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.

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I Am Not A Hero

I Am Not A Hero

Note to my white self…

During the past year, you’ve received hundreds of responses from people either provoked or inspired by your writing.  Some have called you disloyal and racist, accusing you of inciting hatred and inflaming racial tensions.  Others have applauded your words with glowing accolades, calling you noble, wise, brave and heroic.  Be careful.  The accolades are more dangerous than the accusations.  Constantly remind yourself of these truths.

That you never use the N-word, tell racist jokes, or express deliberately racist opinions does not make you noble. It simply means you are not a bigot.  People who brag about not being blatantly racist imply – though they seldom realize it – that they’ve made some great sacrifice, that they’ve given up some white prerogative out of the goodness of their heart.  Ironically, thinking the absence of such behavior noble is the surest indication of deeply ingrained racism.

While I’m glad you’ve advanced beyond such shallow understandings of racial enlightenment, recognizing your unconscious racism and accepting your daily participation in white privilege does not make you wise. It simply means you’ve come to see what every person of color already knew about you.  You are hopelessly enmeshed in your white privilege.  While being aware of this reality is positive, don’t act like you’ve discovered something newsworthy.  If there were a headline, it would read, “Ignoramus Finally Looks More Deeply.”

That you speak out to your white peers about systemic racism and white privilege does not make you brave. It simply means you’re finally taking some responsibility.  As a white person, you risk very little in calling out and condemning such behavior. Ironically, your immunity to censure only emphasizes your privilege.  The brave ones are those people of color who stand up and speak out knowing the possible consequences.  You risk losing a few friends.  They sometimes risk their lives and livelihoods.

While I’m pleased you’re doing more than simply speaking out, attending Black Lives Matter events and contributing to organizations who are fighting on behalf of people of color does not make you heroic. It simply means you are being a decent human being.  Expecting accolades for such behavior – though you seldom realize it – suggests that people of color should be grateful for all you are doing.  Don’t expect credit for repaying a long overdue debt.

Be so careful.

There are two kinds of white ugliness. The first kind of ugliness is exemplified by those who claim or imply that black lives matter less than white lives.  It is easy to identify and condemn.  The second kind of ugliness is far more subtle.  It belittles people of color by implying that the respect that white people demand and expect of one another is a generosity when extended to a person of color.

Here is how to test whether you are guilty of this second kind of ugliness. Attend a Black Lives Matter rally and listen to what people of color are saying about white people.  When they are critical of white people, listen to your internal dialogue.  If you are defensive and outraged, you are likely experiencing your discomfort at not having your white generosity acknowledged.  You are not getting the credit you think you deserve for attending their rally.  They are not treating you as you’re accustomed; as a benevolent and enlightened white person.

You are not the guest of honor.

Your presence in the fight for equality and justice does not make you noble, wise, brave or heroic. It makes you empathic, someone willing to sit uncomfortably in the presence of someone else’s pain.  If what they say about white people does not apply to you, be glad.  If it does, be honest.  This, more than anything, is what people of color yearn for from white people.  In some ways, they are more comfortable with the blatant racist.  At least they know where they stand.

The greatest obstacle to racial reconciliation in America is in ending this second kind of white ugliness, the kind so pervasive in progressive and liberal circles. When supporting people of color is about feeling good about yourself, you have objectified people of color once again.  Like the slave owner, they are a means to your end.  They are the context for you to be noble, wise, brave and heroic.

In the story of the emancipation of people of color, you – as a white person – can play a role. Some have chosen to be the villains.  Many have chosen to be spectators.  A few have become allies and accomplices.  None are heroes.  That role rightly belongs to only one group of people – the people of color who’ve paid for their freedom and their civil rights with their blood, sweat and tears.

Old White People Need To Die

Old White People Need To Die

Growing up, I was taught to honor my elders, to acknowledge that their experience made them wiser in the ways of the world. For this reason, I internally cringe when I write the words, “Old white people need to die.”  It seems callous and disrespectful rather than what it is – a fair and reasonable analysis of the demographics in the recent elections in Alabama.

