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.

A Reasonable Reparation

A Reasonable Reparation

Our nation owes people of color a great debt. If not for their service, this nation would not be the strongest, most affluent country in the world.  Yet we too often forget the price people of color have paid for our good fortune. Many people of color have been killed, maimed, tortured and traumatized both physically and emotionally. Those who survived often passed this trauma to children and grandchildren. Those of us who have not experienced the inhumanity that people of color experience are not in a position to judge them.  We do have a responsibility to respond to their injury.

Our nation cannot repay our debt to people of color. However, there are many ways in which we can express our appreciation for their contributions. We can pay the tuition and living expenses of people of color in college and vocational school.  We can offer people of color low cost mortgages guaranteed by the government. We can provide people of color with low interest loans to start businesses. We can give businesses who hire people of color significant tax credits.  We can provide inexpensive healthcare to people of color.  In these ways, while we never fully compensate people of color for their injury and loss, we demonstrate our commitment to their success.

Now that you’ve read this argument, pause for a moment to check your emotional response. Are you sympathetic or angry? Convinced or offended?  Do you find the suggestions for specific reparations reasonable or an injustice to white people?  Once you’ve determined your emotional response, reread the opening two paragraphs and insert “veterans” wherever you read “people of color.”

If you found the argument for reparations for people of color offensive, but find those same sentiments reasonable when applied to veterans, what does this say about you? Why would you support the benefits of the GI Bill, but oppose any legislation offering these same benefits to people of color?  And, before you try to diminish the parallels between the experiences of people of color and veterans, consider what your support for veterans indicates.

1. You believe our nation has a responsibility to those injured in service to our nation, even if this injury was many years in the past.

2. You believe it is possible to target compensation to a specific group of people.

3. You believe the nation has the economic ability to offer a specific group of people special benefits,

4. You believe that all members of this specific group, regardless of the extent of their injury, by their inclusion in this targeted group deserve the same benefits.

So, if you are opposed to reparations for people of color, your opposition must be motivated by something other than the reasons above. If not for racial bias, why would you oppose this response for people of color when you so enthusiastically support it for veterans?

People of color and veterans cannot be compared

While the experiences of people of color and veterans are not identical, they are comparable. In both circumstances, every American has benefited from their pain and trauma.  In both cases, the success of our nation is directly connected to their service and work.  With each group, the white person or non-veteran should be grateful and not resentful.  Indeed, you could argue that people of color are more deserving of these benefits than veterans.  Many veterans volunteered to serve.  People of color were enslaved and face systemic discrimination without their consent.  Veterans served for a specific time.  People of color are burdened for a lifetime.

Making reparations to people of color would bankrupt the nation

Few would make such an argument against offering these benefits to veterans. The passing of the GI Bill in 1944 was applauded as just and reasonable.  Granting this largesse to veterans did not bankrupt the country. Indeed, economists consider the GI Bill as one of the primary wealth creators of the 20th century, catapulting millions of white families into the middle class.  Raising the economic status of people of color could have a similar impact on the American economy, inviting millions of people of color into the middle class.  Reparations should be seen as a national investment and not a redistribution of wealth.

It’s too hard to determine who qualifies for how much reparation

A veteran is someone who joined the armed forces. A person of color is someone who is not identified as white by our culture.  Ancestry and DNA is irrelevant. Systemic racism is targeted at people who society identifies as non-white.  Determining the extent of the damage is also irrelevant.  All veterans receive benefits even if they were uninjured.  Likewise, descendants of slaves may have experienced a more serious injury, but every person of color in our society has and does experience the wounds of racial bias and discrimination.  No one would demand to see a veteran’s scars and no one should require a person of color to prove injury.

