How Did We Become White and Other Essential Questions for White Leaders

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Moving beyond statements of solidarity to the real work of supporting change

Groping for connections

Like many white Americans, I was sickened by the video of George Floyd’s killing, have followed the weeks of protests it precipitated, and have been contemplating how to best support the struggle of black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) for equity and justice. I’ve read many inspiring statements from white professional colleagues whose everyday work doesn’t involve advocacy for social justice and racial equity. Yet I’ve also heard BIPOC demands for more than statements from would-be white allies. Driving home recently through a historically black, yet rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in Tacoma, Washington, I couldn’t miss some new graffiti that got right to that point and made me think twice before sending out my own antiracist statement. It read simply, “Your Words Don’t Mean Shit.” How can white leaders both respect the source of such skepticism and at the same time take action that leverages this historic moment of exponentially expanded dialog about systemic racism?

In the midst of contemplating this question I read a statement from an antiracist training institute that suggested an answer. Though primarily addressed to BIPOC communities, the statement included the admonition that the work of outraged white allies is within our white communities. Specifically, the statement by The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond called upon white folks to

…learn your history, how you became white and the history of resistance of white folks working to undo racism. Organize and build a humanistic approach that takes responsibility for all white people- even your republican, conservative, liberal or overtly racist family members. When you deeply understand how the concept of whiteness has dehumanized you and harms your communities it can fuel you to work even harder to undo racism.”

This statement struck a chord with me and, at the same time, felt counterintuitive. What’s the connection between improving my personal understanding of harm to white communities caused by the concept of whiteness and my potential for helping BIPOC communities struggling with issues of life and death? How might reflecting about my own history prove critical to advocating around changing policies that have led, for generations, to police brutality? What does that reflection have to do with reversing much higher BIPOC rates of early mortality from heart diseaseHIV/AIDSother chronic diseases with which white people also struggle? How will it reduce dramatic racial disparities in the rates of evictionhomelessnessextremely-low-income renters, and incarceration? How will it eliminate the yawning chasm between the wealth of the average white person compared to that of the average black of latinx person? And, on a personal level, how does organizing and building a humanistic approach connect to my role as a father and as a leader within my professional field and spiritual community? I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions, and, in keeping with The People’s Institute’s guidance, I’m sharing my take-aways within my professional, spiritual, and other communities, all of which are predominantly white.

How did I become white?

I became white by inheriting rights and privileges originally provided to my ancestors through the institutionalization of the concept of race by landowners and other wealthy Americans who believed their continued prosperity depended on the preservation of slavery. Slavery’s critical role in generating their wealth led these elites to construct and employ the concept of race to justify disenfranchising enslaved people from basic human and legal rights. The same class of people that created the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, and the U.S. Constitution also created, perpetuated, and institutionalized an ideology asserting the superiority of people labeled as white and the inferiority of those labeled non-white.

On my mother’s predominantly White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) side of the family, claiming the rights and privileges of whiteness was likely a straightforward affair, but on my father’s Eastern European Jewish immigrant side of the family, whiteness came via a very different and more complicated path. With not even a high school diploma, my paternal grandfather found himself, as a teenaged immigrant, the breadwinner for his siblings and parents. While most of the details have never been shared with me, this bright, energetic, ambitious young man in World War I-era America renounced his Jewish faith and, eventually, he and my grandmother estranged themselves in many ways from both their families and their Jewish communities. Becoming an Episcopalian and joining the Free Masons, my grandfather constructed a WASP mask that helped ward off the antisemitism that created widespread barriers to economic advancement as well as social discrimination. Yet Eastern European immigrants, like many of their Irish, Italian, Portuguese and other counterparts, did not earn the full rights enjoyed by whites just because their skin was lighter than the skin of people labeled black or brown. Rather than simply hiding his Jewish ancestry, my grandfather’s WASP mask enabled him to become fully white.

The rejection of lineage and community, and by extension, the rejection of self that my grandfather and countless other immigrants perceived as necessary in order to prosper in America was in fact dehumanizing and harmful. The personal and cultural gymnastics that my father’s family had to perform to deny their Jewishness and “pass for white” helps explain, for one thing, why my family’s life in the Boston suburbs included no real connection to ancestry or community. Perhaps it also helps explain a some of the pain that has characterized many of the relationships within my extended family.

How does understanding how we became white equip white leaders to push for racial equity?

