Disowning the Lie of Whiteness

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The most vivid memory I have of my great-grandfather is the tattoo on his arm.

 

It wasn’t an anchor or a sweetheart’s name or even the old faithful, “Mom.”

 

It was just a series of digits scrawled across his withered tan flesh like someone had written a note they didn’t want to forget.

 

Beneath the copious salt and pepper hairs was a stark number, the darkest stain on his skin.

 

Gramps is a kindly figure in my mind.

 

He died before I was even 10-years-old. All I really remember about him are wisps of impressions – his constant smile, a whiff of mothballs, how he always seemed to have butterscotch candies.

 

And that tattoo.

 

I think it was my father who told me what it meant.

 

When he was just a young man, Gramps escaped from Auschwitz. A guard took pity on him and smuggled him out.

 

His big European family didn’t make it.

 

My scattered relatives in the United States are all that are left of us.

 

Those are the only details that have come down to me. And Gramps isn’t here to add anything further.

 

But his tattoo has never left me.

 

It’s become a pillar of my subconscious.

 

The fact that someone could look at my kindly Gramps and still see fit to tattoo a numeric signifier on him as if he were an animal.

 

A little reminder that he wasn’t human, that he shouldn’t be treated like a person, that he was marked for erasure.

 

If I look at my own arm, there is no tell-tale integer peeking through the skin. But I am keenly aware of its presence.

 

I know that it’s there in a very real sense.

 

It is only the American dream that hides it.

 

Coming to this country, my family has made a deal, something of a Faustian bargain, but it’s one that most of us have accepted as the price of admission.

 

It’s called whiteness.

 

I am white.

 

Or I get to be white. So long as I suppress any differences to the contrary.

 

I agree to homogenize myself as much as possible and define myself purely by that signifier.

 

White. American. No hyphen necessary.

 

Anything else is secondary. I don’t have to deny it, but I have to keep it hidden until the right context comes to bring it out.

 

During Octoberfest I have license to be German. When at international village I can root for Poland. And on Saturdays I can wear a Kippah and be Jewish.

 

But in the normal flow of life, don’t draw attention to my differences. Don’t show everyone the number on my arm.

 

Because America is a great place, but people here – as in many other places – are drawn to those sorts of symbols and will do what they can to stamp them out.

 

I learned that in school when I was younger.

 

There weren’t a lot of Jewish kids where I grew up. I remember lots of cracks about “Jewing” people down, fighting against a common assumption that I would be greedy, etc. I remember one girl I had a crush on actually asked to see my horns.

 

And of course there were the kids who chased me home from the bus stop. The scratched graffiti on my locker: “Yid.”

 

The message was clear – “You’re different. We’ll put up with you, but don’t ever forget you are NOT one of us.”

 

There were a lot more black kids. They didn’t get it any easier but at least they could join together.

 

It seemed I had one choice – assimilate or face it alone.

 

So I did. I became white.

 

I played up my similarities, never talked about my differences except to close friends.

 

And America worked her magic.

 

 

So I’ve always been aware that whiteness is the biggest delusion in the world.

 

It’s not a result of the color wheel. Look at your skin. You’re not white. You’re peach or pink or salmon or rose or coral or olive or any of a million other shades.

 

Whiteness has as much to do with color as Red has to do with Communism or Green has to do with environmental protection.

 

It is the way a lose confederacy of nationalities and ethnicities have banded together to form a fake majority and lord power over all those they’ve excluded.

 

It’s social protection for wealth – a kind of firewall against the underclass built, manned and protected by those who are also being exploited.

 

It’s like a circle around the wealthy protecting them from everyone outside its borders. Yet if everyone banded together against the few rich and powerful, we could all have a more equitable share.

 

But in America, social class has been weaponized and racialized.

 

You’ll see some media outlets talking about demographics as if white people were in danger of losing their numerical majority in this country in the next few decades. But there’s no way it’s ever going to happen.

 

Today’s xenophobia is a direct response to this challenge. Some are trying to deport, displace and murder as many black and brown people as possible to preserve the status quo.

 

But even if that doesn’t work, whiteness will not become a minority. It will do what it has always done – incorporate some of those whom it had previously excluded to keep its position.

 

Certain groups of Hispanics and Latinos probably will find themselves allowed to identify as white, thereby solidifying the majority.

 

Because the only thing that matters is that there are some people who are “white” and the rest who are not.

 

Long ago, my family experienced this.

 

Before I was born, we got our provisional white card. And if I want, I can use it to hide behind.

 

I’ve been doing it most of my life.

 

Every white person does it.

 

It’s almost impossible not to do it.

 

How do you deny being white?

 

At this point, I could throw back my head and shout to the heavens, “I’M NOT WHITE!” and it wouldn’t matter.

 

Only in a closed environment like a school or a job or in a social media circle can you retain the stigma of appearing pale but still being other.

 

In everyday life, it doesn’t matter what you say, only how you appear.

 

I can’t shout my difference all the time. Every moment I’m quiet, I’ll still be seen as white.

 

It’s not personal. It’s social. It’s not something that happens among individuals. It’s a way of being seen.

 

The best I can do is try to use my whiteness as a tool. I can speak out against the illusion. I can stand up when people of color are being victimized. I can vote for leaders who will do something to dismantle white supremacy.

 

Not because I am some kind of savior, but because I know that my own freedom is tied to the freedom of those being oppressed by a system that provides me certain privileges.

 

But let me be clear: doing so is not the safe way to go.

 

In defending others you make yourself a target.

 

I get threats all the time from racists and Nazis of all sorts. They say they can tell just by looking at me that I’m not white at all.

 

The worst part is I’m not sure what I am anymore.

 

I don’t go to synagogue. I don’t even believe in God. But I’m Jewish enough to have been rounded up like Gramps was, so I won’t deny that identity. It’s just that I’m more than one thing.

 

That’s what whiteness tries to reduce you to – one thing.

 

I don’t want it anymore.

 

I’m not saying I don’t like the protection, the ability to be anonymous, the easy out.

 

But it’s not worth it if it has to come with the creation of an other.

 

I don’t want to live in a world where people of color are considered less than me and mine.

 

I don’t want to live in a world where they can be treated unfairly, beaten and brutalized so that I can get some special advantage.

 

I don’t want to live in a world where human beings are tattooed and numbered and sent to their deaths.

 

Because the Holocaust is not over.

 

American slavery is not over.

 

Neither is Jim Crow or lynching or a thousand other marks of hatred and bigotry.

 

Nazis march unmasked in our streets. Our prisons are the new plantation. And too many of our police use murder and atrocity to ensure the social order.

