How do you explain the lack of success of Black Americans since the Emancipation Proclamation? What do you say about the high levels of poverty, joblessness, low educational attainment, and high rate of arrests and incarceration relative to their white counterparts? And how do you explain the relative success of white Americans? What do you say about their significantly greater wealth, rate of employment, educational attainment, and significantly lower rate of arrests and incarceration relative to their Black counterparts?
Often the responses to these questions start with identifying insufficiencies in the African-American community and ruminate on what can be done to improve it from within. But what if the primary causes of the varied levels of success are the behaviors of the dominant element of American culture, namely the behavior of Europeans and their descendants toward non-European people? Shouldn’t we be worrying over “the white problem”—the concerted and systematic effort to create and maintain an underclass through the far-ranging and persistent use of violence and the threat of violence?
Humanists are inclined to champion the progressive values of freedom, opportunity, security, and responsibility and will raise strong objections when any of those values are compromised. But for most of us, our freedom, the opportunities we have to choose from, and our relative safety have been gained on the backs of people whose freedom, opportunities, and safety were severely impeded. And we fail to accept responsibility for our role in promulgating an unjust and oppressive system.
As a white, college-educated, heterosexual, cis-gender male of above-average height, I am a member of the oppressing class. But as a liberal, progressive, professional social worker I had for years convinced myself that I was not personally racist and also believed that the trajectory of our nation’s civil rights was “bending toward justice.” But a proliferation of police killings of Black citizens changed my perspective. Before high-profile cases such as Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland, there were:
- Police officer Christopher Ridley, shot by an officer from a different police department when he tried to break up a fight between two men;
- Danroy Henry, a college student shot by police when driving away from a bar after a different officer told him to drive off;
- Kenneth Chamberlain, a sixty-eight-year old man shot and killed by police who had responded to his medical alert;
- Ramarley Graham, a teen pursued by police after purchasing marijuana then shot in his bathroom when trying to flush it down the toilet.
The rules of engagement changed when Black people were involved, and so did the stories provided by media coverage. No matter how egregious the act, the police were given the benefit of doubt and the victims blamed for their deaths.
Concerns over policing led me to read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness which opened a whole new vista of injustice. Outraged, I signed up to attend an Undoing Racism workshop offered by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond and learned how social service agencies, such as the one that has employed me for over thirty years, contributed to the very problems I thought were being eased by highlighting deficiencies, labelling people as problems, and siphoning off dollars to pay the salaries of white administrators like me.
It became crystal clear that I (and white people like me) need to accept responsibility for the damage done by racism and white privilege and must do what can be done to repair the harm. I joined a number of social justice groups and participated in marches. I encouraged family, friends, and colleagues to get involved in anti-racist efforts.
I also kept on the lookout for rich educational opportunities. A master class, “Humanism and Anti-Blackness,” recently offered by the American Humanist Association’s Center for Education, encouraged participants to take a hard look at the history of structural racism and its continued impact on our culture and on the people who live in it. Our instructor, Dr. William Hart, helped participants appreciate how anti-Blackness came to be such a powerful and persistent force in the United States. From enslavement to Jim Crow to mass incarceration, our nation’s history reveals that people of European descent actively promoted a tragically successful campaign of mass kidnapping, brutalization, and commodification of millions of Africans and descendants of Africans whose forced labor as enslaved people formed the backbone of the United States’ rise to economic power.
To prepare for the class, participants were expected to read four books: Edward E. Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, Nicholas Guyatt’s Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation, Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, and Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route.
The books brought to light many highly disturbing accounts of cruel and inhumane behavior on the part of whites in their interactions with people of African descent, and showed the depths to which people would go to use enslavement as a means to economic gain. This was especially clear in the rapid expansion of cotton farming in United States where white Americans deftly exploited greed and people’s willingness to use brutally inhumane practices as a means to financial success.
As Baptist writes:
From 1783 at the end of the American Revolution to 1861, the number of slaves in the United States increased five times over, and all this expansion produced a powerful nation. For white enslavers were able to force enslaved African-American migrants to pick cotton faster and more efficiently than free people. Their practices rapidly transformed the southern states into the dominant force in the global cotton market, and cotton was the world’s most widely traded commodity at the time, as it was the key raw material during the first century of the industrial revolution. The returns from cotton monopoly powered the modernization of the rest of the American economy, and by the time of the Civil War, the United States had become the second nation to undergo large-scale industrialization.
Anti-Blackness provided an avenue for treating Blacks as subhuman and denying their human and civil rights. As exceptions to the “all men are created equal” ideal put forth in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, Black Americans were excluded from the protections of law, and, since they were considered property, their enslaved bodies were subject to the laws slave owners relied upon to protect their “investments.”
Anti-Blackness and its companion, white privilege, have thus been a key factor in the success of whites as well as the disenfranchisement of Blacks. But while whites have been quick to assume responsibility for the goods that have come our way, we have been disinclined to acknowledge our responsibility for the evils of enslavement and have instead laid blame upon the victims of oppression and undermined avenues of positive change.
How can the harm done by anti-Blackness be repaired? It’s too late for the millions who were taken from their families, brutalized by the lash, or died at the hands of enslavers. But perhaps we can at least acknowledge the evils of the past and begin to pull down the structures we’ve created and sustained in our time. That won’t be easy. We’ve been conditioned to accept white privilege as normal, to believe that we’ve somehow earned the wealth we have and that those who have less haven’t tried hard enough.
The first step is to learn about white privilege and anti-Blackness, then work to stay awake to their presence and consequences. The consequences are there to see: housing segregation, biased criminal justice, poorly funded public schools, unfair lending practices, etc. The harder part is acknowledging your complicity and owning the responsibility to press for change in yourself and in our institutions.
The American Ethical Union has been working to repair the harm done by structural racism and white privilege. Our Ethical Societies are hosting documentary screenings, organizing learning circles, and making partnerships with anti-racism campaigns. For example, the Washington Ethical Society is holding discussion groups in March on Professor Anthony Pinn’s When Colorblindness Isn’t the Answer: Humanism and the Challenge of Race (Humanism in Practice) before his April 29 talk there. Our societies would welcome your participation with our efforts. The AEU also looks forward to working on racial justice with the other organizations who, like the Washington Ethical Society, had representatives take part in Dr. Hart’s class: the American Humanist Association, the Society for Humanistic Judaism, the Institute of Humanist Studies, the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations, and the International Humanist and Ethical Union.
And, even if you aren’t yet up to joining in person, sending money to underfunded grassroots groups can help them amplify their voices for change… and that’s something all of us can do.