Choosing To Be Oblivious

“In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.”

– Toni Morrison

This quote is the ringer for us to answer the call and listen to what people of color have been saying about racism.  This is our clue that we can’t deny.  When I say “we” I’m talking to my fellow white people because I am white. So, we must listen and look intently at the system we have been birthed into.  We need to look at our history, our factual history, from the most gruesome to the most glamorous.  Where we as a nation did things well and where we can look back and see what actions and policies were/are  terrible. We need to face those facts. Without the realization that American means white, as Morrison said, we are already denying that the system might, it just might, be set up with white people perceived to be the standard to attempt to imitate.

I grew up in a school system and cultural system that taught me to not speak of race because we were past it and those racist people who weren’t past it were the only ones who uttered racial slurs.

The racist were the minority in our community – they were a thing of the past and there wasn’t many of them left.  Perhaps this is the case.  We didn’t confront those racists in our lives that said racist shit.  We simply ignored them.  We ignored their hate. I remember an uncle who said terrible things about people of color and not one thing was ever said to him when I was around.  No one told him to shut up. No one tried to have a conversation about it. This was just “how he was”.  This taught me that if you simply act like it doesn’t exist it would go away.

There may be fewer outwardly racist people but we are far from being a country that considers all equal.

White people often want to erase the role of race from our narrative but we can’t. Well, we can if we wish to live blindly, but if we truly care about the people of color in our nation, we can’t erase it.

We mustn’t.

Think about that concept for a moment…

What other social problem goes away if we talk about it less or don’t address it and it’s effects?

What about human trafficking?  What about world hunger?  Clean water? Child labor?

Will wells miraculously get built in third world countries when we stop talking about the importance of clean water?  Will food fill the stomachs of the starving?  Will people suddenly find themselves beamed back to their homes after being taken captive to work in the sex trade?  Will kids no longer have to work to create the clothes we purchase?

NO! So why do we take the “don’t talk about it” approach with racism?  I believe there are many scholars and critical thinkers who have this answer spot on – we don’t talk about racism because it would force us to confront a larger system that is predicated to put white people ahead of people of color.

After the war the G.I. Bill was a law passed which gave benefits to returning veterans such as low-cost mortgages, low interest loans for business startups, cash payment of tuition and living expenses for college, high school or vocational programs.  It even gave them one year of unemployment compensation. The problem was that this bill was interpreted differently for blacks.  The program was directed by local, white officials, so many veterans did not benefit.  There were 67,000 mortgages insured by the G.I. Bill, less than 100 were taken out by non-whites.  The G.I. Bill was intended to rebuild post war America which it did, but because of Jim Crow Laws there wasn’t the same opportunities afforded to people of color.

At this point you have low-income whites that before the war were in the same situation as many blacks and after the influx of post war capital to white societies what resulted was “white flight” in which white families left urban centers leading to the suburbination of America.

In the 20th century the FHA provided around $120 Billion in housing loans to white families between the ages of 34-62.  What happens when the FHA does this preferential lending to white families? It essentially creates the white middle class.  If you care to look before this, banks wouldn’t give loans to high-risk white families.  Banks didn’t care if they were white but when you have the government telling them, “It’s okay.  We will assume some of this risk.  The loans will be guaranteed against default.” Of course banks will lend.  This $120 Billion it results in 240 Million acres of land practically given to whites.

What would happen if we did this today?

What would people call it?

Well, we would call it welfare.  We would call it a handout.

When the government did this in our history we don’t dare call it a handout, instead we deem it as “nation building”.

Statistics show us that 40% of all white mortgages were written under a government preferential program.  Let’s be honest about this.  Without this government assistance program, many of our white families would not have had the means to purchase a house or land for that matter. Thanks to the racism in place, whites were able to move forward while leaving people of color behind us.

During this same time there were women raising children without fathers.  This lack of fatherly presence was due to the war, leaving some as widows.  The dire economic state of the nation left widowed women at home trying to find a way to make ends meet and take care of their children.  There were women in need and congressmen decided that they were in favor of women staying home to raise children over leaving to find a way to make money in the workforce.  The only problem was that this benefit only was applied to white women, not women of color. If you compare that rhetoric of helping women to the rhetoric of today, it’s the polar opposite.  We have this perception that people who don’t work are “lazy” or “dysfunctional”, they are “working the system” or the best one… “They should just get a job.” States originally created these programs for the benefit of women but after the civil rights movement and women of color began to gain access to these benefits, we also see the rhetoric shift to it being a “bad idea” to support.