 

As long as we allow ourselves to be white, there will be no justice for both ourselves and others.

 

So consider this my renunciation of whiteness – and I make it here in public.

 

I know that no matter what I say, I will still be seen as part of the problem. And I will still reap the rewards.

 

But I will use what power is given me to tear it down.

 

I’m burning my white card.

 

I know it’s a symbolic gesture. But I invite my white brothers and sisters to add theirs to the flames.

 

Let us make a conflagration, a pillar of fire into the sky.

 

Let whiteness evaporate as the smoke it is.

 

Let us revel in the natural hues of our faces as we watch it burn.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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You Don’t Have to Be Perfect to Fight Racism. But You Have to Try

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I am a white guy who talks about racism.

 

I teach mostly students of color in a western Pennsylvania public school. I write a blog about education and issues of prejudice. And I participate in social justice campaigns to try and redress the inequality all around me.

 

But in my quest to be an anti-racist, one of the most common criticisms people hurl my way is to call me smug:

 

You think you’re so perfect!

 

You’re just suffering from white guilt.

 

You love black people more than your own people.

 

Things like that.

 

Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret.

 

I make mistakes.

 

All. The. Time.

 

I am just like every other white person out there. But I have recognized certain facts about my world and I’m trying to do something about them.

 

America is built on the genocide of over 110 million indigenous Americans and the enslavement of 30 million Africans. The idea of concentration camps didn’t originate with the Nazis. Hitler got the idea from U.S. treatment of Native Americans. Racism didn’t end with the Civil Rights Movement. It just changed shape and was hidden in the way we practiced health care, education, and policing all the way to mass incarceration.

 

And it’s getting worse. Hate crimes have jumped from about 70 incidents a year in the 1990s to more than 300 a year since 2001. And after Trump was elected, 900 bias-related incidents were reported against minorities within the first 10 days.

 

It does not make me special that I am trying to do what little I can about that. It just makes me human.

 

That’s it.

 

I am not perfect.

 

I am no better than anyone else.

 

But I am trying to do the right thing.

 

When I first became a teacher, I had the chance to go to the rich white schools and work with the wealthy white kids. I hated it.

 

I found that I had a real affinity for the struggling students, the poor and minorities.

 

 

Why? Probably because I have more in common with them than the kids who drove to school in better cars than me, wore more expensive clothes and partied with designer drugs.

 

Does that make me better than a teacher who stayed in the suburbs? No. But hopefully it gives me the chance to make a greater difference against white supremacy.

 

 

When I saw how unjust our school system is, I could have gotten out. Law school was definitely an option. So was becoming a technical writer or a job as a pharmaceutical ad rep.

 

 

But I dug in and spoke out.

 

 

I could have left, but who would be there to speak for my students? Who would speak truth to power about high stakes standardized tests, unaccountable charter and voucher schools, inequitable funding and the boondoggle of Common Core Standards?

 

 

So I got active in my union, spoke at rallies, lead marches on incorrigible law-makers and started a blog.

 

Does that make me better than teachers who kept plugging away at their jobs but didn’t rock the boat? No way. But hopefully I have a better chance at helping change things for the better.

 

 

When I saw that politicians in my state wanted to stop the parents of my students from voting by trampling their civil rights with a voter ID law, I started a campaign asking the officials that were tasked with enacting the law to ignore it.

 

 

It was a hard battle that made me do things I was not at all comfortable doing. You try asking a public servant on camera to break the law and go to jail for what he knew was right.

 

Strangely enough, it worked. Along with several other campaigns throughout the state, we got the voter ID law declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court.

 

Some people look at that and other accomplishments and think I’m conceited.

 

They say I’m a white savior hogging the spotlight for myself and keeping the very people I’m trying to help in my shadow.

 

That’s not my intention at all.

 

I wouldn’t be anywhere without the help and support of people of color.

 

Everything I’ve done in this fight has been with their help and encouragement.

 

Does that mean I’m impervious to making a racist comment? Does it mean I’ve never participated in a microaggression? Does it mean I see every racist impact of my society and my place in it?

 

Absolutely not.

 

I screw up every day.

 

Multiple times.

 

But that’s the point. You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to try.

 

One of the books that has helped guide me on this journey is Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun.

 

The chapter on “White Supremacy Culture” should be required reading for every activist organization or budding civil rights warrior.

 

The authors offer a list of characteristics that stem from white supremacy that can affect even the best intentioned of groups and individuals. These norms are difficult to name or identify but can lead to major dysfunction:

 

 

“They are damaging to both people of color and to white people. Organizations that are people of color led or a majority people of color can also demonstrate many damaging characteristics of white supremacy culture.”

 

 

And the number one characteristic is Perfectionism.

 

This involves the following bullet points:

 

  • “little appreciation expressed among people for the work that others are doing; appreciation that is expressed usually directed to those who get most of the credit anyway

 

  • more common is to point out either how the person or work is inadequate

 

  • or even more common, to talk to others about the inadequacies of a person or their work without ever talking directly to them

 

  • mistakes are seen as personal, i.e. they reflect badly on the person making them as opposed to being seen for what they are – mistakes

 

  • making a mistake is confused with being a mistake, doing wrong with being wrong

 

  • little time, energy, or money put into reflection or identifying lessons learned that can improve practice, in other words little or no learning from mistakes

 

  • tendency to identify what is wrong; little ability to identify, name, and appreciate what is right”

 

 

Solutions offered to this problem are:

 

“Develop a culture of appreciation, where the organization takes time to make sure that people’s work and efforts are appreciated;

 

develop a learning organization, where it is expected that everyone will make mistakes and those mistakes offer opportunities for learning;

 

create an environment where people can recognize that mistakes sometimes lead to positive results;

 

separate the person from the mistake;

 

when offering feedback, always speak to the things that went well before offering criticism;

 

ask people to offer specific suggestions for how to do things differently when offering criticism.”

 

These are things we should keep in mind as we try to move forward in this fight.

 

Certainly white people can be resistant to criticism and see any and every comment or appraisal as personal or demeaning – especially if that remark is made by a person of color.

 

Frankly, white people need to get a thicker skin about it. We need to realize that this impulse to personalize analysis is often a psychological attempt to avoid looking at oneself and what unconscious aspects of the social order one has internalized.

 

However, those offering criticism must realize that context is everything. We must create an environment where such remarks are constructive. Otherwise, they’ll do more harm than good.

 

None of this is easy.

 

But if we want to be anti-racists, that’s not the job we signed up to do.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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White Privilege, Public Schools and Ugly Christmas Sweaters

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This is one of those stories that’s been bothering me for a while.

