The past couple of weeks seem to have awakened white Americans to the reality of systemic racism in our law enforcement community. Nationwide protests have erupted after four police officers literally murdered a handcuffed black man while bystanders were pleading for officers to stop their assault on him. With clear video of the murder, there is new hope and growing consensus that this time may be different. I desperately hope that is true. But there is a substantial difference between hope and expectation.
I want to believe; and so far the signs suggest this time really could be different. But I fear that over the medium-to-longer term things will not change. Cynical as that may sound, I think the thing that got most of the nationwide attention this time is that video unambiguously documented a white police officer murdering a constrained black citizen; also the breadth of worldwide demonstrations, and the violence that accompanied the protests in this country in many cases created a made-for-television spectacle. I do not condone violence in any way. However, I must note that from the violent history of our nation’s founding to all subsequent progress in racial reconciliation, violent protest seems to have been the only catalyst that has brought about real change.
I hope I am wrong, but what I suspect is: now that violence has for the most part subsided, the media will gradually lose interest and again start focusing primarily on the virus, presidential politics, and whatever else commands higher ratings. Without strong media attention to the cause, peaceful protests will likely also begin to wane. That will reduce pressure on politicians to take serious action.
I strongly support fundamental restructuring of law enforcement strategy, tactics, and community relations; and there will probably be some meaningful policy changes in police training and procedures as a result of this tragedy. But policing is only one of the more visible symptoms of white American society’s racial prejudice and abuse. Singling out law enforcement organizations as the problem will only mask the whole truth, drive racism further underground in those institutions, and do nothing to treat the underlying systemic racism white people practice, often unconsciously, everyday against those of color. Until we address that underlying white racial prejudice, nothing of substance is likely to occur; we will just be waiting until the next heinous event brings it into the national spotlight again.
Today there are many black American professionals, executives, celebrities, artists, and sports figures. That was not so true when I was growing up. Affirmative actions have worked in many cases. But those highly successful black Americans are usually the exception rather than the rule. Generally they have one thing in common. As a class of people they are the brightest, most skilled, and talented of Americans of any race or ethnicity. That’s why they have become successful. Essentially they learned to play the white man’s game better than average white people, who would otherwise have used their power of whiteness to hold them back.
If we as white Americans actually care about racial equality and mutual respect, it is up to us to change the current racial paradigm. We have been the abusers of people of color for 400 years. In that same timeframe we have enjoyed white social privilege and built substantial wealth on the backs of black people. Even in the last 50 years since racism was mostly driven underground, we have still successfully used politics and institutional power to keep black people subordinate. Fundamental changes in white society, economics, and culture are required to bring about a reasonable measure of equality among races.
To erase the cancer of racial prejudice and abuse, all institutions at the local and state level of white society must recognize and acknowledge systemic racism is real, prevalent, and that we white people are the offenders. Accepting the guilt of racism and leading the crusade to eradicate it is the responsibility of white society. It is especially the responsibility of faith and social groups; but it must also include restructuring all local public judicial, legislative, and governance institutions to become color blind. Just reform of law enforcement is not enough.
The white faith community is probably the most critical part of the solution. White faith leaders and practitioners must reach out to black members of their faith; that does not mean inviting them to visit their white church or synagogue. It means vastly more than that. The white faithful must visit black people in their places of worship, on their turf, regularly. They need to approach black faith leaders and parishioners with humility in an effort to actively build productive permanent relationships; the goal must be to learn about, focus on, and honestly understand what American racial history means from the black perspective. That’s the way to change white minds. Similarly, historically white social clubs and organizations, which today probably call themselves racially unbiased, must promote black membership to their institutions and actively recruit, groom, and endorse black members for leadership roles in such organizations. However, both faith and social leaders must expect black people to initially be suspicious of their motives. Blacks have been “under the white thumb” for centuries. They don’t have much reason to believe in white sincerity. It is up to whites to take most of the steps needed to develop and cultivate mutual respect, trust, and understanding.
