Which Side of History Are You On?
An Open Letter from one white person to other white people
Dear white people,[i]
I have struggled with how to begin this letter. Black friends have said I should be more hard-hitting. White friends have cautioned not to ‘trigger’ you. In the end, I can only write to you from the restlessness in my soul that whispers ‘speak out’ and shouts ‘the time is now’. There’s a part of me, somewhere in the pit of my stomach and the back of my throat, which understands that even though there are bills to pay, jobs to get to on time, and laundry to be done, there is something more important to tackle right now. I urge you to go on this journey with me. I beg you to see it as worth your time, as I feel we must act.
We, as white people, have been called out recently for not being more visibly outraged in the wake of Mike Brown’s murder. Headlines such as –“Why It’s So Hard for Whites to Understand Ferguson”, “Why are white people scared of black people’s rage at Mike Brown’s death?” –have likely bounced through your Facebook feed. I’m writing to the silent majority of white people. For those on the spectrum from –“It’s bullshit… I don’t even know what they’re fighting for.” –To: “I stand in solidarity but I’m not sure how I can help; it’s not ‘my’ struggle.” –this letter is for you.
Many of us grew up in times that benefited from the civil rights victories of the last century. Because of this progress, some of us grew up without being exposed to overt racism. Discussions of race and an understanding of racism was not an active part of our day-to-day reality. Except for those we deemed anomalies: the ‘backwards’ few or elders considered too old to change, school and media made us believe that racial equity struggles in this country were a thing to be studied in our textbooks, like ancient history. School classes condense Emancipation to the Civil Rights Act into just a few weeks, further conditioning us to believe that this is a “case closed” chapter of US history. As if the many brave people who fought to change our country had finished the job and it is enough to remember them annually during Black History Month. For those of us who went to college, some went through higher education never having to think much about race in America. All of this made it possible for many of us to believe the US is on its way to a post-racial society; some actually believing we live in that reality today.
This is, unfortunately, a fiction created by the circumstance in which we happened to be born. We are miles away from a post-racial United States. We are, in fact, still in the middle of the civil rights movement.
If this is not a readily acceptable concept for you, you are not alone. Since birth, we have inherited an invisible privilege that has shielded us from a harsher reality without our permission or awareness. We have been seeing the world through a very specific lens: the lens of white privilege. This makes it difficult to understand the extent of what we do not know about US history and our present. Some of this is simply due to where we grew up, whom we talked to the most, and what ideas we were exposed to. Some is due to the fact that our education system, media, government, and economic infrastructure reinforce our white privilege. Every human is a product of her or his circumstance and since our government and economic might were built on the subjugation of our fellow humans we still carry that legacy to date. Unfortunately we live in an undeniably racist country.
America’s two worlds
The United States is rife with inequalities –wealth, education, access to healthy food –just to name a few. But it’s not just about class disparities; there is a large and growing financial gap between black and white Americans. As of 2009 the median wealth of white families was $113,149 compared with $5,677 for black families.[ii] When it comes to owning a home the stats are also striking unequal: the homeownership rate for white families is 28.4% higher than for black families.[iii]
Wealth, one’s net assets, is significantly harder for black Americans to accumulate. After adjusting for socio-economic characteristics, debt loads, education, and life-cycle traits like divorce, the same ‘input’ of resources still yields less for black Americans than white Americans.[iv] For instance, a college degree produces 5% more wealth for white than black Americans. Similarly, among those receiving an inheritance, each dollar of inheritance converts into 91 cents of wealth for white families compared with 20 cents for black families.
Unfortunately we are not just dealing with the aftermath of 250 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow, 60 years of separate but equal, and 35 years of state-sanctioned housing discrimination.[v] The economic disparity between white and black citizens has more than quadrupled over the course of the past generation[vi] because of present day discriminatory policies. It’s not a matter of black families just ‘waiting to catch up.’