 

I won’t say it happened recently or at my current district, but after teaching in the public school system for almost two decades, you see a lot that most people never hear about.

 

So it was almost Christmas break and my middle school students were shuffling in to homeroom.

 

One of the girls turns to me and says, “Mr. Singer, am I okay to wear this?”

 

Hold up. I teach English.

 

I am not a fashionista or even particularly clothes conscious. So this question took me by surprise.

 

In the split second it took me to comprehend what she was asking and focus my eyes on the girl, I was expecting she might have on something too revealing or perhaps had an inappropriate slogan on her shirt or a marijuana leaf.

 

But no. She had on a simple blue long sleeve sweater with a red Superman symbol in the middle.

 

I was about to say that what she was wearing was perfectly acceptable, but then I remembered the dress code.

 

It was a new directive from the school board, and it was – frankly – a horror show.

 

We used to have a perfectly fine dress code that only made students refrain from clothing that was dangerous, inappropriate or sexually explicit. But then someone on the board heard about a neighboring district that modeled itself after a private school academy – so they had to do the same thing here.

 

It was beyond stupid. Only certain colors were allowed. Only certain kinds of clothing. No designs on t-shirts. And on and on.

 

I frankly paid no attention to it. But administrators did.

 

Though they rarely punished students for being late to class, improperly using cell phones or dropping an f- bomb, they swept through the building every morning to make sure every student was undeniably in dress code – to the letter.

 

And if a child was wearing a verboten item of clothing! Heaven forbid! That child was sent to in-school suspension for the remainder of the day unless a parent brought a change of clothing.

 

The same students would sit in “The Box” for days or weeks while their education was in suspended animation because they just couldn’t figure out which clothes the school board considered to be appropriate. (Or more likely they wanted a vacation from class.)

 

So when this girl – let’s call her Amy – asked me about her outfit, it was a pretty serious question.

 

And a difficult one.

 

 

Normally the Superman symbol would violate dress code, but I remembered that since it was only a few days before the holiday break, as an extra treat, students had been allowed to wear an “ugly Christmas sweater.” It was either that or conform to the usual dress code.

 

 

So all around me children were wearing fluffy red and green yarn creations sporting snowmen, Christmas trees and Santas.

 

But Amy was wearing a big red S.

 

By any definition, that’s not a Christmas sweater, and if the administrators wanted to take a hard line on the rules – and they usually did – she was out of dress code.

 

I told her what I thought. I said I had no personal problem with it and wouldn’t report her to the principal, but if she had a change of clothes, she might want to consider using them.

 

She didn’t.

 

And even if she did, it was too late. An administrator barreled into the room and proceeded to examine each child’s clothing.

 

Amy took her backpack and put it on backwards so that it covered her chest and the offending S.

 

Even that didn’t work.

 

When the administrator got to her, he asked to see what was under her backpack. She sighed and showed him.

 

But miraculously he said, “Okay,” and moved on.

 

Amy and I both breathed a sigh of relief. She was saved and wouldn’t have to spend the rest of the day in our school’s version of prison.

 

Before we could get too comfortable though, the hushed silence was broken when the administrator started screaming at another girl in the back of the room.

 

“That is not in dress code, and you know that’s not a Christmas sweater!” he screamed, cords standing out on his neck.

 

“How many times have I told you, but you think you can get away with anything…” and he continued to yell at her as she stomped out into the hall and presumably her locker.

 

And as she left, I saw that he was right. The girl he was yelling at – let’s call her Jada – was not wearing a Christmas sweater. She was wearing a plain gray and white flannel shirt. I don’t know how or why, but I guess that violated the dress code.

 

And for this offense she spent the day in in-school suspension.

 

I guess that’s not really Earth shattering, but it really bothered me.

 

It just seemed so unfair.

 

Jada was by no means a perfect student. But neither was Amy.

 

They both frequently broke rules and did pretty much what they wanted. They both could get an attitude, be catty, and mean.

 

However there was one distinguishing difference between them that immediately jumped to your attention – the color of their skins.

 

Amy was lily white. Jada was chocolate brown.

 

Now I’m not saying this administrator – who was white, by the way – was a virulent racist. I don’t know what went on inside his mind or heart.

 

In fact, I’d always thought of him as a fair-minded person who did his best to be impartial and treat students equally.

 

However, here was a case where he got it dead wrong.

 

Did he let Amy go because she was white? I don’t know. Did he come down on Jada because she was black? I don’t know.

 

My guess is that he was moving in a fog. He went to at least half of all the homerooms in the building checking each child to make sure they were in dress code. For some reason, when he looked at Amy, what he saw didn’t set off alarm bells. When he looked at Jada, it did.

 

Perhaps he remembered that Amy’s dad was a local cop and he didn’t relish having to call the police station to tell the officer that his daughter needed a change of clothes. Perhaps when he looked at Jada he was reminded of all the times she had been written up or defiant.

 

I say again – I don’t know.

 

However, there is little doubt in my mind that this is an example of white privilege – in action if not in intent.

 

The administrator gave Amy the benefit of the doubt because of her whiteness and came down on Jada because of her blackness.

 

This may not have been at the forefront of his mind – it probably wasn’t – but I believe that somewhere in his subconscious, racial attitudes and preconceptions played a part in this snap decision.

 

If I had taken him aside and mentioned it to him, perhaps he would have reconsidered. But probably not since I was just a subordinate.

 

Perhaps later after school over a few drinks he might have thought better of it.

 

 

But this kind of thing happens all the time.

 

White people make snap decisions about people of different races based on these same shadowy, unexamined racial preconceptions.

 

And in each case, the beneficiary is invariably the white person and the loser is the black person.

 

That’s white privilege. People like me and Amy get the benefit of the doubt, while people like Jada and the majority of my other students don’t.

 

It’s something we, white people, need to acknowledge.

 

I’ll say one more thing about dress codes.

 

I accept that they are necessary in a public school setting.

 

It’s difficult to teach if students parts are hanging out, if they’re displaying coded messages on their chests, have advertising or rude statements on their clothing.

 

I once reported a girl for wearing a shirt that said “WTF.” She didn’t realize that I knew what the acronym meant. Another time I reported a student for wearing flip-flops. They were dangerous because kids could trip and fall but also the incessant slapping of plastic against heels drives me bonkers.

 

 

But other than that, I rarely get involved in dress codes.

 

Frankly, I think too strict a restriction on what students wear and too stringent enforcement of such policies does more harm than good.

