Nice White People Are Why Racism Is Still Alive And Well In America
I am as white as a person can get – 51% Irish, 48% English and the other 1% is a mash of genes from every village between the Black and Caspian Seas. You can’t get any whiter than me without being a member of Belle and Sebastian, the whitest band ever, according to OkCupid.
I am so white that I follow the Canadian Women’s National Curling Team on Instagram, my favorite meal is brunch, and I know every line to the movie “Raising Arizona.” (“My friends call me ‘Lenny,’ but I got no friends.”) I am so white I buy all my casual clothes at Target. Which I call “Tar-SHAY.”
I am so white, the people behind the counter no longer ask for my name to put on my order at Chick-Fil-A, I eat there so often.
So, when I criticize white people, please understand I am staring into the mirror and seeing the whitest person alive staring back at me. When I criticize white people for not doing enough to combat racism, I am criticizing the guy wearing my pants right now (if I was wearing pants right now – COVID, you know).
And don’t get me wrong. I am not a racist, at least not a malignant one. Like all nice white folks, I proudly mention to anyone who asks (and some who don’t) that “I have lots of black friends.” I tell stories about how I grew up in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, a fairly low-income “edge city” to Philadelphia and how Curtis Strong, one of the 8.2% of the people of the area who are black, was one of my three best friends at the time.
I tell people about conversations I have with my friend William, who shares with me his experiences being black in Texas, and how he says our conversations restore his “faith in white people.”
I talk about dating a black woman named Betty, who looked like Whitney Houston pre-Bobby Brown, and how people, black and white, gave us crap when we kissed in public. “Date one of your own!”, bigots of both races would yell at us.
I regale people with the story of how my friend Roy, a PhD marketing professor, had to teach his black son how to get pulled over without being shot by Cincinnati police, adding in righteous indignation, “I never had to teach my white sons about that and they’re all dicks!”
I share all this every chance that I get because, let’s face it, talking about these things gives me a pass. I get credit for being one of the “woke” white people without having to actually do anything to make racial injustice a thing of the past in this country.
I get to act morally superior to the idiot who flies a Confederate battle flag off the back of his black Chevy pick-up, the one with the “Black Trucks Matter” bumper sticker, in my town of Azle, Texas, population 13,347 (0.22% black), if you don’t count the herds of feral hogs destroying crops in the farms that surround the area.
I get to look down my nose at him for celebrating traitors whose sedition caused the deaths of 620,000 Americans, more than died in every war this nation fought combined until Vietnam, 100 years later.
But the reality is, while I am not promoting racism and bigotry like he is, I’m not doing much more to heal the racial divide in this country, either.
We are both guilty of being on the wrong side of this issue; he’s just cheering while I am standing, silent, with my arms folded. He’s throwing gas on the fire, while I am too busy shaking my head to grab the firehose to put out the flames.
The Status Quo is Racism
So, why should I grab the hose and actively work hard to put the fire out, even though I am not the person who started it? Two reasons: first, the status quo in America is racism. And, second, for that to change, white people have to be willing to confront it, to do something about it.
Okay, if you’re still with me after “the status quo is racism,” we are getting somewhere! What I mean by that is we, as white people, the people with ten times the per family wealth of black people, have grown comfortable with the racial disparities that exist in our country today.
We have chosen to believe that black America is where it is today because of the individual choices of members of that community, rather than because of the systemic and institutionalized racism that existed in this country from the day Africans were brought to our shores as slaves and which exist still to this day.
We whites see our national narrative as one where we broke free of the oppression of King George and our British masters to create a great and powerful nation that offers the blessings of liberty to all who live here. We see a nation that pulled itself up by its collective bootstraps and rose from a backwater to become the dominant superpower it is today.
And, within this narrative, this vision of America as a place where everyone is free and equal, where social progress has erased the sins of the past, modern problems like crime, drug abuse and poverty, are indications of poor personal choices and behaviors, even when these ills disproportionately afflict members of certain racial groups in society.
In other words, we believe that equal opportunity exists for all those willing to make the effort necessary to succeed, but we also understand that blacks with college degrees are more than twice as likely to be unemployed than whites with college degrees, that blacks are half as likely to get a second job interview than whites, that 58% of people in prison in America are black or Hispanic, despite those races making up only a quarter of the American population, that they are 12 times more likely to be wrongly convicted of drug crimes than whites.
If we believe that opportunity for all is equal, how, then, do we explain the disparity in results?
It is either one of two things: either we believe that black and Hispanic people are somehow racially or culturally inclined to fail in greater numbers than are whites and Asians, or that the impact of cultural and institutional racism has negatively impacted their communities in ways that make the results we see inevitable.
