The Umbrella

The Umbrella

My beautiful black daughter, Ella, turned ten. No more single digits.  No more little girl.  She’s grown two inches since December. She’s dealing with her first pimple.  She has the beginnings of a teenager’s sarcastic wit.  This is both wonderful and frightening.  It is wonderful to watch her becoming a young woman and frightening when I remember what it means to become a black woman in America.  While I celebrate her growing maturity and independence, I also realize my ability to protect her from racism is diminishing.

Last week, she and I went on a walk. For years, this meant her walking beside me.  Now I walk and she rides her scooter, exploring her burgeoning freedom to navigate this world. Vacillating between child and young adult, sometimes she rides next to me and sometimes she ventures far ahead of me, only circling back when I call out to her.

As we walk through our white neighborhood, I notice a new dynamic. When she is beside me, the white people we encounter greet us with warm smiles, wishing us a good day.  They recognize her as my daughter or granddaughter and offer her all the entitlements of my white privilege.  But when she ventures too far ahead of me, when it isn’t obvious she is connected to me, the demeanor of the white people she encounters shifts.  No one smiles and greets her. Some stare at her, obviously disturbed by this unaccompanied black girl in their neighborhood.  Only when I call out to her to slow down or come back, do they relax.

I’m not criticizing these people. How can I?  They are like me.  Their reaction has been my reaction when I’ve encountered people of color where I did not expect them.  Discomfort.  Suspicion.  Even hostility.  Yet, as I watch the reaction of white people like me, I am also ashamed.  This is white privilege exposed.  It is not an academic abstraction, open to debate.  It is a visible manifestation of a deeply embedded inequity and cruelty.

It is as if I am carrying a large umbrella on our walk. When Ella is near me and underneath that umbrella, she is afforded all the rights and respects of my white privilege.  But, when she ventures outside my umbrella’s shadow, she immediately loses those benefits. She is judged differently. She is greeted with discomfort and suspicion. She is no longer endearing. She is a threat.

So I am finding her tenth birthday bittersweet. I am so proud of who she is becoming, of her intelligence and creativity, her passion for life, her kindness to others and her genuine outrage over injustice.  On our walk, I asked her who – in her class – she thought most likely to become the President of the United States and she replied, “Me, of course.”  I love the confidence with which she approaches her future.  I have so much to celebrate on her birthday.

But I am also aware of the forces that will do everything in their power to keep my beautiful black daughter from becoming the President of the United States. She will spend less and less of her life walking under the umbrella of my white privilege.  She is moving out into a world where she will have many opportunities to be outraged at injustice.  What she does not fully understand is how often she will be the victim of those injustices.

She is why I write these posts. I wish I had thought and written such things long ago, but I didn’t understand my complicity in racial injustice until I became her father. Without becoming her father, I would still be oblivious.  For this reason, I try to be patient with those – who in their ignorance – continue to downplay the role of racism and white privilege in our nation.  How can they understand?  They can’t see the umbrella under which they walk.

This is why I speak out even though I often irritate friends and family. Speaking out is the least I can do for Ella.  I can try to make visible what is invisible, to illustrate what seems abstract or absurd to many white people.  I write because I want my daughter to grow up in a world where the possibility of her becoming the President of the United States is neither ridiculous nor improbable, where the white people she encounters see what I see – beauty, intelligence and incredible potential.

I cannot give Ella that gift for her tenth birthday, but that is the gift she deserves.

What Are You?

What Are You?

My daughter-in-law is bi-racial. Her father was black and her mother was white. Her skin is a very light brown, making it possible to think her Latino, Asian or even Middle Eastern.  This racial ambiguity often makes white people uncomfortable.  Uncertain of how to identify her, complete strangers often ask, “What are you?” While she finds this offensive, she usually responds with, “I am a human being just like you.”

Of course, some people – either lacking certain social graces or harboring deeper prejudices – don’t get this not-so-subtle suggestion that their question is racist. They persist in their attempt to categorize her. They say, “You know what I mean.  What race are you?” To which my daughter-in-law answers proudly, “I’m half black and half white.” Sadly, many of her questioners seem only concerned about whether any part of her is black.

