No One is Innocent: Reflections on the Legacy of White Supremacy

Published on, July 8, 2003

My head was spinning, as often happens when I’m discussing racism with someone whose view of America as a land of unbridled opportunity renders them incapable of critical thought. This was, you see, one of those times, as I found myself sitting across from an appropriately preppy young white man, who looked not terribly different from me, but whose worldview couldn’t have been more opposite.

He was a student at a small college in one of the whitest towns in America (both demographically and culturally), who had come to hear a presentation that a colleague and I were giving at his school; and I reeled as I took in his words: words that poured out weightless yet thick, like the froth on a well-made Cappuccino, or perhaps the scum that one finds on top of the water downriver from a paper mill.

“America is the best nation on Earth.”

That was cliche number one: utterly subjective and irrelevant to the conversation we were having. After all, I suspect that such comments were quite plentiful (and even accurate, depending upon the criteria being used for comparison) during the time of segregation. That a particular society might be far better than lots of others, perhaps even all of them in certain ways, says nothing about the extent of justice in the former, and amounts to the kind of moral relativism usually condemned by hard-nosed conservatives. It’s sort of like saying, when you broke a window as a kid playing ball that “Billy broke two windows,” as if that had anything to do with your own misdeeds or whether your mom was likely to cut you slack.

“Yes, we used to have a problem with racism, but that’s in the past and we need to move forward.”

That was cliche number two: this time objectively absurd and highly relevant to our discussion, which concerned what obligations (if any) the United States has to rectify the legacy of institutionalized white supremacy. Perhaps reparations for its victims? Perhaps affirmative action? Perhaps both, or neither?

“We should do nothing,” he explained, because — and I’m sure you can guess the rest — he “wasn’t even alive when all that happened, and shouldn’t have to pay for what others did.”

Cliches within cliches, all piled upon one another like driftwood, floating on an ocean of white denial, searching for a home in the minds of the self-proclaimed innocent–those who are apparently convinced that the past has no bearing on the present, that history ended sometime around 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and that inertia is only a property of the physical, but not socioeconomic universe.

But of course, the evidence of the past’s lingering grip on the present is all around us. Thanks to overt racism in housing markets, for example, which all agree ruled the day for the better part of the last century, white families were able to accumulate assets and wealth at a time when people of color were severely limited in their ability to do so.

Since wealth is typically not buried in a hole upon one’s passing, but rather handed down as an intergenerational entitlement, young whites continue to benefit from the apartheid structures that came before them. Inheritance of parental assets and ongoing financial support from parents have given the typical young white couple a net worth almost $20,000 above that of similar blacks. Indeed, the wealth gap between whites and blacks has increased over the past twenty years, such that the typical white family has net worth nearly eleven times that of the typical black family, and eight times greater than the typical Latino family.

Within each income strata, this wealth gap persists. As such, even the poorest fifth of white households are far better off than their counterparts of color, and even whites below the poverty line are more likely to own their own home than blacks with three times more income, thanks to assets passed down from previously-preferenced white parents. In upper-income brackets, the white-over-black wealth gap is more than 3 to 1. In the absence of past and present discrimination in housing markets alone, black families would have, on average, about $50,000 more in housing equity than is currently the case, and over the years the black community would have received roughly half-a-trillion dollars more in housing assets than it actually accumulated. Despite all the blustery claims about progress, the fact remains that in 1865, blacks owned one-half of one percent of all the wealth in the United States, and by 1990, still owned only one percent of it: a doubling to be sure, for those intent on seeing the shot glass as half-full, but hardly in line with the amount of wealth created by black labor over the years in this country.

Alas, such history was of little import to my corn-fed Iowa friend, who responded, predictably, by saying merely that,

“There’s nothing we can do about that. At some point we just have to move on.”

Of course, some of “we” (namely he and others like him) had long ago moved on, so this comment was more a directive to blacks than a form of self-help advice. To him, facts were mere inconveniences, certainly not worthy of provoking a fundamental re-examination of one’s civil religion; which is actually quite funny, because earlier in our conversation this same young man had criticized a black woman who had tried to school him about the reality of racism. She had done so, to hear him tell it, in a way that was purely emotional, devoid of calm, cool and “objective” rationality or facts.