In Alabama, 74% of the voters for Roy Moore – a homophobic, racist, misogynist accused of sexually assaulting and harassing multiple teenage girls – were 45 or older. Since 92% of Moore supporters were white, we can safely conclude that a majority of older white people in Alabama either approved of or did not object to Mr. Moore’s opinions or actions.  In addition, we know from the exit polls that the older a white person was, the more likely they were to vote for Moore.  While only 36% of white people younger than 45 voted for Moore, nearly 60% of those older than 65 supported Moore.  This may explain the recently popular sweatshirts emblazoned with “F*ck Your Racist Grandma.”

White grandpas and grandmas are a big part of the problem in America. This shouldn’t surprise us.  A person who is seventy years old today was born in 1947.  This means they spent their most formative years growing up in a nation where black people were second class citizens, homosexuality was an abomination and women were considered the weaker sex.  While they may have reluctantly acquiesced to the cultural changes around them, this doesn’t mean their perspectives and prejudices have significantly changed.  Indeed, with age comes nostalgia.

I see this dynamic in my own father, a progressive liberal in his 70s. In these past few years, he has spent countless hours and thousands of dollars seeking and buying the cars he drove as a teenager.  While I find his obsession odd, I am increasingly thankful that his nostalgia is for the trappings of the past and not its values.  This is obviously not the case with many older white people in Alabama.  Roy Moore stated America was greatest during the days of slavery and they voted for him.  Donald Trump ran his whole campaign on a nostalgic theme of “Make America Great Again.”  The subtext of “Make America Like It Was During Your Childhood” was especially appealing to older white people.

This is not to say there aren’t millennials with racist and misogynist opinions. Most of the white supremacist marchers at Charlottesville were 45 or younger.  However, demographically, they are a decreasing minority.  Without old white people, Donald Trump would not have been elected and Roy Moore would not have come so close to being a US Senator.  While education and dialogue are important ingredients in shifting our culture away from its bigoted past, the chief contributor to social change in the next 25 years will be funerals.  Those white people born before the Civil Rights movement need to die.

We also need to stop electing old white people. Regardless of whether Trump or Clinton had won the election, the United States would have had its oldest elected president – an old white person.  Nostalgia aside, this is not a positive trend.  While cognitive decline begins at about the age of 45, we know that this deterioration accelerates after the age of 60.  I’ve seen this in my father and recognized the beginnings of this in myself.  I am not as sharp and creative as I once was.  I am more forgetful and less flexible.  You should not elect me to political office.

Unfortunately, in a society that can medically extend life span, we’ve enabled older people to remain in power and influence even when their mental capacities are in serious decline. We’ve created a society where people who grew up using typewriters and who struggle to navigate e-mail are being asked to make important decisions about net neutrality and cyberwarfare.  This should frighten us.  Regardless of what you think of Donald Trump today, you can rest assured that his mental faculties are not going to improve over the next three years.

Here is our dilemma. Right now in America, the vast majority of the wealth, voting power and political influence in the United States is in the hands of old white people who grew up in day when “colored” people drank from a different water fountain, when being gay was a crime and men were the “head of the household.”  Though some of these old white people are committed to creating a different and better world for their children and grandchildren, many are not.  They are only capable of looking backward. Until they die, they are a drag on the progress of our nation.

I say all of this aware that I may be accused of ageism.  So let me end with this clarification.  It is time to redefine what it means to honor our parents and grandparents.  We do not honor them by allowing their past prejudices and cultural calculations to persevere.  We honor them most by learning from their mistakes, honestly recognizing their limitations and building positively on the world they created.  And, for some of them, perhaps we honor them by refusing to drive them to the polls.  If there is age before which you should not vote, there should probably be an upper limit as well.

While I wish Roy Moore had lost the election in Alabama by a much larger margin, the demographics of the election give me hope. In 25 years, the people of Alabama may not vote like the people of California, but I expect they will no longer consider someone like Roy Moore as an acceptable candidate.  Those of his ilk and era will have died.  A younger generation, exposed to a vast, vibrant and divergent world through the internet, will gradually take power.  Raised in a multicultural nation, they will make America greater than it has ever been.