Within the workplace there are long-standing patterns of racism in hiring, training, promoting, and access to benefits.[vii] In regards to unemployment, black workers are more affected, more often, and for longer periods of time. Relatedly, every dollar increase in income adds $5.19 of wealth for white Americans versus only 69 cents for black Americans. We see this play out in the fact that middle-income white households have greater gains in financial assets than high-income black households (in 2007, $74,000 versus $18,000, respectively).[viii]
Data[ix] suggests that inequity in homeownership is the primary factor affecting the growing financial gap. Our country has a long legacy of residential segregation by government design, the most recent manifestation being the practice of redlining[x] –arbitrarily denying or limiting financial services to specific neighborhoods because its residents are people of color or poor. Although redlining began to be dismantled in the late 1960s, its legacy reverberates today. How old were your parents or the parents of your black friends in 1967, a year in which redlining was still actively in use? These policies affected our parent’s generation; this is recent history. And historic policies have present-day, analogous twins such as discriminatory mortgage lending and unequal access to credit. This all combined with lower incomes make homeownership for black Americans very difficult, which only further reinforces communities segregated by race.
On top of this our government enforces laws differently based on race. Police stop blacks at rates that are much higher than whites.[xi] For instance, in New York City, where people of color make up about half of the population, 80% of the NYPD stops are of blacks and Latinos. When whites are stopped, only 8% are frisked, while 85% of blacks and Latinos are. It is hard for me to ever fully understand what it would be like to be afraid every time a cop car drives by me. But as a woman who has been twice physically assaulted while walking home, I can imagine it might feel similar to how my mind and heart now race every time I see a man walking near me after 10pm. (This young writer describes the emotional effects of being consistently racially profiled and harassed by police.)
In 2004, the Prison Policy Initiative reported that 12.6% of black men ages 25–29 were incarcerated.[xii] Pause. Let that sink in. Imagine what it would feel like to look into your baby boy’s eyes and to know your child has an almost 13% chance of going to jail in his mid-20s? While black Americans constitute about 13% of the nation’s population, they make up nearly 40% of the prison population.[xiii] According to a 2012 UPenn Law study, black Americans are 30% more likely to be sentenced to prison than white Americans who are convicted of the same crime[xiv] –a racial bias so alarming that the prison pipeline is starting to be referred to as “The New Jim Crow”.[xv]
Although the laws may look the same on paper, “if you are white, you literally live under a different legal system than if you are black,” Bloomberg columnist Noah Smith accurately stated.[xvi]
US policies and institutions distribute power, resources, and opportunity in ways that generally benefit white people and, in some cases, purposefully exclude people of color from benefit. “I feel like white and black Americans literally live in two different worlds,” a friend recently said to me. As a black woman, she said she struggles to understand why white Americans vehemently deny racism.
I too have found that for many white people the extent of institutional racism is not only undetectable but also unfathomable, due to the invisible force of white privilege. “A privileged person’s heart may be free from racist thoughts or biased attitudes, but may still fail to see how the very privilege afforded to him or her shapes how he or she interprets and understands the situations and circumstances of people without [this] privilege,” explained Texas pastor Matt Chandler in a recent sermon.[xvii] “ … We assume that the experiences … afforded to us are the same afforded to others. Sadly, this simply isn’t true.”
White anger in response to black outrage
When confronted with black people outraged at racism, many of my white peers become silent, frustrated, or angry. In the wake of Ferguson “…what dumbfounded me was the outpouring of white anger and resentment,” Joseph Heathcott wrote in an August 27th Salon article.[xviii]
Why do so many white Americans passionately want to believe we are ‘over’ race in our country?
We seem to have an unconscious fear that, if we accept and acknowledge that the opportunities and experiences afforded to us are not afforded in the same way to every American, our experiences and our successes will in some way not be as valid. For those of us going through personal hardship, I believe there is also a fear that our struggle will be deemed less ‘real’ or our pain less worthy. Thus acknowledging institutional racism can feel like a very vulnerable act to many white Americans.
However by holding on so tightly to a belief in achieved equality we ironically forget that even if we do not yet live in an equitable nation, each and every person’s life experience is of equal worth and value. This is a human, inalienable truth. To acknowledge the struggle of another is not to invalidate one’s own hardship. To acknowledge that some Americans are doled out less institutional power than others, is not to give up one’s own power or to make less one’s own success. Power is not a finite resource.