We as a society need to be able to recognize difference between legal and just.  In 1790 the Naturalization law was passed in which it included a “whiteness” requirement.  This law was limited to “free white persons of good character” to be considered a citizen. If you don’t already know, take a moment and guess when requirement was taken out of the law…

Go ahead.

Think about it.

Perhaps after the civil war?

Or

Perhaps we could give it a decade for things to work their way through the system for change to occur?

It wasn’t removed until 1952!

19 freaking 52.

Leading up to this people would have to go to court to fight and convince the system that they were in fact “white”. They wanted to be considered white because they wanted the same opportunities they saw their white counterparts receiving.  People were flooding the court begging to be white so they could become citizens.  In 1922 Takao Ozawa took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled that Mr. Ozawa was in fact not white because he was Mongolian. Western scientist at the time said that Mongolians were not Caucasian and therefore would not be able to be citizens of the United States.

Within three months of this ruling a Sikh named Bhagat Singh Thind took his case also to the Supreme Court who would rule against his efforts as well.  Mr. Thind thought that he had a shot because he was from British India in the Punjab region. He had done his research and presented a case in which he used the Western scientist’s findings, which stated that people from the Punjab region of India were in fact Caucasian.  So why did he lose his shot as citizenship?  Well, Justice Sutherland stated that the words “white person” in the naturalization act were “synonymous with the word ‘Caucasian’ only, as that word is popularly understood.”  This trend of anti-Asian laws continued with a great success and backing from the judicial system until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. Not only was it terrible that these people weren’t allowed to become citizens but not being citizens had a lasting harmful effect on them as a class while reaffirming the racist policies of naturalization laws.   These laws were legal but far from just.

Our history with racism is real.  250 years of slavery. 250 years of a people group enslaved until the end of the civil war and the reconstruction amendments.  Then after this there was 90 years of segregation, Jim Crow Laws, and plenty of white supremacy.  This wasn’t just a black problem; this was a white against ALL people of color problem.

Have we made progress since the Civil Rights Movement, I believe we have.  There has been an intentional effort by parents to help their children to be brought up in a Post Racial America but America isn’t post-racial.  There was a period of white progress with race but instead of adjusting the continued economic disparity, we roughly integrated schools.  The years following there is an effort to convince white and black children of a narrative in which we are all equal and get along.  This is still continuing today.  We have millions across our nation whom are sold on this idea and have bought in.

But we can’t deny the difference in schools in predominately urban neighborhoods, which are made up of children of color compared to the schools in more affluent areas.  This was largely due to “white flight”.  In 1973 the Supreme Court ruled on San Antonio v. Rodriguez.  Members of the Edgewood Concerned Parent Association who represented their children and other students brought the lawsuit.  The parents contented that the “Texas method of school financing violated the equal protection clause of the 14thamendment to the U.S. Constitution.”  Essentially the parents were fighting against wealth-based discrimination in regard to education.   Evidence was presented that schools residing in the primarily white, wealthy areas such as Alamo Heights ISD could contribute a significantly higher amount per child than the poor minority areas.

The effects of on education were clearly seen when you look at the following:

  • Classroom space:  North East = 70 sq. ft. per student.  Edgewood = 50 sq. ft.
  • Library books:  North East = 9 books per student. Edgewood = 3.9 books per student.
  • Teacher/Pupil Ratio: North East = 1/19. Edgewood = 1/28.
  • Counselor/Pupil Ratio: North East = 1/1,533. Edgewood = 1/5,672. Alamo Heights = 1/1,1319.
  • Dropout Rate:  North East = 8%. Edgewood = 32%.
  • Financial Disparity between Edgewood and Alamo Heights in 1968 = $310 total per pupil.  In 1972 it had risen to $389 per pupil disparity.