 

It’s the school equivalent of broken windows policing. Instead of lowering crime by cracking down on the little stuff, too punitive severity in a dress code teaches kids that rules are arbitrary. Moreover, it creates fear and distrust of authority figures.

 

And – intentionally or not – it is a mechanism for enforcing white privilege.

 

Anytime I’ve had to oversee in-school suspension, there have been a disproportionate number of students of color in there for dress code violations than white students.

 

I know that’s not scientific, but it’s the data that I have.

 

In fact, I strongly suspect that discipline based on dress code enforcement is rarely reported to the state or federal government because it would show a major uptick in discipline against black students. It would further prove that minorities are written up more than white kids and get more strict punishments.

 

Standardized dress is as bad as standardized tests. We shouldn’t demand all our children dress alike and conform to a nonsensical norm.

 

Especially when the norm is whiteness.

 

Ugly Christmas sweaters, indeed!

 

I mean how white can you get?

I Am So Sick of White People’s Excuses (And I’m White!)

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What the heck is wrong with us, white people?

Systematic racism is all around, but we refuse to see it.

Oh, and I do mean REFUSE. It’s not a matter of being unable to see it. Our eyes and minds work just as well as anyone else’s. We can perceive reality. Too many of us just choose not to.

According to the Guardian, at least 793 Americans have been killed by police so far this year. That number includes 194 black people or 4.86 per million. That’s more than double the rate for white people at 1.96 per million.

This is not an opinion. This is an undeniable fact. Every number is backed up with verifiable data. And moreover, it follows the same pattern we’ve seen for a couple of years now since news organizations have taken up the slack from the federal government and started counting.

Why does that not worry more white people? It worries me. I don’t want to live in a country where police use lethal force so often against civilians, so much more than almost any other developed country on Earth. And I don’t want my black friends and neighbors to be targeted so much more.

I’m a middle school teacher. Most of my students are black. I don’t want to have to worry that they or their parents are going to be murdered just because of an excess of melanin. Street gangs are worrisome enough without having to add into the mix many of the very law enforcement officers that are supposed to keep us safe from those gangbangers.

But when you bring this up to white folks and other facts detailing the systemic racism that pervades our society, you get every excuse in the book.

They simply refuse to engage with what you’re saying. They deflect and redirect and change the subject – and they don’t even seem to realize they’re doing it.

Blue lives matter, they say. All lives matter. Every form of life seems to matter to white people – except explicitly black lives.

We seem to think it’s impossible to care about both police and African Americans. We seem to think any expression of the value of human life has to be universal without mentioning individual groups that are at a higher risk than others.

It’s wacko, clearly a way of shutting down a conversation white folks will do anything to avoid.

The easiest dodge seems to be talking about black-on-black crime. As if somehow that makes it right.

It goes something like this: You’re worried about police killing black people, what about other black people? Most African Americans are killed by other African Americans.

Of course what they omit is that the same is true for white Americans. White folks kill each other much more than any other race does. But you never see people wringing their hands about white-on-white crime, do you?

Moreover, it’s irrelevant. If I point to a single incident of a white person killing a black person, it is not therefore justified because black people kill black people more often. Would you think an African American is justified for popping a cap in your Caucasian mom’s ass because most of us, honkies, usually off other honkies? Of course not!

But so much for logic. One of the most popular evasions is to blame it all on inferior black culture.

It goes like this: Black people don’t suffer systemic racism. If there are any ways in which they are selected against in society, it’s because they’ve earned that treatment because of the way they act.

Black people come from unmarried parents. They are on Welfare and a host of other social ills. THESE are the reasons behind so-called racism, not unjust systems.

It’s pure nonsense.

How does coming from unmarried parents mean you deserve to be killed by police at a greater rate than white people? How does parental marital status affect the justice system handing out more severe and longer sentences for blacks than for whites who commit the same crimes? How does the Facebook status of your pops and your moms somehow translate into difficulty getting a job due to your black sounding name?

In short, the two have nothing to do with each other.

Yes, black people have children out of wedlock about twice as often as white people. So what? Some people aren’t meant to be married. Often it’s better for the children if the parents don’t stay married to people who mistreat each other, a marriage where there is no love. Would racism suddenly disappear if black people just kept their chins up and married each other irregardless of whether the relationship was healthy for them and their children?

Let’s get to what white people are really saying here. Whites aren’t saying marriage is a magical shield against prejudice. They’re saying: Damn! Look at these strangers! These others! These people who aren’t like you and me!

The fact that many of them don’t get married before having children just shows how morally inferior they are to us. They deserve their treatment because they don’t share our sensibilities.

This is a pretty heartless way to think. Not only do the parents, apparently, deserve to be selected against, but so do their kids who had nothing to do with whether daddy gave mommy a ring or not. Moreover, where did the culture of marriageless childbirth come from for black people? When their ancestors were kidnapped from Africa and brought to these shores as slaves, it was the white slave masters who forbade them from marrying. In many cases, that tradition doesn’t exist because we took it away. Meanwhile, about a quarter of white couples have children out of wedlock, too. What’s our excuse?

But this won’t be enough to convince most white interlocutors.

They’ll just huff and puff and spout some nonsense about welfare.

They’ll say Black people fall into immoral and violent behavior because they’ve been taught by liberals to exist on welfare and not get jobs of their own.

Again, the problem is black people, themselves, aided by bleeding heart liberals trying to give them a helping hand. Some white folks even go so far as to say this is real racism because by giving black folks such sweet benefits for not working, liberals purposefully destroyed black people’s natural inclination to productivity.

Think about it for about two seconds, and you can see how crazy it is.

Black people deserve to be killed at twice the rate of whites because they don’t have jobs? They deserve to be gunned down because they’re too lazy to work?

Or alternatively, they deserve not to get call backs when they turn in resumes with black sounding names because they’re lazy!? These people just handed in job applications. We can imagine they did that because they wanted freaking jobs! But being lazy makes them unqualified for the very jobs they tried to apply for in the first place?

Let’s look at the facts for a moment. Black people don’t accept the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) more than whites. It’s the other way around.

More than 40% of SNAP recipients are white. Only 25% are black.

But that’s raw data. When we look at it as a percentage of the population, black people are twice as likely to be on Welfare as Whites. Only 12% of the country is African American, after all.

So why bring up the raw data? Because if you’re upset about the sheer numbers of people on assistance, you’re mad at more white people than black people.

Moreover, black people actually need it more than whites. More than 27% of black people live in poverty compared to only 10% of whites. Hence the larger percentage of blacks on SNAP.