Whites, in general, have grown comfortable with one of these two visions of America’s struggling minority communities. As a result, we choose between being a malignant racist or a complicit one, someone who sees and understands the problem, but chooses to do nothing to solve it.
As Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism said:
“Racism is the foundation of the society we are in. And to simply carry on with absolutely no active interruption of that system is to be complicit with it. And in that way, we can say that nice, white people who really aren’t doing anything other than being nice people are racist. We are complicit with that system. There is no neutral place.”
This is often where the discussion goes off the rail, where some white Americans contend there is a valid argument to be made that, while the racism of slavery, Black Codes, Jim Crow and Segregation did, indeed, set black Americans back generations, it isn’t the responsibility of today’s whites to pay for past sins. “After all,” these nice white folks say, “I never owned any slaves.”
That is, of course true, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t in our national best interest to, as Mr. DiAngelo said, interrupt the cycle that perpetuates the conditions of injustice under which far too many Americans live. Racism – let’s call it what it really is: upholding white supremacy – comes at a terrible cost, one that America chooses to pay out of fear.
Researchers in 2018 determined that childhood poverty cost the U.S. more than $1.03 trillion dollars that year, or 5.4% of the nation’s gross domestic product. These costs are largely borne to put a bandaid on the problem, not to find the root cause and eliminate it for good.
This is money spent simply to maintain a status quo, not to put America on a different path to real racial equality.
Real Racial Equality
Addressing poverty, breaking the cycle of hopelessness that leads to drug dependency, unemployment and incarceration is one step towards reaching real racial equality in America. So is ending police brutality like the killing of George Floyd that sparked demonstrations taking place all over the country.
But the real change that will make a permanent impact on ending racism in America is the second thing I mentioned above. White people, like me, who have been complicit racists, have to decide they will no longer be content with the way things are in our country for our black and brown brothers and sisters.
We have to accept that life is different for us, that it is often better solely because we are white. I am not suggesting we need to feel guilty about this, about benefiting from white privilege. We simply need to acknowledge that it exists and to think about how our lives would be different if it didn’t.
This meditation alone will make it easier for us to empathize with and understand the issues black and brown Americans bring up. It will help us take these concerns seriously and to understand why they are important.
And once we are there, once we are open to the idea white privilege is real, we need to actively listen to the concerns of people of color, to go out of our way to hear voices we have ignored in the past. We need to hear without prejudice, to not whitesplain away issues or to offer our perspective on their grievances.
Just as importantly, we need to hear what we say, what our white friends say, about issues concerning black Americans. I remember hearing a white friend of mine in 2014 blame John Crawford III for his death in a Walmart in Beavercreek, Ohio, near where I lived at the time.
Mr. Crawford was shot without warning by white police officers after they responded to a 911 call from a white customer falsely accusing the 22-year-old black man of pointing a gun at shoppers.
Video of the shooting showed Mr. Crawford was holding a toy air rifle over his shoulder while talking on his cell phone when police officer Sean Williams shot him to death without commanding him to drop the toy gun. My friend’s comment was, “Crawford shouldn’t have taken the rifle out of its packaging.”
And, finally, we nice white people need to take real action, to do more than post our dismay over the next unjust killing of a black man by police, over the next time a white supremacist terrorist like Dylann Roof storms into a black church, yelling “You rape our women and are taking over our country,” before killing nine people like he did in Charleston, S.C. in 2015. We need to do more than virtue signal before moving on to the next issue of the day.
As Dahleen Glanton put it in the Chicago Tribune:
“White people don’t like watching hardcore racism. Even some law-and-order conservatives are uncomfortable seeing a white cop hold his knee on a black man’s neck and squeeze the life out of him.
But somehow, white people always find a way to get over it. You post your angst on social media to show which side you’re on. And while the stories make their way through the news cycle, you and your friends lament how awful racism is.
Then before you know it, your drive-by rage is over.
You conclude that the terrible incident doesn’t affect you directly. So you drift back into oblivion, convinced there’s nothing you can do about racist cops or the racist society that breeds them.”
So, what can we do? Paul Kivel has a bunch of guidelines you can find here that go back to 2006. They are a good place to start. But here is the best thing you and I can do:
Refuse to be silent any longer
The system that has allowed malignant racists to get away with persecuting and killing black Americans has survived because nice white people like us have allowed it to for too long. Blame all the bigots driving pickups with Confederate flags flying off the back all you want, but those guys aren’t ever going to change. Hate is their currency and the only emotion they know.
If things are going to change, it is going to be because people like us decide to be the allies our fellow Americans of color need, allies that don’t move on to some other issue the next time a defenseless black man is suffocated or shot because he decided to jog through the wrong neighborhood. Until we nice white people decide to do more than write articles in an obscure publication few people read, nothing is going to change.