“Just her opinions and rhetoric,” he dismissively explained, unable to fathom why a black woman might get a bit excited when talking about her experiences with racism or the enslavement of her ancestors; strangely perplexed as to why he, but not she, would be able to engage such a topic in a dispassionate and clinical tone; apparently not cognizant of just how emotionally unhealthy and even irrational it is to remain calm while one discusses murder and cultural genocide.

Even worse, he seemed unable to appreciate the irony of his critique: namely, that as he criticized this black woman for being purely “emotional” about the issues, he had actually offered no factual information whatsoever during the course of our discussion. His cheerleading for America was not rooted in factual analysis, but rather one string after another of pre-fabricated platitudes. It was at this point that I began to think of certain pots and kettles; but then again, no one would ever be likely to call him black.

Speaking as we were of moving on,” it soon became time for me to do so, but before ending our conversation, I felt that I should leave him with something to think about: not so much another statement, but rather a question for him to ponder. And so I asked him to consider the meaning of something that had happened to me just one day before. I didn’t want his feedback, but rather, just wanted him to think about it.

I explained that on my way to the conference at his campus, I had boarded a flight from Nashville to St. Louis, en route to my ultimate destination; and as I had crossed the plane’s threshold, I had noticed something that I had never noticed before: two black men in the cockpit: the pilot and co-captain. It was a sight that most will not see when they fly, if for no other reason but that African Americans make up a mere statistical handful of pilots in the commercial fleet. But there they were, and there I was: someone who has made my living combating racism for over a decade, and who was raised from birth to challenge all forms of bigotry, bias and inequality. There I was, finding myself — despite my training and commitment to the abolition of racism in thought and action — having to literally fight back the first thing that popped into my mind. And what, I asked, did he think that was? The look on his face told me that he knew even before I said it, but I said it anyway: Oh my God, can these guys really fly this plane?

Now don’t get me wrong. My head was telling me, almost as quickly as the above thought surfaced and pierced my consciousness, that in truth, these two men were probably among the best pilots in the fleet, since it has long been understood that blacks usually have to work twice as hard to get half as far as whites, especially in a profession where their presence is so rare. I also remembered that within the two months prior to this flight, half-a-dozen white pilots had been hauled off of airplanes, either because they had been drunk or had decided they felt like it would be a good idea to fly naked for a while; so if anything, I should have been relieved at the sight of anyone but a white pilot.

Yet none of this knowledge prevented me from resorting back to the thoughts planted in my mind by a culture that tells us in so many ways that people of color are not as smart, not as capable, and not as competent. The fact that I was able to fight those emotions, get a grip on my subconscious, and wrestle it to the ground in this instance is not the point. The point is that the thought entered my mind in the first place, and now I was shaking, not because I was afraid of the pilots, but because I was afraid of me, and what I was capable of thinking and acting upon in a moment of weakness. Frankly, I want that young man to be afraid of this too. Because if it’s in me, it’s in him and everyone else he knows and will ever know until this society is fundamentally altered.

Fearing that he might misunderstand, I made it clear that I felt no guilt for the thought that had popped into my mind. I was not, by telling this story, trying to engage in some masochistic form of self-flagellation. Rather, I was enraged by what had happened; enraged that the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle messages of my nation’s leaders, textbooks, media, pop culture and best-selling authors had penetrated even the best of intentions and efforts at inoculation. It is not cause for guilt, but rather anger to realize that one is not completely in control of one’s own emotions, and that we can be so easily manipulated by a system designed to do just that. This is how racism survives.

It is for this reason that I know the legacy of the past is still very much with us. It is for this reason that my head spins whenever I hear someone try and deny what every one of their senses tells them is true. It is for this reason that I can confidently say, no one is innocent.

The flight of course, was flawless. I only wish I could say the same about the writer in 12D.

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