I won’t be motivated by guilt for something I didn’t do

Those of us who did not serve in the armed forces should not feel guilty, but we should feel a genuine responsibility for aiding those who did. Those who have not directly participated in the discrimination and oppression of people of color should not feel guilty, but we too should feel an ethical responsibility to right this wrong.  If we can make the distinction between guilt and responsibility for veterans, we can make it in responding to people of color.  However, it is important to remember that when it comes to veterans, the injuries were caused by others.  When it comes to people of color, the injuries were caused by our nation.  Therefore, our responsibility is even greater than for a veteran.

I am opposed to any redistribution of wealth

It is possible to oppose reparations for people of color and not be racist.  If you are opposed to any redistribution of wealth, opposing reparations – while ethically questionable – is a consistent position. However, to hold this position, you must be willing to apply your objections to both reparations and programs targeting veterans.  If not, it is probably time to examine your racial bias and reflect on why you’re able to justify one redistribution and vilify another.

If we do this, when will it ever end?

With both our support of veterans and of people of color, we must offer these benefits until they are no longer necessary. When wars cease, we will no longer need a GI Bill.  When systemic racism ends, we will no longer need reparations. When the economic vitality of people of color is no different than that of white people, we will know we have succeeded.  Reparations can end.  Until that day, our nation has a responsibility to pay its debts.

(This post is the second in a three part series.  The first post was entitled “How To Tell If A White Person Is Racist With One Simple Question.”  The third post was entitled “Paying My Reparations.”)

How To Tell If A White Person Is Racist With One Simple Question

How To Tell If A White Person Is Racist With One Simple Question

If you want to quickly determine if a white person in the United States is comfortably racist, I’d recommend a single question. Ask them, “Should our nation pay reparations to black people for the enslavement, mistreatment and economic exploitation of them and their ancestors over the past four hundred years?” If they immediately reject this proposition, you can be fairly confident you’ve identified a comfortable racist. On the other hand, if they’re willing to give this question serious consideration, you’ve probably identified an ethically responsible and racially conscious white person.  It’s really that simple.

There is simply no compelling argument against the payment of reparations. The studies and research have been done.  The historians, economists and ethicists have spoken.  While there can and should be considerable debate over how reparations should be made, any white person who argues against reparations is either ignorant, immoral, racist or all of the above.  Additionally, if you encounter someone opposed to paying reparations, you can be fairly certain they will offer one or all of the following three arguments…

“I have no responsibility. Neither I nor my ancestors owned slaves.”

Though I doubt most of these people have the genealogical support for their claim, such evidence would be irrelevant. The economic advantages of slavery were not limited to slave owners.  Though the highest concentration of millionaires in the United States in 1840 was in the Mississippi valley, the wealth created by slavery flowed north to the textile mills, banks and, ultimately, to every white family. Cotton was the single greatest economic driver in early American history. Without the millions of hours of slave labor provided by black people, the American economy would not have thrived.

The affluence generated by this labor, though unevenly divided amongst the white population, was limited to white people.  You didn’t have to be a slave owner to benefit from the enslavement of black people.  You only had to be white.  Indeed, the recognition of this reality fueled the strong southern support for defending slavery during the Civil War.  Though only a quarter of southern whites actually owned slaves, all of them were keenly aware of the benefits they produced.  Indeed, at the time of the Civil War, slaves constituted the single greatest financial asset in the United States.

While it is certainly possible to argue that some white people benefitted more from slavery than others, it is difficult to argue that even the poorest white person has received no benefit. And it is irrefutable that the chief producers of all of this immense wealth – black people – received absolutely no financial benefit from their labor.  More damning, in 1865 when they were freed from legal bondage, they were paid no back wages.  Most black people were left so destitute that they quickly became sharecroppers, which was often even more economically oppressive than slavery.

For these reasons, the huge disparities in accumulated wealth and economic status between white people and black people today have their roots in this historic injustice. Those who argue against reparations because they or their ancestors didn’t own slaves are like people who fill their homes with property they know was stolen from others.  They may not be thieves, but they are hardly examples of responsibility and integrity.  When forced to face this reality, they usually offer this argument.

