When Rape Was Legal

When Rape Was Legal

I’ve spent the last five years studying the history of slavery and racial discrimination in the United States.  There was much I didn’t know.  I read of the brutality of industrial slavery, something far different than the “Gone With the Wind” portrayals of slavery from my childhood.  I discovered – that when it comes to freeing black people – the Civil War was a splendid failure, that the plight of blacks in America was even uglier after the Emancipation Proclamation.  I learned one black man or woman was lynched every week during the one hundred years after the Civil War.  I uncovered countless stories of white violence and oppression.  After five years, I thought I could no longer be surprised by the moral depravity of white America.

I was wrong.

This past month, I’ve been researching the role of rape in sustaining slavery and racial oppression.  It’s a dimension of slavery seldom discussed – today or in the past.  In 1861, Southern diarist Mary Chestnut wrote, “Every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own, she seems to think drop from the clouds or pretends so to think.” Chestnut called this reality “the thing we cannot name.”

Unfortunately, one hundred and fifty years later, the rape culture of white America still remains largely unnamed.  If white women report high incidents of racial assault and harassment TODAY, what do we imagine was happening during a period of time when white men had absolutely no checks upon their ability to sexually assault and harass women of color?  If Thomas Jefferson, one of the most enlightened men of his generation, repeatedly raped his slave, Sally Hemming, at the age of 14, we can safely assume the less enlightened were doing the same or worse. This unbridled ability to meet every sexual whim may better explain the resistance of white men to ending slavery than the often-offered economic incentive.  For most of American history, it has been legal for a white man to rape women of color.

While rape has been a common experience for many women, the plight of enslaved women was especially horrifying.  In her book – At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance – Danielle McGuire chronicles this often-ignored aspect of the black experience.  She argues persuasively that ALL enslaved black women could expect to be raped and sexually assaulted from an early age, that their parents and husbands could do nothing to protect them and that in those instances where women resisted that the punishment was swift and harsh.  She exposes rape as a common strategy of white men for increasing their wealth – creating children they could eventually sell or monetize.  She documents growing evidence that some enslaved mothers would kill newly born daughters, unwilling to bring them into a rape culture they found so horrible.

Of course, we don’t have to speculate about what was happening to enslaved black women.  We have the accounts of escaped slaves about their mistreatment and sexual abuse.  As Mary Chestnut noted, everyone knew this was happening.  Indeed, Frederick Douglas made it one of the centerpieces of his speeches, reminding his northern listeners that his own birth was a product of rape.  Douglas made it clear that the immorality of slavery was not some philosophical abstraction, but a state that justified a multitude of immoral acts.  The slave that was seen as an economic tool was also seen as an object of sexual gratification.

The 1850 criminal trial of a black girl named Celia graphically illustrates how the rape of women and children of color was understood.  Bought by Robert Newsom at the age of 14, Celia was routinely raped by Newsom over the next five years, resulting in the birth of a child.  At the age of 19, Celia finally defended herself and killed Newsom.  For this act, she was charged with murder.  At her trial, though no one disputed the brutality of Newsom’s behavior, she was found guilty and hung by the State of Missouri.  The message from this nationally renowned case was clear.  Raping an enslaved person was legal.

Unfortunately, what was deeply ingrained in the American white male psyche – the sexual objectification of black women – did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation.  Indeed, like lynching, rape was a commonly used weapon to enforce white supremacy and power throughout the one hundred years of Jim Crow.  In 1944, Rosa Parks – a decade before refusing to give up her seat on the bus – led an effort to arrest and convict six white men – Dillard York, Billy Howerton, Herbert Lovett, Luther Lee, Joe Culpepper and Robert Gamble – for gang raping a black woman by the name of Recy Taylor.  Parks and others gathered irrefutable evidence of the crime, including testimony by the rapists.  However, two Alabama grand juries refused to indict the men. Recy Taylor, who died in 2017, never saw justice.

Yet when I speak of being surprised by my recent research, it is not the rape of enslaved women or the injustice of Jim Crow courts that shocked me.  Though it probably shouldn’t have, what I found most difficult to believe was that the first conviction of a white man for raping a woman of color was not until 1959 – one year before my birth.  In what is considered a landmark court case, four white men – William Collinsworth, Ollie Stoutamire, Patrick Scarborough, and David Beagles – were convicted of raping Betty Jean Owens in the state of Florida.