Where I Agree With White Supremacists

Where I Agree With White Supremacists

In about 1754 BC, a Babylonian king by the name of Hammurabi had his opinion on the proper human order chiseled onto a large stone. The Code of Hammurabi argued that God had placed him in power to enforce a society where men were considered superior, women were subordinate to men and most people – slaves – were so inferior they could be considered property.  For the next 3500 years, this was how most societies were organized.

In 1776 AD, Thomas Jefferson offered a new and controversial opinion about the proper order of humanity. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson argued that “all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.”  While this more enlightened opinion was certainly a departure from thousands of years of human political thought, we shouldn’t celebrate it as a triumph of human emancipation.

Unfortunately, Thomas Jefferson probably meant “all males” when he wrote his declaration. His words were a challenge to the privileges of kings and nobility, but did little to alter the remainder of the Code of Hammurabi.  Women were still subordinate, unable to own property or vote.  Jefferson continued to own slaves.  Finally, he based his opinion on the same claim of divine authority.  Why was his opinion superior to that of Hammurabi?  God said so.  However, while Jefferson’s arguments were flawed, the Declaration of Independence was the beginning of a clash between two very different understandings of human order, a struggle which continues today.

The Code of Hammurabi has been – and still is – the worldview of many in the United States. Since 1776, those committed to including more and more types of people in the term “all men” have fought for greater equality against those who believe some – by virtue of their gender or the color of their skin – are superior to others.  Make no mistake; the Civil War was a violent clash of these two worldviews.  The Civil Rights movement was another battle in this effort to defeat a white supremacy built on the Code of Hammurabi.  What we are experiencing in the United States today is another skirmish in that conflict.  When Trump and his supporters say they want to “make America great again,” it is not a call to a Jeffersonian world where all people are equal and have certain unalienable rights.  Roy Moore and his like are calling for a return to a world where the Code of Hammurabi reigned.

As I’ve fought against the minions of Hammurabi over the past forty years, my opinions and arguments have shifted. For example, I once found solace and strength in the idea that the truth of equality was self-evident, ordained by a God who loved and valued every person equally.  Gradually, it became apparent to me that the claim of divine blessing has sustained rather than solved this conflict.  Both Hammurabi and Jefferson argued their worldview was ordained by God.

Sadly, in this clash of worldviews, God has been more of a team mascot than the arbiter of truth. History has shown that religions and sects have aligned on both sides of this conflict.  Racism and sexism – as well as God’s equal regard for all – have often been trumpeted by holy men.  The opinion of God seems largely irrelevant in this struggle.  If we are ever to resolve this conflict over the proper order of humanity, I suspect we have to look beyond religion for aid.

I no longer believe people were created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. Equality and rights are not attributes that are bestowed.  If women and people of color have taught us anything, they have demonstrated that equality and rights are the spoils of hard fought battles with the defenders of the Code of Hammurabi.  Perhaps God – or the idea of God – has given the oppressed and marginalized comfort and courage, but it is their blood, sweat and tears that have changed the world.

I have also come to question the validity of the idea of the equality of all people. In this, ironically, I am in agreement with white supremacists.  Not all people are equal.  Some are inferior.  While I believe every person has worth, I am absolutely convinced that many of the defenders of the Code of Hammurabi, of white supremacy and of white and male privilege are inferior human beings. They are not just. They are not good thinkers.  They are not reflective.  They are not well informed.  Indeed, they are attracted to the Code of Hammurabi precisely because it offers them an unfair advantage in a world where they fear competing with brilliant women and people of color.

In recent years, I’ve realized why many conservatives hate the theory of evolution so much. It is not that it challenges their view of God as much as it is an affront to their opinion about themselves.  Evolution does not care whether you are Christian, a white man or an American.  It bestows its blessings without discrimination.  All people are not born equal.  Some are more intelligent, creative, innovative, reflective and compassionate than others and the distribution of these talents has nothing to do with gender or race.  Creating a human order that denies or ignores this reality is detrimental to human society and progress.