It is ironic that the fear I feel from white friends has similar roots to the frustration I feel from my black friends. No one wants her or his experience to be invalidated. And yet this is the daily reality of a black person in America. Can you imagine how maddening it is to regularly experience implicit racism and see one’s community suffer the effects of institutional racism and yet have to go to work, school, and social functions dominated by a narrative that denies or ignores this as your reality? Can you imagine being made to feel your personal pain was invalid because it must be an ‘outlier case’ or you must be ‘too sensitive’ since, after all, we live in a post-racial America?
I have seen black outrage at systemic racism misinterpreted by white people as anti-white racism, and thus white Americans can become defensive. But here’s the thing: racism does not have to be ‘passed’. It is not a zero-sum game. When you witness a fellow American fed up with racism in our country, to acknowledge their outrage or to experience the emotion yourself is not to absorb racism as a victim or to self-sacrifice on the altar of ‘white guilt’.
Yet even for those who understand this, being forced to accept that institutional racism is a functional part of our day-to-day reality –and therefore that Ferguson is about more than just the murder of Mike Brown –can feel to many white people as a request to accept a role as the anti-hero in the American story.
However, as Atlantic senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates explains,[xix] “I’m not asking you as a white person to see yourself as an enslaver. I’m asking you as an American to see all the freedoms that you enjoy and see how they are rooted in things that the country that you belong to condoned or actively participated in … That covers everything from enslavement to … today in terms of mass incarceration … this is heritage, it is with us –it is with all of us. And it is not with you because you are white. It is with you because you are an American.” The burden of our history is a weight we must all carry.
You, as a white American, have an equal opportunity to be outraged at systemic racism and to fight for its destruction. The color of your skin does not dictate which side of history you are on; you get to decide.
In a dialogue vacuum, racism is perpetuated
Unconscious fears, like those described above, cause many white Americans to be ‘rubbed the wrong way’ by any discussion of race or to shut the subject down. There is even social pressure on white Americans who do see institutional racism and understand their own white privilege to not broach the subject, for fear of making those they love uncomfortable –or at times for fear of being ostracized and dubbed as an ‘other’ themselves. Unfortunately this dialogue vacuum creates a space of ignorance in which another brand of prejudice takes root: implicit racism. Implicit racism is “subtle, commonplace forms of discrimination, such as being ignored, ridiculed or treated differently.”[xx] Although these are incidents that may seem innocuous and small, they can have a powerful cumulative effect on an individual’s mental health. What does this look like?
This looks like an unarmed black teenager shot by a policeman being viewed as ‘guilty until proven innocent.’ It looks like assessing a neighborhood’s safety based on how many young black men one might see on the street at a given time. It looks like a white manager not seeing her black employees as ‘leadership material.’ It looks like this quote from Gossip writer Kitty Kelley’s unauthorized biography Oprah: “Oprah without hair and makeup is a pretty scary sight. But once her prep people do their magic, she becomes super glam. They narrow her nose and thin her lips …and … I can’t even begin to describe the wonders they perform with her hair.”[xxi] It looks like a black person fighting to be seen as an individual in the eyes of ‘white America’ rather than as a representational example of all ‘black people.’
Many white Americans are unaware of the prevalence of implicit racism and the degree to which these seemingly subtle biases underpin and enable institutional racism and racial profiling by our authorities to continue. Ironically, it is institutional inequalities that then allow implicit prejudice to seem ‘rational’ to a less-aware white person. It is a vicious cycle –one that can only be broken if we acknowledge that it does in fact exist.
We are in the middle of the fight
Are things better than they were in the early 1900s in terms of civil rights in our country? Of course. But, as Ta-Nehisi Coates explains[xxii] “… if I’m being assaulted and being beaten with a pipe, then a person stops assaulting me and I‘m on the ground bleeding, well that’s progress… is it sufficient progress that people should jump up and down and congratulate themselves about [it]?”
The story of the United States to date could be viewed as a continuous struggle to extend the rights set out in the Constitution to apply equally to all peoples who live within this country. When historians write about the civil rights movement I believe it will be viewed as the time period from the end of slavery through present day to … 2050? 2100? 2200? We get to help decide the end date.
