When Blacks Attack! Reflections on White Victimology and the Ironies of Institutional Racism

“Everything you said in there was so insulting to me.”

The words came harsh and unexpected. I had just given a speech on racism and white privilege at an upstate New York college, and was nearing the end of an after-event reception, when the young woman–who had been seething with anger, waiting to confront me–finally stepped forward.

“You don’t know me,” she continued. “How dare you say that I have privilege just because I’m white. My family had nothing, we lived in neighborhoods where we were the only white people around, and I got called a white bitch by black girls every day, and got beat up regularly by black kids on my block. How dare you say that I had advantages being white. That’s bullshit!”

It’s never easy to know the right words at a moment such as this. On the one hand, I knew that the young woman had horribly misinterpreted my words that night, and those in my book, White Like Me, which she and her first-year classmates had been asked to read last fall. On the other hand, you can’t just tell someone who is obviously in pain that they missed the point. To do so would be cruel. So instead, I tried a different approach.

First, I told her how sorry I was that those things had happened to her. There is no excuse for anyone to treat another person that way, and I have never suggested otherwise. Those who had abused her and called her names were assholes, and nothing they had experienced in life could justify their lashing out at her. Nothing.

Then I tried to explain, as best I could, what my point had been. And I sought to make it very clear that my comments hadn’t really been directed at her in the least.

“My book is a memoir,” I noted. “So, by definition it’s about my experience. And all I’m asking people to do is to reflect on those experiences to see how many of them hold true in their own lives as well. Some will, others won’t, and that’s fine.”

She still wasn’t buying it. “Yes, but you said that all whites have privilege, not just you.”

“In some ways, yes,” I noted. “Being white means having advantages in employment, education, the justice system and housing, for example. I provided statistical support for those claims in my speech, and if you have data to the contrary, by all means share it with me. Otherwise, I’m not sure what the argument is, or how to respond to your concerns. I never said that all whites have easy lives. It’s just that as a general rule, to be white confers advantage, just like being rich, or male, or straight, or able-bodied does, relative to those who are poor, women, LGBT or disabled.”

Having no data to contradict anything I had offered in the talk, she changed her line of attack.

“Well, it’s just that you spent all your time talking about ‘whites this’ and ‘whites that,’ and I just feel you should have talked about other types of racism too, not just white racism and white privilege. What about people like me, who have been attacked for being white? Why don’t you spend the same amount of time talking about that?”

It was a fair enough question; indeed, it was one I’ve gotten many times before. First, I noted that as a white person it just made sense to me that I have to deal with my piece of the problem–my two nickels in the quarter so to speak–since it is white racism and privilege that I, as a white person, have the most direct control over. “I can’t control what black folks think of me, or how they treat me,” I explained. “But a system that gives me unfair advantages and opportunities is something I can take responsibility for.”

“Yeah,” she replied. “I get that, but it just seems you should be more balanced.”

“Well, think of it this way,” I responded. “If data indicates (and it does, surprisingly) that every year there are maybe a few dozen attacks of heterosexuals by LGBT folks, which are apparently motivated by bias against straight people, does that make anti-straight bias the functional equivalent of homophobia and gay-bashing? And should people who speak about gay-bashing and discrimination against LGBT folks feel compelled to give equal time to ‘straight-bashing’ and ‘heterophobia’?”

“No,” she answered.

“Okay then,” I replied. “So, in other words, even if we acknowledge that sometimes the less powerful group in a society does something bad to the more powerful group, and even if we suggest that sometimes members of the more powerful group suffer injustices, the larger institutional patterns can remain in place, right?”

Though she seemed to understand what I was getting at, her anger was far from spent. The tension continued to mount, on both sides, ultimately tapering off into an exchange that probably was less productive than either of us would have preferred.

Because I feel a responsibility to explain the concepts I talk about in a way that is clear and convincing to others, I struggled for the next few days, wondering what I could have done better in our conversation. What could I have said that would have allowed the young woman to hear me? What could I have said that might have allowed us to connect with one another, share perspectives, and reach some kind of synthesis?

Though I hadn’t thought of it that evening, a few days later, still pondering the conflict between us, I finally came to realize perhaps the most important thing about her experiences as a child, growing up white in an almost-all-black neighborhood. Namely, that experience itself was a symptom of institutional racism–the kind that creates racially-isolating environments to begin with. In other words, the abuse she had suffered didn’t disprove my position–far from it. Rather, it confirmed it, in a most visceral way.

The young woman’s abuse was made more likely by virtue of her extreme racial isolation. After all, people feel more empowered to abuse others who are different when they have the power in numbers to back them up. And that isolation was the result of social forces that have allowed neighborhoods to become so racially separated in the first place: forces such as institutional racism and white privilege.

Were it not for the history of racism, which has kept black folks concentrated in low-income and mostly black spaces thanks to housing bias, there would be no neighborhoods like the one in which that young woman grew up and faced abuse. In fact, one study by the Urban Institute found that if where people lived were solely a matter of their ability to pay (in other words, if factors like racism didn’t play an independent role, above and beyond mere finances), fewer than one percent of African Americans would live in communities where they were the majority. As such, we can safely estimate that in the absence of race-based obstacles to equal housing opportunity, there would be no spaces where blacks would be such a majority, and whites such a minority that the latter might become a target for those in the former, who might seek to abuse their numerical power.