Lastly as is relates to white faith and social institutions: to offset their historic white privilege, those organizations should contribute a reasonable, but not insignificant, portion of their vast wealth to benefit black faith, social, and civil rights organizations. Those assets must be given without any strings to black institutions to be used as they see fit for advancing the health and strength of black society. No strings is critical to promoting mutual respect, trust and understanding. White churches particularly have an ugly history of deciding for themselves what black communities need, how donations should be used, and who should administer.
Turning back to public institutions: In addition to restructuring local law enforcement, judiciary, and public governance institutions for fairness and equality, public schools have a special responsibility. They mold the opinions and attitudes of young American citizens. Those institutions must initiate structural changes in the educational curriculum to produce future generations of citizens and leaders who will mature without racial prejudice. That will take at least a couple of generations and beginning is way overdue.
Racial equality education must be implemented as a critical element of every school system’s curriculum. The goal would be to bend the curve on systemic racism by educating generations of mature anti-racist adults. That education must start early and be an integral part of a child’s education in every grade, K through 12. The training must include American history specifically as it relates to racial injustice from the founding of our country through ongoing racism today. The program content should become more comprehensive as student’s understanding of racial cause, effect, and nuance matures. There must also be sociology courses focused on recognizing and addressing the challenges of racial inequality, racial implications of current political and social events, and study initiatives to promote racial reconciliation. Finally, imaginatively designed workshops should provide experience in recognizing and interpreting community and personal racial prejudice as well as tools and role models for self-evaluation.
I know what I am suggesting probably sounds too ambitious, too difficult, or too expensive. It is not. We simply have to care enough about ending systemic racism to restructure our educational system to implement such a program. A small team of committed black and white educators working together could develop such a program in a few weeks. There are likely university professors of education and sociology who have already considered such a restructuring.
While local faith, social, governance, and educational institutions have the key role to play in changing our culture to recognize, abhor, and eradicate systemic racism in our communities, only national politicians can address the most controversial issue: Reparations! I know that is a dirty word, but a critical one.
Because of the last 400 years of white supremacy, the average white American has 10 times the wealth of the average black American. Similarly, white Americans are twice as likely to have bachelor’s degrees as blacks are. Before social and racial justice can be fully achieved we must reduce and/or eliminate those inequalities.
Rectifying the injustice of this economic inequality will require a system of reparations. I think there is no way around it. And I don’t mean to just hand out money, but we must deal with the resulting disadvantage black people suffer today from our past and current white privilege.
Looking forward I offer a partial solution: Most of the wealth white Americans have accumulated over the centuries is in the ownership and appreciation of their real estate holdings, other physical property, and the benefit that accrues from access to quality educational institutions and associated job opportunities. We need to provide similar opportunities to black Americans.
We can never make up for 4 centuries of abuse, but it seems to me Americans should demand that our federal government establish a reparations program, perhaps very loosely similar in concept to the GI Bill after World War II. A qualifications process would verify the legitimate slave ancestry of current black Americans. For those who are descendants of slaves and are not already financially well established, special federal funds should be set aside for them to receive very low or no interest real estate loans; the goal would be to dramatically increase black home ownership and wealth accumulation. At the same time special educational opportunities should be designed for and made available to descendants of slaves, including the financial resources necessary to allow them to take advantage of the opportunity for post secondary education.
Implementing a reparations program would be a complex undertaking. I get that. What I have outlined here is mostly just a place holder to recognize the need and one conceptual way we might distribute benefits. Vastly more planning and definition would have to be developed, socialized, and promoted politically. Regardless, it is past time to begin to debate its benefit, what it is intended to achieve, what its cost might be, and how it could be administered.
Nothing I have discussed in this document is a quick fix for systemic racism. There are no quick fixes. And mobilizing the political will to move forward to achieve what I describe will be daunting. I am not at all sure white Americans currently in positions of political, faith, social, and economic power would be willing to share those powers with their black counterparts to carryout what is actually required to end systemic racism. We well might have to wait to make the kind of progress that is necessary for a just society until the current crop of power brokers die off. But if we could succeed in at least implementing the restructuring of our educational system in the way I have outlined, in a couple of generations our schools will have produced the citizens and leaders with the anti-racist mindset we need to develop and maintain a truly just society.