So, open back up those school history books, flip to the civil rights movement section and insert a new blank page at the end. That’s where we are: in the middle of the fight. “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress,” Malcolm X famously said in a 1964 TV interview.[xxiii] “If you pull it all the way out that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven’t even pulled the knife out much less heal[ed] the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there.” Forty years later this quote remains just as relevant.
Together, as a country, we need to stop the blows, acknowledge the knife and heal the wounds. And that is what the movement spawned by the tragic events in Ferguson is about. It is that big. It is that important.
As a white person is institutional and implicit racism necessarily your fault? No. As an American is it something to urgently and actively stand up against? Yes!
There are points in our lives when we receive data that does not compute with our vision of the world and we must therefore reexamine and adjust. Failing to recalibrate, particularly when choosing ignorance helps to legitimize injustice, is an active choice and thus one that is vulnerable to blame.
The true test of the American experiment
America faces a choice right now. If we want to stand for freedom as a country we must openly recognize the fact that our experiment of a State was built on the genocide and enslavement of generations of humans. We must also acknowledge that this legacy has real, tangible effects today –not only in the reverberations of our past but also in current policy and its enforcement.
No matter how much ‘progress’ America makes, no matter how much happiness or success you experience in your own life, no matter how much respect you receive, if this same progress, potential for success, and respect does not exist as an equal-access possibility for all our fellow humans who live on this land, then it does not –fully –exist for you. Racism hurts everyone in that it denies each person –white or black or brown –the ability to self-determine and manifest his or her own identity outside of bias or stereotype. Will you, as a white person, be happier and freer in a country extinguished of institutional racism? Absolutely.
The true test of the American experiment rests on whether we can see and acknowledge our dirty truths, change in order to make our society a place where the rights of our Constitution are extended to all, and then heal together.
This is no doubt an uncomfortable conversation. But it is perhaps the most important one our country is yet to have. To not press into our discomfort right now, is to implicitly accept that some of our fellow Americans are not equally deserving of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In fact, in the long run if we do not face this head on, the survival of our very country –this evolving democratic experiment –is at stake.
Humans have this uncanny ability to domesticate everything, absorbing it into daily routine, believing that how we experience life each day now is the only way life has been or can be[xxiv]. But another America is actually possible and it will take us looking up from the haze of our daily lives to create it.
Which side of history will you be on?
Have you ever wondered which side of history you would have been on? Would you have spoken out against slavery? Would you have spoken against segregation to your white friends? Would you have taken time out to make it to the March on Washington? This is your time to find out. And, if you already thought you were living in a post-racial society, this is the time to build the America you thought you grew up in.
Many of the articles currently circulating suggest that, as a white person, to educate oneself on these issues is enough to be an ally. I believe this is a cop out. To be an ally right now is to understand enough to be outraged and to decide you are fed up with institutional racism and will use your white privilege to dismantle the very systems that perpetuate it.
We, as white people, often trust ‘that things will work out’. We have a faith that over time our democratic system will rid itself of inequalities. And thus, while wrapped up in the busyness and challenges of everyday human experience, it can seem as though no action on our part is needed. But this is a luxury we get to believe only because of our white privilege. We trust the system because it has –by and large –worked for us.[xxv] Would we feel the same if the system had never worked for us? Would we trust it to change by simply embedding ourselves within it, cheering its evolution on from afar, or changing only our own viewpoints and ‘way of being’? Or would we feel it necessary to do something more?
‘We the people’ serve as a check and balance to our government and its policies. At this very moment, I believe that independent of your theory of change, we must exercise that ‘check’. Whether you’re a ‘work within the system’ advocate –or an educator who changes our reality one mind at a time –or have never thought much about ‘making a difference’ –this is the moment to apply pressure from the ‘outside.’
Get into the streets. Donate to black-led organizations working to bring equity to the criminal justice system. Sign petitions to hold police more accountable. No type of inequality in this country has ever been dismantled without visible, social pressure by us, the people, on our government.
I’ll admit that I have not previously been much a protest, rally or march person. I sometimes question the efficacy of such efforts. But my mind is clear of questions right now. The fundamental question answers itself:
Will I stand by and let my fellow countrywomen and men be treated unjustly and unequally from the way in which I am treated?
