Listen up, white people: we’ve got some serious work to do.
Three weeks ago I wrote a column on racism, following the choking-to-death by police of an African-American man, whose “capital” crime was selling cigarettes singly on the street. No piece I have ever written for The Daily Beast has resulted in more responses. Lots of people of color wrote to say: “Welcome to my world.” Lots of white people wrote to call me every name in the book, attacking me personally as an idiot and a reverse-racist, but—and this important—never actually offering a counter argument to the observations I was making.
One responder accused me of not even knowing what racism is. So let’s be clear. Any person or group can be prejudiced against another group, for any reason and based on any characteristic. But if a prejudiced group has the power to instill its own set of prejudices into the laws, culture and societal norms of the larger community, then it is an “ism.” It becomes a system which does the discriminating on behalf of the powerful majority.
If women are regarded as less than men, and men have the power (they do!) to set the system up to benefit men at the expense of women, then we have sex-ism, or gender-based discrimination: unequal pay for the same job, wives-obedient-to-their-husbands understandings of marriage, and efforts to diminish access to birth control and the freedom for women it brings.
If it’s better to be heterosexual than to be homosexual, and heterosexuals hold the power (they do!) to set up the society so that it benefits straight people, to the detriment of LGBT people, we have heterosex-ism: like denying the freedom to marry, allowing people to fire someone for being gay, and permitting proprietors of public businesses to deny services and accommodation to LGBT people.
This country has a long, violent and shameful history of our system being set up to value white people over people of color. For African-Americans, that history is further enforced by a legacy of human slavery—a legacy that cannot be swept away by merely declaring a level playing field, when there isn’t one. There may be prejudice and enmity coming from either side, but the power to set the system up to benefit whites over people of color belongs to the white majority. And so we have race-ism.
You may have felt, like I did, lots of emotions—but the most dangerous of them is helplessness. A thousand miles away, and as a white man, what can I do?
And here’s the thing about systemic racism: I actually don’t have to hold any personal prejudice against people of color in order to benefit from the system set up to reward and privilege me, as a white man, over my black or brown neighbor. This is insidious, because it allows me to say (even honestly) that I hold no bias against people of color, while still benefitting from a societal system that does the hating and privileging for me. It’s the kind of system that leads black parents to instruct their boys how to act when (and not if!) police stop them for no reason. It’s the system that privileges resumes with white names (Dustin, Bradley, Elizabeth) over those with “ethnic” names (Shaquille, Trevon, Aliyeh).
And then, Ferguson showed us how systemic racism plays itself out.
Many of us have watched in horror at the events as they have transpired in this suburb of St. Louis. Horrifying TV images looked more like a developing country in the midst of racial/tribal/ethnic strife than the United States. Black citizens of Ferguson understandably felt more like a citizenry under occupation than one under the protection of its police force. You may have felt, like I did, lots of emotions—but the most dangerous of them is helplessness. A thousand miles away, and as a white man, what can I do?
I’ve decided that the answer to that is: a lot, actually. But it’s not flashy, and it’s not a quick fix, and it’s hard work. But it is white people’s work to do, and it is time to do it.
As part of the white majority, it is simply hard to understand the circumstances under which a minority groups lives their lives. And the reason it’s hard is that it requires me to acknowledge that my neat, tidy, and mostly-just life in America is not everyone’s America. I prefer to believe that “liberty and justice for all” really means all. It is more comfortable believing that all Americans are equal in the eyes of the law, because acknowledging that it is not so, calls me to do something about it. Horatio Alger is a wonderful story, but it is also demonic in making me believe that my fortunate life is my own doing, rather than being, at least in part, an accident of genetics, geography, parentage—and race! And the corollary is that “those” people are where they are entirely because of their own doing.
What’s a white guy to do?! Well, I’ll tell you what I think I can do in response to Ferguson and what I am going to do with renewed commitment and vigor:
1. I am going to listen more, especially when it is hard to hear what is being said to me and my culture. It may not be my experience of living in America, but I can honor the truth in someone else’s experience, and increase the reality with which I understand my country and my privilege.
2. I am going to stop pretending that there is a level playing field among the races. I am going to advocate and work for programs of education, anti-poverty and economic equality that actually move us toward a more just society—less Horatio Alger and more of St. Paul’s “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave or free.” I am going to work to ensure that “liberty and justice for all” really means all, and not just those who look like me.
3. I am going to have more conversations about race. I live in a predominantly African-American neighborhood of Washington, DC, and every day I walk past a senior citizen subsidized housing facility which is filled with elderly African-Americans. I’m going to stop more and talk to them. And I’m going to talk with other white people about the racist society in which we live and from which we benefit—a conversation we generally shy away from and avoid at all costs.
It’s not enough to have expunged all feelings of personal prejudice toward people of color, while still benefitting from systemic racism. That just makes me a kind and passive racist. We are not born with racism in our hearts. We have learned it. And we can un-learn it. Instead, I want to become an anti-racist, someone who is actively working to undo the racial injustices built into our system.
What are you going to do?
The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Washington, DC, and the IX Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire. Follow him on Twitter @BishopGRobinson.