“That was wrong, but it was long ago. I haven’t directly benefitted from racial injustice.”

Once we’ve established the incredible injustice of the past, we have two choices. If we’re ethical white people, we take responsibility for the injustices of our ancestors.  If we’re immoral and racist, we throw our ancestors under the bus.  We argue for our innocence and blamelessness.  We pretend the oppression of black people ended in 1865.  We ignore the evidence that most white people living today have directly benefitted from racial injustice.

As lucrative as slavery was, our ancestors weren’t the greatest beneficiaries of the oppression of black people. The single greatest economic increase in American wealth was not in the 1800s.  It happened in the years after World War II, between 1950 and 1970.  Billions and billions of dollars of wealth were created.  Indeed, this period marked the high water mark of the American middle class.  A vast majority of this wealth was intentionally limited by governmental policy to white people.

If you are white and bought a home or grew up in a home purchased between 1934 and 1977, you likely benefitted from government programs that awarded millions of tax dollars solely to white people. If you inherited a home purchased during those years, you reaped the spoils of racial injustice.  If you, your parents or grandparents went to college between 1944-1964, you likely benefitted from government programs that excluded black people from millions of dollars in educational grants.  If you, your parents or grandparents have received Social Security benefits, you have likely benefitted from a program that initially excluded up to 65% of all black people. It is difficult to find a single government policy between 1877 – when the Reconstruction ended – and 1977 that didn’t give preferential treatment to white people or exclude black people.

Indeed, most white people today are recipients of one of the greatest governmental affirmative action programs in history. Between 1934 and 1977, billions of tax dollars were funneled exclusively or primarily to white people.  Since any argument for equity would require an equal distribution of this government largesse, we can fairly say that the greatest recipients of racial injustice are not long dead slave owners, but middle class white people today.  When forced to face this reality, those who oppose reparations usually default to more obviously racist rhetoric.

“Well, that wasn’t fair, but what can you do. You can’t just give black people cash.  They’d just waste it.” (Or some other generally disparaging remark about black people.)

Once we’ve established the incredible injustice of the present, we have two choices. If we’re ethical white people, we take responsibility for the injustices of our present system and seek to rectify them.  If we’re immoral and racist, we throw black people under the bus.  In arguing for their inadequacy and incompetency, we verify our ancestry.  Like our forefathers, we justify the oppression of black people with the same paternal racist rhetoric.  We miss the obvious.  Once you’ve acknowledged the resources were stolen, what they do with any compensation is irrelevant.  It’s their money.

How reparations are paid shouldn’t be up to white people. I can’t imagine any court in the land that would leave the terms of compensation up to the thieves.  What we must do as a country is determine an appropriate amount of compensation for the damages done to generations of black people.  That’s going to be expensive.  And it should be.  The debt needs to be paid back with interest.

It is time for white people who are ethically responsible and racially conscious to voice our support for the payment of reparations.  It is time for our nation to finally pay its debts to the black people upon whose backs we’ve built the most prosperous nation in human history.  It is time to ask black people to tell us how they want us to make these payments.  It is far past time.  And when some white people complain of the injustice of it all, we who are ethically responsible and racially conscious must identify that opposition for what it has always been – racist and immoral.

(Special thanks to Ta-Nehesi Coates’ for his essay, “The Case For Reparations,” which should be required reading for every white person in America. My short post is a poor reflection of this masterful essay.)

(This post is part of a three part series.  The second post is entitled “A Reasonable Reparation.”  The third post is entitled “Paying My Reparations.”

Teaching Our Black Daughter About Our White Racism

Teaching Our Black Daughter About Our White Racism

I met my daughter when she was three. Her mother and I had begun dating.  Indeed, our first date involved taking Ella to the park.  Her mother, who had finally accepted she wasn’t going to marry, had adopted Ella from Ethiopia when Ella was six months old.  She took on the daunting task of raising a black daughter as a single white mother.  Then, as my wife likes to say, “I walked through the door.”  Within weeks, Ella was calling me Dad and six months later, her mother and I married.