Digging deep and forging a commitment to undoing racism requires starting with the heart and then moving to the head. When I read about the Tulsa Greenwood Massacre of 1921 I can easily jump to questions like, “How is it that I was never taught about this event in all of the American History classes I took in high school and college?” Asking that question may prove very helpful to understanding the insidious ways that white supremist ideology works to blind people to an accurate understanding of our history and define the boundaries of our political discourse to the disadvantage of BIPOC. On the other hand, if I’m honest, the way I can gravitate toward this question feels a lot like the way I gravitate to familiar narratives of “I’m very different from racist sociopath cops who seem to be looking for any excuse to use deadly force on black people,” or “I’m colorblind and don’t have a racist bone in my body,” or “I’m not responsible for slavery.” By jumping to these narratives I effectively avoid any deep appreciating of the heartbreak, fear, and exhaustion experienced by the many BIPOC in our country who understandably draw a straight line from the massacres and lynchings of 100 years ago to the ongoing police killings and hate crimes that modern technology and social media have been putting front and center in our national consciousness.

My guess is that deeply feeling pain motivates people better than intellectual understanding when there are massive historical and institutional barriers to push through and what’s required is for thousands of people to put their full weight into that push. With this idea in mind, I’m trying to just pause and feel what comes up in my body when I tune into the history that I wasn’t taught and haven’t heard. Poet Eve Ewing’s account of the similarities between current events and the 1919 Chicago race riots made me want to cry. A family history essay written by Lydia Guy-Ortiz, whose Public Health work intersects with mine, stopped me in my tracks. When I pause and just feel the pain of these stories I can’t help but notice that over the course of my sixty years, I have largely ignored the true human impact of racism in the way that I presume a fish ignores the fact that it lives in water. I wasn’t forced to really contemplate it, and so, I didn’t.

Thirty-odd years after graduating with a degree in American Studies from a respected university I found myself surprised to learn not only how widespread housing discrimination against BIPOC has been beyond the areas of the country I’ve thought of as particularly racist, but in more “liberal” states and cities, this discrimination was explicitly written into law and policy, making it largely unnecessary to exercise white supremist attitudes subtly and behind closed doors. If that surprise doesn’t show the power of white denial, both personal and collective, then I don’t know what does.

Though The People’s Institute’s instructions may have at first seemed counterintuitive, I’m now starting to understand why my effectiveness in joining the battle for racial equity depends on first understanding the roots of my ignorance about how our American history is in so many ways the history of racism. Having connected some of the pain of my own family history to the most heartbreaking parts of our national history, maybe I can move on to engaging the part of my brain that wants to argue policy and politics less fettered by the filters of defensiveness and guilt. Maybe I’ll see more clearly that the real question is not one of personal responsibility for white supremacist ideology, but instead one of how to support sweeping institutional changes that are grounded in an acknowledgement that white families and communities have enjoyed rights, privileges, and material prosperity that have been systematically denied to families and communities of color.

How can white leaders move from owning their privilege to organizing for change?

Denial of white privilege can lead to an equally insidious denial of the disproportionate power of white communities to bring about real and lasting change. In other words, any assumption on my part that my one voice doesn’t really matter will have a disproportionate negative impact on moving my city, state, and country toward root-level changes to the laws and policies that currently guard the status quo. Because I’m an older white person who votes in every election and donates to candidates, I can be confident that my views and opinions probably count more than those of people in virtually any other voter group, especially BIPOC. Political consultants spend a lot of time and energy worrying about how their candidates can best appeal to people with just my demographic profile.

The issue is not whether my white communities (friends, colleagues, members of my spiritual community) have political power, but how rather how we will use it. Because of that power, responding to the current historical moment by looking to BIPOC advocates for direction feels like an abdication of responsibility. I can’t look to leaders of color to help me overcome my tendency toward political incrementalism, for example. Rather than indulging my doubts about whether the candidates and elected officials who align best with my beliefs can actually prevail, I need to put my shoulder to the wheel along with other like-minded white people to make it happen.

What about specifics?

We need to be careful about becoming too caught up in the policy weeds. It doesn’t take a policy think tank to tell us that the enormous chunk of the federal budget dedicated to the military and to the prison system demonstrates that fear is winning out over love. At the local level, the huge percentage of every city’s and county’s budget that is eaten up by law enforcement, jails, and other aspects of the criminal justice system indicates that, likewise, fear is winning out, while love is an afterthought.

