TOM REGAN: SUMMONING ORENDA
He’s there. Every day. Staring back at me. A white, late middle-aged man, who lives in an overwhelmingly white neighborhood. While he has a few financial woes, he has lived most of his life in comfort. He’s had a decent diet, good health care, good jobs, and his children go to good local schools.
He doesn’t get profiled at airports. He can’t remember the last time he was stopped by the police for anything. Most of the places where he shops, the movie theaters he frequents, the restaurants he likes, are in ‘nice’ neighborhoods.
He cares about issues of race and has always encouraged his children to think of people as equals, but other than talking about it, and writing the occasional column about it, he really hasn’t done much.
He has two or three black friends. He really doesn’t know anybody who’s Hispanic, and the only Asian Americans he meets on a regular basis are the ones he meets when he stops in at the local dry cleaner or pharmacy.
He is, of course, me. I am the very personification of white male privilege. I am a racist.
It’s odd to write about yourself in this way. You have one idealized image of yourself that you hold in your head, but who you really are in the world around you is a different matter. I do care about racism, and I do think it’s the worst problem that America has, but if I’m totally honest with myself, my concerns are little more than a white guy just trying to sound like he cares, but who doesn’t really do much about it.
It’s a problem that white people have in this time and in this place. We cannot bring ourselves to admit that we live in a racist society and that by living in that racist society and enjoying its benefits, we are racists.
Many whites, if you were to ask them about racism, would say “Well, I’ve never said anything bad about black people.” And on the surface they’re probably right. On the surface. Or if you were to ask them about racism in our society their answer would probably be something like that they know it exists but many of the blacks that they know seem to be doing okay, and heck, we have a black president, that they can’t be racist because their favorite actor is Will Smith, or that they think it’s cool that one of the leads in the new Star Wars is black, or that their favorite basketball player is Stephen Curry etc., etc.
But it’s what they don’t see, or don’t want to admit that they see, that makes us all part of a racist conspiracy that effectively denies blacks and other minorities the same opportunities, benefits and choices that those of us who are white take so for granted that we barely even think of them.
Everywhere we look we can easily see the tentacles of this institutionalized racism and its grip on our society and culture.
The most obvious example is the number of African-American males who have been, or will be, incarcerated. (One in three.) Study after study has shown African-American men are jailed more often (or in the worst case, executed) at far greater numbers than whites who are charged with similar crimes. In schools, African-American kids are punished far more often than white kids.
African-Americans have a much more difficult time buying a house, and when they do they pay higher mortgage rates. You’ll often find several liquor and gun stores in African-American neighborhoods but no grocery store. When there is a grocery store, the food is often inferior but still costs more.
How many TV shows are there where black actors and actresses have leading roles? And what about Hollywood? After last year’s brouhaha about the lack of any minorities being nominated for Academy Awards, Neil Patrick Harris, the host on the TV broadcast of the award ceremony, joked that night’s award ceremony was where Hollywood would honor the “best and the whitest.” It really wasn’t so funny.
Television news reports, especially on conservative outlets like Fox News but also on more liberal ones like CNN or MSNBC, regularly refer to protesters in groups like Black Lives Matter, or local gatherings that have protested police killings, as “thugs,” which is the new way for these folks to say “niggers” without actually saying it.
African-Americans on welfare are stigmatized as lazy and shiftless and only interested in government handouts. But in reality, far more whites are on welfare, but seldom face the same condemnation: you’ll never see the media (conservative or otherwise), or politicians, refer to whites on welfare in these terms
Justice Antonin Scalia, a longtime opponent of affirmative action, during a recent Supreme Court hearing on the issue, brought up the popular theory in conservative circles that maybe top universities are just too “advanced” for minorities, that they have a better chance of succeeding at less strenuous educational institutes. And so one of the leading legal voices in the United States basically called African-American kids stupid and not as smart as white kids.
Maine Governor Republican Paul LePage, just a few days ago, recycled the oldest black stereotype of them all: the black man after white women. You know, the stereotype that lead to many black men being lynched not so long ago in America.
How many white parents have had to have the “talk” with their teenage sons to not talk back to the police, to just do as they say, to not give them any reason to, well, shoot you. I never had to have that talk with my teenage son. Because I’m pretty sure he never be pulled over while driving just because he’s a white kid. That’s the way our culture works. And instead of us being outraged or demanding change, most people are actually okay with it. Just as long as they don’t hassle their kids.
We Americans live in a racist society. The evidence is overwhelming, as you can see from the examples provided above. Those of us who benefit from this system want to pretend that we don’t see it, because if we really did see it, it would require making substantial changes. But most of all, we don’t want to look in the mirror and see a racist.
But as long as whites continue to live in a system that consistently denies equality to African-Americans and other minorities — and I’m not talking about government handouts here, I’m talking about the way we treat people in their everyday lives — and we are compliant in the maintenance of that system, then we are racists.
And facing that fact is absolutely one of the first things that we have to do if we’re going to solve this problem.
Copyright Tom Regan 2015
Contact Tom Regan: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio. A former executive director of the Online News Association, he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92.
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