Viewpoint

James Ford is not wrong about white supremacy

James Ford’s tweet underscores the passive ways our community contributes to a culture of white privilege.
James Ford’s tweet underscores the passive ways our community contributes to a culture of white privilege. mhames@charlotteobserver.com

It is no secret that there are a number of divisions in Charlotte. On September 20, 2016, those divisions boiled over in a visceral way. Last month, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force released a report identifying these divisions as a major cause of the current lack of economic mobility in our city. It has become apparent that there are many in Charlotte living in different worlds. These differences are dividing us in some truly difficult ways.

Last week an Observer article suggesting that a Task Force co-chair equated Trump supporters with white supremacists caught my eye. It caught my eye because I’m a white Christian from Mississippi. Trump supporters are my friends and family, my brothers and sisters by blood and by Christ. So, when I hear someone supposedly disparaging them, I instinctively feel defensive.

The article centered around tweets from one of the Opportunity Task Force’s newest co-chairs, James E. Ford, sent in response to a Virginia newspaper editorial, which suggested that Trump voters in the Appalachian region would bear the brunt of his budget cuts. James tweeted that those affected may find an opportunity to join the struggle against such policies; however, they must disavow white supremacy as “that ideology keeps them stuck”.

White supremacy is a loaded term that pushes buttons for lots of folks. It is important, however, that we build a shared understanding of what this term means in the context of the Opportunity Task Force as opposed to promoting hyperbole or relying on our personal gut reactions.

In the context of the Opportunity Task Force, white supremacy is a system that gives white people power, privilege and profit at the expense of people of color. This system is a set of many inter-connected policies, mindsets and institutions that, while perhaps individually innocuous, work to that effect. Even though I did not create this system, I am aware that I benefit from it. White supremacy is exactly why Charlotte needs a Task Force; and why I can read through the recent report knowing that most of the issues addressed do not directly affect me or my family. The systems that have resulted in a grave lack of opportunity and economic mobility for many in Charlotte are the very same systems that have helped my family to succeed.

This context is necessary because it underscores the unfortunate irony of last week’s article. The reporter built his story around one white man’s personal definition of what white supremacy means. He did not include James Ford’s definition, or anyone else’s for that matter. The Observer can do better. Nevertheless, here’s the personal opinion of this white guy:

James mentioned an article about Trump supporters in Appalachia, but the article could have been about me. (And, before anyone gets too comfortable, it could have been about Clinton supporters in Charlotte, too.)

There is no Klan robe in my closet (or my grandfather’s), but there is racial bias inside of me. Not because of my race or because I am a Southerner, but because I am a human. And, throughout my life – from Mississippi to North Carolina to California – teachers, policeman, employers, and others have given me the benefit of the doubt because I am white. And I have done the same for them.

This is how we can contribute to the systems of white supremacy without any swastikas or pointed hoods. It is an insidious part of our daily lives, regardless of creed or ideology. You can be a Democrat, a Republican, a liberal or a conservative and contribute to a culture of white supremacy. The actions can be ugly and intentional or small and unthinking – judging the name on a resume, overlooking certain students in a classroom – but the cumulative impact is devastating and documented on nearly every page of the Charlotte economic opportunity study.

While painful and embarrassing, James has identified a very real issue for our community and our nation. In order to build a stronger community, we are going to have to communicate with patience, nuance and understanding. That means that while we may not always agree, or even reach consensus, we must continue to work together. That means we must confront the truth in whatever form it might take, even a tweet that offends our sensibilities.

The truth stings, but it makes us stronger. It also gives us a chance to build a better future for ourselves and our children.

Hurley is the Executive Director for Teach For America-Charlotte.

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