White Inferiority

White Inferiority

In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ newest book, We Were Eight Years In Power, he begins with a fascinating essay about the Reconstruction period immediately following the Civil War.  He argues that this brief experiment in black empowerment, with blacks voting and holding elected office in the former states of the Confederacy, ended because of white resentment and fear.  The resentment came from seeing their former slaves so quickly elevated to positions of superiority.  The fear came is seeing those same slaves govern effectively.  Coates quotes W.E.B. Dubois, who wrote, “If there was one thing that South Carolina feared more than bad Negro government, it was good Negro government.”

I’ve thought a lot about that essay and quote in the past week. The parallels to what has happened in the United States over the past year are startling.  While many white conservatives express hatred for Barack Obama and his administration, when challenged to point out his failings they seldom offer much beyond conspiracy theories and racist rhetoric. They never mention his success in pulling the nation out of the worst recession since the Great Depression. They ignore his reinvigoration of the Justice Department, his expansion of civil rights and healthcare for many and the lowest number of corruption scandals in modern presidential history. While I know they will never admit it, I suspect many white conservatives resented and feared Obama, not because he was a bad President, but because he was such a good one.

During both the Reconstruction period and the Obama presidency, one of the central tenets of white racism was proven false – white superiority. In both situations, it was not the failings of black leaders that was so infuriating to many whites as much as it was their success.  In both situations, the response of white people was to reassert their dominance.  In the 1890’s, this meant disenfranchising blacks, passing Jim Crow laws and legislating the superiority that had proven so false.  In 2016, this meant electing the most inferior and openly racist of the possible white options for president.  Though my conservative friends like to claim they voted for Trump because they hated Clinton so much, this does not explain why they chose Trump over more worthy Republican white men and women in the primaries.  Whether conscious or not, Trump was a response to a successful black president.

Oddly, all of this has made me reconsider the power of white supremacy in America. There was a time when white racism was built on a conviction of white superiority, but that claim seems increasingly hollow.  People of color are excelling in nearly every area of our national life.  White people are being replaced by people of color in every strata of society.  While whites often diminish their hard won success as some kind of affirmative action, this argument is harder and harder to sustain.  Consider the one place in our culture where there is a clearly level playing field – sports.  In nearly every sport, it is people of color who are the best players.

Or consider the recent events in Charlottesville. The chants of white supremacists reveal a far less confident white psyche.  Gone were the claims of black inferiority that once characterized the Klan.  This generation of white racists chanted “We will not be replaced” instead of “We cannot be replaced.”  In response to “Black lives matter,” they felt the need to argue “White lives matter.”  When a white supremacist has to argue that white lives matter, something significant has shifted.  Gone is their confidence in their ability to succeed in an American meritocracy.  They expose their fears of inferiority even as they champion white supremacy. They guard their white privilege so carefully because they worry that without it they cannot succeed.

For several years, I’ve been worried about white supremacy.  I’ve begun to fear white inferiority.  When people with inferiority complexes hold power, they almost always use that power to reassure themselves and diminish others.  Indeed, only in diminishing others can they feel superior.  For whites with such a complex, electing Donald Trump must have been wonderfully reassuring.  They did not elect him because he represented the best the white race could offer, but because he mirrored their own sense of inferiority.  They saw in him their many insecurities and, every time he claimed something was the best or the greatest, they heard their own defensive bluster.  His election confirmed their hope that they still lived in an America where an inferior white man had more power than any woman or person of color.

Unfortunately, while I understand the events of this past year more deeply, this understanding does not bring me much comfort. Trump’s systemic dismantlement of every Obama policy is too reminiscent of the actions of resentful and fearful whites during the Reconstruction.  “Making America Great Again” is not much different than the efforts of white southerners in the 1880s to make blacks slaves again.  History tells us that whites with an inferiority complex are capable of incredible ugliness to retain their power and privilege.  It is also teaches that liberal whites can be easily distracted.  Much of the impetus for abandoning efforts at reconstructing the South ended when Northern whites faced an economic recession in 1873.

In the days since the Trump election, I have watched many of my white friends distance themselves from the role of racism in our culture and politics. Progressives have spoken out against the identity politics of people of color while completely ignoring the white identity politics of the Republican Party.  Democrats are being told they must reassure the white working class.  Clearly racist policies are being disguised as efforts to combat voter fraud, or eliminate discrimination against whites, or bring back law and order.  These are not new arguments or strategies.  Indeed, they all saw their creation in the 1870s when whites used them to reassert their supremacy.