The lineage of another person shouldn’t be our concern.  That we are all human beings should be enough to engender respect and kindness.  If someone was really curious about my daughter-in-law’s family history, they could ask far less offensive questions.  Asking “what are you?” – with its objectifying language – is obviously focused on determining status rather than empathy and understanding.  They are asking if my daughter-in-law is due their deference or disdain. For some, any blackness is justification for disdain.

While I think such questions offensive and racist, they are far too common. All of us are repeatedly asked to identify what we are.  Indeed, our government is one of the worst culprits, demanding this information on a variety of forms.  We are offered a list of boxes with different racial and ethnic designations and asked to fit our often complicated histories into these prescribed boxes.  My daughter-in-law prefers to identify as bi-racial, but is often asked to identify as either black or white.

Sadly, while my daughter-in-law has both a black and white parent, she does not necessarily have the right to identify as white. The predominantly white culture demands those without a “pure” lineage identify with the “less pure” lineage.  People with a black ancestor are black. Though we’re given the impression we can self-identify, historically the government has carefully delineated who fits in what box.  Those who deviate have often found themselves in court or jail.

Fifty years ago, it was against the law for my son and my daughter-in-law to marry. To enforce these laws, the government established who was white and who was not.  In Virginia, 1/16th black was black.  In Florida, I/8th black was black.  In Alabama, any black ancestors made you black, regardless of how you physically appeared.  Thirty years ago, many southern states still had laws that determined how to categorize people.  These “one drop” laws were designed to defend the purity of the races, specifically the white race.

While most of these laws were repealed or found unconstitutional, the courts are still asked to rule on racial identification. When there are disagreements about “what we are,” the courts are asked to judge.  The census includes an admonition against fraud, implying that self-identification is potentially criminal if the government decides you are not who you say you are.  Indeed, for the 2020 census, the government has added a new category – Middle East/North Africa.  Many people who previously identified as white are being asked to identify themselves differently.  They are no longer white.

As complicated as racial identification has been for my daughter-in-law, it could be even more complicated for her children – my grandsons. What are they?  By appearance, they both look very white.  Yet by the old formulas, they are 1/4th black.  What box should they mark?  Should they mark the one that honors their father or the one that respects their mother?  Why should they even have to choose?  And, if they choose to apply to college as a black person, could the courts accuse them of fraud?

Such questions expose race as the cultural and political construct it has always been. Race is used to divide and categorize us.  For some, it means inclusion and all of its benefits.  For others, it creates obstacles and disadvantages.  In America, it has always been a construct designed with one primary goal – to guard white identity and power.  Within this American racial construct, identifying as white is a protected privilege.

The problem in America is not with how people of color identify themselves. The problem is that so many of us – whose genealogies are probably far more diverse that we know or acknowledge – continue to proudly wear the white label.  As long as I identify as white, I give tacit approval to the cultural and political construct that does so much damage to people of other colors.  Racism will not end with laws or constitutional amendments.  It will only end when white people abandon and deconstruct the idea of whiteness as preferable and normative.

I will not pretend this deconstruction is an easy task. White privilege was embedded in the very foundation of our nation.  Our cultural institutions were built on this foundation.  Cosmetic changes to a few laws do little damage to its underpinnings. However, I am certain who holds the responsibility for deconstruction.  It is the ancestors of those who built this ugly system.  It is white people like me.  In the months ahead, I will be wrestling with the many ways I and other white people can speed the deconstruction.

For example, how should I identify in the 2020 census? To identify as white feels like flashing my membership card to an exclusive club. Yet I also understand that demographic information has provided evidence of inequities and support to those who challenge them.  Even with this statistical evidence of great inequities, many white people resist change.  Without this demographic information, how can the courts be swayed and people shamed?

But I also realize demographics are a two edged sword. The census data of the 1930s was used to identify the Japanese who were placed in internment camps.  How will the label North Africa/Middle Eastern be used against Muslim people?  The boxes we mark give power and legitimacy to what I hate, the idea that people can be divided and valued by the color of their skin.  As much I wish, we are not at a place and time where my daughter-in-law’s response that “she is a human being just like you” is enough.