I name these men intentionally.  “The thing that cannot be named” must be.  These men represent millions of white men who raped black women and children.  Indeed, it is likely that most white American families have rapists in their genealogy.  That they did so in a time when this behavior was ignored or excused is irrelevant.  That the behavior was taboo to discuss is evidence enough of its immorality.

When white people blithely suggest that black people need to get over the past, we do so because it allows us to ignore the shocking and the horrible.  Many black women today have been victims of a culture that defined their rape as a white privilege.  Many white men today, whether they realize it or not, were enculturated to see black women as sexual objects.  Acknowledging both of these realities is a necessary starting point in racial reconciliation.


Slavery As America’s Original Sin

Slavery As America’s Original Sin

I remember the first time I heard slavery identified as America’s original sin.  I was sitting in Rufus Burrow’s Christianity and Social Justice class in seminary.  The person listening to those words in 1988 was a much different person than I am today.  I was a conservative evangelical Christian raised in a rural white community in Southern Illinois.  As such, I remember my shock at both that assertion and its use of a theological concept I still thought sacred.  I wish I could say it jolted me out of my apathy toward racial injustice and into an exploration of racial history, but that would take an encounter with a three year old black girl in 2010.

This week, I stumbled upon an article about the recent death of James Cone, the most famous black liberation theologian in American history.  Honestly, until I read the article, I’d completely forgotten Cone and his once shocking accusations.  Cone wrote, “White supremacy is America’s original sin and liberation is the Bible’s central message.  Any theology in America that fails to engage white supremacy and God’s liberation of black people from that evil is not Christian theology, but a theology of Antichrist.” Rereading those words thirty years after first hearing them, all I could say was, “Amen.”

Though I’m no longer religious and long ago concluded the Biblical idea of original sin was rather ridiculous, I think Cone’s use of the analogy is powerfully provocative.  Indeed, the idea of slavery as an original sin whose fruits and consequences have been passed on from generation to generation – in both white and black communities – seems more reasonable and defensible than the idea of evil originating in a man and woman disobeying God and eating an apple.

Ironically, in my discussions with my white peers about our racial history, I often hear the same language and arguments that eventually led me to abandon the idea of original sin.  Where is the justice in holding people guilty for the sins of their ancestors?  Shouldn’t each person be judged solely on their own behavior?  Isn’t it obvious that children are not born sinful, but are rather socialized into evil?  Shouldn’t our focus be in working for goodness and justice now, rather than on some mythological explanation of past evil?

There are two ironies here.  First, many of those arguing against any white culpability for racial injustice and inequity are also firm believers in the idea of original sin.  They, rather than I, should be arguing that white people can’t escape the taint of past sin, that we pass those sins and their consequences on from parent to child and that redemption and liberation can only come with repentance and reparation.  James Cone is correct.  When it comes to racial issues in America, if you are a theologically consistent white Christian, you should be a champion for white responsibility and reparations.

The second irony is more personal.  Though I long ago abandoned the idea of original sin as a good explanation for human evil, I find the idea of slavery as America’s original sin far more compelling.  I do so not from a theological perspective, but from a sociological one.  While children have to be taught to be racist, this indoctrination is passed on from generation to generation in systemic and unconscious ways.  These rationalizations originated in the need for white Americans to justify the obvious horrors of slavery.  In this sense, white people pass on the taint of defending slavery.  We also pass on the economic and social benefits – money and power – that originated in slavery.

I know how much white people want – when it comes to slavery – for the past be the past, to focus on working for goodness and justice now, rather than on acknowledgments of past racial injustice.  We want all that happened to black people to be forgiven and forgotten. We want to be freed from the burden of past transgressions.  To use another religious concept, we want redemption.

James Cone suggested such redemption cannot come easily.  He wrote, “I believe that until Americans, especially Christians and theologians, can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with ‘recrucified’ black bodies hanging from lynching trees, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.”

According to Cone, the lynching tree offers us a singular opportunity for both black and white people to understand their past.   In those trees, white people are forced to confront their past and present accommodations with racist evil and black people are reminded of their courage in the face of that racist oppression.  Like with the Christian cross, something horrible becomes a symbol of responsibility, reconciliation and redemption.  I suspect Cone was pleased with the recently opened National Memorial to those who were lynched.