President Obama often cited the Martin Luther King, Jr quote, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It fit his hopeful optimism.  President Obama also reassured Ta-Nehisi Coates – in a pre-election interview – that Donald Trump could not win.  I fear this optimism may have blinded him to a historic reality.  The Reconstruction period demonstrated that racial progress gained by the death of nearly 700,000 Americans in four years of bloody conflict could be largely lost in a matter of a few years.  What if the arc of the universe is merely half of a circle leading us back to the immoral place we began?

Such concerns explain why Ta-Nehisi Coates subtitles his book, An American Tragedy. While I share his deep concerns and fears about the Trump presidency and what it reflects, I hope that conclusion premature.  Looking back, I wonder what our nation could have become if white Northern progressives had persisted in their insistence that southern blacks be protected and empowered.  How much sooner would we have elected a black president?  How much stronger would we be as a nation?  That seems such a lost opportunity.

In the weeks ahead, I plan to study the Reconstruction period; a period sadly and intentionally lacking from American education. How did progressives fail?  How was white supremacy able to reassert itself?  How can we avoid such ugliness again?  Unlike President Obama and Martin Luther King, Jr., I do not believe the arc of the universe bends toward justice.  Justice only comes when those committed to equality combat those, who in their feelings of inferiority, must champion and enforce their superiority.  If our nation is in the midst of a cultural civil war, it is imperative that those of us allied with people of color do not fail them again.  It is time to truly reconstruct America.


Reminders For Recovering Racists

Reminders For Recovering Racists

Note to my white self…

Congratulations! You have committed to being an ally to people of color in their struggle to end systemic racism in America.  You are sharing anti-racist memes, donating to anti-racist causes and even attending anti-racist protests.  Good for you.  However, don’t forget your most helpful contribution in this struggle.  First and foremost, address the unconscious racial bias within yourself.  Here are six daily reminders as you navigate life as a white person…

It is impossible to be aware of your unconscious racial bias.  If you were aware of them, they wouldn’t be unconscious.  This means, as a white person, you should never say, “I was not being racist.”  This implies you are aware of your every motive.  This is very unlikely.  When your motives are challenged, it is better to respond, “I was not consciously or intentionally being racist.  Thanks for making me aware.”   This is more honest and reflective.  It also implies a genuine interest in becoming aware of your unconscious racial bias.

When someone of color points out a racial bias, they are most likely correct. When interacting with people of color, they are much more likely to be aware of your bias – one they have consciously experienced countless times – than you are.  Could they be wrong?  Certainly.  However, it is more likely you were unaware of your bias.  Immediately responding “I was not being racist,” without carefully reflecting on their perception, may actually suggest another unconscious racial bias – people of color should not correct white people.

Being unconscious of a racial bias is not an excuse. An unconscious bias is not less problematic than a conscious bias.  It is just the opposite. An unconscious bias is much more dangerous.  You can address a conscious bias, but an unconscious racial bias can repeatedly do damage.  When someone makes you aware of a racial bias, don’t say, “I didn’t mean to be racist” as if this excuses your behavior.  If you were unconsciously standing on someone’s toes, you were still causing them pain.  The proper response, when a racial bias is exposed, is always an apology.

For every racial bias of which you are aware, you can assume there are several of which you are not. The racial bias of which you aware is usually the tip of an iceberg.  Therefore, when you become conscious of a racial bias, it is always worthwhile to dig a little deeper in your own psyche.  For this reason, having an unconscious bias challenged need not be understood as an attack on your character.  You are being offered an opportunity to better understand yourself.  Exposing one racial bias may allow you to become conscious of others.

In any interaction with a person of color or discussion about racism, it is best to assume you will be bringing some unconscious racial bias into the interaction or discussion. Assuming your interactions or discussions will be free of racial bias is arrogant. Accepting the likelihood that you will be acting out of your racial biases allows you to be receptive, rather than defensive, if someone challenges your attitudes or actions.  Remember, the person of color – based on many encounters with white people – already assumes you have conscious or unconscious racial bias.  They don’t expect you to be unbiased.  They expect you to respond to any challenge with defensiveness.  Surprise them.

