Like many of you, I’ve been thinking a lot about the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin. I knew I wanted to eventually write something about it, but I wasn’t sure where to begin. As I sat and stared at the blinking cursor on my screen, uncertain exactly what I wished to say, I decided to voice what was giving me pause: I am afraid to talk about race.
I don’t think I’m unique among white allies. Mind you, I’m not afraid to talk about race because I harbor animus toward people of color. I’m decidedly liberal in my politics and support civil rights. I’m an advocate for expanding opportunities for all.
However, I find I’m afraid to talk about race because I have only experienced the white side of this story. I’m afraid to talk about race because I’m afraid of sticking my foot in my mouth, hurting the cause, and being called a racist.
Yep, I’m afraid of being called a racist. As a white heterosexual male raised in a Christian faith, society has erected few barriers to my pursuit of happiness and prosperity. Whatever the “ism” in our society, my traits let me cut to the front of the line. I know not the yoke of oppression due simply to my race, sexual orientation, gender, or religious affiliation. I have benefited in ways both known and unknown to me because of all these things. When it comes to seeing harm, let’s just say that I’ve got a lot of blind spots.
I think it’s because of the unknown ways I’m privileged that I’ve been afraid to speak out. By never experiencing the sharp end of the stick, I feared, irrationally or not, that speaking from a point of privilege might serve to reaffirm racism rather than reject it. Having never experienced the sharp end of the stick, I can feel anger when epithets get thrown around, but never really feel their sting. One of the only words that can be thrown at me and truly sting, and I know the sting pales in comparison to every epithet, is racist.
But if I am to be a true ally in the pursuit of justice for all, I must do something more than wear the liberal campaign button. I must speak up. I must declare my desire to be a better advocate for justice. This is my start. If these traits let me get closer to power, then I need to use them to our mutual advantage.
I may end up writing something stupid, and if so, please know that my intention was not to offend. But if I do offend, I ask that you call it out to me so that I may learn. I promise to shut up and listen.
If you are a person of color, I’m here to tell you that your struggle is my struggle. I would like to learn from you the best ways you think I can help. Today it’s going to start with me challenging white folks. What I will say isn’t news to you, but if a white voice can reach deeper into a white audience, then I hope this helps.
To the white folks out there, we need to think and talk about the ways we benefit because we are white. It isn’t enough to recognize that society holds back our brothers and sisters of color. The ledger is out of balance if that’s all we see. For every debit against people of color, we should ask ourselves, where does that credit accrue? If being black or brown causes someone harm, I better understand how being white lets me benefit from it? For the more we recognize the ways, both obvious and subtle, that being white benefits us, the better allies for justice we can be.
Slavery is gone, Jim Crow is (mostly) dead. Brown v Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act have reshaped our nation and pushed us closer to the ideal that all people are created equal. While we’ve dismantled the legal structure that supported discrimination based on race, we have left largely untouched the concentration of economic and political power with whites that is the legacy of discrimination. It is in light of this that I must ask you a tough question: If we are to truly be a just society, are equal rules enough?
Let me illustrate this with a thought experiment. Imagine a baseball game between two teams - The Stars and The Stripes. As most know, the goal of the game is to score more runs than your opponent. And at the core of the game is a duel between a pitcher from one team trying to get an out and a batter from the other team trying to score a run. But what if the competitive exchange between pitcher and batter were changed? What is the pitcher and batter played for the same team? What would happen if The Stars were in the field and The Stripes were at bat, but the pitcher, instead of playing for The Stars, played for The Stripes? We would no longer have a competitive duel between two players from opposing teams. In its place we’d have collusion between players from the same team. Instead of competing to get players out, the pitcher would pitch in a manner that made it easier for his team to score runs and win the game. The simplest thing the pitcher could do is walk every batter. This would guarantee that The Stripes scored runs without any risk that The Stars could get any outs. We would all see how monumentally unfair that game was.
If you were a white male land owner at the dawn of American history, you were playing for The Stripes. The laws and institutions were stacked in your favor. Everyone else played for The Stars and was, literally, out in the field.
What if you wanted to correct this unfairness? What if we stopped mid-game with The Stripes leading The Stars 100 to zero. Would you restart the game and make sure each team played by the same rules from the beginning, or would you change the rules mid-game and let The Stripes keep their 100 run lead?