This isn’t meant to throw anyone under the bus for being on public assistance. Times are tough and well paying jobs are hard to come by. For instance, most of the people who accept SNAP benefits actually are employed, but their pay is too small to sustain them. Thanks, Walmart.

So how much does a family of four get on SNAP? It depends on how much money the household earns, but the total income must be below the federal poverty level – $23,050. For many families it comes to about $399 a month. That’s $1.10 per person, per meal.

This isn’t exactly living high off the hog. I can’t imagine anyone making bank who would throw it all away to live so luxuriously on food stamps.

However, this is exactly what a lot of white people think about blacks.

It goes against the facts, and it doesn’t explain the reality of systemic racism.

In so many ways our society is set up to give white people an advantage and black people a disadvantage. That doesn’t mean all white people have it perfectly. There are an awful lot of dirt poor white folks out there – many of their kids are in my classes, too. But while they may be disadvantaged socially, economically or many other ways, they aren’t disadvantaged racially.

That’s the whole point.

Racism still exists and talking about it doesn’t make you anti-white. It makes you pro-black and pro-justice.

Those aren’t bad things to be.

We, white people, have to stop being so fragile when racism is brought up. Though I’ve artificially concerned myself only with black people here, we need to listen to what all people of color are telling us about how they’re treated. We need to take a hard look at the facts.

Being white and admitting racism exists doesn’t make you a racist – though you probably benefit from it. It just means that if you want to stand on the right side of history, on the side of equity and justice, you may need to bring your thinking into agreement with reality.

Racism Never Ended – It Just Keeps Evolving

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“One of our founding principles as a nation [is] that Black lives and Black bodies don’t matter; you see that in all our headlines today. This original sin lingers on, that’s why we got to call it sin… Slavery never ended, it just evolved. Mass incarceration is the current evolution of slavery.”
Jim Wallis  
 
 
“Even the most casual student of our country’s legal system should know that racism hasn’t existed since 1964 when we passed the Civil Rights Act. So obviously there’s no possible way for my statement to be considered racist if racism hasn’t existed for fifty years! I mean come on, racism? It’s 2015 people, racism is over.”

Antonin Scalia
 

When does brutality end – when it stops being practiced or when its effects stop being felt?

Neither condition has been met in the United States today. Black people still suffer under state-sanctioned barbarism just as the echoes of cruelty from years past continue to ring in our ears.

People of color – whether they be black, Latino, Hispanic, etc. – experience a much different reality than whites. They live under the constant threat of violence without justice. Their rights are continually being re-evaluated. They are subject to systems that wait for them to step out of line in even the most innocuous ways and then pounce.

And the white majority goes around blind to these perceptions while repeating the fairy tale that all wrongdoings were only in the past.

But it’s not in the past. Our history, written in blood, has never been allowed to dry on our forgotten chronicles of yesterday. When white eyes examine the facts, they often see a series of unrelated dots which they cannot – or will not – logically connect.

The Civil War is over, they say.

No. It’s not.

Slavery is over, they say.

No. It’s not.

Racism is over, they say.

No. It’s not.

We still are engaged in the struggle for basic human dignity. And the only way to even begin on that path is to recognize the truth staring us in the face.

Nothing has ended. It has only evolved.

 

THE CIVIL WAR

 

When did the American Civil War end?

This may seem a strange question to ask.

But when a country goes to war with itself, it may be difficult to discern when that conflict actually comes to completion.

History gives us many important dates to consider.

On April 9, 1865, commander of the Confederate armies General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia. But there were still sizable Confederate troops left standing.

In fact, the bloodshed was far from over. President Abraham Lincoln was murdered a mere 5 days later by John Wilkes Booth, a Southern sympathizer. Andrew Johnson was sworn in as President on April 15, the next morning.

It wasn’t until April 26, that General Joseph E. Johnson surrendered nearly 90,000 Tennessee soldiers – the largest of a series of subsequent capitulations.

President Johnson declared the insurrection to be over on May 9. However, the last Confederate general didn’t surrender until June 23.

Which date shall we choose? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The point is that the conflict clearly came to an end.

Clearly the Confederacy was defeated by the Union.

Wasn’t it?

The problem is how to tell.

The Southern states were brought back into the union. But the overwhelming reason behind their secession has not been settled.

Today partisans and talking heads will argue that slavery was but one of many reasons behind the split. But during the 1860s, there was no such confusion.

Four of the Southern states explicitly gave slavery as the impetus for the break.

But Alexander H. Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy, removed all doubt when he said:

“The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions–African slavery as it exists among us–the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization.

[…] The general opinion of the men of that day
[Revolutionary Period] was, that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution [slavery] would be evanescent and pass away.

[…] Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

So if the war was fought over the issue of slavery and the subjugation of black people, its end can be traced to the date at which slavery ended and black people were treated as equals with whites.

That day has not yet come.

Outright slavery came to an eventual end, but – as we shall see – it was replaced with another institution. Moreover, in the aftermath of Reconstruction, we were left with Jim Crow laws cementing white supremacy. Most newly “freed” blacks lived in squalid conditions with few rights, little pay and education. Their situation was only slightly different in fact from their state under slavery. These laws had to be struck down by the collective actions of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s.

Only then were black people truly permitted to vote en mass. Only then were they permitted in the same public spaces and offered some actionable protections under the law. But social and economic change still lags behind.

Today, more than 150 years since the end of the war’s military conflicts, we’re left to ponder: have things really changed so much?

Certainly there are cosmetic differences. There are no open air slave markets, no rolling cotton plantations staffed by bare backed, lash marked, kidnapped Africans. But have black people really been put on an equal footing with whites? Do they enjoy the same freedoms and privileges? Are they truly free from bondage and oppression?

If we look with open eyes, the answer is no.

 

SLAVERY

 

Today no one is legally allowed to own another person. You can’t purchase human beings. You can’t deprive them of their liberty and rights. You can’t use them as a source of revenue for your own benefit.

At least, that’s what the law says. But it happens every day.

What is the modern prison industry if not a new form of slavery? No matter how you look at it, we lock up a higher percentage of our population than any other country in the world. The US represents 5% of the world’s population but has 25% of the world’s prisoners. And the majority of those inmates have brown skin.

Whether federal, state, or privately run, the result is a massive increase in incarceration for people of color. In fact, more black people are in prison today than were in bondage in 1865. That’s a higher percentage of the black population than South Africa locked up at the height of apartheid. Today one in three black males is likely to spend some time incarcerated. That’s not insignificant.

