The Truth is Rarely Pleasant: White Denial and Some Thoughts on Being “Divisive”

Published as a ZNet Commentary, January 18, 2001

Having been a white man for thirty-two years, I have learned there are some things white folks aren’t supposed to say.

For example, we aren’t supposed to acknowledge that we have received, and continue to receive substantial privileges, simply because of skin color: better job opportunities, greater access to housing, better educational offerings and partial treatment in the justice system.

And we aren’t supposed to acknowledge the prejudice in our communities, which leads as many as half of us to admit — and many more to feel this way but not confess — that we believe people of color are less intelligent than we are, less hardworking, and more prone to criminality.

And we aren’t supposed to challenge other whites about their racism, or the myriad institutional injustices that most of us accept passively, if not actively support. To do this, and to demand that whites deal honestly with the nation’s legacy of racial oppression is to invite indignant charges that one is being “divisive.”

This was made clear to me after my recent keynote address to the St. Louis Mayor’s Conference on Racial Justice and Harmony, this past October. Though my speech was generally well received, with a standing ovation from at least 800 of the 1200 persons in the audience, there were apparently some in attendance who were not so pleased. And these few (all of them white) have been complaining loudly about my “divisive” rhetoric, which, according to these folks, makes racial harmony more difficult than ever.

What had I said to upset these dear souls? Who knows? Bitter memos sent around City Hall didn’t specify, and the gossip columnist for the city’s daily, The Post-Dispatch, who ran a blip on the “controversy” didn’t elaborate either. But I would assume they were upset because I said, among other things, the following: backed up, of course, with statistical support:

— First, it is whites who are in denial about the ongoing problem of racism, and this denial is itself a form of racism: a kind of white supremacy that says to people of color, “I know your reality better than you do;”

— Secondly, the biggest barriers to harmony and racial justice are institutional racism and the existence of systemic white privilege in all walks of life; and finally,

— “Diversity” and “tolerance” are not worth fighting for, unless accompanied by equity and justice: the first two are easy and meaningless, while the latter two take work.

To most people of color these positions are not that radical. But apparently there are still more than a few whites who get mightily offended by being reminded that we have some work to do — both individually and collectively — and until we do it, there will be no kumbaya chorus.

It’s interesting to note what upsets white folks, compared to that which doesn’t. On the one hand, my words calling for an end to white privilege are seen as divisive but the privileges themselves are not; demanding an end to racism in education, criminal justice and employment is seen as divisive, but the existence of said racism is not.

Frankly, if the good folks in St. Louis who found my speech so troubling are upset about divisiveness, then surely they could manage to focus their attention on the following facts, all of which must be more divisive than anything I said, by a magnitude of thousands:

— First, housing segregation has been so extreme in St. Louis over the years that approximately 75 percent of all blacks in the city live in neighborhoods that are virtually all black and disproportionately low income. The same is true in many urban areas of the United States;

— Furthermore, this hypersegregation has been no accident, but the result of deliberate discrimination by real estate appraisers, landlords and mortgage lenders. As far back as 1941, underwriters in St. Louis were complaining about the “rapidly increasing Negro population,” leading to massive discrimination that was legal for the next twenty-seven years, and even since, has persisted in more subtle forms. All across America this was the case: blockbusting, redlining, steering, and outright intimidation intended to prevent people of color from obtaining homes in more prosperous neighborhoods;

— What’s more, from 1934-1960, whites moving to St. Louis area suburbs received five times more government-underwritten FHA home loans than folks in the city, who were increasingly people of color. This preferential treatment for whites continues to have an effect today as those homes pass to the descendants of the original owners, and become accumulated wealth. Nationally, over $120 billion in housing equity was underwritten by the FHA during this time, and only two percent went to African Americans; and finally,

— Throughout the metropolitan area, children of color are roughly three times more likely to live in poverty than their white counterparts, and have infant mortality rates that are two times higher; figures that remain remarkably consistent most any place you look in the country.

But to some it isn’t the indicia of oppression that deserve our attention or consternation; rather it is the pointing out of these grim realities, the reminding of ourselves and others just how unequal things really are and why, that gets folks bent out of shape.

And it’s not just a few whites in St. Louis who feel this way. No indeed: Two years ago, I was all but banned from Omaha, Nebraska by the Mayor, who canceled a city-sponsored event rather than allow me to speak at the gathering. Later, when the event was rescheduled, it was explained to me that he had been concerned that I would “stir up trouble,” and inject “divisiveness” into the city along racial lines, by speaking on the anniversary of a racial lynching that had occurred 80 years ago.

Before my eventual speech to the Omaha Human Relations Commission, I had breakfast with the Mayor, who afterward confided in me his love for black Omaha, regaled me with tales of his many black friends, and made clear that he didn’t want me to be “divisive,” the way some of “those SNCC people” had been back in the ’60s. He didn’t actually come to my speech, but if he had, I’m sure he wouldn’t have liked it much: especially the part where I mentioned how divisive I thought his new policing strategy was–one about which he had bragged actually, and which involves low-flying helicopters with bright flood lights, swooping down over black homes throughout North Omaha.

Then there were the white students at Cal State-San Marcos, who in 1997, editorialized in the school’s paper against having a day of speeches on racism — including a few by yours truly — and suggested that the “Unity Day” events should be more upbeat and positive. We should focus on what “brings us together,” they insisted, not that “which keeps us apart.” Perhaps ethnic food and dancing, but not those “divisive” subjects like the state’s rollback of affirmative action, or attack on immigrants.

Of course, the editors who penned this commentary neglected to mention the real source of divisiveness surrounding this particular day: namely, the death threats made against a black professor and myself by racist followers of Tom Metzger’s White Aryan Resistance, and the promise to detonate a bomb on campus if the event wasn’t canceled. In retrospect, I guess it would have been less “divisive” if I had just stayed home, the professor resigned her position, and the event planners caved in to the Nazis. But if so, this just indicates how meaningless the term really is, and how irrelevant it should be to those working for justice.

So to those persons of color, who have been fighting the good fight, trying to force those in power to heed your calls for justice, keep it up. What you are fighting for is not divisive. It is that which you are fighting against that is the problem. And remember that by our defensiveness, by our protestations of innocence, by our denials that anything is wrong, my people are signing their confession. They may not be able to handle the truth, but that doesn’t make it any less factual.

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