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Dear fellow citizens,
Last month I pledged to focus on the words of Martin Luther King in my letters, at least through April and so it is here.
I’m inspired to write today on two quotes. Both are taken from “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community”:
“Freedom is not won by passive acceptance of suffering. Freedom is won by a struggle against suffering. By this measure, Negroes have not yet paid the full price for freedom. And, whites have not yet faced the full cost of justice.”
“To live with the pretense that racism is a doctrine of a very few is to disarm us in fighting it frontally as scientifically unsound, morally repugnant and socially destructive. The prescription for the cure rests with the accurate diagnosis of the disease. A people who began a national life inspired by a vision of a society of brotherhood can redeem itself. But redemption can come only through humble acknowledgement of guilt and an honest knowledge of self.”
In particular, I want to focus on the concluding words of each passage, that “whites have not yet faced the full cost of justice” and that any redemption of the nation “can only come through humble acknowledgement of guilt and honest knowledge of self.”
The reason I choose these words to focus on are many, but the proximate cause is a story I read in the Detroit News, the headline of which read: “Area blacks twice as likely to be denied home loan.” It goes on to assert that minorities – specifically African-Americans and Latinos – are routinely denied conventional mortgage loans at rates higher than whites. This, despite the passage of the federal Fair Housing Act fifty years ago. While the article focused on Detroit and Lansing, the same results were found in 61 metro areas across the United States (based on research done by The Center for Investigative Reporting). The yearlong analysis looked at 31 million records and was based on techniques used by leading academics. The Center’s findings were independently confirmed by the Associated Press.
I was struck by this, because I recently finished “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America” by Richard Rothstein, which chronicled how Blacks were systematically shut out of housing by not just private actors (banks, mortgage companies, housing associations, and real estate agents), but by government at all levels. This had and continues to have devastating effects on the African-American community akin to confining Native-Americans to marginalized land on reservations.
It’s clear that the reality of that history continues unabated in many parts of our “exceptional nation.” Yet, white America wants to deny that racism still exists at the levels it once did and, in any event, declares that the social legislation passed (largely in the 60s) has ameliorated its effects. Congress and state legislatures are full of privileged white men calling for the dismantling of social programs and calling for the poor to work, or by God “do something” for their welfare. Many of these programs benefit African-Americans. Inner city schools are left to fall apart, even while Betsy DeVos wants to privatize the educational system as if that will magically fix the problem without looking/considering the very real economic and social context in which many of those African-American kids exist.
And, it’s not just housing. The incarceration rate of Blacks is way out of proportion to their percentage of the population. Blacks are killed, beaten and shot by police disproportionally. Out of that rage grew the Black Lives Matter movement, but we witnessed the white backlash with “All Lives Matter” and/or “Blue Lives Matter.” African-Americans are vastly more unemployed, underemployed and discriminated against in employment. Witness, too, the reaction to the “take a knee” movement. Anytime Blacks take to the streets, or push hard in social media, there’s a backlash. Of course, it’s not couched in overt racist terminology; smart whites understand there is a price to be paid for that. However, Trump’s campaign rhetoric and election have pulled the veil back on American racism and allowed it to slither into the open under the Alt-Right umbrella and attempt to force us to take its views as legitimate. (Witness the efforts to get nationalist and racist speakers a forum on college campuses, or their representatives’ appearances on national news programs. Even if for hostile questioning, it provides a legitimizing forum.)
African-American athletes are venerated – as long as they win and keep their mouths shut. While well compensated, one has to wonder about the true feelings of some of the white owners and spectators when behind closed doors. (Recall the comments/view of the former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, or Marge Schott before him. Or, more recently Jerry Richardson and Bob McNair.) Django Unchained featured slaves fighting each other to the death. I sometimes feel we’re watching an updated and sanitized version of that on the football fields and basketball courts of today. And, it should tell us something about the state of affairs that for many of the athletes we see, a sports scholarship was the only way out of poverty and sub-standard social milieu. You have to wonder how many of those kids fared who were recruited but didn’t make the NFL or NBA. They were expendable fodder for universities and millionaire coaches. Never mind that rather than providing them an education, schools often paid lip service to the academics and focused on money making.