Technically no one owns these people, but they are deprived of their freedom. They are kept in prison and unable to leave. In lockup, they are forced to work and the profit from that cheap labor goes to the prison industry. Moreover, state and federal governments often farm out these prison services to private industry which then profits off that incarceration. In many cases, the government has a contract with these corporations to fill X number of beds or else be penalized with Y dollars. So the incentive is to provide a continual stream of persons bound to labor.

This looks a lot like slavery. It is a kind of plantation where big business is paid to keep people in chains.

However, one can anticipate the following objection: Slaves were born into their servitude. Prisoners are not. They are thrown behind bars because they freely broke the law.

This does represent a difference. But is it more than cosmetic?

People of color – especially black males – commit crimes at about the same rate as white people but are imprisoned nearly six times the rate of whites. They also get much harsher sentences than whites for the same crimes. They are often imprisoned for nonviolent drug violations. And once in the system, it’s hard to get out. To survive in prison, it is often necessary to become a criminal even if you weren’t much of one when you entered.

Even if you manage to get out, you now are a second-class citizen deprived of many of the rights and privileges of your neighbors. Spend any time in the system and you’ll increasingly be deprived of your right to vote and may find it difficult to achieve gainful employment. The chances of going back inside for someone who has already been there are huge.

That is not slavery. But it’s not far from it.

As Michelle Alexander writes in her landmark book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness:

“The genius of the current caste system, and what most distinguishes it from its predecessors, is that it appears voluntary. People choose to commit crimes, and that’s why they are locked up or locked out, we are told. This feature makes the politics of responsibility particularly tempting, as it appears the system can be avoided with good behavior. But herein lies the trap. All people make mistakes. All of us are sinners. All of us are criminals. All of us violate the law at some point in our lives. In fact, if the worst thing you have ever done is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, you have put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of his or her living room. Yet there are people in the United States serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses, something virtually unheard of anywhere else in the world.”

 

THE EVOLUTION OF RACISM

 

Even for those people of color who have never been incarcerated, there is the constant burden of living in a racist society.

It’s not so much that white individuals consciously practice bigotry and hate in their daily lives. It’s the systematic abuse that’s built into the very fabric of our governments and communities. No one has to decide to be racist. They just go along with the status quo without seeing how that status quo puts black people at risk.

And it doesn’t take much imagination to recognize how the realities of today grew from the prejudices of the past.

 

LYNCHING

 

Before the 1960s, it was common for black people – especially men – to be brutalized and murdered with little to no provocation. A look, a word, even the suspicion of violating unspoken social codes could earn a death sentence. Nor was the accused even given a chance to defend himself or explain. That generally doesn’t happen today. Southern trees no longer bare such ‘strange fruit.’

But the same cannot be said for our inner city streets, playgrounds and churches.

It doesn’t take much beyond suspicion of wrongdoing, a suspicion that only requires the sight of black skin to justify deadly force. People of color still are publicly executed with little to no provocation. Black people have been slaughtered in the last few years for the following offenses: buying Skittles and iced tea, driving with a broken tail light, being suspected of selling loose cigarettes, selling CDs in a parking lot, being scared and running the other way or even just attending a house of worship.

Instead of a white robe, a disturbing number of their executioners wear a badge and police blues. Many of these hits were conducted by the very law enforcement officers that are charged with the duty to protect and serve. And when these incidents come before a grand jury, they rarely go on to criminal court. In the eyes of the law, an unarmed black person killed by police rarely inspires any suspicion of wrongdoing on the officer’s part. To the courts, it’s not even conceivable that a crime may have been committed.

As Slate’s Chief Political Correspondent Jamelle Bouie put it:

“Our courts and juries aren’t impartial arbiters — they exist inside society, not outside of it — and they can only provide as much justice as society is willing to give.”

This phenomenon isn’t the same as the lynchings of old – but it’s awfully similar. In both cases, there is little provocation, no quarter given and no justice afterwards. In fact, the modern variety may be worse. US Police killed more black citizens in 2015 than were lynched at the height of segregation.

 

SEGREGATION

 

At first glance, one might assume segregation to be a thing of the past. There are no more separate lunch counters, separate bathrooms, separate schools, etc.

Brown vs. Board of Education made it illegal for public schools to be “separate but equal” because if they were separate, they were rarely equal.

Certainly progress was made in this regard during the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. But as time has gone on, integrated schools just haven’t been a priority – even for the Obama Administration.

When you look at public schools today what you see is increasing segregation. Many districts are as segregated or worse than they were before the 1950s. So-called school choice initiatives have only made it worse with charter and voucher schools springing up that cater to one race at the expense of another. Cadillac charters open in otherwise economically diverse neighborhoods swooping in to provide white flight. Big corporations start cut-rate charters with empty promises for black kids while bleaching the student body at the neighborhood’s traditional public school.

But school choice isn’t the only problem. Economics plays a factor, too. Public schools often are funded based on local property taxes, so poor kids get much fewer resources for their schools than rich kids. And since most black students are poor, this provides a stealthy way to funnel more money and resources to the white kids than the black ones.

We don’t call it segregation because it doesn’t just affect minority children. It affects poor whites, too. Everyone agrees there’s a problem, but policymakers only propose measures that make it worse. Instead of fixing underlying inequalities, we punish under-resourced schools for the very academic problems they don’t have the resources to successfully eliminate. Instead of providing more and better equipped teachers, we hire lightly trained temps through Teach for America thereby reducing both the quality of education and the cost. Meanwhile private corporations line-up to start testing corporations, test prep publishers and for-profit charter schools at the expense of black and brown kids.

None of it would be possible without segregation. Our schools today are at least as separate and unequal as they’ve ever been. And no one in power cares.

 

VOTING RIGHTS

 

Perhaps the only progress we’ve made is in black people’s suffrage. At the time of the Civil War even in the North, blacks couldn’t cast a ballot or their vote was worth significantly less than that of white people. At least today people of color get the same say in the political arena as anyone else.

Or do they?

Since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, a plethora of states in both the North and the South have passed laws to make it harder for people of color to vote.

Voter ID laws have sprung up across the country requiring citizens to present photo identification at the polls. However, just any picture ID won’t do. These laws require exactly the types of identification black people are least likely to have. In addition, states pass restrictions on early voting making it difficult for black churches to help the majority of their congregations who don’t own cars to physically get to a ballot box. Likewise, polling places in black areas of town are closed forcing minorities to endure long lines to vote while people from white areas of town just waltz right in.

It’s not an outright ban on black voting. But it represents continued hurdles just as the Jim Crow laws of old required literacy tests, poll taxes and other forms of intimidation.