This has become my primary objection to racism and sexism. Any understanding of the human order that suggests homogeneity is ordained or preferable is dangerous.  A society, company, or organization dominated by white men will always be inferior.  By excluding the brilliance and creativity of those who are other, it makes the same mistake of European royal families in the past.  Human evolution has determined that inbreeding always results in deformity and inferiority.  Diversity is a hallmark of evolution and the driver of human progress.

For this reason, I am not a proponent of equality for equality’s sake. I am a proponent of equal opportunity, for the leveling a very unleveled playing field.  I am an opponent of racism and sexism because these systems – based on an archaic and non-scientific code – diminish the opportunities for large portions of the human race to flourish.  White supremacy must be opposed, not merely because it is immoral, but because we now fully understand the importance of human diversity.  This is not a political opinion, but a scientifically proven fact.

This is where I and the white supremacists radically disagree. They believe America would be great if we could restore the dominance of white men.  They applaud pictures where all our political leaders are white men.  I find this dangerous and harmful.  A racially diverse nation is dynamic and vibrant.  Systemic racism and sexism make America far less than we can be.

I think white supremacists – though they seldom admit it – do understand this.  They realize at some deep level that – without inordinate power – they may struggle to compete.  When the marchers in Charlottesville chanted, “You will not replace us,” they revealed their deepest fear.  They did not say “you cannot replace us.”  They are smart enough to see the writing on the wall.  Without the Code of Hammurabi, they will be rightly replaced by women and people of color.  This will happen not because their replacements are inferior, but precisely because they are superior.

I hold this truth to be self-evident. All people are not created equal. We are born into an incredibly diverse world.  This reality is an opportunity and not a threat.  Allowing the most talented and thoughtful to lead is good for all of us.  If we are willing to give all people equal rights, then and only then will life, liberty and happiness flourish.

(Special thanks for Yuval Noah Harari, who juxtaposed and critiqued both the Code of Hammurabi and the Declaration of Independence in his fascinating book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. His thoughts provoked mine.)

Why White Men Should Feel Ashamed

Why White Men Should Feel Ashamed

November was an enlightening month.

In late October, I posted an essay entitled “How To Tell If A White Person Is Racist With One Simple Question.” Though my blog is generally read by a couple of thousand people, in this instance and to my surprise, my post generated over 120,000 views over the next few weeks.  I received hundreds of comments, many of which I could not approve because of their ugliness and profanity.  If I had any doubt about the premise of the post – that people’s negativity toward the question of reparations is a fairly good indicator of their blatant or latent racism – the response to the post dispelled them.

Throughout November, I engaged – both publicly and privately – in lengthy exchanges with angry, white men over the legitimacy of reparations and the present state of racial relations in America. These conversations led me to write two follow up posts outlining a reasonable approach to reparations as well as my own personal commitment. I also became more aware of the present and potential dangers of angry, white men.

During this encounter with white masculinity, I gradually realized the responses of angry white men to reparations echoed what I was hearing from other angry, white men about sexual harassment. As you know, November was also the month of Harvey Weinstein, Louis C. K., Charlie Rose, Roy Moore, Matt Lauer and Al Franken, of countless allegations of sexual assault and harassment, and of denials and justifications.  As I was engaging in one discussion while listening to another, the similarities in the responses became more and more obvious.  It was almost as if racist and sexually inappropriate men were reading off the same script.

Deny or Question the Veracity of the Injury

As I talked with white men about slavery and racial discrimination, I was amazed by how often they denied the existence of racism today. According to them, America was a level playing field and any disparities between blacks and whites were the fault of people of color.  Some actually argued that, if racism existed, they were its target. While no one claimed slavery didn’t happen, they were quick to diminish its impact. One man even quoted Muhammed Ali, who – while boxing in Africa – once quipped, “Thank God my granddaddy got on that boat.”  In this twisted manipulation of Ali’s opinions on racism, slavery was actually a positive historical event bringing Christianity and prosperity to black people.