America eventually recognized that its game was unfair and the rules needed to change. However, we didn’t opt to restart the game. Instead, we’ve slowly changed the laws and institutions over time. These changes mostly attempted to make things fairer. But one big fact remains: the original score was never erased.
Let me be clear, I am not arguing whether leaving the score in place was right or wrong, but it is an extremely important fact to note. Because we didn’t restart the game, the lead we (whites) were given was always safe.
Now you might respond by saying you weren’t around when the rules were first made, so what can I do about it. As I hope you will soon see, that’s a pretty loaded response. However, I can say I understand it. I can imagine you going to watch this baseball game, but that you showed up late. You missed the beginning of the game when the rules were unfair, and you haven’t seen the scoreboard. If you only looked pitch-by-pitch, play-by-play, I understand how you’d conclude that the teams were playing with the same rules and competing honestly. In this context, it would be puzzling to you if you heard players for The Stars complaining about how unfair the game was.
That’s the difference looking at the scoreboard makes. No matter how fair the rules of the game seem, if The Stars want to win the game, they will always need to play significantly better than The Stripes. That is their burden. They must play significantly better just to have a shot at winning while carrying the physical and emotional burden of always being behind. Did The Stars get to play with the same rules as The Stripes? Sure, but did that make them any more likely to win the game?
This is why I get angry with people trying to absolve themselves by saying they weren’t around during slavery. You are right. I wasn’t a slave owner. I didn’t live during the time of slavery either. But this much is clear, I was born into a game that counts runs, and I was given a 100 run lead. So even if we play the game with the same rules, it doesn’t change the fact that I start the game 100 runs ahead. My chances of winning are significantly better if I’m white. History matters.
Now perhaps the baseball metaphor isn’t the best fit, for it may serve to reinforce the “picking winners and losers” critique of government policy. The pursuit of justice doesn’t seek to determine the winner, rather it seeks to ensure equal opportunities to succeed. You don’t have to “lose” for me to “win”.
Instead of the baseball game, imagine a person unknown by you robbed a bank, and then gave your mom $10 million. This unknown person was captured, convicted, and put in jail, but the courts said your mom didn’t need to give back to the bank the $10 million she received. A substantial sum of money like that not only allows your mother to live very comfortably, but it also allows her to give you a nice inheritance. And upon inheriting that money, you could set up trust funds for your children. Did your kids rob the bank? No. But you cannot argue that they didn’t benefit from the bank robbery. That money will allow for more opportunities that they otherwise wouldn’t get.
(Now before you shoot this down by saying how unrealistic this scenario is, let me remind you we are comparing this to a society that considered black people property, stole their labor, and built industries (and wealth) with that stolen labor.)
Generational success, societal success, they accumulate from the multitude of opportunities provided over long periods of time. Slavery, and then Jim Crow, existed for nearly 350 years and permitted white America numerous opportunities for success – opportunities denied to black America. What we were allowed to own, where we were allowed to live, how we were allowed to work, how we were allowed to vote for our representatives in government (i.e. the rule makers), these things all permitted white equity in society to build up generation by generation.
One of the surest ways to increase generational opportunities for prosperity is a college degree. While we have dismantled a legal structure that discriminated against people because of race in their pursuit of education, we’ve maintained a public education system funded largely by property taxes. So if you’ve historically faced significant legal and societal barriers to property ownership because of race, you might feel like you’re still being penalized for your race in your pursuit of education, even though discrimination is now illegal. We end up codifying racial disparity in generational success with an economic system that isn’t as colorblind as it may originally seem.
That’s what it means to live in a racist society. It doesn’t mean white people must hate black people. Racism doesn’t require the N word. It doesn’t require white hoods and burning crosses. It means perpetuating the institutions in society which deny opportunity because of race. This is why we need to think hard about how we benefit from being white in this society.
History matters. That's why we can't let the Voting Rights Act or affirmative action die on the steps of the Supreme Court. That's why Stand Your Ground and Stop & Frisk are immoral.
There you have it. As you can see, I have lots of questions that I can’t answer. But I know I will never be able to help find answers to them if I remain silent and don’t ask. I’m done talking. I’ll shut and listen now.