege seven years ago when I became the father to a black daughter, this year was the beginning of an intentional commitment to digging deeper, to serious self-examination, to cultural critique and to the sharing of this journey with my white friends and family.  As a reread my essays chronologically, I had several insights into what has happened in me over these past months.

Prior to this year, I was sadly ignorant about racism – past and present – in the United States. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”  (On Martin’s Day)  King was describing me.  This past year, I have discovered people, facts, historic events and systemic oppressions of which I was previously oblivious.  I learned that most white Americans are woefully uneducated and misinformed about racial relations – past and present – in the United States. (The Pretense of Ignorance)

During this past year, I learned about the 13th Amendment, (13th and the New Jim Crow) Katherine Johnson, (Hidden Messages) racial profiling, (Just The Facts) reparations, (A Reasonable Reparation) and the Reconstruction period (A Splendid Failure).  I’ve read the writings of W.E.B Dubois, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, James Baldwin and Ta-Nehesi Coates. (Between the World And Me) I’ve followed a half dozen blogs written by black men and women.  I’ve gone through white ally training with Showing Up For Racial Justice.  While I am hardly an expert, I am not as ignorant as I once was about racism and white privilege.  Unfortunately, in discovering my ignorance, I’ve also encountered a deep resistance to such enlightenment in other white people.

Acknowledging my personal racism and white privilege is especially difficult in a culture where so many of my white peers are convinced they are not racist or privileged. This year began with a post acknowledging my racism (I Am Racist) and ended with a post reminding myself of how far I have to go. (I Am Not A Hero). In between, I tried repeatedly to remind myself (I Say Racist Things) and others (One Last Attempt At Explaining Racism To White People) about how insidious racism can be.  Quite often, the response to my writings from white people has been indignation.  How could I accuse them of being racist? (Habitually Racist)

The responses to my post “How To Determine If Someone is Racist With One Simple Question” convinced me more than ever that the single greatest obstacle to racial reconciliation in the United States is the resistance of white Americans to taking any personal responsibility for racism – past or present. The comment section to that post is worth reading in both its ugliness and arguments.  This past year, I’ve had dozens of long exchanges and conversations with white people offended by my blanket statements about white people. (Are All White Americans Racist?)  I’ve also become more and more convinced that white people are universally responsible the racial problem in the United States.  None of us are immune.  At a very minimum, we have a responsibility to move beyond racism as an abstraction.

Until the past few years, racism and white privilege were largely abstractions to me. As much as I’ve read, studied and listened, it is nearly impossible for me to truly understand racism. (I Don’t Understand Racism) Though my daughter has given me a window through which to see racism more clearly, it is a window on a moving train.  One minute I see racism and privilege and then next minute I don’t.  However, occasionally, if I am paying attention, I can vicariously experience what people of color experience nearly every day.  (When I Knew)   Occasionally, if I am willing to look, I can see my white privilege. (White Privilege and the Redwoods)

However, the most profound moment of this past year didn’t take place intentionally. It happened on a summer walk with my daughter.  It occurred in a moment I would have completely missed if not for my growing awareness of my white privilege.  In my post entitled “The Umbrella,” I share a glimpse of both the latent racism of our society and the power of my privilege.  On that summer afternoon, the ugliness was no longer an abstraction.  It was palpable and real, frightening in its malignancy.  I am still reconciling myself to how differently my daughter and I experience the world.

Without being the father of a black daughter, I seriously doubt whether I would have taken the journey of this past year. No post made this more obvious to me than one entitled “Teaching Our Black Daughter About Our White Racism.”  The response to this post was remarkable.  Some of my white friends and family expressed deep concern about its conclusion – that my wife and I needed to be proactive in teaching our daughter about racism and – specifically – about our racist inclinations.  I was told several times that I was doing psychological and emotional damage to my daughter.

The responses from the parents – white and black – of black children couldn’t have been more contrary. Many parents of black children wrote me to echo my fears and encourage my commitment.  This post made me realize how easily white people confuse the situation in our culture.  The biggest threat to my daughter’s psychological and emotional well-being is not having racially aware parents.  The greatest obstacle to her success in life will be white people who pretend that racism is a rare and episodic event rather than a systemic problem.  Before becoming Ella’s father, I was one of those white people.

I need to keep listening, experiencing, reflecting and writing. I still have a lot to learn. (Reminders for Recovering Racists)  This is the primary objective of my blog – to share what I’ve learned from listening to people of color.  (I Need To Listen)  I have discovered that my life is better when it includes people of color. (I Need People of Color) What I have experienced in parenting a black daughter is broadly applicable. Life and society is more vibrant when it is inclusive and diverse.

I still have a lot to say. My interactions with other white people have exposed dozens of others issues that need to be addressed.  The list of future themes continues to grow.  I recognize my unique opportunity and responsibility to speak to other white people.  I will persist, even though many white people will not listen.  I do so because some white people will read and consider my words.  They will listen to me precisely because I am white.  I must use my privilege to confront issues that are often discounted when expressed by people of color.  It is the least I can do.

If you have shared this journey with me in 2017, thank you. I know it hasn’t always been easy.  Since I’ve often struggled with the writing, I’m certain many have found the reading challenging.  If I have offended, it was never my intent.  I have always been motivated by a one deep commitment – to create a world less offensive to my daughter and my grandchildren.

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.