Perspectives on Race: Looking Back to Move Forward

There is much to be said about race and the current state of racial conflict in our country. It will be a recurring theme here because oppression across racial difference has been a defining feature of our national culture since Europeans first landed on the continent.

I can’t say it all at once. I have to start at what I identify as the root of the problem. My goal today is to explain how this particular white person understands the most basic fundamentals of race in the United States. These are the essential premises I bring to the conversation.

Along those lines, I must begin with the assertion that every human being is not only a child of God, but also has holiness within them. Sometimes it gets obscured (to ourselves and others) by the stuff with which we fill our lives, but it’s always there.

You can frame it as the presence of the Holy Spirit within each person. You can take a cue from the Quakers and see it as the Light within each person. You can look back and take note of how humans are created in God’s image. There are multiple ways to label it. What matters to me is that we understand the presence of the divine within us and others. It’s how we were created.

In other words, I see God all day long in my encounters with other people.

While we all share in this holiness, we are not all the same. We are different. Our differences are what make life beautiful and interesting and constantly educational. Our pluralism, this innate diversity that so defines our shared life together, is a key part of our strength as culture and as a nation.

Having established that about where I’m coming from, I want to move onto the specific question of race.

I believe that we can’t move forward until we look back and (a) figure out what went wrong and (b) from there, determine what that means for all of us today. Unfortunately, it means we have to look way, way back. Then we are obligated to stand and stare at some pretty ugly historical terrain. It makes us white folks uncomfortable. But we cannot hurry past its bleakness and bloodshed, no matter how much we’d like to.

The formal institution of chattel slavery lasted from the 1600s through the Civil War, a period of more than 200 years. During that time, black people were legally considered to be less than human. White people bought and sold black people as property, subject to our whim. White people robbed native peoples of their land and slaughtered them.

We subscribe to a cultural narrative of freedom, individual rights, and equal opportunity. These things are true in certain ways. But as a nation, we have yet to face up to the indisputable historical fact that our country was founded on genocidal violence, dehumanization, and theft – all for the economic and social gain of some people. The whole was sacrificed for the benefit of one part.

We want to slide right past that. We want to dismiss it as the past and claim to be moving forward. Yet that past has defined who we are. It shaped us in ways that we can only begin to understand if we take the time to stare directly into its nightmarish terror.

We broke ourselves in the very beginning. We’ve never healed. We’ve never healed because white people refuse to admit that we break others. We have been doing it for 400 years and we still do it today.

I didn’t live 400 or 200 or 50 years ago, so I did not directly participate directly in those crimes. But I continue to benefit today from a founding system that puts me as a white person at the top of that hierarchy. I don’t come from wealth. My people were poor farmers rather than plantation owners. But the sole fact of the color of their skin gave them rights and privileges that continue to give me sociocultural, political, and economic power today.

Power is inherited. Crucially, the cultural power to define the rules of the game is inherited.

After the end of slavery, white people with power (which they had inherited) created structures that made Jim Crow segregation the law of the land and enshrined the brutality of the lynch law as its means of enforcement. Thousands of people were subjected to arbitrary execution by lynching. We white people rested easily in the exercise of that power. We even made picnics and carried them to watch the spectacle of torture that preceded the moment of death.

In the absence of slavery, we created a system that marginalized and brutalized people of color so that we could keep the privileges of wealth and power of our whiteness.

The Civil Rights era brought incomplete political and economic reforms, as well as fresh waves of savage violence against people of color. Aspects of the system were changed – and those reforms were important, but they represent a beginning, but not an end. The political and legal gains are perpetually at risk (witness the current dismantling of the Voting Rights Act). A paradigm shift in cultural and economic power has never taken place. Our culture and the systems that emerge from it continue to privilege some people over others.

In looking at history, I’ll stop there for the moment (which is ~1970 or so) since this isn’t the format for an entire book. There will be more to be said in the days, weeks, and months ahead.

The critical point is this: we have a long history of extreme racial disparity in this country. It hasn’t gone away just because we want to say that it has.

In fact, the efforts by white people to set the terms of the debate illustrate this ongoing issue. We white folks want to determine the framework of the conversation. We want to say that race doesn’t matter anymore. We say that we’re tired of talking about race. We assert that it is no longer a barrier to individual achievement.

But the fact that we are tired of talking about race and claim that we don’t see race and race doesn’t matter to us doesn’t mean that race doesn’t matter. It just means we’re trying to exercise our control of the social conversation. People of color overwhelmingly respond that color remains a/the defining characteristic of their everyday experiences.

Yes, we can cite a few individuals of color who would say differently, but it’s a tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny portion of the community. If we are really interested in listening to the voices of the broader community, there are many good ways to do that. There are plenty of good sources of information out there in the media for people who want to step back and really, really listen to the diversity of voices coming out of communities of people of color.

I’ll stop here with a summary of the main points I’m trying to argue in this particular post:

1) We are all children of God, but we are not all the same. Our differences are a source of richness and cultural wealth – if we can manage to see them that way.

2) Facing up to our history and the ways in which it still shapes systems and individual experiences is an essential first step – and the predominant white culture has never done so. It is a necessary (though not a sufficient) condition for moving forward in healthy ways.

3) Seeking out voices from people who are different from us (white people) is important. This doesn’t mean we have to bombard people of color we know with tons of intrusive questions. Sometimes we have a personal relationship with people who have incredible patience and are willing to educate us. I’m grateful for those people in my life. But there are plenty of ways we can do our homework by seeking out – and sifting out – public voices. There are books (both fiction and non-fiction), websites, social media sites, magazines, blogs, and so on that can teach us about the lived experience of people of color – if we are willing to seek them out.

4) Once we find those voices, we have to be secure enough to be still and really listen. Not listen in order to reply or to argue, but really listen. Open our hearts and our minds. Not bring it back around to ourselves. Not make their stories about us in some self-referential way. Bear witness.

These ideas represent one person’s idea of a beginning. It is not an end. There are many specific issues to be addressed – and I will over time do my best to explore them from my perspective here. But I will argue that if we white folks could just start here, could just make an honest beginning of this, it would be progress. We cannot fix anything until we come to understand the ways in which we are broken and in which we break others.