I remember telling my wife that one of the gifts I brought to our marriage was my experience in raising five children, three of whom were daughters. I assumed being Ella’s father would be a piece of cake.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  I soon realized I was a bumbling idiot when it came to raising a black daughter and that, unless I began a crash course on racism and white privilege, I had the potential to do tremendous damage to the psyche of my black daughter. Together, my wife and I committed to learning all we could about the experiences and perspectives of people of color, especially from parents of color.

One of our early struggles was in accepting our inability to escape our racial prejudices. As Ella’s parents, we quickly saw the ways white people interacted with her from a racial bias. It took us longer to realize their affliction was our own.  We too were hopelessly prone to acting out of those biases and our love for Ella did not negate this propensity.  Like all white American adults, we were racist.

Since I know many white people find this assertion offensive, let me be crystal clear about what I mean and don’t mean by saying “all white American adults are racist.” I do not mean that all white Americans adults are bad people.  Indeed, in my experience, many white people are genuinely interested in addressing the racism in themselves and in our society.  When I say “all white American adults are racist,” I am reluctantly acknowledging that all white Americans adults have been raised in a segregated and racially unequal society where they have had the power to act on and reinforce their prejudices with little accountability.  Much of this racism is so subtle that we, who are white, cannot see it.

For example, recently one of my daughter’s white teachers called my wife to report that Ella was being disrespectful and disruptive in class. As any responsible white parent would do, we accepted her teacher’s description of Ella’s behavior as accurate, made Ella write a note of apology and temporarily took away some of her privileges as punishment.  We did not ask Ella if she thought the teacher’s description of her behavior was fair.

That was racist behavior on our part.

We should have known better. While it was certainly possible that Ella’s behavior was disrespectful, we had read enough about racial dynamics to know that – at about Ella’s age – the assertiveness and independence of young black women often comes under attack.  They are no longer cute.  As women of color, they are becoming threatening.  White society has very definite expectations about their behavior and often tries to enforce them.  Instead of reserving judgment until we more fully understood any possible racial bias on the teacher’s part, we did what white parents with white children can do – we assumed the teacher’s perspective was unbiased.

As it turned out, when we later discussed this situation with Ella, she acknowledged her behavior had been disrespectful. However, this does not excuse our racism.  Ella is going to spend the rest of her life having white people treat her differently because of the color of her skin.  She does not need her parents uncritically justifying and supporting her mistreatment, always assuming that the perspective of the white person in the interaction is unbiased.

Acknowledging our own racism is only part of our responsibility as Ella’s parents. We must also prepare our daughter for a world where all white American adults are racist. Every single white American adult that she will encounter in life will have some conscious or unconscious bias about her because of the color of her skin.  This is true of the “good” white people as well as the “bad” white people.  This is true even of those who love her the most – her white parents.

Inevitably, Ella will become aware of this reality. Soon, like all teenagers, she will become adept at identifying our parental hypocrisies.  If we want our relationship to our daughter to be rich and deep, we need to make certain that when we say or do things out of our racism, she can understand our behavior as systemic.  Our racism is not an intentional act of disrespect.  When she begins to call out our racism, we don’t want her to see our racism as evidence of some deeper animosity toward her.  She can freely and openly challenge us.  Why?  Because we are already convinced of our biases and want to address them.

The second reason we must prepare our daughter for a world where all white American adults are racist is for her self-protection. If she had been raised by black parents, she would have learned this maxim in countless ways – through observation, through story, through experience and through training.  She would know that she must always assume racial bias on the part of white people.  She cannot afford the assumption that the police officer who has pulled her over will treat her with respect and equity.  To do so put’s her life at risk.