The decision was against the Edgewood Parents. The Supreme Court held the following:  “the Equal Protection Clause does not require absolute equality or precisely equal advantages.” and “The Texas system does not disadvantage any suspect class. It has not been shown to discriminate against any definable class of “poor” people or to occasion discriminations depending on the relative wealth of the families in any district.” This is just one of many cases showing the gap in our education system and how the system does not deem it a worthy argument.

Think about school systems today.  If you look at a racially distinct district, the most experienced educators will primarily be in the higher income schools while new teachers with lower years of experience and possibly one could argue, less qualified are found in the low income schools.  Students of color often go to school in building in need of resources or with the worst or least equipment.

How do you think this affects the students of the schools?

Here are a few stats from the Department of Education examining 97,000 schools representing 49 million students to help you decide if this has lasting effects,

  • Pre-K enrollment for blacks is 18%.
  • 48% of preschoolers with multiple out-of-school suspensions were black students.
  • Black girls are suspended at a higher rate than other girls and most boys.
  • Black students over all are expelled at 3x the rate of white students.
  • 25% of schools with the highest percentage of black and Latino students didn’t offer Algebra II.
  • Black and Latino students are 40% of students at schools with gifted programs but only represent 26% of students in programs.
  • Black, Latino and Native American students are at schools with higher concentrations of first-year teachers.
  • Black students were more than 3x as likely to attend schools with fewer than 60% of teachers who meet all state certification requirements.

If this isn’t alarming you may need to read through these statistics again.  If it isn’t alarming, and you are a white family with school age children, I encourage you to send your child to one of these “under resourced schools”.  But you won’t.

You won’t because why?  I believe you won’t because you want your child to get the best education possible.  We all want this.  Black families want this as well.

One of the best tools you can use to better understand where people of color are coming from when they speak of racial inequality in the education system, is to think about your white privileged child going to one of these schools and how it would change their future.  They won’t have the same opportunities to study the same as students who go to schools offering more class options, study areas, STEM programs, technology resources, etc., etc., etc.  This list of difference in what these low income schools can offer and the schools of higher income is almost endless. If you have a problem with it, perhaps you should fight to change it for those who endure the battle of sub standard education daily.

Most likely you won’t.  Let’s be honest.  White Americans are still incredibly unwilling to truly recognize the reality people of color face and not just with education but any barriers or obstacles the system has created keeping them from any sort of equal opportunity.

I can say that because I am white and I’ve thought some of this trash for a great part of my life.  I can say it because scholars have been studying racial issues for years and we can review their findings.  They were studying it before the civil rights movement.  It’s staggering the amount of white people who think that people of color have equal opportunities compared to white Americans. Results from a Harvard survey showed that white Americans feel people of color actually have MORE opportunities than they do.

Are you serious?

According to the Labor Department, people of color are twice as likely to be without work than their white counterparts.  This isn’t just in relation to the working class. In people with a degree ages 22 – 27, blacks are 2.25 times more likely to not have a job.  Latinos are around 70% more likely, Asians 30% more likely and Native Americans 66% more likely to be without work compared to white folks.   These are people with Degrees.  These people possess that magical slip of paper that our education system has been selling us, as the one thing that will help our future be brighter.  What they don’t tell us about is the fact that in the last 25 years college cost on average has quadrupled.  IT QUADRUPLED!!!!

Young men and women go to college, get a degree and then come out and can’t find work.  As white people we have people in position that look like us spewing things about the reason for us not being able to find jobs is because people of color are “taking our jobs”.  The reality is if we are going to blame anyone, it should be the legislators, who are predominately white, who have passed laws causing this rise in education cost.  We don’t blame the rich white men who run corporations thriving off of the loans students take out and pay back over the next 30 years.  Look at what Trump is doing in his campaign thus far.  Here we have a rich white man, telling poor working class white people that the real problem in our country is due to people of color.  Listen to the way he speaks about men and women of color.  It’s revolting.  He sells the lie that it’s the low people sneaking into our great country across some artificial line who are “stealing our jobs”.  But he won’t dare speak of Wall Street who made a 720% profit while the people on the bottom were losing the clothes off their backs.

Often younger people think we’ve made all of this great progress because they’ve grown up with Black History Month in which teachers are forced to talk about great black men and women.  They’ve read the stories and seen the black and white footage of people being hosed down in the streets or arrested.  They’ve grown up with movies like Remember The Titans which race problems are solved in an hour and a half.  The lack of reality for white folks has created the problem of white denial.  It has become an intergenerational phenomenon.

