"There are two kinds of white people, John Brown's and all the rest of them are clowns." -Malcom X
A Facebook friend posted the above observation from Malcolm on her wall and it generated quite a few comments. Many of them were along these lines: "Malcolm X owed an apology to every white Union Soldier that died in the Civil War." The topic of reparations was brought up and a friend queried, "do I get "reparations" for my ancestor from the 2nd Massachusetts Regiment who was killed by the Confederate Army?"
Then there was the following observation from a white male whom I don't know: "I get frustrated as well with every white person being blamed... slavery was due just as much to black Africans as white Americans... and not all white Americans past or present accepted or believed/supported slavery/racism... my family and self being one of those... don't slap those who are supporting you."
I have some empathy for the frustration and confusion expressed by people regarding Malcolm's words. Most people have never engaged in any honest dialogue about race and race relations in this country. We avoid the topic as much as possible even though the history of race permeates all aspects of American culture. It's why we have a president born of a white mother and a black father who is identified as black. Trust me, I'm happy to claim Obama as black, but he is no more black than he is white, but in these United States of America, the one-drop rule still holds true.
Every time I write about race in America, I promise myself it will be the last time. I never keep that promise. I am so weary of trying to explain what seems perfectly clear to me; yet, I cannot simply let the moment pass when maybe there will be a moment of pure communication where someone nods their head in understanding and we make a meaningful connection. So here I go again.
Slavery was an abominaton but it may be argued that it was based on a system of economics; however, after the Civil War, there was the Jim Crow era (link to detailed PBS historical overview of Jim Crow). That takes a lot more explaining. The intense discrimination that followed slavery is the real shame of America. I don't blame every white person as having individual responsibility for slavery but in my opinion, white America benefited as a whole from the institution of slavery. The subsequent spread of Jim Crow, the legalized, systemic oppression of black people based solely on skin color was not supported by every white person either, but again the benefit of such a system accrued to white people, not blacks (examples of Jim Crow laws).The concept is called "white privilege" and until white people understand and acknowledge the very real benefits of white privilege in a society that made discrimination based on race not just a practice but the law of the land, then I don't think that an honest dialogue about race is possible.
One Facebook comment dwelled on the unfairness of affirmative action to white males. He asserted that he has worked hard for all that he has achieved. I don't doubt that he has. So have I. So have most people, regardless of race, but there are obstacles on that "level playing field" for people of color that aren't there for whites.
Affirmative action does not negate white privilege; it affirms it. (What Is White Privilege?) If not for the legalized discrimination of Jim Crow, there would have been no need for affirmative action. If the playing field had been meaningfully and permanently leveled post Civil War, then the freed slaves would have been able to fully participate in the society and eventually compete with white America. Instead, after a brief period of Reconstruction when blacks were becoming educated (remember, it was a crime punishable by death to teach slaves to read), being elected to public office, developing businesses and integrating themselves into the larger society, white America began to implement laws to take away the newly realized rights of blacks. Not just in the South, the North had its own issues of legalized discrimination as well.
Here's an analogy: imagine that you have worn a chain attached to a heavy weight around your ankles all of your life. Finally someone removes the chain and the weight and tells you can now participate in a 10K race and if you win, you get a prize. All of the other runners have been racing for years and have never worn the weight. Some of them participated in placing the weight around your ankles in the past but some of them did not. You have never run before, your muscles have atrophied, but hell, they are letting you run so it's an allegedly fair race. Affirmative action was the scooter provided to black people after generations of being denied the right to even particpate in the race. Those who didn't actively oppress black people, nonetheless benefitted from being allowed to freely participate in the race without the encumbrances that were imposed on black people. If there had never been the chains of oppression, then affirmative action would have never been a necessity.
In addition, it's a self-serving lie that makes some white folks comfortable to believe that affirmative action has placed unqualified black people ahead of qualified white people in jobs, promotions, and admissions to schools. It is just another variation on racism to assume that black people are less qualified than their white counterparts. As for preference, it's an American thing. When I attended the University of NC at Chapel Hill, I was the first person in my family to do so. My parents didn't have the option; no colored were allowed. Plenty of my classmates were "legacy" admissions. Their parents, grandparents, great grandparents had all attended UNC. I don't hear a lot of concern about that variation of affirmative action.
Some of the comments on FB have accused black people of dwelling in the past. First of all, racism isn't dead. Secondly, although the 1960s brought some end to Jim Crow laws, we were still fighting for equal rights in the 1970s. I went to segregated schools until 1971. It's easy to dismiss the past when it isn't yours. If I or any black person actually dwelled on the past then we would become obsessed not with reparations but retribution.
Slavery was well before my time but I grew up under Jim Crow. I try to be a reasonable person, but legal discrimination is not ancient history; it is my life. Where I could shop, where I could sit down and have a meal, where I could receive medical care, where I could attend school, and where I could live was all dictated based on my skin color. The jobs available to my parents were restricted because there were some jobs that black people were not allowed to do.
Personally, I'm not much interested in reparations, although I respect those who consider reparations to be appropriate. However, I think that the failure of this nation to acknowledge and apologize for the subjugation of a race of people is long overdue and that true healing cannot begin without it. I don't expect that white people should shoulder any guilt for having benefitted from white privilege but I do expect that you acknowledge its existence and that you have benefitted from it. Then we can talk.