Until that day, I will use my membership card to gain entry to the club, examine all of its many security measures, exploit their weaknesses and plot its destruction. My goal is not that my white looking grandsons are assured admission. This would be no victory.  I want to tear down the building, brick by brick and stone by stone.  I want to destroy this American apartheid, to see a day when marking the box “white” has no more value than any other box.

Just The Facts

Just The Facts

Here are some facts.

Though blacks are only about 13% of the US population, they represent over 40% of the jail and prison population in the United States. A recent study – based on current trends – estimated that one in three black males will spend time in prison during their lifetime.  Based on this information, what could you conclude?

a.) The American criminal justice system is intentionally and systematically racist.

b.) Black men commit more crimes than white men.

If you are progressive, you probably gave response (a). You interpret the statistics above as evidence of racial bias.  If you are conservative, you probably gave response (b).  You believe the explanation for these statistics is in the behavior of black men and not in the racial bias in the system.  Ironically, neither (a) nor (b) are facts.  They are both opinions based on facts.   It is difficult to sort out racial bias from individual behavior.  It is not difficult to determine if black men commit more crimes than white men.

Here is a fact.

Black men are six times more likely to be arrested for a drug offense. Based on this information, what could you conclude?

a.) The American criminal justice system is intentionally and systematically racist.

b.) Black men commit more drug offenses than white men.

If you are progressive, you probably chose (a) and if you’re conservative, you probably chose (b). Again, both are opinions and not facts.  Being arrested for a crime and committing a crime are not the same.  Arrests only indicate whether a person was caught in or accused of a crime.  They tell us nothing about the overall behavior of a group of people.  If you are not arrested when in the possession of drugs, this does not mean you didn’t commit a crime.  It means you didn’t get caught.

Here is a fact.

Black men (11%) are not significantly more likely to use illicit drugs than white men (10%). Based on this information, we would conclude that blacks and whites should be arrested, convicted and incarcerated for drug offenses at approximately the same rates.  However, we know that black men are six times more likely to be arrested for a drug offense.  Something is deeply wrong and the problem isn’t the behavior of black men.

Here are some more facts.

Black men are three times more likely to be pulled over by the police for an investigatory stop. They are five times as likely to be searched.  Based on this information, if illicit drug use is equally common with black men and white men, it stands to reason that stopping more black men than white men would result in more arrests of black men.  Black men do not commit more drug offenses.  We have simply created a system that catches them at a much higher rate.  What is true with drugs is also true with other crimes.  One of the privileges of being white in America is a much greater opportunity to get away with a crime.

Here are some more facts.

Blacks are more likely to accept a guilty plea for a lighter sentence. They are less likely to ask for a jury trial.  They are less likely to post bail or to hire their own legal counsel.  If they ask for a jury trial, they have only about a 50% chance of having a single black person on their jury.  If they face an all-white jury, they are 16% more likely to be found guilty.  If convicted, they are given sentences that are about 20% lengthier than their white counterparts.  Based on this information, what could you conclude?

a.) Black people, though they are not statistically more prone to criminal behavior, are targeted by police, pressured by white prosecutors, allowed to languish in jail, poorly represented, forced to put their fates in the hands of people who are racially bias and given harsher sentences.

b.) Black men commit more crimes than white men.

While these are both opinions, they are not equally credible. The first is supported by nearly all the facts and the second ignores them.  The first opinion suggests you are a fair and open-minded person willing to adjust your opinions based on evidence.  The second opinion suggests you are ignorant and racist.

Those are the facts.

You Might Be A Racist If…

You Might Be A Racist If…

When someone uses the phrase, “I’m not racist, but…,” you can be nearly certain they are racist. In my experience, what follows the word “but” is usually stereotypical and often racially offensive. Indeed, the least racially prejudiced people I know never make such claims.  If they say anything at all, it is to acknowledge their continual struggle to address their racist tendencies.

Some white people are clearly less racist than others. Not all of us are white supremacists who think people of color genetically and intellectually inferior.  Many of us are genuinely trying to check our racism and address our white privilege.  While I applaud such efforts, I continue to discover ways in which I am unconsciously racist.  I offer this short list of statements, attitudes, behaviors and possessions that I’ve either had or tolerated.

