Something has happened in America in the past week. I don't know if it will stick, because a lot of hopeful shifts appear in this country, and then disappear quietly as the next news cycle takes over. But I'm gonna be an optimist for a second.
We are actually having a conversation about racism - and not just the racist-jokes racism or even the horrific KKK-racism. We're talking - at least more of us than before - about systemic racism. That kind that is much harder to fight against because it isn't as obvious, it isn't as violent, and there is no one person or group that we can easily point to as being at fault for installing or perpetuating the systemic barriers and double-standards and cultural undercurrents that are the deep foundation of this nation's race problem. These things are complex and confusing, so they don't often get talked about. But there's a glimmer of hope in that more people than before are trying to talk about them now.
But I'm still deeply troubled by most of the post-Charleston conversations I'm seeing and hearing and taking part in. Goodhearted people are speaking up more about racism, but do you know what I am hearing them say, for the most part? Things like "I need to be braver about calling out racism when I see and hear it." Or "I've stayed silent when people around me have made racist jokes but I'm going to speak up now." Or even "I'm going to call out systemic racism in our country, because I'm not OK with it."
This is all good, but it's baseline. It's not enough to solve the problem.
In my church this past Sunday, the associate minister made us all pretty uncomfortable, which I have learned is his special talent. (When he preaches, I almost always squirm, and that's why I keep going back.) He said that since the Charleston shooting, he noticed that he had been spending his energy noticing racism. He read online articles that seemed like they were part of the problem and then reposted them with incisive commentary. He shook his head at the commentators who were denying that racism was the driver of the shooting, or that it is a problem in America at all. In short, he spent his time pointing out symptoms of racism in our culture, and feeling good about himself for noticing and pointing out.
That's what I tend to do, too. *I* am not racist. Therefore *I* am innocent of the country's race problems, and my only and best job is to go on a racism scavenger hunt and call out racism whenever I see it. I'm making a contribution!
Except. Except. Oh, it hurts to say it, and I've typed and re-typed this post and left it sitting for days and almost deleted it multiple times. Because I am afraid to say it out loud: I'm part of the race problem because, in many ways, I benefit from racism and its legacy. I am not just an enlightened, post-racial spectator to it, and to act like I am makes me even more a part of the problem than I was in the first place.
It is terrifying to admit this because, well, racism is bad. Really, really bad. A person who is racist is awful, unforgivable, horrible. And I am not awful. That goes for systems, too - because if a system is racist, and I benefit from it, then I am enjoying good things from something unspeakably bad. And that, by extension, would make me feel like a terrible person. Which I'm not. So therefore, it can't possibly be true.
Just one example to which I was totally oblivious until post-Charleston: Home ownership, and its long-term effects of creating safer and more stable neighborhoods, better-funded public schools, and generational increase in wealth. Did you know that from 1934 to 1968, the Federal Housing Administration explicitly set up its mortgage system to exclude black families? Yeah, that. That equals 30+ years of white families getting on the property ladder, and therefore building stabler, safer communities and better public schools. By being able to do THAT, those families were unwittingly participating in a new, even more deeply entrenched form of segregation. A segregated school or lunch counter sucks, but you can show up with military force if necessary and un-segregate it. How do you put the toothpaste back in the tube once communities - and family wealth - are established, via home ownership? Also, in related news: this access-to-capital thing is far from over.
I benefitted from this structural, systemic access to home ownership for white people. I grew up in an upper-middle-class, very white, small town. Our public schools were ridiculous. My high school art class had a dark room and a throwing wheel and a kiln. Our sports team had a brand-new field house with a physical trainer and an actual immersion ice whirlpool like they use in the NFL. The local families had generational wealth, in part from that home ownership thing. In the summers we could afford to attend camps and enrichment opportunities, which helped us to get and stay ahead once back at school in the fall. We had parental involvement because nobody was having to work two or three jobs to keep things afloat.
This stuff doesn't just *happen*. And to pretend that this is an example of up-by-your-bootstraps America in which we *deserved* a whirlpool in our locker room because our parents worked hard, without acknowledging that as a community, we had a pretty serious leg up? Well, I was born at night, but it wasn't last night.
I benefitted from structural racism.
So when it was time for me to go to college, I had gone to an amazing public school. I had lived in a totally safe community (because, in large part: home ownership, stability), so I didn't get into much trouble myself. I got into an amazing four-year college, and went to that college equipped with all of the study skills that an amazingly funded public school system was able to provide, plus the aspirations and confidence that come from being surrounded, my whole life, by success and relative wealth. That college experience has set the stage for all of my professional (and therefore financial) successes ever since.
I benefitted from structural racism. None of what I've just described happened as an inherent function of being white. My hometown wasn't safer or more stable or more prosperous because white families are more inherently stable or more inherently able to build wealth. That may sound obvious to you, if you've continued to read this far...but a lot of that thinking - and speaking - exists in our country, even at the highest levels. And it infects policy-making and maintenance of prejudice.
Does all of this mean I didn't work hard? No. I worked hard. I did my part in the situation I was in. My parents - both immigrants, actually - really worked hard. It doesn't matter that my family weren't in the U.S. when those home loans happened. It matters that the communities that grew out of that program grew and prospered to the significant exclusion of black families. So from a community and educational opportunity perspective, I started out at a really high altitude, because I was standing on top of a big old ladder that I didn't even know was there.
I've heard from friends this week who feel like "all we ever do is talk about racism." That's true. It's very true. A lot of people do a hell of a lot of pointing of fingers at people and systems and diagnosing them as racist. A lot of other people do everything they can to say that racism is dead and certain "communities" just need to work harder from within to improve themselves (that's called a dog whistle, folks). But because of this "racism is bad and I'm good so I'm not racist" thing, our version of "talking about racism" means only ever saying other people or entities are racist. Never us. Never the systems that we live in.
As long as racism is an illness that other people have, our only job is to point it out. But if we can normalize admitting our own participation - even if it's an unwitting participation - in the skewed playing field - then maybe it can become our collective problem to solve.
The fish will be the last guy to discover water. So maybe we should listen to the people who have been systematically kept out of the pond, as a group, who are saying, "Look. LOOK! Water! All around you!" Maybe we should believe them, instead of keeping ourselves feeling comfortable and blameless. And maybe we should start recognizing how nice it has been to swim in that water all this time, without even realizing it.
I don't know what happens after that, and I know that's not a satisfactory conclusion. Recognizing our participation in the biased systems around us is a step, I guess. But then what? I will admit to still feeling powerless to actually *do* something. But I've been wondering what would happen if white Americans, en masse, did some introspection and stepped forward to admit our own part in this tragic play. By owning that truth, we take away its power to be unspeakable. And if we make it speakable and admittable - maybe we make it less politically dangerous to talk about. Then maybe it could actually become addressable. But it would take a hell of a lot of courage, individually and collectively.
Here, at least, is my first attempt to own something I would rather disown. So: Are YOU ready to go on record?