 

CONCLUSIONS

 

When we look closely at our society and how it treats blacks vs. whites, it becomes clear that something is terribly wrong.

There is deep inequality, deep inequity, deep assumptions about the relative worth of various peoples. In fact, our society creates and perpetuated these injustices. It’s baked into the system, taught to us in our unspoken assumptions, our prescriptions of right and wrong, propriety and norms.

If we step back and look at it from the long view, we can see exactly where this came from. It’s not new. It didn’t fall from the sky like a mysterious alien artifact.

The racism of today is merely the continuation of the racism of yesterday. We pride ourselves that we’re better than our forbears, but it’s only a slight matter of degree.

Black people still are subject to a form of slavery in our system of mass incarceration. They are lynched – often by law enforcement – with little to no consequences for their killers. They go to increasingly segregated schools. And they often endure severe obstacles in order to vote.

Therefore, the battles of the 1860s and 1960s have never fully been decided. The Civil War is not yet over. Slavery continues in a new form. And racism is entrenched in our nation, communities and people.

But if we recognize that, we’ve taken the first step to building a new and better world.

Why the Rich Need Racists: Prejudice as Social Control

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HELP WANTED: RACISTS
Anywhere, USA

-Must have an irrational fear and hatred of all things African American.

-Must honestly believe black people get all the breaks, have it easier than whites.

-Must believe black people are naturally inferior to whites, lazy, prone to criminality, less intelligent, etc.

-Must believe racism ended with either (1) the civil rights movement or (2) slavery.

But must hide these beliefs under a thin veneer of civility. For instance:

-must never use the N-word (in public)

-must never beat or kill a black person (unless on the police force)

-must never light a burning cross on a black person’s lawn (and get caught)

-must never tweet or express these views publicly in a way that can be traced back to you.

Enjoyment of rap music, black culture or black sexual partners optional. Fox News viewership preferred.

Bonus pay if racism is unrecognized by the applicant.

No experience necessary. Apply within.”

If you saw an advertisement like the above posted in your local shop window, it really wouldn’t be so surprising. Would it?

Well maybe because of it’s bluntness. But it’s not really that different from campaign fliers for Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump vowing to “Make America Great Again!”

Throughout it’s history, when exactly was America great for black and brown people who have been denied equal rights? When was it great for women or LGBTs or a host of other non-cis/non-male/non-white people?

A pledge to make America great again is just a pledge to make America white again – or at least to propel male whiteness back to the center of normativity.

(In fact, much of what I’m going to say about racism here could also be said of all kinds of prejudice. But for the interest of clarity, I’ll try to contain myself to focusing on racism, though I acknowledge the high degree of intersectionality of the phenomena.)

Yep. A lot of folks are riled up because the flower of white male privilege is wilting, and they think too many are suggesting we let it die.

What can they do? White people’s only remaining claim on supremacy is based on a fleeting numerical majority that is fast coming to an end. Soon they’ll be outnumbered.

They’re so mad about even an incremental loss of white power, they’re willing to blind themselves to obvious injustices against people of color.

For instance, black people are killed by the police at twice the rate of white people. Unarmed black people are killed at five times the rate. Yet somehow it’s black folk’s own doggone fault.

What if he has a legal weapon, but it’s not anywhere in use? HIS FAULT.

What if he has no weapon? HIS FAULT.

What if he’s just a child? HIS FAULT.

What if it’s a woman mysteriously found hanged in her prison cell with no possible motive for suicide? HER FAULT.

What if he’s screaming in pain from an injury sustained in the police encounter? HIS FAULT.

What if he’s complaining on video that police are choking him and he dies as a result of those injuries? HIS FAULT.

I mean come on, people! How does a brotha’ got to die before white folks will admit to some culpability by police?
And that’s just one type of example. Consider: There are more black people in prison today than were slaves before the Emancipation Proclamation. Black people get harsher prison sentences than whites for the exact same crimes. Black people are segregated into poor communities with underfunded schools. People with black-sounding names are less likely to get a job than white counterparts with the same experience.

And on-and-on-and-on.

Yet you’ll find white apologists everywhere who will see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil of the racial caste system under which their black brothers and sisters are forced to live. They refuse to acknowledge it, get angry when you bring it up and will actively support it at the polls.

That’s racism, people.

It’s 2016. Legal slavery ended more than 150 years ago in this country. The civil rights movement ended more than 60 years ago. Why do we still have systematic racism baked into the fabric of America?

In 1963, the African American writer James Baldwin asked the same question. He said:

“The future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country. It is entirely up to the American people, and our representatives, it is entirely up to the American people whether or not they’re going to face and deal with and embrace the stranger who they’ve maligned for so long. What white people have to do is try to find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have the n****r in the first place. I am not a n****r. I am a man. But if you think I’m a n****r, it means you need it… You, the white people, invented him, and you have to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that.”

Why do white people need racism?

Today we have an answer. The short version would be this: because it’s useful.

It serves a function in society.

When people conceptualize each other into these highly dubious and unjustifiable categories of black and white, it provides a valuable service to the status quo. In fact, we couldn’t have the status quo without it.

When historians look back at the ancient Spartan empire of 900 -192 BC, there is little confusion why their society was so highly militarized. Few historians wonder why such a small population organized themselves into a military state. They needed to control the vast network of slaves dispersed throughout their community. The conquerors were massively outnumbered by the conquered so they resorted to militarized fear to keep their social structure intact. They weren’t afraid of invaders from without. They were afraid of invaders from within.

Likewise, if humanity survives our current moment in time, historians of the future will undoubtedly be in agreement about the reasons for American racism. It’s the same reason found in ancient Sparta. We need it to keep our society together.
In America today, the top one percent own more than the bottom 90 percent. The richest 85 people have as much wealth as the bottom half of the country. And it’s only getting worse.

A country with such vast wealth inequality cannot survive without a scapegoat – black people. The majority of the population would not let the top one percent gorge themselves on our riches unless they had distracted us with something.

Don’t pay any attention to the Wall Street bailout. Look at those welfare queens, which is code for black people sucking away our wealth.

Don’t pay attention to the overt militarization of the police force. Look at those violent black criminals they have to deal with by pulling their service pistols and shooting them into submission.

Don’t pay attention to the inequitable distribution of education funding to your public schools. Look at how these black kids don’t pull up their pants, and if they manage to graduate, they’re given undeserved preference over more qualified white people through affirmative action.

Think about it. Why do we have a sizable black population in the first place?

Slavery. The very presence of a substantial black population is attributable to market forces. We needed a cheap workforce for our agricultural industry – especially tobacco and cotton. It was a labor intensive process and the only way to make a substantial profit at it was immoral thrift. And you can’t get much cheaper than forced, generational servitude.

