Do your race, ethnicity, gender, or other innate characteristics place you in a position of preferential treatment in society? I was born to a middle class white protestant family in New Orleans, and I’m a guy, so my answer is yes, most certainly. What does that mean and how do we address it? Let’s talk.
In a discussion like this, the first thing we need is boundaries, a discussion scope, because the topic is far flung and emotional to boot. So, it seems fit to lay out some basics before we begin.
Things that have happened that do not influence today help us learn, cannot be ignored, and must be dealt with. However, things that happened 3,000 years ago certainly do influence today, at that too must be understood.
In approaching history, we seek facts, contemporaneous worldviews, and seek to learn from them rather than correcting the past. Our problem with history is that we relegate too much to it. We seek to revise it to send political messages or be less or more offensive depending on the author and their viewpoints. We need to accept that history has formed our worldviews and cultures, and in that understanding we need to sort through what is reasonable and what is oppressive.
Our horrific treatment of the Native Americans is perhaps our greatest shame because we did our best to take their land and eradicate their way of life, their culture, even their languages. The oil boom helped some Native Americans, a benefit that many white folks sought to steal as soon at it was discovered, but certainly not all or even the majority or Native Americans have benefited from this unexpected wealth in the land to which we’ve relegated their great nations. I’ve visited reservations in New Mexico, for instance. I am ashamed.
Likewise, the impact of enslaving people and ripping them from their cultures is still raw and largely unmitigated. The civil war and the constitutional amendment that followed eliminated enslavement (except in the prison system) yet a piece of paper does not change culture. Just look at Brown v. the Board of Education and the reaction to “separate is not equal”.
We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. (Brown v. the Board of Education ruling, May 17, 1954)
We want to pretend that these problems are over. They are not over, and apologies, even cash reparations, will not solve our problems. No, something much more difficult is required: societal change.
Fault and Blame are not the same thing
My birth, ten years after the intended last child of my family was born, caused, or better: exacerbated, enmity between my parents. It is literally my fault that this became more manifest than it previously was, but I personally am blameless in the matter.
So, too, us born into privileged status are, by our very existence, at fault. We do not, however, carry the blame for our societal ills, the ills of our forebears, at least not if we recognize and seek to repair the damage done. I will write that we have a responsibility to use our privilege to erase privilege from society, but we must be clear that blaming people who did not intend to create this problem is neither helpful nor reasonable.
The current state of affairs
In the past several years, my employer has become aggressive in attaining diversity goals. These include the advancement of people of color, of women, of equal rights for all including LGBTQ persons. I can say that my first training in the new aggressive methods made me uncomfortable and that I felt threatened and even attacked.
Then I though it out, and yes, I prayed about it. And I joined this effort as an active participant because what I felt was fear of loss of my privilege. I have no right to that in the first place – it’s luck of birth.
Let me be clear: people are equal under the law but they are not the same. We have different talents, minds with differing capacities and functionality, and God knows my body is not made for athletics. So when I say that I was afraid of the loss of my privilege, I’m not saying that I’m not qualified, that I’m not a hard worker, or that I’m not an expert in many field. No, to the contrary I am all of those things.
What I am saying, however, is that I had a better chance to explore, work hard, and excel at these things because of a default setting in society that gives a white guy an edge, a break, it manifests a bias towards me and people like me. I am saying that I’ve had less run ins with the police because I’m white, that my family received preference in housing, that it was easier to get a job and a raise. I’m saying all of those things which sum up to privilege. And I’m saying that, at the bottom line, this state of affairs is not compatible with American values or with our constitution.
Equal protection under the law, equal opportunity for qualified applicants – meaning in part that the slate of applicants needs to be demographically representative – is our job as citizens of this country. The same applies to housing, to education, to all opportunities that people need in order to realize their potentials. And, as for run ins with the police, if you’ve not read the DOJ’s Ferguson report, do me a personal favor and give it a read.
Income is another issue resulting from our past, and our present, that needs addressing in the now and the future. I’m not talking about the disparity between the CEO and the employee albeit that’s a good topic for another post, no, I’m talking about the differences in poverty levels possibly caused by endemic preferences resulting in lower attainment of classes of persons which, in turn, limits their ability to fund the education and young lives of their children. According to census bureau data from the 2009 census, of 303,280,000 of us, 14.3% are below the poverty line consisting of 12.3% of the 242,047,000 whites, 25.8% of the 38,856,000 Blacks, 12.5% of the 14,005,000 Asians, and 25.3% of the 48,811,000 Hispanics. I’d expect the numbers to be close, such as whites and Asians. Why aren’t they? Some of the disparity is due to not only opportunities for the young, but failing to provide equal footing to their families.
It’s hard to make progress digging a hole in dry sand.
