Destructive riots turn public attention away from brutal acts of injustice that ignited them, and toward fear for one’s own safety, disgusted at violent disregard of property and possessions. That’s the way it always works. Two thoughts come to mind. The first, and most important: we cannot allow riots to displace issues of injustice that preceded them. Second: in an unpleasant, sometimes deadly way, riot affected white populations are forced to experience a taste of what daily life feels like for some non white populations. Putting an end to it demands a new way of being community, not restoration of the old.
It’s about racial injustice, and the temptation is to attribute it to personal habits of racism, some overtly expressed and some buried deep in the subconscious. It’s what well intentioned white thought and opinion leaders usually do. Personal prejudices exist, but attacking them is the wrong way to go. It’s a highly individualized approach consistent with the myth of American autonomous individualism, and it misses the target. What is the target? The target is the systematized structures of discrimination built into the ways we have organized American society. Systems have moving parts interacting with each other in ways no chart can capture, but we can isolate a few key parts in need of long overdue attention. One part is the history we don’t acknowledge and don’t teach. One part exists in national laws and regulations that impede non discriminatory policies. One part exists in state and local laws, many well intended, that maintain patterns of discrimination established years ago. One part is in our toleration of political forces overtly working to retain white hegemony as the natural and appropriate standard of the American way. No doubt there are more in need of immediate attention, but dithering about what they might be is only an excuse to delay. In the words of W. Edwards Deming, it’s the system, pay attention to the system. The system can’t be fixed by working on individual beliefs and attitudes one person at a time.
I’m tired of conservative refusal to honestly address the systemic issues of racism in our society that have their roots in history still being written. I’m tired of liberal pandering to easy self satisfying answers. I’m tired of phony liberal self flagellation hoping to appease African American, Indian and Hispanic anger. We don’t need another round of anti-racism workshops. They’ve all been lousy wastes of time. The issues are systemic, and until that’s understood by enough people who don’t want to understand it, no workshop will be worth it. Most especially, I’ve had it with national leaders who openly and frequently give supportive passes to right wing white supremacists, purveyors of whacko conspiracies, and peddlers of fear laden falsehood.
I’ve chosen four parts of the system to examine briefly: history; national laws and regulations; state and local laws and regulations; and the American Way defined by white hegemony.
The history most of us learned in school celebrates the highest ideals of the American people. There’s nothing wrong with that. They’re worthy ideals of life, liberty, and the equality of all. They’re ideals of opportunity, self reliance, perseverance, and progress. What we’ve left out are the hard truths of slavery, the denial that enslaved Africans were human beings, the accommodation of slave owning interests in the westward expansion of the nation, and the continuation of slave mentality up to and through the civil rights movements of the mid 20th century. We’ve left out the genocidal conquering of natives, denying survivors basic rights or human dignity, and the deliberate failure of the government to meet any of the treaty obligations it wrote, agreed to, and promised would be met. We left out Asian exclusion acts, lynchings, massacres, antisemitism, and most other events that detract from the polished mythology celebrating all that is good and noble about America.
Teaching a more full and honest version of history is not a “mea culpa” confessional begging forgiveness and doing penance. It’s a simple recognition that living into worthy American ideals has been restricted, for the most part, to northern Europeans (except the Irish), and with some reluctance to other Europeans if they could endure a generation or two of social and political hazing. All others were excluded. It certainly doesn’t mean that achieving some measure of the American dream was easy. Many suffered, worked hard and overcame obstacles, but the way was open for all who were willing to try. Knowing a fuller more honest history doesn’t make today’s white Americans guilty. It makes them better informed, and more able to change directions.
National Laws and Regulations
The foundational law of the land is the Constitution. Almighty God did not inscribe it on stone tablets. It was written by late 18th century men, guided by European Enlightenment philosophers, who crafted an entirely new form of national government, a democratic republic of semi-autonomous states. It also accommodated slavery, and reserved full rights of citizenship to white men of property. Quickly amended, they added a Bill of Rights extending only to them, but since extended to almost all. It’s a living document, amended twenty-seven times, interpreted and reinterpreted by the Supreme Court, which can and has erred. With great reluctance, a civil war, and a determined civil rights movement, the constitutional ideal for all persons has been made the law of the land – on paper, not in practice.
Other national laws, in my lifetime, kept blacks from full benefits of the GI Bill, access to VA and FHA mortgages, access to job opportunities, access to quality K-12 education. Whether intended or not, national infrastructure projects including highways, railroads, urban renewal and public housing, divided and isolated neighborhoods by racial and economic status. Regulatory practices promoted clean, neat neighborhoods for upwardly mobile whites. Neighborhoods for blacks and poor whites were allowed to be ravaged by slumlords and industrial pollution. Poor whites could get out if they were up to it. Blacks had nowhere to go.
The laws have changed. Practices have been slow to keep up. Sadly, the current administration is doing what it can to reverse progress. They say it’s to make America great again, but it has all the hallmarks of buttressing white supremacy.
State and Local Laws and Regulations
State and local laws have been more draconian. They’ve denied voting rights, denied equality before the law, permitted violent oppression, and allowed deed restrictions to enforce segregation. It’s not just a southern thing. The house I live in, built in the early 1970s, had an original deed restriction disallowing sale to negroes and Jews. So did houses we owned in Connecticut, and the Minnesota houses I grew up in and owned. Deed restrictions are no longer legal, but real estate agents keep their intent in play. Many northern towns had sundown laws ordering blacks off the streets by sundown. Not uniformly enforced, they didn’t come off the books until the mid 20th century. The Pacific Northwest and California denied Asians the right to own property, vote, or become citizens. Japanese Americans were forced into concentration camps during WWII.
Even well meaning local planning has contributed to conditions restricting non-white access to the fullness of community life. Ordinary zoning ordinances include large lot single family housing with parks, row houses and limited recreation were prescribed for other areas, and high density apartments next to mixed use commercial industrial areas filled in. It was all with the best of intentions, but it created segregated fiefdoms making integrated community life all but impossible. Adding deed restrictions into the mix, and blacks, more than others, have been forced into ghettos from which escape is difficult.
The American Way defined by White Hegemony
What it is to be a model American has always been defined by an idealized image of the white middle class, and those striving to enter it. It’s looked different in each era from colonial times to this very day, but it’s always been modeled on the white middle class. Until recently, the American ideal also assumed generic Protestant Christianity as the de facto national religion. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing. The ideal values of the white middle class are not wrong. What’s wrong is the ideal of the white middle class, as defined by whites, as the only standard by which being a model American is judged.
Even popular television featuring black families made them look like middle class whites, or striving to become like middle class whites, or looking like comical nouveau riche whites. It’s always white standards of what it is to be American.
What it is to be fully American having fully American values must be defined to include and be defined by African Americans, American Indians, Asians, etc. It will be an abstract mosaic, but it will be beautiful. And white middle class ideals will remain an important part of it. It won’t be easy. When one part of society has had the power and authority to set the rules for over 400 years, they’re not easily surrendered.