You might be a racist if…

  • You have recently begun a sentence with the disclaimer, “I’m not a racist, but…”
  • You hit the automatic locks on your car in response to the presence of a person of color.
  • You have suggested people who complain about injustice in America should “go back where they came from.”
  • You say “they should go back where they came from” when a Native American complains of injustice. (In this case, you are not only racist, but really stupid.)
  • You own a Confederate flag or a black Sambo yard ornament.
  • You claim “all lives matter” or “blue lives matter.”
  • You think traveling to a resort in Mexico qualifies as traveling to Mexico.
  • Your only real interaction with people of color is when they’re serving you.
  • You think of a black male when asked to describe a drug dealer.
  • You can’t understand why “Indians” get so upset about sports team mascots.
  • You have wondered why there isn’t a White History month.
  • You don’t notice when you’re in a group without a single person of color.
  • You are never the only white person in a group.
  • You’ve hired an undocumented immigrant and paid them less than a fair wage.
  • You don’t know any details about the life of Frederick Douglas.
  • Even worse, you think Frederick Douglas is still alive.
  • You have used the term “those people” to describe a racial group.
  • You think affirmative action is unfair, but think it perfectly acceptable for your child to get preference at your alma mater.
  • You own a signed copy of a book written by Rush Limbaugh.
  • You’ve never watched a Madea movie.
  • Even worse, you’ve never heard of Madea.
  • You have recently said, “Some of my best friends are people of color.”
  • You’ve made the argument that the Civil War was about state’s rights.
  • You don’t celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • You think one or all of the following to be true – Asian people are more talented at math, black people love watermelon, people of Muslim faith are violent, Latino people are more tolerant of heat or Jewish people are better with money.
  • You still think Christopher Columbus discovered America.
  • You are white and were born in the United States.

This last indicator is probably the most important. It is impossible for white people to grow up in America without some level of racism.  Until you acknowledge this reality, you are ignorant in the truest sense of that word.  You ignore the truth.  This combination of ignorance and racism makes a white person very dangerous.  They can do or support terrible things while continuing to see themselves as morally righteous.

Unfortunately, even for those of us who acknowledge our latent racism, this list only captures the more obvious examples. Sadly, I was once oblivious to the racism in much of this list.  In the future, I expect to discover other examples of racism within myself, racist statements and behaviors of which I am presently unaware.

This is good news.

The longer this list becomes, the less racist I will be.

 

When I Knew

When I  Knew

There are many metaphors for moments of sudden clarity and awareness. When I was religious, we called them “Damascus Road “experiences.  Scientists call them “Eureka” moments.  Ordinary folk say “a light bulb came on.”  When it comes to racism, black people talk about “being woke.”  Whatever the metaphor, they describe that life altering moment when something unknown becomes known.

Last week, someone asked me, “When did you know systemic racism was real?” That was easy to answer.  It wasn’t a sociology class in college.  It wasn’t because of statistics about racial inequalities.  It wasn’t even from talking with people of color.  Like most epiphanies, it happened on a specific day at a specific moment in a specific place.

For my wife and me, it happened on a spring day in 2012 at the Carl Fisher Elementary School in Speedway, Indiana. On that day, we took our four year old black daughter to visit the school where she would be attending kindergarten.  We wanted to see the building and classroom as well as meet the principal and teachers. So we’d called and requested a tour.

When we arrived, the principal ushered us in to her office and began to tell us about the school. She went into great detail about their special education programs, how they were highly rated and how they attempted to incorporate their special needs students into the general population of the school.  She then took us on a tour of the building.

We made a brief stop at the kindergarten room to observe the class and its teacher. Then we made a much longer visit to the special needs classroom.  The teacher greeted us warmly and engaged with our daughter.  They then escorted us from the school and thanked us for coming.  As we walked away, all three of us were on edge, angry and uncomfortable.  Something wasn’t right.

It wasn’t until that evening – when we had time to sit and talk – that we realized what was wrong. The entire special needs class had been children of color.  The principal had assumed from the moment she saw our daughter that she would be a special needs student, that she was less intelligent and capable.  Realizing what had happened, my wife and I were enraged.  My wife said, “She’ll go to that school over my dead body!”

It is interesting that when I tell this story to people of color, they begin shaking their head the moment I mention the principal’s accolades for the special needs program. They know what’s coming.  When I tell it to white people, they often don’t make the connections until I talk about the makeup of the special needs class.  They also often respond with disbelief, implying I must have misinterpreted the principal’s remarks or misunderstood her intent.