However, having said all of this, I’m conflicted.  In my opinion, white American Christianity is unlikely to play a significant role in bringing racial reconciliation.  As an institution, it has been far more complicit in perpetuating and defending racism than challenging it.  If I had thought most Christians were serious about the liberation of the oppressed, I might still be one.  Like the prophets of old, I think James Cone was largely preaching to the wind, only remembered and honored after his death.

On the other hand, Cone’s reclaiming of commonly accepted Christian imagery reminds me of what the famous philosopher, Joseph Campbell, concluded.  He wrote, “Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth–penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words.”  Our myths, religious and otherwise, tell far more about our societal psyche than our history.  They are the ways in which we communicate and interpret our lives together.

Something evil happened on the day the first black person was brought to America in chains.  That moment forever altered American history.  We cannot change that history, but we can choose the mythology we use to understand our shared past.  Will it be Confederate flags or memorials to those who were lynched?  Will it be “Gone With The Wind” or “Twelve Years A Slave?”  Will it be the Puritan work ethic or recognition of the labor of millions of enslaved black men and women?  Will it be the colorblind society or the multicultural nation?  Obviously, I think one set of myths more helpful than the other.

Understanding slavery as America’s original sin could help both whites and blacks put into words something we have so much trouble talking about.  It uses images and ideas we all understand.  It acknowledges a terrible past and explains our present difficulties. It reminds us that racial oppression twists both the oppressor and the oppressed, damaging all of our children.  It offers us a culturally honored solution – acknowledgment of injury, repentance and even forgiveness.

Since 1865, seven generations of white Americans have failed to adequately address the evils of racial subjection and discrimination, adding insult to injury, perpetuating rather than repairing damage, increasing the debt owed to people of color. We’ve passed this legacy on to our children and grandchildren, postponing the day of reckoning, hoping all will be forgotten.  If Cone is right, until we see racial hostility and indifference as an ugly inheritance, we will pass it onto the next generation. If America’s original sin was slavery, it is long past time to liberate both white and black people from our shared curse.

We need to be free, free at last.

What Saying “There Were Blacks Who Fought For The South” Says About A White Person

What Saying “There Were Blacks Who Fought For The South” Says About A White Person

Recently, while participating in a conference on cross-racial dialogue, I suggested white people need to stop talking about how Lincoln or the North freed the slaves. Since an estimated 500,000 blacks either fought in or supported the Union army, the assertion white people freed the slaves is racist rhetoric.  Nearly as many white people fought to maintain slavery as to dismantle it.  The infusion of black regiments and logistical support were pivotal to the Union victory when war fatigue had led many Northern whites to call for the end of the war and the permanent separation of the nation.  It may be more historically accurate to say black people saved the Union.

In response to my statement, a white woman in the audience, said, “We need to remember blacks fought on the side of the Confederacy as well.” I disputed her claim, pointing out that Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy had resisted such proposals as contradicting the purposes of the rebellion and its defense of slavery.  While I was correct about Davis, she was also correct in her assertion. Upon returning home and further research, I learned that a limited number of blacks did fight for the Confederacy, though there is considerable debate over whether they were compelled or volunteered.

Reflecting on my exchange with that woman, I wish I’d responded differently.  Instead of disputing the facts, I wish I’d asked, “Why do we need to remember that?  How does remembering that some blacks fought for the Confederacy advance racial reconciliation and equity today?” I had highlighted the participation of blacks in the Civil War in order to shift conversations that too often portray blacks as lazy and apathetic about injustice, in need of rescue by well-intentioned white people.  Her response, whether she realized it or not, suggested the opposite, that blacks actually found their oppression acceptable. Of course, if I’d asked my question, I doubt that would have been her response. I imagine she would have argued for a fair presentation of history and the acknowledgment of the exception to the rule.

White people love the exception to the rule.  Over the past few years, I’ve had countless white people inform me that there were…

  • Black slave traders
  • Black slave owners
  • Blacks who wouldn’t leave their owners and plantations after the Civil War
  • Blacks who wanted to leave the US and return to Africa
  • Blacks who supported segregation
  • Blacks who opposed affirmative action.
  • Blacks who disagreed on the need for reparations
  • Blacks who voted for Trump.

These exceptions to the rule are always offered as a counter to my descriptions of the brutality and de-humanization of black people through slavery, Jim Crow and systemic racism.  They infer I’m exaggerating the seriousness of the problem.  After all, if some blacks were and are content in such systems, they can’t be nearly as bad as I suggest. More disturbing, the exception to the rule implies that – since a few black people were or are active participants in oppression – any critique of white behavior is unjust.  Black people did it too!  Having established this false equivalency, white people can shut down any further discussion of slavery or racism.