Becoming aware of an unconscious racial bias does not eliminate it. A bias took many years to develop.  If it is an unconscious bias, it became so normative that you could not see it.  Becoming aware of an unconscious racial bias is merely the beginning of the process of becoming less racist.  Initially, you will continue to act out of that bias.  All that has changed is your awareness.  Only with time can you diminish the power of a bias to influence your behavior.  Expect to have your bias pointed out to you repeatedly. When challenged, respond, “Thanks.  I needed that reminder.” With each reminder, you will become less likely to act out of that racial bias.

In the battle against systemic racism, always remember  – as a white person – you are part of the problem as well as the solution. Purging the unconscious racial bias within yourself is the first and greatest contribution you can make.

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.”

DACA Was Not The Dream

DACA Was Not The Dream

I am an enthusiastic supporter of the Dreamers, the 800,000 undocumented young adults who have lived nearly all of their lives in the United States. In any just society, these young people, who were brought into the United States by their parents while minors, should not be held responsible for the actions of their parents or the gridlock of our political system over immigration policy. Sending them “home” to countries most of them don’t even remember is cruel and unusual punishment. For most of them, the United States is the only home and culture they’ve known.  No ethical person, regardless of their position on immigration, can justify their deportation.

However, I am not a fan of DACA.

Even President Obama, in establishing the DACA program, admitted it was a stop gap measure designed to clarify the legal status of the approximately 65,000 undocumented young people graduating from US high schools every year. While DACA made it possible for these young people to obtain a driver’s license, attend college and find employment, it actually created an unsustainable and unjust status for these young people.  Mr. Trump was right to suggest that Congress should come to some bipartisan agreement on their status.

Consider the Faustian bargain offered to DACA participants. They were allowed to remain in their homeland as long as they accepted a diminished and unequal status.  They can work and pay taxes, but are denied many services.  They must pay into social security though they are denied access to its benefits.  They can attend college, but must pay a higher tuition without any loans or assistance.  They can live in US, but they cannot vote.  They can only leave the US with permission.  If they are arrested, they can be denied due process and immediately deported.  Every two years, they must pay $500 to renew their participation in this charade.

This is what we have offered these young people who’ve attended our elementary schools, who’ve graduated from our high schools with honors, who’ve excelled on our sports teams, who’ve entered our armed forces, who’ve worked in our companies and who’ve fully assimilated into our culture. While many of them seem genuinely appreciative of the DACA program, they shouldn’t be. It is not just or fair to punish them for the crimes of their parents.  They deserve much better.

Those who want to send them away make Uncle Sam into a father who refuses to acknowledge his illegitimate children. The illegitimacy does not reside in the children, but in circumstances beyond their control.  Only the conditions of their birth are questionable. In every other way, they are legitimately American.  Indeed, they fit the conservative litmus test for a “good” immigrant.  All of them speak English.  Most have little or no allegiance to their country of birth.  They are fully committed to our values. They understand themselves as Americans.

Though most conservatives will not admit it, their chief flaw is the color of their skin. They are not white.  It is this, though it is seldom acknowledged, that makes them so frightening to those who would have them deported. They threaten white supremacy and must be racially profiled and demonized.  Fortunately, while Trump and his administration have tried to justify rejecting immigrants of color as being dangerous and criminal, the DACA participants stand as 800,000 counter arguments to that racist rhetoric.  We call them dreamers because they so perfectly exemplify the American dream of taking advantage of this land of freedom and opportunity. Rejecting them makes a mockery of our cultural myths and values.

Those of us protesting the termination of the DACA program need to be very careful. In opposing this action by the Trump administration, we need to oppose the injustice of their status and not defend the legitimacy of the program.  The goal of our efforts should not be the restoration of the DACA program, but the creation of a path to citizenship for these young people.  Anything short of this could inadvertently create the foundations for an American apartheid, where a whole class of people is given a permanent second class status.

The United States will continue to debate our immigration policy and process. We can disagree about how to best guard our borders.  We can design better ways of meeting our economic needs without encouraging undocumented workers.  These are all valid and important discussions.  What we cannot do is punish these children for our own ambiguity.  If our elected representatives in Congress refuse to protect the Dreamers, they have no real commitment in the American dream.

Claiming “Everyone Is Racist” Is Racist

Claiming “Everyone Is Racist” Is Racist

Note to my white self…

Claiming “everyone is racist” is racist.