This is the problem with systemic racism in America. Unless you can directly experience its ugliness, it is far too easy to discount.  Hearing is not believing.  Many white people – upon hearing stories of systemic racism – assume they are an oddity rather than a common occurrence.  When the stories are told by people of color, many white people assume bias on the part of storyteller rather than on society or themselves. They find such stories unbelievable.

Even seeing is not believing. When white people see videos of black men who are shot and killed by police, many do not see this as evidence of racial inequity.  Many white people say, “If you’re doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear from the police.”  This is such a powerful argument because it is experientially true for them.  If you’ve never been the target of systemic racism, it is hard to believe in it.  There are more comfortable explanations for what you are seeing.

This has been my chief realization and frustration as I’ve begun talking to white people about racism and white privilege.   There is no adequate replacement for experience.  If you assume you’re color blind and society is generally fair, it is easy to ignore evidence to the contrary.  Science even has a term for this – confirmation bias.  We see and hear that which confirms what we already believe.

Every epiphany is a moment when we understand something we’ve never understood before. My visit to that school did not confirm by assumptions about our society.  I went into that school assuming our educational system was color blind.  Even when I left, that assumption made it difficult for me to recognize what I’d seen and heard.  Only later, when I had time to reflect on what had happened, did I identify it as systemic racism.

Like all epiphanies, that day changed my understanding of the world. Like all those who’ve experienced such moments, I felt compelled to share it with others.  Like all preachers and teachers, I’ve learned hearing and seeing isn’t enough.  Unless you’ve had the experience yourself, you have to decide to believe in the experience of someone else.  You have to trust them.

Ironically, systemic racism persists in America precisely because so many white people refuse to believe what they see and hear. Our racial prejudice makes it nearly impossible for many of us to trust the stories and experiences of people of color.  We don’t believe them because believing them would mean accepting something ugly about ourselves, that white people continue to perpetuate and benefit from injustice.

Anti-Racist Resolutions

Anti-Racist Resolutions

“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.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It is disappointing that these words of Dr. King in the 1960s still ring so true in 2017. Too many of us who are white don’t seem all that interested in learning about white privilege, racism or about people of color.  We seem to thrive on our racial ignorance, convinced we know all we need to know, satisfied with our prejudices, content in our stereotypes and resistant to anything that might call them into question.  I say “we” because I am increasingly aware of how little I know about racism.

With this in mind, my wife, Jennifer, and I have decided to make some significant changes in our behavior in 2017. These changes are intended to allow our behavior around racism catch up with our rhetoric.  Like many, we tend to talk a better game than we live.  We want to change that.  We want our daughter to see a consistency between our words and actions.

We have resolved to the do the following…

  1. Subscribe to the Safety Pin Box, a subscription service designed by Black Lives Matter advocates to educate white people on racism and white privilege as well as fund grassroots efforts to address systemic racism.
  2. Make one significant donation each month to organizations that are directly or indirectly supporting the lives and dreams of people of color. Our first target was the Immigrant Welcome Center in Indianapolis. Planned Parenthood, the Southern Law Policy Center and ACLU are three of our next recipients.
  3. Purposely direct our economic transactions toward businesses, restaurants, movies, services and companies owned or with people of color in significant management roles.
  4. Inversely, avoid any company (or its owner) that seems opposed to efforts to create economic or social equality.
  5. Read only books written by people of color during 2017. We recently created a list of the top books written by people of color and were embarrassed by how few we’d actually read. We’re beginning with “The Parable of the Sower” by Octavia Butler and “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander. Buying their books rather than using the library is another way to support black writers.
  6. Intentionally sit down with a person of color each month for a substantial conversation about their lives and their views.
  7. Attend events, protests, and educational activities organized and lead by people of color.
  8. Join groups and organizations led by people of color and become active learners.
  9. Actively oppose any actions by the Trump administrations that target minority or impoverished people.

That’s a tall task. We’ve got a lot to learn. Fortunately, I am already discovering there are a lot of people of color who are willing to be our teachers.  While none of these things will change the world, we hope they change us.