News & Politics

White Liberals Cannot Hide From Racism Any Longer

The last few weeks have revealed that too many white liberals refuse to even question their own assumptions about race and racism in America.

For far too long, white liberals have ignored and minimized racism in America, disconnecting the problem from the possibility of reform, and marginalizing those voices who've warned us about the consequences of our inaction. And make no mistake, this is as much an apologia as it is a condemnation: I'm not proud to admit that I've dismissed race as a pressing issue in the past, ignoring the uncomfortable dichotomy of doing so as someone who will never be its victim.

White people in this country have always had the luxury of simply ignoring our culture's racism, brushing it aside or shutting it out. But whites can no longer sit idly by. There are a number of things white people can do, as highlighted in a recent article for AlterNet by Janee Wood. But we must also be willing to call out our friends, colleagues, and relatives. We can't keep dodging uncomfortable conversations. For too many whites, this whole topic is off-limits. Racism, they tell us, has surely ended. Whatever disadvantages the black community still faces can be chalked up to laziness, criminality, irresponsibility. These are Hard Truths that need to be discussed! Just ask Don Lemon, or Kevin Hart, or maybe even this guy! I've been utterly shocked -- sickened -- by the number of ostensibly liberal whites I know who hold these ugly opinions, and hide their cruel assumptions about 40 million black Americans in the mouth of another black person -- as if this somehow absolves them of its message, or elides its cruelty. ("Hey, I'm not racist, a black guy said it.") This must stop. It simply cannot continue any longer.

In just the last century, state-sanctioned violence was employed by white Southerns to push African-Americans out; when they arrived in the North, they were subjected to redlining and strict segregation, a violence of a different sort. In the past, maybe white Americans could pretend that the War on Drugs and subsequent prison boom were separate from the institutional racism that's plagued this nation since her inception: from slavery, to Jim Crowe, to Separate But Equal, and on and on. But no longer. Drug laws have always been applied unevenly, and deep institutional barriers -- the long legacy of slavery -- continue to block the wider black community from attaining anything close to true equality. Thirty-seven states maintain some level of voter disenfranchisement for individuals with criminal records who aren't currently in prison. Eleven states never let ex-convicts vote again. Forty-six states count prison populations as living in the district in which they're imprisoned for the purposes of drawing districts, which only enriches pro-prison, tough-on-crime politicians and their noxious policies. Tack on a few new restrictive voter ID laws that nakedly endeavor to disenfranchise minorities of their vote, and the structural disadvantages we've embedded in our political and economic system are only further enhanced. The eloquent, passionate, and predominantly black writers who cover these issues -- including the Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jamelle Bouie at Slate -- have been patiently detailing this crisis for years. But at some point, whites stopped listening.

More than anything else, the last few weeks have revealed that too many white liberals refuse to even question their own assumptions about race and racism in America. They scoff at the notion of institutional racism, and cannot abide the idea that racism can be the product of social forces and cultural mores. Even prominent writers like Jonathan Chait seem to fall victim to the ridiculous idea that one must be actively racist (or capital-R Racist) to contribute to a racist culture. Chait recently fought on Twitter with Coates, misunderstanding America's most shameful legacy as a mere intellectual disagreement. Perceiving deep-seated racism as an abstract debate is a position that only white people can take, and refusing to see the embedded privilege necessary for such a perspective is tragically blinkered.

Black people are killed by cops in this country with sickening regularity.Yet justice is rarely sought, and even less frequently gained. At the same time, too many white liberal voices go to stunningly great lengths to isolate each instance, to focus on the particulars and minimize the wider circumstances that make these cases so tragically unsurprising when they crop up again and again. This must end. 

Those white voices that complain about recent protests because they've disrupted traffic or caused property damage display their privilege most baldly. What better way to telegraph one's total disregard for black life than worrying more about heavy traffic than the unpunished murder of a young black child? And asking the oppressed to wait patiently and peacefully for equality to arrive denies equality its very value. It also ignores the real history of racial progress in America. This really shouldn't need to be explained.

But it very clearly does need to be explained, and it's time for white people who care about these issues -- "advocates" and "allies" -- to take on this mantle. After all, detailing the plight faced by black America by hostile whites is pretty damn easy, especially when compared with the weary task of living under the Damoclean Sword of our racist, carceral state.

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