This same willingness to deny or discount a past injury was echoed in many of the responses of men accused of sexual harassment. Even when the past harassment was acknowledged, men were quick to suggest that the incident was trivial, even unmemorable. Franken apologized, but admitted he couldn’t even remember the incidents. One defender of Roy Moore actually argued that Moore’s behavior was somehow similar to that of Mary and Joseph in the Bible. Moore wasn’t a creepy pedophile. He was a Biblical patriarch.

Question the Timing of the Injured Party

Those accused of sexual harassment were quick to question the timing of the allegation. They asked why, after so long, these women were finally claiming injury.  There was little recognition of how – if the accusations were as described – these men had used their power to intimidate and harass their victims, to even threaten them should they expose the injury. Ironically, our patriarchal culture makes it extremely difficult for women to expose sexual assault and harassment and then castigates them for their reluctance. Only the recent number of successful exposures has given some women the courage to speak out.

Angry, white men express similar irritation with the timing of calls for reparations. They too asked why, so many years after the end of slavery, black people were demanding reparations.  There was little recognition of how – for most of the past 150 years – powerful white men responded to calls for reparations with everything from laughter to lynching.  As with victims of sexual harassment, people usually expose past injuries when they feel some modicum of safety.  A nation that only apologized for slavery in 2009 shouldn’t be surprised by the sudden upsurge in calls for reparations.

Question the Motive and Character of the Injured Party

During my exchanges, I repeatedly heard reparations described as the strategy of “money grubbing black people.” Instead of legitimate compensation for centuries of economic exploitation, reparations were often defined as an injustice to white people.  According to this trope, white people are hardworking and responsible. Our affluence has nothing to do with past oppressive. Inversely, black people are greedy and irresponsible. Their present challenges are the result of their own flaws.  While only the most bigoted came right out and said black people were lazy, stupid or immoral, much of the rhetoric implied as much.  In the end, these arguments often ended by suggesting white people were the victims.

Most of the men exposed as sexual harassers would have us believe they – rather than their accusers – are the victims. The women are money grubbing liars motivated by a desire for fame. Often, in diminishing the credibility of their accusers, the unrelated or incidental failings of their accusers are paraded publicly.  While few men come right out and say these women are loose and immoral, much of the rhetoric implies as much.  Ironically, though the men deny assaulting or harassing the women, they also imply their accusers are the kind of women who invite or deserve such treatment.

Diminish the Impact of the Injury

Many of these men also suggest their actions were trivial, playful or even well intentioned. The injury, if acknowledged at all, is presented as minor. Moore asked the mothers for permission to date their daughters. Franken was just kidding around.  All Louis C.K. asked was that they watch.  If the women weren’t liars, they were certainly exaggerating or misconstruing what happened. The victims of sexual harassment are either portrayed as pathetic losers trying to pull down their superiors or – if they are deemed successful women – as evidence that the past assault and harassment didn’t impact their careers.

Those opposing reparations utilize this same paradoxical argument. On one hand, the success of a few blacks is offered as evidence that there wasn’t really any injury.  How can racism exist in a country where Barack Obama was elected president?  Those people of color who have not succeeded are examples, not of systemic racism, but of their own inadequacies.  The racism that cannot be ignored is trivialized as the bigotry of a few white supremacists.  Micro-aggressions aren’t real.  Most of what people of color report as racist is either exaggerated or misconstrued.

Reject Any Responsibility While Normalizing The Behavior

Ultimately, the goal of angry, white men – whether in talking about reparations or sexual harassment – is to avoid any personal or corporate responsibility. Either they didn’t do anything wrong or they have no responsibility for the actions of others. Yet often, in avoiding any culpability, they express sentiments that suggest they harbor the cultural and philosophical positions that undergird racism and sexism.

