I’ve jumped out of airplanes at 14,000 feet and I have swum with sharks a hundred feet deep. But I’ve never tried anything as treacherous as this: writing a column, as a white male, about race, implicit bias and white privilege.
I have to take the leap, though, because after being exposed to a deep dive about race and racism last week, I can’t keep the information to myself. A short column can barely scratch the surface of the complexities of race and the 400 years that got us here. But it’s a start.
The Racial Equity Workshop was put on by Race Matters for Juvenile Justice, a local group working to eliminate race-based predictors of outcomes in juvenile courts. About 30 of us joined the 3,000 residents – black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American and other – who have already completed the seminar. It is aimed at heightening awareness of the role race plays in society today, with the ultimate goal of addressing inequality.
Here’s the upshot: It’s not about blaming current-day whites. It’s not about asking whites to give up something. It’s about whites recognizing and accepting how systems, laws and structures have benefited them and hurt people of color since before our country’s founding, and that the effects persist today. As one facilitator said, “None of us created this. But we all inherited it and we all have to address it.”
A few examples:
The 13th Amendment in 1863 banned slavery – except as a form of punishment. For years afterward, blacks were brought up on trumped-up charges and returned to bondage.
The Federal Housing Administration was established in 1934 to insure mortgages. From 1934 to 1968, facilitators said, 98 percent of FHA-backed loans went to whites.
Social Security for years did not apply to agriculture and domestic service workers, who were mostly black.
Banks participated in “redlining,” refusing to make loans to blacks in certain neighborhoods.
All that and more put people of color at a disadvantage, and the symptoms persist today.
One of the workshop participants was Fred Murphy, who works at Cardinal Innovations. He was DeShon Murphy all his life, until he found his resume getting overlooked again and again. DeShon is his middle name and he started putting his first name, Frederick, on his resume instead. With a more white-sounding name, the calls from employers started flowing in, and he has gone by Fred ever since.
An eye-opening exercise: We were all asked to say what we liked about being white, or black, or whatever. The whites struggled mightily. They’d never really thought too much about being white, or liking anything about it. We came up with different versions of “not being discriminated against.”
Blacks and other people of color had no problem answering, because they think about race a lot. They liked their food and their music and their hair and their rhythm and “the nod” – black strangers often feel a connection to each other, they said.
But they also told of being seated in the back of the restaurant, of being followed around by the store clerk, of being pulled over by police for no reason. And then they are told to stop thinking about race so much.
Many whites think racism is history and today’s people of color just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. But as the facilitators said, when one fish in the lake floats belly-up dead, you might wonder what was wrong with that fish. When hundreds float belly-up dead, it might be time to see what’s wrong with the water.