Of course, any parent of a teenager knows that arguing an exception to the rule always has one intent – to deflect attention from the rule. The answer to my question – “How does remembering that some blacks fought in the Confederacy advance racial reconciliation and equity today? – is easy.  It doesn’t.

Such exceptions only distract us from honestly addressing larger truths, such as the fact that the industrial slavery of the United States was some of the most brutal and dehumanizing in human history.  Does anyone really want to argue that a few blacks fighting in the Confederacy meant black people actually supported and approved of their subjection?  In truth, many of the stories of the blacks employed to assist the Confederacy end with those same blacks fleeing across Union lines at the first opportunity.

Additionally, such arguments fail to acknowledge one of the most damaging aspects of racism – it is often internalized by its victims. Throughout history, there have been blacks who preferred a quiet accommodation with white supremacy than the real risks and dangers of confronting a force that had repeatedly killed those who opposed it.  While blacks should rightly be proud of their ancestors who fought for their freedom, pitting “those who fought” against “those who didn’t” serves one purpose – sustaining white supremacy.

This defense of whiteness is especially obvious in the common white retort that some blacks owned slaves.  While this is true, it is largely irrelevant.  Offering black slave owners as character witnesses for white culture is as ridiculous as believing the marital accolades of a woman with two black eyes. Those blacks who tolerated or participated in oppression were never white allies. They were tragic accomplices in their own victimization.

I’m tired of white people who – when it comes to slavery and racial discrimination – know every exception to the rule, but hardly anything about the rule.  For example, a vast majority of white people do not know one of the most basic pieces of information about slavery – how many black men and women were abducted or born into slavery in the United States?  That most white people know how many Jews were killed in the German Holocaust, but not the number of lives destroyed by the American Holocaust is damning, especially since conservative estimates place the carnage at about 12 million people.  Those who focus on the exceptions are attempting to distract attention from the rule.

Here is the rule.  White people were responsible for the creation of slavery in America. White people de-humanized, tortured, raped, and murdered millions of these enslaved people over the course of 400 years.  Upon their emancipation, white people were responsible for the creation of Jim Crow and systems of racial discrimination that continued to abuse, mistreat and murder black people.  White people are responsible for the continuation of system racism in America today.  The exceptions to this rule are irrelevant.

Ironically, while emphasizing the exceptions is often presented as an attempt at a more complete and balanced historical perspective, it is not. There were nearly 500,000 blacks who actively fought against the Confederacy and a few thousand, at most, who cooperated with it.  That this is the only time white people seem to value the minority viewpoint should end any doubt – our true motivation is to diminish responsibility for a horrific history and sustain white supremacy.


The Burden Of Being A Black Women

The Burden Of Being A Black Women

During the week of the Ford/Kavanaugh hearing, I heard a black male comedian joke, “This was one of those few weeks when it was better to be black than a woman.”  The crowd laughed, but I didn’t.  His comment was more emblematic of a problem than it was a mockery of one.  I wondered if he and his crowd were aware of the misogyny and racism hidden in his remark.

The categories of his joke – unstated, but clearly implied – were black men and white women.  According to his quip, it was better during that week to be a black man like himself than a white woman like Dr. Ford. Though I am not sure the diminishment of one marginalized group ever makes things better for another, that his joke excluded people who inhabit both of his categories suggests a blind spot on the part of our society. We too often ignore black women.

Don’t think black women aren’t aware of this common slight.  I follow enough women of color to know last week was especially difficult for them.  The seriousness in which the Democrats responded to Dr. Ford was in striking contrast to how Democrats treated a black woman, Anita Hill.  While black women were mostly sympathetic to Dr. Ford, they were also aware of the privilege she brought to her testimony.  They had to wonder how much of her credibility was connected to the color of her skin.  One woman of color noted that many of the white women who were most enraged often tone police black women when they voice their anger about racism.

Though we are beginning to talk about intersectionality and the need to recognize various types and kinds of discrimination and oppression, we seldom acknowledge that two of the deepest blights on our society – racism and misogyny – intersect in women of color.  Heaven forbid a black woman should be a lesbian – the trifecta of intersectionality.  This is why I am especially impressed with black women like Dana Black.