I think we can recognize where things once were and perhaps they are better today, but if you go back to 1963 and inspect how white Americans perceived things it might open your eyes to our lack of introspection and lack of affirmation of the plight of black people. Thankfully Gallup was looking into race in ’63.  Gallup asked white Americans if they thought racial minorities are treated equally in your community in regard to housing, employment and education?  Now keep in mind this is before the civil rights, voting rights or fair housing.  Today we can look back now and with great confidence answer this as a resounding, “Hell no.”  66% of these white folks polled answered the opposite.  They said, “yes people of color are treated fairly”.  The previous year Gallup asked if black children were afforded the same education as white children.  Again we can look back and answer with confidence, “Absolutely not.” 90% of white Americans believed they received equal education.  I know you’re thinking, “Yeah but that was damn near 60 years ago before things were brought to light by the Civil Rights Movement.  Of course they didn’t see it. We can give them the benefit of the doubt.”

But really why couldn’t these white men and women see the social reality right in front of their eyes?  Were they just terrible people? I like to think that most people are good people.  The honest answer to why they didn’t see the difference in their reality and the reality of people of color was because they didn’t have to see it.  They didn’t have to see the reality of people of color then and we still don’t to this day.

White people have the luxury of not talking about race because we don’t want to.  We have that luxury.  It’s a damn luxury for us.  Now people of color on the other hand don’t have the luxury to not talk about it because they live it.  They live with racism on the daily.  We can avoid it and push it aside because we don’t have to live with it. Choosing to remain oblivious to racism is a privilege only belonging to white people.

Think about this.  A white person can become an educator in a predominantly black school and never have to have any sort of education about the people they are educating. We can be called competent in a school in which we know nothing of the real history of a culture of people other than what was given to us through textbooks saturated with the greatness of white men.  While people of color have to know all about white culture because we are all tested on it to get our degree.  They have to know the history of the nation, well it’s the history edited to not include all of those details of the violent nature.  Genocide and racism, classism, sexism is glanced over and spun with words often of affirmation but rarely is there time to reflect on what it has done to cultures of color for centuries and what it’s lasting effects are and how they are still being felt.

When you are the dominant group in society, we can get by with not confronting reality.  We don’t have to see what others see.  We can choose to but we don’t have to.  When it comes to race, many white people I know think they know more about it than people of color.  We haven’t lived through it.  It’s like when men acting like they know about sexism and patriarchy or us who are straight acting like we understand straight supremacy when we know nothing.

Being oblivious has consequences.

Look at social media right now and how insanely difficult it is for white people to have an actual constructive conversation about police interaction in communities of color.  Let me say this:  when our brothers and sisters of color insist, as they damn well should, that Black Lives Matter, listen to them.  I’m tired of people replying with “All Lives Matter”.  I even read a response in which the person said “white lives matter too.”

The difference is that for the entirety of our nation’s existence, white lives were always assumed to matter.  We have no need to say this because up until 1952, and long after, it was glaringly apparent that white live were the only thing that mattered.  Black lives were not always assumed to matter.  If you are ignorant to the history of this country, particularly the history of blacks in this country, “black lives matter” sounds like a radical statement.  If you don’t know the history, I could even see how it sounds militant.  If you don’t understand how the lives of black people have been denigrated, this movement seems preposterous.  But it is not preposterous.  It is a response to years and years of people not wanting to see the reality of the black community.

A scholar on race issues decided to look at the War on Drugs.  His findings surprised me more than I thought.  I’ve read about racial inequality in our judicial system in terms of incarceration rates but he looked intently into drug arrests compared to drug use.  He said that he began to “wonder how many black folks are arrested and end up with a record that would not have a record if the war on drugs wasn’t racist.  And I wondered how many white folks would have a record that don’t have one if the war on drugs wasn’t racist.”  What statistics will show us is that drug use is virtually equal across races.  From black to white to Latino, drug use shows no favoritism.  FBI data has 83% of drug arrests as simple possession arrests. These aren’t major drug trafficking charges or intent to distribute or for people cooking meth in their basement. He took those arrests and compared them to data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration that examined drug rates.

Here is what he found.