“But,” say whites, “look at Barack Obama, he was elected President. See, we’re post-racial,” or, at the very least, racism is practiced at the margins. Really? I recall a popular poster from the 1970s that featured Archie Bunker with the words: “You know in your heart he’s extremely right.” While this was (intentionally) written with a double meaning, I can attest that there were a good number of whites who took it to mean that his views were accurate. All one had to do is Google Obama opposition to view the number of racist statements, claims, posters and visuals that were made about him and his wife. No, Archie’s views linger on.
Overt racism, while out of the shadows with Trump (and much larger than I thought) has receded to the background. The smart ones have become more circumspect and, to use a phrase, politically correct, which is a sign of progress I guess. But, is it really? If many of the same views exist, but only in the privacy of our home or corporate office, how can we claim racism doesn’t exist just because no football owner in their right mind would go on ESPN and say: “Tell them niggers to stand for the national anthem.”
Of course, there are non-racist whites – a majority I would hope, but I don’t really know. I think most of us, myself included, harbor some view that we understand as wrong. We may be mindful and work hard at eliminating racism in our personal actions, but the fact that it lingers should make us alert to the dangers. One indication of a post-racial world (in my in-expert opinion) would be when we truly didn’t see color as a meaningful difference. That a first thought wasn’t he’s a Black man or a Black woman, because I’d posit that for many, that distinction sets off a cascade of thoughts good or bad. When we categorize someone as an “other,” there is always a perception of difference. Seeing a person rather than a color representing pre-conceived notions would be a good indicator I think.
Some whites opine that reverse racism exists too. Perhaps, but to a degree, it is guilt by association. And, whereas much white racism is driven by historical prejudices and stereotypes passed down generation to generation and very real historical discrimination of the most hateful kind, the same can’t be said of African-Americans. I think some of those views are themselves the result of the racism Blacks have faced and continue to face. It doesn’t make it right, but it’s understandable.
Another refrain heard is that: “I’m not racist, so why should I have to feel guilty (white guilt), or have my tax dollars used to help African-Americans?” Or: “Slavery ended over 150 years ago, I wasn’t alive then and I wasn’t alive in the 1950s and 60s, so why am I being punished?” Followed by any number of complaints about forced desegregation, preferential treatment in hiring or college admissions, quotas, etc.
All of these are fair questions, however we, as the saying goes, must atone for the sins of our fathers and the sins of our father’s fathers as far back as this nation goes. This is the ugly debt they left us. This country enshrined slavery into its Constitution. Blacks in the South, despite the Civil War and the 13th and 14th Amendments, weren’t afforded the right to vote and, theoretically, live were they wanted to until the mid-1960s. They weren’t allowed to inter-marry until the Loving decision in 1967. And, as I started out saying, they still suffer collectively simply for being Black. Significantly, this country, not just the southern states, accrued great national and personal wealth from almost 150 years of free slave labor. That wealth diffused itself throughout society and, in many personal cases, was handed down and expanded from generation to generation – i.e., inherited. And, finally, there is a privilege to being white that goes unnoticed by us. It’s like a fish in the water being unaware it’s in the water. It’s just an ever present feature of life. Given the attitudes of many white Americans, think of how differently you are perceived when walking through the front door of a store than a Black man. You would never be aware of that, but it’s there – maybe not everywhere, but in enough places it matters. Or, think of how different a white motorist might be treated than a black one when pulled over in any large metropolitan area. Again, if you were the white driver, you’d never be aware.
Martin Luther King, in his 1968 speech beginning the Poor People’s Campaign (for all poor Americans I might add) put it this way:
“At the very time that America refused to give the Negro any land, through an act of Congress our government was giving away millions of acres of land in the west and Midwest, which meant it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor. But not only did they give the land, they built land grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm. Not only that, they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that, they provided interest rates in order to mechanize their farms. Not only that, today these people are receiving millions of dollars in subsidies not to farm and they are the very people telling the Black man that he needs to lift himself up by his own bootstraps. This is what we’re faced with and this is the reality. Now, when we come to Washington in this campaign we are coming to get our check!”
Martin Luther King never made it to Washington, he was assassinated not too long after giving this speech.
So, here we are, fifty years later and a dream still unfulfilled. We, white America, must face the full cost of justice. We must acknowledge our guilt and we must be honest with ourselves. Only then is our national redemption possible and the chance to realize King’s dream for America.
Scot A. Reynolds