No. That is all. No.
This is at its very core, an American issue. It is not a matter of altruism; it is recognition of our most expansive self-interest –an acknowledgement of the fact that as a human family our liberation is bound up with one another,[xxvi] and to passively watch the denial of our sisters’ and brothers’ humanity is to deny our very own humanity. At some rare moments, numbers upon numbers of people showing up and saying: enough –in whatever way they are able –can be the bright, hot catalyst needed for ‘business as usual’ to change.
This is that moment.
So, I ask you: how will you show up? Which side of history will you be on?
With love, Jess Rimington
P.S. Here is a listing of upcoming events and rallies potentially in your area: http://events.handsupunited.org/?find_me=true . You may want to consider donating to some of these organizations to help on the ground efforts in Ferguson: http://www.icebuckethack.com/support-ferguson.html . You may also want to help lobby for: http://act.colorofchange.org/sign/mike_brown/
P.P.S. The title of this article was partially inspired by the Facebook page Dear White People (https://www.facebook.com/DearWhitePeople?ref=br_tf), the effort behind the upcoming motion picture: http://www.dearwhitepeoplemovie.com/. I definitely recommend going to see it!
[i] The title of this article was partially inspired by the Facebook page Dear White People (https://www.facebook.com/DearWhitePeople?ref=br_tf), the effort behind the upcoming motion picture: http://www.dearwhitepeoplemovie.com/ . I definitely recommend going to see it!
[vi] Data from the Panel Survey of Income Dynamics provide information on changes in wealth of families headed by an adult (age 25–55) in 1984; http://www.insightcced.org/uploads/CRWG/IASP-Racial-Wealth-Gap-Brief-May2010.pdf
[xiv] http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2012/08/30/770501/study-black-defendants-are-at-least-30-more-likely-to-be-imprisoned-than-white-defendants-for-the-same-crime/ ; the source study: https://www.law.upenn.edu/live/news/2170-new-study-by-professor-david-s-abrams-confirms#.VAZPwGRdUpw
[xxv] I owe this understanding to my friend and skilled changemaker, Allison Basile.
In order of appearance
Warren K. Leffler, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. African American protest for equal rights, 1963. http://www.amistadresource.org/civil_rights_era/march_and_civil_rights_act.html
Demetrus Washington joins other demonstrators protesting the shooting of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. on Aug. 14, 2014. http://time.com/topic/ferguson/page/6/
All infographics designed by the talented Scott Shigeoka. Thank you for the donation of your time Scott!
Getty Images. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-19831913
Public slave whipping in Richmond, VA. http://usslave.blogspot.com/2012/02/slave-whipping-as-business.html
Demonstrators march down Constitution Avenue during the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. Hulton Archive/Getty Images. http://www.npr.org/2014/04/04/299063588/the-politics-of-passing-1964s-civil-rights-act
People in a crowd hold signs and listen to speakers at a demonstration on Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014, in Decatur, Georgia, in the town square. (AP Photo/ Ron Harris). http://newsone.com/3048727/blacklivesmatter-ride-ferguson-mike-brown-labor-day-weekend/
A crowd standing in support of the city of Ferguson, Mo., poses for a group photo with their hands up Sunday afternoon, August 17, 2014 in Fresno, Calif. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA — THE FRESNO BEE. http://www.mercedsunstar.com/2014/08/17/3800266/rally-for-shooting-of-michael.html
Creola McCalister, 88, protests the killing of teenager Michael Brown at a rally outside Greater St. Mark Family Church. http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/08/13/340048722/another-police-shooting-reported-in-st-louis-suburb
Demonstrators gather for a rally in Ferguson, Mo. on Saturday Aug. 30th, 2014 near the site where Michael Brown was fatally shot three weeks earlier. Bill Boyce/AP Photo. http://www.kansascity.com/news/article1331198.html
Protesters at a rally for Mike Brown and Ferguson begin to march away from the CNN Center drawing a crowd of a thousand or more on Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, in Atlanta. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM http://www.ajc.com/news/news/rally-downtown-in-memory-of-missouri-teen-michael-/ng48x/