If drug possession arrests mirrored drug use, 160,000 fewer blacks would be imprisoned and without a record.  Correspondingly, 160,000 more whites would have a record. President Nixon declared the War on Drugs in 1971.  If we look ahead 20 years that puts at 1991.    That would mean that 3.2 million black people who have records would not and 3.2 million whites have a record that currently don’t.

Why is this important?

If you look at the limitations that men and women with a record face in our society and translate that to a difference of 3.2 million people that could shift the system.  We’re talking about voting, getting a loan for college, loans for small business, jobs and more.  This war on drugs is affecting people’s lives not just today but their futures as well.  It’s slanted. If it were not, there would be a glaring difference in white incarceration rates.

According to studies, blacks are 21 times more likely to be killed by police even though they don’t commit 21 times more crime than white people.  Blacks are 2 to 3 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement when they are unarmed.  I work with young people almost daily.  After the recent shootings, one of the young black girls (a teenager) I work with said that she was walking to the store and a police officer drove by her and then circled around and drove up behind her slower.  Her response was to run.  She ran. I was flabbergasted.

I asked her, “Why in the hell did you run? You know what’s been happening. You have to be careful.”

“That’s exactly why I ran.  I didn’t want to get shot.”  Was her response.

Her natural response as a young black woman is to fear authority.  Never once in my life have I feared police.  Never once.  I’ve been stopped multiple times.  I’ve even semi-argued about what I was stopped for when I was much younger and cockier than I am now.  Readily reaching under the seat to find my wallet or into the glove box or middle console to get an insurance card without hesitation.  Never once did it cross my mind that I was stopped because of my race or that I could get shot when my hands weren’t in plane sight. Now you can argue that I don’t appear to be a threat, but neither does a man lying on the ground with his hands up.  This fear is something that I’ve had conversations about with black friends and they have talked about what they are now telling their kids on how to handle the police when being stopped.  Don’t ask questions.  Don’t buck the system.  Just comply. Whatever it is – comply.  Now that sounds like good advice to us white folks and perhaps it sounds like good advice to people of color as well, but what I’m trying to show you is the difference in the way a white person and a black person perceives authority.  My history, my people’s history, is one of power.  Why in the world would I fear the authority when I not only look like those in power but they have always protected my people?

I truly believe that the vast majority of people are good people but if they’re caught up in a bad system you can be a great person and be forced to twist things to get along with the system. Whether that system is policing, or health care, or education, if the system is predicated on certain outcomes, there are times when you must play along if you want success.

I heard a historian and scholar say recently that the only reason people can gravitate toward a candidate like Donald Trump who says what he does about people of color is because our memory is shallow.  He and plenty of others have talked about immigrants coming to America “legally” or “the right way”.  Often they equate it to how our ancestors came to the country. Perhaps we forgot that when our ancestors entered the country there were no laws in place to break to make it illegal.  We hadn’t established that imaginary line in the sand.

The first people who came to this land were here for stuff.  They came for land, for gold, for wealth.  They came and claimed something that wasn’t theirs as their own.  And yet we don’t see this.  We don’t see this because we get angry with people who desire to come into our country for stuff.  They come for work.  For wealth. For hopes of a better life. Sounds awful similar.  So when people talk of immigrants being convicts, so were some of the first that sailed to this nation.  The first men who stepped foot off the boat onto the Americas were not the cream of the crop.  They were the rejects.  They were the losers.  They weren’t the elite.  The elite stayed in England.  Our problem is we can’t look at our nations history and see ourselves in the immigrants of today and them in us.

If we can’t realize that the people who are dying, literally dying, sneaking into our country are just like the men and women who found this country in search of something better than what they could do in their country of origin, we are in trouble.  When we admit this, doesn’t it make it a hell of a lot more difficult to look down on Latinos coming to our country in search of those same opportunities? When we can’t see this parallel, we are doomed to live in a fictional reality.  Living in this fictional reality is when we can readily speak and support things like “giant walls” and exporting tens of thousands of people or keeping out a certain people group.  This allows us the ability to support a man who wants a registry for Muslims. All of this is predicated on the false history of our nation.