I know other white people are telling you that anyone – regardless of their color or ethnicity – can be racist. They’re quoting the definition of racism from the dictionary – “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.”  They’re arguing people of color can be biased or antagonistic toward white people, that everyone is equally capable of being racist.  They tell stories of when they’ve been personally attacked or mistreated by someone of color.  Or they point out situations in the world where people of color have marginalized another group.

Don’t be confused.

In most cases, these arguments are attempts to normalize racism and not to end it. Indeed, once they’ve convinced you that everyone is racist, racism is no longer a problem requiring societal change.  It becomes a personal issue.  After all, if everyone is racist, white people have no greater responsibility for addressing and combatting it than others.  Ironically, while these people are fighting for an equal application of the definition of racism, they are far less concerned about actual social inequities, such as the power to define language.

When we who are white insist on a definition of racism which includes everyone, we are arguing that we – and not people of color – get to define the term. When we quote from Merriam-Webster, we seldom acknowledge George Merriam, Charles Merriam and Noah Webster were all white men, or that the academic and publishing worlds continue to be dominated by white people.  This assumption that our definition of racism trumps alternative definitions, especially those of people of color, exposes a dynamic white people seldom want to discuss – the differences in political and economic power in America.

Systemic racism is so insidious because it permeates every societal institution, including the publishers of dictionaries. Thankfully, in recent years, alternate definitions of racism have gained credibility.  Most sociologists define racism within a societal structure where there are significant differences in power.  They understand what most people of color know intuitively – without power – prejudice, discrimination and antagonism toward someone of another race is powerless.  It can do little systemic damage. In America, while anyone can be biased and prejudiced, it is only white people who have the power to be racist.

Think about this. Obviously, black people were antagonistic toward their white oppressors during the era of slavery.  Was this antagonism racist?  When they ran away, or killed their owners, or led rebellions, should these actions be seen as reverse racism?  Of course not.  Most people would acknowledge that their actions were a legitimate response to their mistreatment.  Yet, today, if a person of color expresses anger or resentment about their mistreatment, many white people want to define their behavior as racist.  Don’t be confused.  Resisting oppression is not racism.

When you confront other white people with this reality, don’t be surprised when they call you racist. When white people call other white people racist for challenging racist attitudes or behavior, they demonstrate how little they really care about Merriam-Webster’s definition.  By that definition, it is impossible for you – another white person – to be racist toward them.  What they are upset about is your lack of loyalty.

Merriam and Webster did get one part of their definition correct. Racism has always included a deep seated conviction that one’s own race is superior.  This loyalty to your race is vital to sustaining injustice.  It is difficult to justify inequality if we acknowledge the worth of another group of people.  Racism thrives on an underlying assertion of superiority.  This makes the claim that everyone is racist, when mouthed by white people, even more ugly.  If we who are white want to emphasize our common humanity with people of color, offering them equality in the propensity toward racism seems a ridiculous place to start.

Theoretically, is it possible for any group of people to be racist?  Of course.  If Africans had preceded Europeans in the Industrial Revolution, colonized North America, brought over Europeans as slaves, oppressed white people for generations and resisted every attempt to create a just and equitable society, it would be possible to legitimately accuse people of color of racism.  However, short of that, claiming everyone is racist…is racist.  We live in a country where racism is a white affliction that can only be cured when we who are white acknowledge this ugly disease and seek treatment.

Here is my challenge to you.

Work for a society where people of color have enough power that they can be rightfully accused of racism.  Create a society where power is distributed so evenly that blame and responsibility for injustice can be equally shared.  This will not happen by accusing everyone of racism.  It will only happen when white people surrender the power of defining and dominating the conversation.

Why People of Color Deserve More Lollipops

Why People of Color Deserve More Lollipops

Recently, when giving lollipops to two of my grandsons, the youngest said, “Papa, you gave my brother a lollipop yesterday and I didn’t get one. Can I have two today?”  Before I could respond, his older brother replied, “That wouldn’t be fair.”  Without any thought, I sided with my oldest grandson and said, “What happened yesterday doesn’t matter. Today, you both get one lollipop.”

I’ve thought a lot about that exchange, especially in the days since the Department of Justice announced an investigation of colleges and universities for discrimination against white students in admissions. In essence, the Department of Justice hopes to reverse the practice of affirmative action and its goal of increasing the number of people of color in higher education.  Critical of this decision, I’ve wondered if I handled the situation with my grandsons correctly.  My response to my younger grandson was remarkably similar the attitude of the Department of Justice.  What happened in the past doesn’t matter.  Equality is only measured by what is happening today.

