I was born in 1980 and in my lifetime the conversation on race in America has always been difficult. I grew up in an affluent suburb of Cleveland where the school population was a nearly even split between white and black (there were other races, too, but almost everyone would have decribed themselves as either “white” or “black”). The conversation on race was really important, and it was present throughout my education. From my earliest memories I can recall knowing that black kids were different because when I was at home I would sometimes speak in the manner of my black friends, and my mother would correct my grammar. A little later, when I was 8 or 9, I met my Aunt who had been raised in Louisiana, and realized that her accent was remarkably similar to the that of black people I knew. Although I knew early on about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement – I can remember singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in grade school every February – I didn’t yet know about the Great Migration. There was a lot I didn’t understand, and I struggled with it.
When I was a junior in high school, the school newspaper did a front page article called “Black and White or Shades of Grey?” It featured statistics, laid out in four charts, from a study done by the PTO, comparing academic achievement of whites and black in our school. The results were really dramatic. White students were more likely to take AP and Honors classes, had higher GPAs, scored higher on SATs and ACTs. The controversy was explosive. The newspaper editor apologized to the entire school over the intercom that day, and after school, an impromptu gathering to discuss the article was called in the assembly room. I didn’t go to the discussion that day, but I remember my class valedictorian (a white guy) talking about it in his speech at graduation the following year. The school brought in a respected black academic to speak to the school about the importance of black achievement. And they hired John Ogbu, a black sociologist from Nigeria working in the US, to do a study on black achievement. Ogbu would go on to write a book, Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Story of Academic Engagement, based in part on his research in Shaker. But the conclusions he reached were ultimately rejected by the Shaker school district, largely because nobody really wanted to be held accountable. Yes, the achievement gap was unacceptable. But who was going to take the blame? Parents? Students? Teachers? Administrators?
The experience of seeing that debate close up helped me understand just how complex and difficult the issue of race is in America. In an integrated school system there was rampant segregation – in the lunchroom, in the classroom, after school, and so on. Interracial couples were rare. There were obvious cultural differences. Preganancy among black girls in their late teens was not uncommon, but among white girls it was almost unthinkable, although it certainly did happen. There was separation and inequality, but it wasn’t clear to anyone how that might be changed. It has been crucial to my understanding of race that just talking about it in a consistant way is really hard.
Growing up I learned that one of the worst things you can call someone is a racist. A racist is a bad person. A racist is someone who is full of hatred and ignorance, someone who is stupid, someone who is cruel, someone who is to be feared and loathed. A friend of mine once said on Facebook that I had argued against white privilege and I took that as saying that I am a racist. And I’ve heard people sometimes say that we are all racists, but I got really emotional over that comment. For me, the conversation on white privilege is about being able to tell racists that they are racists. It is Bill O’Reilly saying that he’s not a racist and Jon Stewart saying “Yes you are, man.”
If you ask Trump if he’s a racist, he would say no. If you asked Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh or Matt Drudge or Michael Savage or Glenn Beck or Alex Jones if they’re racist, they’d all say – vehemently – NO! If you ask white people living in affluent suburbs where everyone else is white, they aren’t racists. If you ask poor white people living in trailer parks, they aren’t racists. If you ask the Ku Klux Klan, the motherfucking Klan, if they’re racists, they’d probably still try to equivocate – yeah, they’re racists, but…
And I hear liberals talk about racists all the time. They’re taken for granted. Why are conservatives conservative? Because racism. Because homophobia. Because sexism. Because capitalist patriarchy. Show me the racist sexist capitalist patriarch who calls himself that. Show me, because I don’t see him. You can’t have an honest conversation about race and racism if racists won’t stand up for what they believe in. And if you can’t have an honest conversation about it, then you can’t do anything about it either.
I saw a chart this morning in the Facebook feed from a person who is white and conservative and not racist:
And the basic point this person was making was that Black Lives Matter was protesting blacks killed by whites. A cursory examination of the Black Lives Matter website will tell you that isn’t the case –
Black Lives Matter is a unique contribution that goes beyond extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes. It goes beyond the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within some Black communities, which merely call on Black people to love Black, live Black and buy Black, keeping straight cis Black men in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and trans and disabled folk take up roles in the background or not at all. Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks,Black-undocumented folks, folks withrecords, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements. It is a tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement.
The whole idea conveyed by the chart above – that BLM is about protesting white people killing black people – is not the case, as is made clear in the first sentence of BLM’s summary statement. Do I think that the person who posted that chart would go to BLM’s website and reconsider their position? No. The courage of Black Lives Matters activists is not in the face of hatred, bigotry, and racism, or even ignorance and institutionalized oppression – it’s in the face of apathy. Most white, middle class Americans just don’t give a fuck. As long as they’ve got a big screen television, a pickup truck (for him) and an SUV or luxury sedan (for her), easy access to health care, and affordable vacations to exotic locales, the rest of the world can go hang. And if you disturb their apathy, it’s not about you – it’s about them. Which is why they’ll look at those FBI stats and say “Hey, if black lives matter, why don’t you all stop killing each other?” Because they have nothing against black people, they wish them well, but, as white people, what does this have to do with them?
But they’re not racist. Don’t you dare call them racist.
And you could point out the correlation between poverty and violence, as reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2014. The report found:
- Persons in poor households at or below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) (39.8 per 1,000) had more than double the rate of violent victimization as persons in high-income households (16.9 per 1,000).
- Persons in poor households had a higher rate of violence involving a firearm (3.5 per 1,000) compared to persons above the FPL (0.8–2.5 per 1,000).
- The overall pattern of poor persons having the highest rates of violent victimization was consistent for both whites and blacks. However, the rate of violent victimization for Hispanics did not vary across poverty levels.
- Poor Hispanics (25.3 per 1,000) had lower rates of violence compared to poor whites (46.4 per 1,000) and poor blacks (43.4 per 1,000).
- Poor persons living in urban areas (43.9 per 1,000) had violent victimization rates similar to poor persons living in rural areas (38.8 per 1,000).
- Poor urban blacks (51.3 per 1,000) had rates of violence similar to poor urban whites (56.4 per 1,000).
And you might say “Alright, there’s a correlation between poverty and violence. But it affects whites and blacks pretty equally.” Ah, but then there’s an income gap between blacks and whites as well, and a pretty serious one, as shown by the chart from this 2014 Census report:
Not to mention the disparity between black and white unemployment rates:
On average, according to the data from 1973 to 2016, unemployment among black Americans is 5.8% higher than the overall unemployment rate. That’s a big difference! Not to mention higher rates of incarceration, lowew rates of educational achievement and so on. But its only too easy for middle class white people to simply say “Look, I’m not a racist, alright? I don’t know what the answer is, but I don’t want black people to be unemployed or in prison or make less money. It’s not my fault!”
I do think it’s one of the most important things for folks on the left to realize that saying their opponants are racists and bigots is a non-starter. Maybe they are, but saying so will only alienate them. If anything, I think it’s important to have compassion for white suburban middle class people. Their world is collapsing. People who grew up listening to Pat Boone have kids and grandkids going to the Gathering of the Juggalos. The stable world they grew up in has vanished into thin air.
At the end of the day, I have to stand with Black Lives Matter. I may not always agree with them, but I am listening. And I think they’re on the right track, but the way forward is fraught with difficulty. It frightens me to think of the years ahead. I have no great desire to call my neighbors, friends, and relatives racists. But if I’m being honest, I know lots of racists. Sometimes I think maybe I’m a racist. And when I say racist, I mean an unequivocally bad person.
We all need mercy. Mercy and forgiveness and compassion. For others, for ourselves.