While they quickly condemn the most horrific examples of racism and sexism, they often follow these condemnations with justifications and excuses.  Boys will be boys. White people should be able to celebrate their heritage. It was just locker room talk or bar banter.  Men can be sexually harassed by women, too.  Whites are the victims of racism as much as people of color.  Sexual harassment is simply the by-product of gender equality and sexual freedom.  People of color need to toughen up if they want to succeed in a free society.  And on and on.

It was usually at this point in a discussion that I would withdraw from the conversation. What had started out as a discussion of an injury had ended up as a rationalization for a system which empowers men to injure the less powerful.  By the end of November, I’d realized what opposition to reparations and reports of sexual harassment had most in common – angry, white men.  These were men desperately defending the very privilege that makes racism and sexism possible.  I began to suspect those complaining the most were probably also men with past transgressions.

Time and again, in this past month, I have heard men say, “I will not feel guilty about being white.” Initially, I assured them this was not my intent, that I wanted them to take responsibility rather than feel guilty.  By the end of the month, after hearing other men declare that they would not feel guilty for being men, such complaints began to ring hollow. There is a certain kind of white masculinity that should deeply embarrass all men.  This distorted masculinity is not solely exhibited in the David Dukes and Roy Moores of America.  It is deeply ingrained in the psyche of millions of white American men.

As much as I wish it were so, racism and sexism will not be solved by reparations or the firing of countless sexual harassers, though both of these responses are necessary. Our culture will only begin to change when more men accept some responsibility for the white patriarchy that makes David Duke and Roy Moore possible. They are not aberrations. They are representations. It is far past time for white men to finally feel ashamed about how we, our peers and our forefathers have treated women and people of color.  No more excuses.  No more justifications.

We need white men strong and brave enough to publicly abandon both the vestiges and the privileges of white patriarchy.  These are men willing to acknowledge the injuries of the past and to accept their continued complicity in sustaining systems that oppress people of color and women.  If white men want to be proud, let it be a pride in their commitment to stand up – not in defense of other white men – but in defense of those who have been defenseless for too long.  Until we are willing to do this, shame on us.

A Splendid Failure

A Splendid Failure

If you’re white, you probably don’t know much about what happened in the United States between 1865 and 1877. For most white people, our rudimentary understanding of American history skips from the assassination of Abraham Lincoln to the Wild West to World War I.  What transpired in the southern United States following the Civil War is largely unknown to most white Americans. This is tragic because the events of the Reconstruction are a tale of missed opportunity, full of lessons for our present day.

Michael Fitzgerald, the author of “Splendid Failure: Postwar Reconstruction in the American South,” opens his fascinating study with these words from W.E.B DuBois, “If the Reconstruction of the Southern states had been conceived as a major national program of America, whose accomplishment at any price was well worth the effort, we should be living in a different world. The attempt to make black men American citizens was in a certain sense all a failure, but a splendid failure.”  Fitzgerald goes on to describe this moment of incredible racial equality and possibility.

Consider these facts from this period of history…

  • Over 1500 African-Americans held political office with two serving as US Senators and eight serving as US Representatives. After this period, the next African-American Senator wasn’t elected until 1967. Black representation in the Congress didn’t exceed the Reconstruction until 1969.
  • Nearly 190,000 African-Americans served in the US Army during the Civil War, many becoming leaders in the south after the war. Black regiments were used in the Indian Wars in the west with great success. This competency was soon forgotten. Black men who had served with courage and valor were soon labeled as lazy, less intelligent and inferior.
  • Many African-American military units remained in service during the Reconstruction, enforcing civil rights and helped crush the Ku Klux Klan. President Grant named the KKK a terrorist organization and had thousands arrested and imprisoned. After the Reconstruction, the KKK quickly reappeared and was a constant threat to blacks, enforcing racial discrimination with intimidation and killings.
  • During the Reconstruction, blacks served as sheriffs, sat on juries and were elected or appointed as judges. While there were outbreaks of violence toward blacks, many black communities formed armed militias and defended themselves. Most black men owned a weapon. After the Reconstruction, blacks were disarmed. Between 1882 -1951, one black was lynched each week in the United States, many for defending themselves against white aggression.
  • In 1868, 500,000 black men cast votes in US elections. This was over 50% of the eligible black voters. In 1940, only 3% of eligible black voters in southern states qualified to register to vote. Black voting in numbers equal to the Reconstruction didn’t occur again in the US until after the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