My wife and I recently hosted a small gathering in support of the efforts of Dana Black to make her name and way within the Democratic Party.  Dana, a black lesbian, most recently ran against a long time and powerful Indiana Republican State Representative in a district where the Democratic Party had allowed his election to go uncontested. Eternally optimistic, Dana ran even though the Party offered little support and people mocked her naivete.  Dana says, “Did I lose?  Yes.  Did I fail?  No. I gave 38% of the people in that District another option, a vision of what could be.  That so many in that district voted for a black female lesbian is nearly miraculous.”

I am amazed by that kind of thinking, of those who understand racism and misogyny will not be quickly routed, that defeating them is trench warfare where the deeply dug lines are moved slowly and with many losses. This is why my wife and I became monthly donors to The 10/100 Committee, an organization with the goal of seeing 10 US Senators of color and 100 US Representatives of color in the Congress in 2050.  Notice the target date.  I am supporting an organization with a goal that I will never see, but perhaps my black daughters will.  Indeed, my hope is that when we meet that goal that at least 5 of those Senators and 50 of those Representatives will be women of color.

This generational shift is what I hope for in my writing, my giving and my advocacy.  I understand many of my white peers will die with their hearts permanently hardened by the racism and misogyny in which we were immersed. A few of us will change, but most will not.  The death of systemic racism and misogyny will be a lingering death.  Old white men will cling to the reins of power with their dying breath.  If the arc of the universe bends toward justice, those climbing that arc know how steep the incline.  Like Sisyphus, they push the great rock of white male privilege up that hill, knowing full well that they are always at risk of being crushed by it.

Certainly, white women and black men share this danger, but it is the blood, sweat and tears of black women like Vivian Malone Jones that most oil those efforts, making it possible for us to inch the rock upward.  The lead picture of this blog is of a 21 year old Vivian Malone Jones being escorted into registration at the University of Alabama in 1961.  Her family was threatened with violence and the governor of Alabama – George Wallace – stood in her way on her first attempt to register.  What is often forgotten is that once the federal marshals left, Vivian had to endure blatant and systemic racism every day of her education.  Every day she persevered, she inched the rock forward.

She did what black women before and after her have done – women like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida Wells, Mary McLeod Bethune, Rosa Parks, Shirley Chisholm, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors.  If you don’t know of them, you should.  They are the ones who have shouldered so much of the burden of changing our society for the better.  Black women like these women continue that legacy.  I have the honor of knowing and sometimes working with incredible women of color.

Today I celebrate black women like Dana Black.  I marvel at Teena and her incredible strength.  I appreciate Nichelle and her work to highlight black literature and culture.  I’m thankful for LaShawnda, who has worked so tirelessly to remind us of the horror of lynching.  I respect Patrice and her perseverance in community development.  I remember Val and all her many community organizing workshops.  I honor Alyson who spends her “free time” advocating for the ethical treatment of orphans.  I treasure the friendship of Cherie and her work on cross racial dialogue.  I am in awe of Mashariki and understand why many call her “Queen Mother.” Each of these women has accomplished great things despite the many ways our society diminishes their value and ignores their efforts.

For me, they are the canary in the mine.  They are uniquely positioned to experience and know whether we are making any progress in our struggle to end misogyny and racism in America.  When they tell us the work is done – then and only then – can we rest.

In Support of White History Month

In Support of White History Month

I once scoffed at white people who complained about Black History Month, who demanded white people have their own month.  I’d respond that every month was White History Month, a celebration of white culture and people.  I’d point out how American history, as we teach it today, centers on white heroes and heroics, seldom mentioning people of color or acknowledging the long history of white savagery and oppression.  While I still think all of that is true, I’ve begun to think white people do need a month focusing on their whiteness.

Recently, a woman of color asked me, “What do you know about whiteness?” I stumbled through a response, offering some abstract thoughts about white supremacy and privilege.  She was not impressed.  While she could quickly articulate the black experience in America, detailing significant moments and people in the history of the black resistance to slavery, racism and discrimination, I was mostly ignorant of the other side of that story, specific moments when white people oppressed and terrorized people of color.

The history I’d been taught in school, while mentioning the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, was largely an account of white accomplishment and nobility.  We were taught the first Thanksgiving rather than Wounded Knee, the Revolutionary War rather than Nat Turner’s Rebellion and the Oregon Trail rather than the Trail of Tears.  Any story that cast white people in a poor light was a footnote – at best – in most history books.  The racism so foundational to our nation and its history was whitewashed away, hidden in the margins and written between the lines.

