A friend and I had a frank phone conversation last week. She’d read the AEU’s statement on George Floyd and the Aftermath and my blog message and offered the feedback that they were not strong enough. I agree with her. And I appreciate her direct communication and her expectation that I (and we) have the capacity do better.
The harder part is living in accordance with that expectation and that is what I intend to do. What makes it difficult is how soft I’ve become and how I’ve let worrying get the best of me. I say this because I expect I am not alone and I hope that sharing my experience will encourage you to be stronger and more effective agents for equity.
This message is directed toward people who identify as “white.” And when I speak of “we” or “us” in the following paragraphs I’m including myself as a member of that subset.
Before you read on, take a moment to visualize the following:
- A nice neighborhood
- A good school
- A crime-infested neighborhood
- A failing school
- A criminal
Be honest with yourself. What did the people look like in your vision of a “nice neighborhood?” Where might your image of a “good school” be found in real life?
Now imagine a “crime-infested neighborhood.” What do you imagine the people who live there look like? Try imagining where you might find a “failing school.”
Remember, I asked you to be honest with yourself. I expect your image of a “nice neighborhood” has a lot of white people in it and your image of a “good school” might be one of the well-funded suburban schools that have mostly white students.
Did a predominantly white suburb come to mind as a “crime infested neighborhood?” Was your image of a “failing school” in a location where the population is mostly white?
The challenge here is to take in our preconceptions, own them, and not get defensive about it. If you have to add a “but” after you talk to yourself about the prejudice behind your images you are giving in to your urge for self-protection. You are too soft to handle the truth.
At the 2019 American Ethical Union Assembly in Tampa, Florida, Lindsey Wilson, Musician-in-Residence for the Riverdale-Yonkers Society for Ethical Cultural, sang Des’ree’s song “You Gotta Be” and it was so compelling and uplifting I just had to learn it. The thing is, although I could play the chords and sing the lyrics I couldn’t perform it because for me it’s a lie.
I don’t have to be “tough” or “cool” or “stay together.” People who look like me have a whole structure of attitudes and institutions that take care of that for us. And we have a “justice” system designed to keep it that way. That system is based on inequity, fueled by avarice, and protected by violence and we don’t have to overtly endorse it in order to support it. Your life has been lifted up while the lives of black and brown people have been pushed down and there is no excusing that.
Structural racism is a powerful force spread across multiple systems and institutions and is extremely pernicious and resilient. When I wrote about malignancy in last week’s message, structural racism is what I had in mind.
Right now, structural racism is predominantly, and immediately, fatal to black and brown people in this country. But like malignancy, the destruction wrought by structural racism will continue to grow until all is laid waste for everyone – unless we do something about it. Actually, unless we do a lot of somethings about it.
And, by the way, I am still addressing us white people. We are the source and the sustainer of structural racism – right here and right now. Sure our forbearers did a lot to put it all in motion but we, white people, we recreate it every day when we are silent about police “protection,” when we pick our neighborhoods, when we seek out “good” schools, when we allow monetized healthcare, when we integrate neighborhoods through the displacement of gentrification…
We need to face the fact that we are perpetrators. We have been infected with racism and we are allowing it to destroy lives and ruin futures. When you visualized “a criminal” who was your image? I admit mine was a tie between POTUS and the US Attorney General but it could just as well been my own image looking back from the mirror. The REAL crime in this country has been the dedication with which we have maintained the structures of inequity despite the horrible impact upon our black and brown neighbors.
We need to cut off the blood supply (i.e., funding) that permits malignant growth. Let’s starve the beasts of structural racism.
A good place to start is with your local police department. The police are the primary enforcers of structural racism and they are very serious about that aspect of their job. Your local police department must be held accountable for the practices they engage in. But the powers that be will not listen so long as the funding continues to flow into their coffers. Demand accountability. Demand that they provide data about whom they arrest and adjudicate and why.
And while you are in town, keep going – check in with the zoning people about the provisions for fair and affordable housing. Check in with the school board about their disciplinary practices. Find out how your local hospital is meeting the healthcare needs of the underinsured.
The main point is this: structural racism is a problem white people created and need to correct. White people have the power to make changes and hold the keys for getting changes to stick.
There is a lot to do – best we get on with it.
Please note, this post originally appeared at aeu.org.