This also effects how we discuss the current system of police misconduct or the disparity in the justice system.  By living in this reality that negates the reality of people of color we get locked into the idea that the system is actually fair even if experts tell us otherwise or better yet, people who live the reality tell us otherwise.  If we desire to move forward as a country, we must learn to be honest about where we have been, where we currently are and where we are headed.  Sticking our head in the sand and saying the sun is shining isn’t going to solve anything.

When I was growing up, I didn’t have a picture of Jesus in my house.  There were definitely no portraits of God or Vishnu or any other deity.  The only thing I can remember were a few crosses, and a letter from the Pope hanging in my grandparent’s home.  I did however go to Sunday school and Vacation Bible School at a Baptist and Methodist church.  Thinking back on it now the portraits I saw of Jesus were of a white man with long dark hair and a nice beard.  In fact everyone I can think of in those children’s stories were white. I was raised with this notion that God was white because he was Jesus’ father and Jesus was white so… you see the correlation.

Here’s the deal.  Kids often will place physical attributes to God because that is how they need to describe and understand the concept for their brains. As we grow older we mature to a less physical deity to more of a less physical, more spiritual being.  Christ, and therefore God, is almost exclusively portrayed as a man who looks like he is white.  Still to this day this is the case.  One does not have to be religious to see these images; they are everywhere.

Why is this important?  It’s important because it sends a message to children of color from a very early age that they are not as close the image of the divine creator than white people.  This doesn’t have to be taught because it is soaked up by what kids are exposed to through our culture.  This image of a white Jesus is practically everywhere.  I recently walked into a Christian university in Texas, which had portraits of the 12 disciples hanging around one of their administration buildings. All 12 men were different variations of white skin tone and their features and physical attributes were Caucasian.  They did not reflect the historical heritage scholars would trace these men to.  This idea that the great men of our Christian religion are white is represented and accepted.  It’s being accepted less but we still won’t recognize the racist elements to the system that put it in place.

The reality for us white folks who go to church, who identify as Christian is this… when we read the stories of the old testament of the nation of Israel, we identify as the nation of Israel.  But we aren’t Israel. We are Egypt.  We are Babylon.  We are Rome.  We aren’t the oppressed.  We are the ones in power in that story. I know that’s a hard pill to swallow but in our narrative, we look more like the oppressor than the oppressed.

We white folks don’t like thinking about these things.  However, we would rather deflect and get angry about what Beyoncé is doing and what she wears at her concerts that looks like a black panther outfit.  We need to deflect because we are scared.  The culture is shifting. Our nation is becoming a more diverse nation than it was 40 years ago. Therefore our pop-culture icons are changing. Leave It To Beaver is no longer our model.  You have young white kids looking up to black men and women as their “role models”.  This scares the shit out of a lot of white people. This is “white fragility”.  White Fragility is when any amount of racial stress results in defensive arguments or postures often with anger, fear or guilt. The culture is shifting and we need to be aware and truthful with how it makes us feel as white people.  We need to learn how to process it.

Moving forward, we must ask the question, “Why do we value what we value?”

We must have time for introspection and determine how we are being shaped by our cultural narrative and is it one of truth or one which we white folks can remain oblivious?

Being oblivious is no longer a choice.  We need to have these conversations with our white friends and relatives about racism. We will never be able to fully understand what people of color endure but we can stand with them in solidarity and educate our white brothers and sisters.

I would like to end with this…

We mustn’t forget that this country was built on the backs of people of color.  Maybe we should say “Thank You” to people of color for their contribution to our nation rather than discredit their cries of feeling marginalized because they have damn good reason to feel this way.  For decades and centuries black people have endured the system and some have fought to overcome it.  Some have made it through and succeeded. Some are flourishing but the vast majority has started with an institutional disadvantage.  Let’s just think of the stories we’ve seen popularized by cinema in recent years of men and women of color overcoming great obstacles and turning what we call “disadvantages” into success.  The reality is what white people view as a “disadvantage” is the reality of the system set-up for people of color.

It’s time to choose to be aware of our current reality.

 

••••

While this blog is written from my heart in my words I would be remiss if I didn’t give credit to the people who I learned of such knowledge.

James Baldwin – Notes of a Native Son

James H. Cone – The Cross and the Lunching Tree

Tim Wise – White Like Me
The Pathalogy of Privilege (speaking engagement)

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