Equally problematic, white history ignored or misrepresented moments and white people who were truly heroic, who spoke out and stood up against racism at nearly every point of American history.  This omission allowed white people to think of slavery and Jim Crow as unfortunate but understandable; the accepted practices of a less enlightened day.  While our history books reluctantly acknowledged people of color like Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., they seldom mentioned the white people who were their accomplices or allies.  In so doing, our history lessons reinforced the idea that racial justice was never a white concern.

James Loewen, in his book Lies My Teacher Told Me, details one such glaring example of this tendency to ignore, diminish and even demonize moments in history when white people stood up against slavery and racial discrimination.  Most white people know very little of one of the most significant historic figures of the 19th century.

On October 16th, 1859, John Brown led a small group of abolitionist white men and freed slaves in seizing the federal armory in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.  With control of the 100,000 weapons stored at the armory, they hoped to create an army of enslaved men who would use these weapons to defend their right to freedom.  While they successfully seized the armory and did arm a small group of enslaved men, the US Army under Robert E. Lee soon surrounded the armory, attacked and forced Brown and his allies to surrender.  While his rebellion was unsuccessful, most historians acknowledge his raid and subsequent execution as the event that galvanized both opponents and defenders of slavery and sparked the Civil War.

In 1859, every person in America – black or white – knew of John Brown.  He was loved or hated, but taken seriously by all.  Today, if Brown is mentioned in history books, his heroic attempt to free millions from slavery is misrepresented and his character diminished.  In 1859, luminaries like Henry Thoreau wrote admirably of his actions and principles.  Union soldiers marched off to war singing “his truth was marching on.” Frederick Douglas called Brown, “one of the greatest heroes known to American fame.”  Today, as Loewen details, Brown is often represented in history books as crazy.  He is portrayed as fanatical, deranged, gaunt, grim and terrible.  One textbook – without any support – stated, “thirteen of his near relatives were thought insane.”  None reference his deep religious convictions, his articulate writings and the admiration and respect with which he was held in 1859.  Indeed, in his day, Brown was considered a rational and articulate opponent to slavery.

John Brown was not crazy.  He was anti racist.  It is for this reason, and this reason alone, that most modern white histories ignore or demonize him.  Make no mistake, the equating of anti racism and insanity is intentional.  Most history books imply and teach that slavery and racism were rational, defensible institutions and those who opposed them were unhinged outliers rather than moral champions.

This is why we need White History Month.  The history we are taught the eleven other months is really an admiring history of white supremacy; excusing, diminishing and sustaining racial injustice.  We need a month that documents the Middle PassageNat Turner’s Rebellion, the Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee, Jim Crow, Rosewood, the Tulsa Race Riot, the MOVE bombing and countless other significant events in racial terror. That most white people know little to nothing about these events is inexcusable. You cannot understand whiteness until you understand the events that have sustained it.

The history we are taught the eleven other months does not extol resistance to racism. We need a month when white people learn about Benjamin Lay, John Woolman, Lucretia Mott, Willian Lloyd Garrison, Graceanna Lewis, John Brown, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and Will Campbell.  That most white people don’t know who they are is damning. You cannot dismantle white supremacy without examples of resistance. That most of the white heroes of our history books ignored racism, teaches our children to do the same.

As one person of color recently told me, “John Brown is so important because he was our first accomplice; someone willing to shed his own blood for our freedom.”  That making such a sacrifice has been represented as crazy is racist.  It allows many white people to justify their apathy and inaction, to see those who stand with Black Lives Matter as suspect. We need a month to challenge this indoctrination, when white people can focus on both the ugliness of racism and examples of white people who stood against that ugliness.  We need to understand whiteness – the good, the bad and the ugly.

Next time someone advocates for White History Month, I’m going to agree with them.  I’ll ask them to tell me what moments in white history they think have been ignored.  What historic white people have been neglected? Since nearly every significant white moment and person has already been highlighted, I suspect they won’t have much to suggest, but I will.  I’ll begin by telling them of a white man named John Brown.

Racism Sweet Racism

Racism Sweet Racism

True or false?

Property values usually decrease as a neighborhood becomes more racially diverse.