This knowledge is especially important as a child raised by white parents. We have been able to shield Ella from much of the racism most children of color encounter from their earliest years.  She has been raised around white friends and family that have treated her with affection and acceptance.  In so doing, we have created false expectations.  Reminding her that all white American adults are racist is vital as we send her into the world.

In retrospect, I wish I’d taught this to my white children as well. Instead, I reinforced the false dichotomy of “racist equals bad” and “non-racist equals good.”  In so doing, I made it more difficult for my white children to see, acknowledge and address their racial biases.  Indeed, it is white people operating out of this assumption who are most likely to inadvertently misjudge and mistreat my black daughter.  Overt racism is broadly censored in our society.  It is the systemic and subtle racism of “good” white people that actually has the most power to adversely impact her life.

Ironically, when it comes to racism, there will soon be a role reversal in our relationship with our daughter. We have been the teacher and she has been the student.  As she becomes an adult and fully experiences what it means to be a black woman in America, she will have much to teach us.  Though we expect some of those lessons to be painful, we couldn’t ask for a better person to teach them.  While all white American adults are racist, we also want her to know that some white American adults are willing to listen and learn.   We cannot completely eliminate our racial biases, but we can demonstrate the proper response to such self-awareness.  You vigilantly work to diminish and mitigate the impact of your biases on the world.

Are All White Americans Racist?

Are All White Americans Racist?

I say, “Since all white Americans have been raised in a racially segregated and biased society that has provided them with certain cultural privileges and advantages, all white Americans are racist.”

Another white American says, “How dare you call me racist. That’s offensive.  You don’t know my heart and mind.  You don’t know how I think or act.  You don’t know how I was raised.  My parents were good people who taught be to be color blind.  I’m not racist.  You’re the racist.  You’re the one who is judging a whole group of people based on the color of their skin.  If you are going to continue to make broad and outrageous statements like this, our conversation is over.”

I say, “I apologize. I didn’t mean to offend you.  I just think it is really important for white Americans to talk about our role in perpetuating racism.  Could we at least agree that since all white American have been raised in a racially segregated and biased society that has provided them with certain cultural privileges and advantages, that most white Americans are racist?”

Another white American says, “That’s offensive, too. Most white Americans are good people who believe in basic human rights, a level playing field and the rule of law.  I hold no animosity toward people of color.  I have never intentionally mistreated a person of color.  In fact, I have friends and family who are people of color.  To lump me in with neo-Nazis and white supremacists is offensive and unfair.  If you can’t see the difference between those people and me, our conversation is over.”

I say, “I apologize. I’m not accusing you of being a white supremacist or even a bad person.  I just think racism is more pervasive than you’re suggesting.  Could we at least agree that since all white Americans have been raised in a racially segregated and biased society that has provided them with certain cultural privileges and advantages, that a majority of white Americans are racist?”

Another white American says, “I could never agree with that. Most of my white friends are just like me.  We aren’t racist and we’re tired of getting judged and condemned for being white.  Slavery ended 150 years ago.  In the 1960s, segregation ended.  You completely ignore all the progress we’ve made. Most of the problems faced by minorities in our society today have less to do with racism and more to do with poor decision making.  If you’re going to insist that white Americans are still responsible for every inequity, our conversation is over.”

I say, “I apologize. I don’t want our conversation to end.  There must be some common ground as we seek to create a more racially integrated and just society.  Could we at least agree that since all white Americans have been raised in a racially segregated and biased society that provided them with certain cultural privileges and advantages, that some white Americans are still racist?”

Another white American says, “Well, I can agree with that. I know some white people who are racist.”

I say, “Wonderful. Let’s begin there.  What can we do about that?”

Another white American says, “There’s no point in talking to them. When people are racist, they won’t hear anything you say.  They’ve been raised to see the world in a certain way and don’t see anything wrong with it.  If you challenge them, they just get defensive, offended and angry.  It’s a waste of time.”

I say, “On that, we can agree.”