 

Until the 1960s, it can be argued that the single greatest period of racial equality in the United States occurred between 1865 and 1877. After the Civil War, with the assistance of the federal government, blacks gained political power.  Long before Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of his dream, the United States briefly experienced the possibility of racial reconciliation.  Allied with progressive northern whites, blacks demanded and received their civil rights.  As DuBois suggests, if this splendid moment could have been sustained, we would live in a much different world.

Unfortunately, the rights and liberties gained in the years following the Civil War were ripped from the hands of black men and women. For nearly the next one hundred years, though technically free, black people experienced an oppression parallel with what they had experienced during slavery.  Enforced by law and lynching, they were told in a myriad of ways that they were not valued human beings.

What happened in the late 1870’s to destroy this hopeful moment?

  • A president – Rutherford B Hayes – was elected on a platform that valued the economic needs of southern whites more than the civil rights of blacks. Hayes withdrew federal troops from the south and removed many of the legal protections of the Reconstruction. In the course of a single year, nearly all of the advances of the previous decade were erased.
  • The mechanisms to guarantee black voting rights were systematically dismantled, allowing whites to remove all black officeholders, even in the many locales where blacks were the majority. Districts were gerrymandered and voting restrictions were created that essentially disenfranchised millions of black voters.
  • White supremacy movements were normalized. In 1882, the US Supreme Court found the Ku Klux Act unconstitutional. White supremacy became the de facto political force in the United States. The KKK would eventually become a national organization numbering in the millions and including many prominent politicians.
  • Laws were passed that allowed southern states to incarcerate blacks for a vast number of minor indiscretions, allowing southern governments to “enslave” thousands of black men under the auspices of law and order.
  • Northern whites became fatigued, frustrated with the resistance of other whites to racial reconciliation. Labeled carpetbaggers and scoundrels, thousands of whites who’d come south to assist in the Reconstruction were threatened and even killed. This began a long tradition of lynching white people who supported black people. Many northern whites fled from the south.

If all of this sounds strangely familiar, it should. After the eight years of the Obama administration – an administration that gave great hope to people of color – we have seen a president elected whose entire campaign placated angry, white people.  In a single year, we have watched much of the work and accomplishment of the Obama administration destroyed and dismantled.

In 2013, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was essentially voided by the US Supreme Court. In the years since, multiple states, especially those in the South, have created new obstacles to voter participation.  Combined with profiling by police departments, we have incarcerated thousands of black men, eliminating their rights to both arm and vote.

In Charlottesville and through Breitbart, we have seen the normalization of white supremacy groups with many politicians aligning themselves with movements that obscure their racist motives behind claims of nationalism and patriotism. Like Rutherford B Hayes before him, our present president reassures us that many of those who are part of these groups are “fine people.”

Progressive whites, though initially outraged by the election of Donald Trump and his administration’s policies, have gradually become less engaged. Those who have persisted in calling out the racism of this administration have been called divisive. Many white people, like southern whites during the Reconstruction, actually see themselves as the victims.

Make no mistake. When it comes to racial equality, progress is not inevitable.  The history of the Reconstruction stands as a vivid reminder of how easily liberties and rights can be removed.  As splendid as many of us found the election of Barack Obama, millions of white people greeted his election with the same disdain as southern whites greeted the emancipation of blacks in 1865.  Both groups yearned for an America of the past, where people of color were diminished.

If those, who do not know their history, are bound to repeat it, an America that does not know the tragic story of the Reconstruction has every potential to repeat that splendid failure. Those of us who do not want to see the cause of racial equality reversed should glean two important lessons.  First, when progressive whites work closely with people of color, great things can happen.  Second, when racists resist and oppose racial progress, we cannot grow fatigued.  The stakes are too high.  The rights and liberties of people of color are at risk once again.

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.