If you’re white like me and you answered with true, you and I are with the vast majority of white respondents.  We’re also wrong.  The statement, as written, is false.  Changes in racial demographics can both decrease and increase property values.  In cases where white people are gentrifying traditionally minority neighborhoods, property values usually rise.  Of course, if you’re like me, you didn’t read it that way.  Your judgement was clouded by certain racist assumptions.

The statement is only true if we, like most white respondents, assume whiteness as normative.  Most white people subconsciously read, “White property values usually decrease as a white neighborhood becomes more racially diverse.”  This misreading is sadly true.  Today, after decades of anti-discriminatory housing policy, the United States still remains highly segregated.  This is not difficult to explain.  It is not the result of “people wanting to live with their kind.”  Rather, it is one of the clearest signs of the continued power of white privilege.

Jane Hill, in her book “The Everyday Language of White Racism,” highlights this and many other linguistic signals of systemic racism.  While racial slurs are the most visible manifestations of white dominance, they are hardly the most important. Hill makes a compelling argument for how racism is sustained and re-codified in the seemingly innocent assertions of white culture.  Indeed, how white people discuss and justify the places we choose to live abounds with racist assumptions and justifications.

Hill points out that, when it comes to property values, it is always the property values of white people that are of concern and deserving of protection.  White flight, though almost always racially motivated, is justified as a wise economic decision rather than a racist act.  Most white people ignore the obvious – it is not the color of our neighbor’s skin that reduces our property values, but the latent racism of us and our neighbors.  If we were not racist, property values would remain static.

While many of us would find it detestable if someone said, “I’m moving because I dislike black people,” we find it perfectly acceptable to use economic justifications – better schools, more amenities, greater security, and higher property values – for seeking segregated neighborhoods.  Most white people ignore the obvious – white neighborhoods have better schools, more amenities, greater security and higher property values because our culture has systematically funneled an unequal amount of resources to predominantly white neighborhoods.  While moving to or protecting one of these white enclaves may seem innocent enough, it is one of the most insidious ways for us to sustain white privilege.

Indeed, we have designed a system that rewards whites for living together in newly constructed communities with all of the modern amenities and forces people of color to live in formally white neighborhoods with declining housing stock, obsolete school buildings and crumbling infrastructure.  Additionally, we give businesses, factories and football stadiums – that primarily benefit and employ suburban whites – tax exemptions and reductions that inhibit the ability of these older neighborhoods to address these deficiencies.

Adding insult to injury, we negatively compare the quality of these minority neighborhoods with our white enclaves and imply the difference is a matter of white virtue rather than inequity.  Our neighborhoods are beautiful and clean because we’re more responsible rather than because we have more resources.  We argue people of color don’t take care of their property, even when what they own is what we abandoned.  These racist rationalizations perpetuate our justifications for continued segregation.  Even when our racist stereotypes are challenged, we resist any change in thinking. When a person of color moves into our neighborhood and keeps their property pristine, they are the exception to our rule.

Sadly, this segregation in housing – which even progressive white people generally obey and tolerate – is one of the primary pillars of systemic racism.  It keeps us separate and unequal, removed from the stereotype breaking influence of integration, of living side by side.  Our neighbors remain people who look and act like us.  People of color are alien.  Our judgments of them are based on racist stereotypes rather than lived experience.

Housing segregation also keeps people of color down economically.  When people of color attain some level of affluence and buy homes in our neighborhoods, we sabotage this attempt at wealth accumulation by moving away and leaving them financially upside down.  When we decide we want to live closer to the center city, we buy up their homes at basement prices and push them out, often into the very suburban neighborhoods we once desired and protected.  Whites can live wherever we desire.  Our property gains value simply because we’re white.

Unfortunately, deconstructing this mechanism of systemic racism will not be easy.  It will require white people to choose to live in integrated neighborhoods, even when this is not economically wise.  It will require us to welcome new neighbors of color and intentionally incorporate them into our neighborhoods.  It will require us to abandon the coded language of “good neighborhoods, good schools, and good communities” when the subtext is really “white neighborhoods, white schools and white communities.” Finally, it will require us to identify and deconstruct tax policies that continue to funnel unequal resources into white neighborhoods and communities.

This is our responsibility and not theirs.  They can never end segregation.  Only white people can.  Only we can change the system.  Only we can abandon the language and the assumptions that under gird that language.  And we will know when we have succeeded.  The end of systemic racism will come when property values are no longer correlated with the color of our skin.  Our homes will no longer testify to our privilege.

Until then, when it comes to racism, where we live will always speak louder than what we say.

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.