Following the tragic events in Charlottesville, I joined the chorus of well-meaning white people in condemning white supremacist violence on American streets.
I blamed the obvious villain: men with sticks and swastikas, and even semi-automatics, who marched for the belief that my biracial children are inferior and don’t belong in the land of their birth. I blamed President Trump, who breathed new life into their movement and continues to be their apologist by claiming false equivalency with those who protest their hate. I did not blame myself.
My words were not enough.
Now, as the nation’s attention moves away from Charlottesville, it is time to challenge myself – and every white American who accepts our country’s founding premise that “all men [and women] are created equal” – to fight systemic racism with more than words alone.
The imperative to root out racism is clear. As people of European descent whose ancestors colonized this continent at a cost of millions of Native American lives, we are also the primary beneficiaries of four centuries of slavery, segregation, and institutionalized discrimination against people of African descent.
Whether our families owned slave plantations or arrived as impoverished immigrants on Ellis Island, our skin color has been our passport and our shield. Few if any laws have curbed our rights to own our labor or to attend high-quality schools, attain high-skilled employment, access financial capital, own homes and businesses, vote and stand for public office, serve on juries and be judged by our peers.
The same cannot be said of American men and women of African descent. For them, such forms of discrimination perpetrated by whites were commonplace well into the 20th century, and many continue – unofficially – today.
A growing body of research reveals that African Americans in 2017 are much more likely than people with my complexion to be raised in persistent poverty, attend failing schools, be denied student loans and public assistance, face employment and housing discrimination, get shot by police or locked up for nonviolent offenses, lose the right to vote and serve on juries, and transmit the same train of injustices to their kids.
Put these factors together and it comes as no surprise that African American families are still at a staggering economic and political disadvantage in American society today. According to the US Census, the median family of European descent enjoys twelve times more wealth than their African American counterpart, who will take centuries to catch up if current trends continue. And in a political system financed by elites, where money, voice, and power are often the same thing, minorities of all stripes remain grossly under-represented.
If that’s not systemic racism, I don’t know what is.
How, then, are well-meaning white people to respond? Five simple steps come to mind.
- Confront your unconscious bias. Join the 3.3 million people who have taken the Implicit Association Test at implicit.harvard.eduand discover how your mind subconsciously perceives people of different races. In case you feel reluctant, please know that I was humbled to learn of my own racist tendencies when taking the test, in spite of my deep love for my South African wife and our children.
- Learn the facts about systemic racism. A good place to start is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crowand Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay on reparations in The Atlantic. Then speak lovingly but persistently with us lighter-skinned folk about the ways we benefit from systemic racism, and call out racist words and deeds whenever they occur.
- Desegregate your life. American schools are more segregated than they’ve been in almost 50 years, according to the US Department of Education, and they’re anything but equal. The next time you move or choose a school or church, seek a more inclusive mix. Cross the racial (and socio-economic) divide in daily life by having lunch with people of a different race, shopping from minority-owned businesses, and joining diverse groups in your community.
- Put your money where your mouth is. Countless local and national organizations exist for the very purpose of combating systemic racism, but they can’t function without our support. Donate your money or time to groups like the NAACP, ColorOfChange.org, Southern Poverty Law Center, Sentencing Project, and National Urban League.
- Get political. Recruit, support, and elect candidates at every level, regardless of party, who understand and publicly commit to undoing systemic racism in its many guises. Demand your current elected officials support voting rights and affirmative action to create equal opportunity in education, healthcare, employment, law enforcement, the courts, campaign finance, and more.
In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. confessed his “grave disappointment” with well-meaning white people. “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the…Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
The question I ask myself, and every white American who affirms our country’s promise of equality, is this: will we continue to passively accept the evil of systemic racism or will we finally fight for “liberty and justice for all?”