If equal opportunity were the norm–in other words, were white privilege and institutional racism uprooted–there would be few if any spaces left (especially in large metropolitan areas) where one group would be able to view itself as the norm, and thereby objectify others as abnormal, for the purpose of picking on them or abusing them. If white kids and kids of color grew up together, shared neighborhoods and schools, and socialized on a plane of equity from the beginning, the odds of such race-based abuse manifesting would be greatly diminished if not eradicated. There would still be occasional fights, to be sure; but there would be little reason to expect these conflicts to take on a uniquely racial angle. As such, the ability of racial resentments to develop, in either direction, or for racial stereotypes to persist over time would diminish as well.

In other words, the conditions under which she (and her abusers) grew up were products of a system of racial inequity. And although most whites are able to escape the downside of that system, by way of having access to greener pastures, “better” neighborhoods, and spaces in which they (we) will be the norm, some, as with her family, were not. So, ironically, she ended up reaping the consequences of a system that although it was set up for the benefit of persons like herself, occasionally leaves even some white folks out in the cold. She ended up experiencing the blowback of a system of privilege which occasionally fails even those for whom it was intended as a system of support. But the fact of that system’s imperfections–the fact, for example that occasionally some whites fall through the cracks anyway–does not minimize the extent to which the system is in place, nor the extent to which whites as a group benefit from it, nor the extent to which whites such as the young woman that evening should continue to interrogate that system, and ultimately seek to change it, for her own benefit, and not merely out of the goodness of her heart.

To some, this analysis may appear to let the perpetrators of the abuse off the hook. Perhaps it sounds like excuse making, or like blaming the system for the actions of individuals. In this case, perhaps some will think that I’m blaming whites (or at least white racism) for the bigoted acts of black people. But trying to locate the source of a behavior, or a particular set of incidents, does not equate to excusing the behavior. Nor does it suggest that the incidents in question are not serious. Nor does it imply that those who perpetrate such abuse should be let off without punishment. Let me be clear: those who physically or verbally assault others should be punished. And all such persons should bear the burden of repairing the damage they have done.

But that’s the easy part, in much the same way that advocating the locking up of rapists and armed robbers is easy, but stops neither rape nor armed robbery in the long run. I, for one, am interested not merely in getting tough with criminals and abusers, but on reducing criminal victimization and abuse: a very different concept. Understanding a phenomenon–whether rape, drug abuse, child molestation, terrorism, or racial intimidation and hate–does not require the coddling of those who engage in these things. I want to understand what motivated the Columbine shooters, or the 9/11 hijackers, or any number of serial killers, not to excuse their deeds, but so I might gain some insight into how to prevent such a thing from happening again.

To write off such behavior and criminality to “evil,” perpetrated by people who are just “bad” (which appears to be the operative and sophomoric response to everything nowadays), is to leave society with very few tools to diminish such behavior. It’s about as helpful as saying that the cause for all the world’s woes is Satan. After a while, these kinds of answers are not merely evidence of an ignorance so detached from reason as to boggle the imagination; worse, they become formulas for continued suffering, seeing as how they hold out almost no hope for betterment, other than prayer, exorcism, mass incarceration or perhaps the dropping of bombs to eradicate the evildoers. Never has such a pessimistic set of choices been seen as valid among an otherwise moderately intelligent population.

Like it or not, moral lectures won’t stop kids from abusing those like the young woman that evening. If we wish to keep others from experiencing what she experienced (whether those kids are white, black or anything else), the best thing we could do is break up hyper-segregated, racially-concentrated communities (in the cities or the suburbs) with more enforcement of fair housing laws, crackdowns on predatory lending, low-interest loans to encourage integration (in both cities and ‘burbs), and equitable community development, replete with racial equity “impact statements” to gauge the effects of gentrification, commercial projects of various sorts, and the availability of affordable housing.

To be sure, such efforts would need to be carefully crafted, lest they displace more people of color from urban spaces than there would become space available for them in less-exclusively black communities. Some type of “no net loss” policy, when it comes to housing for folks of color, might mitigate the potentially negative consequences of a large influx of whites into previously black and brown space. And without doubt, any economic “re-development” in those urban spaces that have long been home to folks of color, should require direct input and approval from those who had been there prior to any influx of newcomers. Small-d democratic accountability needs to accompany “new urbanism” or integration efforts, lest they devolve into a form of colonialism. But however we might create more mixed space in practice, there can be little doubt that only by creating a broader and more equitable mix of residents and students in an area will we likely prevent any one group from feeling so empowered by its sheer numbers as to take advantage of those in the minority. Such efforts would almost certainly reduce the tendency towards us vs. them thinking so common today, given the extreme racial isolation and separation to which we are often subjected.

What we cannot afford to do is to allow the effects of institutional racism to torpedo the push for racial equity. We cannot allow our own occasional injury, as whites, to distract us from the real culprit in that experience: not merely the individuals who took advantage or abused us, but also the systemic forces that made the abuse likely. It is white supremacy and privilege that set us against one another to begin with. It is white supremacy and privilege that continues to skew opportunities hundreds of years after they were set in place as systemic norms. It is only the eradication of white supremacy and privilege that can put an end to it–all of it, once and for all.

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