Thus the first step in changing public policy to support progress in undoing the impact of ingrained racism should be recognizing that, as the wealthiest nation on earth, we can more than afford to divert game-changing amounts of spending from fear-based programs to programs aimed directly at reversing the economic, educational, housing, and health disparities that deny BIPOC communities an equal opportunity to amass wealth. We can start by demanding a federal minimum wage that helps protect working renters from the pandemic of eviction that has decimated neighborhood after neighborhood across the country and disproportionately impacts BIPOC. We can also divert sufficient resources from military, law enforcement, and the prison industrial complex to guarantee that BIPOC communities have access to the same kind of quality, affordable child care, public schools, and after-school enrichment and recreational programs that are widely available in white communities.

Easier said than done, you say? True enough. Yet it will be a lot less difficult when white communities organize with the specific intent of making policy makers and candidates braver when it comes to supporting bold proposals aimed at deep and sustainable change. My past work in government, including political, policy development, and policy implementation jobs, tells me that the only way to move politicians from fear to love is to let them know that there is a large cohort of voters who have their backs.

As the legislative and community affairs lead for an Austin, Texas City Council member in the mid-nineties I was fortunate enough to help develop the Social Fabric Initiative brought forward as a budget proposal by a coalition of white and BIPOC members. The initiative funded specialized programs providing to the low-income neighborhoods containing large swaths of Austin’s latinx and black communities the educational and enrichment opportunities enjoyed widely in white neighborhoods. It made it into the final budget and was widely viewed as both innovative and successful. Yet, my Council Member’s support for this and other policies to promote equity and improve the quality of life in marginalized neighborhoods led the police union to publicly question her support for public safety during her re-election campaign. It wasn’t until her campaign provided a complete voting record showing that she’d voted in support of every single law enforcement and public safety expenditure item to come before the Council that the union stood down.

Two lessons stand out to me from this and similar experiences I remember from my time in local politics. First, interest groups tend to see government budget development processes as zero-sum games in which a win for social justice equates to a loss for public safety. Never mind whether the economy is booming and tax revenue is increasing, as it was in Austin at the time; the fear of losing out in the “budget wars” often leads to take-no-prisoners tactics. Second, politicians worry that they will lose re-election if police unions and other advocacy groups call them out as “soft on crime” or otherwise uninterested in public safety. Again, these politicians need to know that they have significant voter support for standing up to these advocacy groups and doing the right thing in adequately funding programs and initiatives that will mend the social fabric and lift up communities that have been held down by systemic racism.

While the policy framework needed to drive toward greater racial equity and social justice must include strengthening police reform, it must also take into account that, as journalist Jamiles Lartey’s argues, the police simply function as the “avatars of American racism” which is ingrained within all our institutions. In a recent interview, Lartey said,

The police are racism representatives. They are the folks who we hire to actuate something that’s far more distant than a person’s individual biases…And part of the reason that the Amy Coopers of the world feel so comfortable using the police as their own kind of personal racism valet is because that’s in line with how they’ve operated in our society — which is to say, even if you or I or we have never called the police on a black person for some deeply unserious reason, as a society, we outsource the keeping of the racial order to police every day. Officers themselves don’t have to — and this is like so important — officers themselves do not have to be ideologically white supremacists to be performing that function.

So we spend a lot of time on the surface-level question of, how do we get police officers, as individuals or as departments, to treat black people better? But in some, the way police treat black people in America is symptomatic of how America feels about black people, which is this state of conditional citizenship steeped in mistrust and in fear. And I don’t mean with this answer to kind of expand the issue into something so big that it becomes an abstraction either. Like, you can recruit better. You can catch problems more quickly. You can train people better. You can create better incentives. And it’s been done — bad police departments have improved before.

But I do intend to take the onus off of police officers as this bad other who do harm because they are sociopaths and put it on all of us — like, what we get from police is consistent with what we as a society have internalized about black worth and about what constitutes order and justice.

When I let these words sink in, I can’t help but feel inspired to demand that our elected leaders enact policies that proceed from a fundamental belief that BIPOC communities have exactly the same worth as white communities. If the poorest neighborhoods with the worst schools and highest crime and eviction rates were disproportionately white instead of disproportionately BIPOC, then white communities would be organizing like hell to demand the political will to change that situation. In the name of basic human decency and dignity, I’m asking the people in my communities to join me in bringing that kind of energy to the politics of finally eradicating the egregious disparities in economic opportunity, education, safety, health, and well-being that hold back BIPOC communities.

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