At least in the situation with my grandsons, the inequality between the number of lollipops was merely happenstance. I love my grandsons and have always treated them both generously.  If my younger grandson had been with me the previous day, I would have given him a lollipop.  Unfortunately, if we’re talking about racial discrimination, there is a mountain of evidence that not all of Uncle Sam’s nephews and nieces have been treated with equal generosity.  If lollipops represent the resources our nation has allocated for specific groups, we who are white have been given far more lollipops than others.  In such circumstances, what does fairness look like today?

Like many people in the United States, my two grandsons disagreed on what equality should look like. The younger, aware of a historic inequality, was asking me to rectify an injustice.  He was arguing that equality could be measured over two days as easily as over one.  The oldest, aware of an immediate inequality, was demanding a judgement limited to the present moment.  He made his complaint of injustice even though he knew that – when measured over two days – he would be the recipient of one more lollipop than his brother.

My oldest grandson’s strategy is one of the pillars of systemic racism. When we who are white argue that what happened in the past doesn’t matter, we are not arguing for equality and fairness; we are defending our advantage.  When we say college admissions should be administered blindly today, we are intentionally ignoring the historic reality that Lady Justice was peeking from behind her blindfold in the past.  Though she systemically denied justice and opportunity to minorities for centuries, we act as if those facts are irrelevant.  Everyone should be judged by their merits.

However, when this argument is judged by its merits, it fails horribly.  Limiting the measure of equality to the present is an arbitrary decision.  In criminal cases, our courts often address past injuries.  Indeed, for some serious crimes, there is no statute of limitations.  Sadly, our unwillingness to address past racial injustices implies we don’t see these injustices as serious or criminal.

Equality without a memory is almost always unjust.  Once Lady Justice peeked from behind her blindfold to deny people of color of their rights, she can’t escape behind it when they complain.  Pretending there is a level playing field is a lie designed to protect white privilege.  A Department of Justice that suddenly requires colleges and universities to be completely objective makes a mockery of what it purportedly defends – justice.

My younger grandson’s plea for a second lollipop represents the legitimate complaint of people of color across America. He knew – probably because his brother proudly announced it – that his older brother had received something he had been denied.  Confronted with an obvious opportunity for that injustice to be rectified, he made a fair request – give me what I was previously denied.  He hoped that his grandfather would see the righteousness of his appeal.

I failed him.

I wish I could say I denied him a second lollipop because I didn’t want him to ruin his dinner, but that wouldn’t be true. I chose to give each grandson one lollipop, not because that was just, but because that was easiest.  I knew, once my older grandson complained, that to give my younger grandson a second lollipop would result in a conflict.  Once he proclaimed, “That wouldn’t be fair,” I was cowed.  Limiting equality to the present moment was the easiest decision.

I lied to my youngest grandson.

What happened yesterday does matter, especially when we’re talking about centuries of slavery, the genocide and marginalization of the Native Americans, decades of Jim Crow, the exploitation of migrant workers and countless other injustices.  While it is certainly easiest to limit equality to the present moment, it is seldom just.  When our courts try to ignore the past, they nearly always multiply its injuries.

I wish my older grandson had responded to his younger brother’s request with kindness. If he’d said, “Papa, he’s right. He should get two lollipops,” I would have quickly agreed to their request for restitution.  When this didn’t happen, I did what our legislatures and courts have done for far too long.  I took the easiest route, the one least likely to solicit the complaints of those who have previously had the advantage.  I missed an opportunity to teach my grandsons about the complexities of justice.

I don’t know what the courts will do when the Department of Justice challenges the practice of affirmative action, but I fear they will do what I did. They will weigh the resentful complaints of white people and do what is easiest.  They will limit justice to the present moment rather than do the far more difficult work of trying to remedy their past indiscretions.  They will pull the blindfold tight in order to avoid seeing the obvious – their complicity in injustice.

Thanks to my grandsons, I see my responsibility. I need to do what I would have wished of my oldest grandson. I will advocate for an application of justice that is  measured by decades and centuries.  I will acknowledge the legitimacy of calls for some kind of restitution.  I will say, “They’re right.  They deserve more lollipops.”