Racism and Biases
The word racism has become a powder keg in this country. The truth is that we are all biased towards people like us – people who came from our home towns, who went to the same schools, people who share our religion, people who like certain types of music, and people who look and act like we do. In this way, and depending on our exposure to other folks when we grow up and where we live, we are all in some form or fashion racists. We also tend to be biased against people who are not like us, and this has many forms. It’s not just skin color or facial features. It’s the demeanor, other appearance characteristics such as tattoos or earrings, clothing style, speaking style, and lots of things that don’t really have to do with qualifications for a particular job or the ability to be a good student or friend.
I remember the TV show “Maude” and how Bea Author, who played that title role, spoke down to Florida, her housekeeper and cook, played by Esther Rolle. Maude was “liberal” but kept talking to Florida about “her people”. Of course, Maude had no idea what it’s like to be Black in America and, frankly, neither do I. All I can do is empathize, support, and seek to eliminate biases – my own and those of others. That’s a hard truth that we need to understand.
I did get a hint when I first moved to Dallas in 1982. I got stopped by a police officer for rolling through a stop sign (which I did not do), and I suppose my Louisiana license plates brought on the situation. “Don’t you dumb coonasses know what a stop sign is?” he demanded. “No sir, I suppose not sir.” I responded. He let me go, suitably oppressed for being from Louisiana. That moment could be a small example of the driving while Black experience. I proceeded to erase my New Orleans accent with purpose and get my license plate changed. You can’t do that with your physical characteristics, now can you? Nor should you need to in these United States of America!
If we embrace the truth, we are all filled with biases. The question is what shall we do about those biases – affinity biases and negative biases. This is the first and most important step for all of us to take – to acknowledge that we are biased.
We struggle with the truth, and what is true, really true, depends on many things. My favorite example is trash and treasure – both states can be simultaneously true depending on the recipient of an item, another person’s trash, and their use cases for that item. This is also true with people, the oppressed, the privileged, all of us. What we think is true, and what is in actuality true in our lives, depends on how we are treated, what we value, and what we hold dear.
Among the most obvious and also the most painful truths is that well meaning people of one group cannot lead the struggle for another. Just like Maude, I cannot lead the struggle for the removal of negative biases and actions against another group. This is so because I cannot possibly understand, fully understand, the impact of biases and laws on another group. My state of being a white guy gives me a different experience – I’m not impacted by the same things and therefore my words and actions can only support others who truly do understand, people from the group against whom people are biased.
That privileged experience also shapes my worldview. Had I not been exposed to people from all races and walks of life in my beloved New Orleans, had I been afraid to take walking short-cuts through poor, Black neighborhoods and talk to people along the way, had I not spent time in the rural wilds of Louisiana and Mississippi and enjoyed the marvelous people, had I not worked with cleaning services, changed urinals in the summer heat, I might not really understand that we have major problems. No, I might think that things are peachy keen the way they are. Lots of people do, you know.
And that’s at the heart of this post. The truth that there are many struggles, and that we have work to do, all of us, for the sake of this great nation and all who call it home. For the sake of each other, for the sake of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and even according to the commandment of Christ Jesus. Take up your cross and follow me, quoth He.
This is the second step that we must all take – to acknowledge that we need to struggle to make things right, that we do need to change.
Having acknowledged that everyone has biases, that certain groups have privileges for no reason, and that change is needed, what does that change look like?
If you’re a problem solver, you’ve noticed that I skipped the step of defining the root cause of our woes. That’s because I freely admit that I cannot do so, given that I cannot properly represent the groups against whom society, and to some extent I myself, have biases. But, you see, there are steps. Yes, there are still steps.
The first two steps we’ve discussed: admit to ourselves, all of us regardless of whether or not we have undue privilege, that we are biased and then work to remove biases. If we could get there in my lifetime, I’d say we’ve made good progress.
The next step is very hard. Those with privilege need to use that status to support those without privilege. And by this I mean a whole lot more than charity. I mean getting involved with humility and in the service of those other people such that leaders from these communities are established in positions of power through election and appointment. We must work under the leadership of these people to tear down the barriers as they they see fit. We must lose control of the situation and embrace diversity throughout our culture.
I’d love to say that I see this happening, but in our elections most often I see a bunch of angry white people telling me what the Black and Latino communities need. Come on folks, admit that you can’t understand. Be honest, empower the people who do understand.
I’ve suggested the hard – admit we’re biased, admit we need to change. I’ve also suggested the nearly impossible – empower people from diverse groups to identify the needed changes and support them in carrying them out. Now I’ll ask the impossible: learn to be humble.
You see, of the unidentified root causes of our predicament, arrogance is at the top of the list. The notion that one group is superior to another due to innate characteristics. We must face the truth that we are all cut from the same cloth and that our cloth is a tapestry accounting for differences in appearance, culture, abilities, and other defining characteristics. And I, at least, do want to live in a rich tapestry, not among clones. I’ve never met someone that I cannot learn from. Never.
The next and ultimate step is to lose our arrogance about who we are, our pride of place. The way to dispense with arrogance is to adopt humility which is the most important ingredient in seeking wisdom. We must seek and accept truth, admit to our follies, and accept, even seek, correction and embrace it.
Our next step is to hunt for wisdom. I am, will you join me?