Why weren’t black people treated equally after the Civil War?

We still needed that cheap workforce. The wealth of our nation depended on it. We needed legal ways to keep them subjugated. We needed to keep them on the farm or in prison so the economic engine of agriculture could continue unabated. If they all had the right to vote or could protest their conditions, that would hurt the bottom line. They’d gain freedom, but we’d lose money. Not gonna’ happen.

Why didn’t equality come after the civil rights movement?

Agricultural mechanization had decreased the need for cheap labor, but having an underclass is profitable for whoever can take advantage of them. The invisible hand of the market will preserve human subjugation for as long as it can and as long as it turns a profit.

Moreover, throughout the entire history of this country, the rich have needed something to keep white labor in check, too. Fair wages, overtime pay, child labor laws, vacation pay, workplace safety – all of these rights had to be fought for tooth and nail – usually by the most demonized of social institutions, the labor unions. We needed something to stop the rising tide of economic fairness. Giving white workers someone to kick around made them more satisfied with their own lot in life and less willing to fight for a larger share of the pie.

It went something like this: You may have to work in the factory all day, but at least you aren’t one of THEM. You might be bone tired while the bosses get rich off of your labor, but at least you can feel proud of your race.

What an amazing swindle! The rich have actually convinced many hard-working white people to feel proud of the pigmentation of their skin! No. Not their cultural heritage. Not the struggle of their moms and dads, their ties to a homeland across the sea, their religion or ethnicity. No. The color of their skins!

If intelligent aliens ever crossed light years of space and time to investigate the intellect of human beings, that one fact would have them rushing back home shaking their tentacles and multiple heads in disbelief!

Just look at how racism has been used to justify the actions of the wealthy throughout history!

Europeans discover a New World in 1492 full of riches to plunder and exploit. But how do you justify doing that when it’s already populated? How can you do that morally? After all, doesn’t our God command we love our neighbors as ourselves? Isn’t murder and theft a… gulp… sin?

Well obviously the indigenous peoples don’t count. They’re not like us. They’re not Christians. They’re heathens.

But wait a minute! The church is forcing them to adopt our religion. This justification has a sell-by date. It won’t last long enough for us to suck every drop of wealth out of the Americas.

So we came up with a new way to dehumanize people – racism. It’s not just that they’re heathens. They’re subhuman, too. FWEW! Problem solved.

Then comes 1776. The American colonies revolt and write up some high minded language about all men being equal. If we actually believed that, it would necessitate a new social order. Much easier to find new justifications for the old one.

Well we already agreed the Native Americans are naturally inferior. These African slaves we stole are likewise beneath our high ideals. The same with women. And the poor. And immigrants. And homosexuals. And whoever else we need to subjugate. They just don’t count.

When idealism and capitalism have come into conflict, the rich have invariably chosen capitalism. And when the rest of us choose racism, prejudice, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia, we’re doing them a favor. We’re backing up their interests.

Stop being such chumps, white people!

A racist is invariably a traitor to his own class. A sexist is a sycophant to the smart set. A xenophobe is a diversion to the hands buried in your pocket robbing you blind.
Your interests have much more in common with all those people you’ve been taught to hate. You could be coming together in common cause with all those black and brown people. You could be rising up and demanding your due. We could join together and demand a fair shake, an equitable piece of our gross national product.

But instead we are content to protect an ever shrinking share of our national wealth if we can just keep that ridiculous and childish pride in our lack of melanin.

During the same interview, Baldwin was asked if he thought there was any hope America would change it’s ways. He said:

“I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive.”

I agree.

It’s all up to us, white people.

Racism doesn’t serve us. It subjugates us just like it does everyone else.

They throw us a bone and we jealously guard it like its a prime cut of steak.

When are we going to wake up? When are we going to put away hate and choose love?

When are we going to join our brothers and sisters in the struggle and demand what’s ours?

The rich may need racists, but we don’t.

What My Black Student Taught Me, His White Teacher, About Black Lives

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I can’t tell you how many times Darnell was in detention.

After a while, it didn’t feel right if he wasn’t staying at least an hour after school.

Darnell was late to class.

Darnell swore at another student.

Darnell copied someone’s paper.

Darnell did just about everything and anything that came to his mind. And it earned him time after school with me, his newly-minted 8th grade language arts teacher.

In a class full of mostly brown and black students, many living in an impoverished high crime Pittsburgh suburb, Darnell was the standout. Or at least his misbehavior was.

At first, he complained, but I had his mom on speed dial, and she fully supported my holding him accountable.

He wanted to do his homework during this time, but I made him do busy work instead. The way I looked at it as a young teacher just starting out, if I gave him time to do his school work, it would be a reward, not a punishment.

So I made him copy down dictionary definitions, clean the tables or put up the chairs.

And once he realized there was no way out, he did it all uncomplainingly.

But an hour is a long time, so after a while I let him work on his homework, too.

I had an awful lot of work to do, myself, during these times – piles of papers to grade and lessons to plan – so whatever would keep him quiet would be okay with me.

Unfortunately, Darnell didn’t work that way. He had questions. So many questions.

I had no time, but what else was I gonna’ do?

I answered him. With frustration at first while sitting at my desk.

Then I found myself walking over to him and standing at his table. Then I sat down next to him. And pretty soon we were doing the homework together.

But an hour is a long time, so sometimes he’d finish early. I offered to let him go.

He didn’t want to.

He’d stay and talk: “Did you see the football game, Mr. Singer?”

Or “Did you hear the new Beyoncé album, Mr. Singer?”

Or “How many kids do you have at home, Mr. Singer?”

One day I remember the last bell ringing and looking up to see Darnell at his desk doing homework. I looked back at my stack of papers before I realized – Darnell didn’t have detention today.

I laughed. “You can go home, Buddy,” I said.

“I know,” he replied. “Is it okay if I stay and get this done?”

I shouldn’t have been so surprised. But I was.

I nodded, and he stayed.

I won’t say Darnell ever became a perfect student. He just didn’t have the patience for detailed work. He was more of a big picture guy.

But after months of never turning in homework – years, really – he began to turn all of it in. And I mean all of it!

He wasn’t a great speller, but he started ending all of his sentences with punctuation. And he started all of his sentences with a capitalized word.

He wasn’t a great reader, but he did crack open a few books. Nothing too difficult or complex, but it was more than any teacher I talked to had ever seen him read previously.

At the end of the year, I remember pausing by his desk and praising him.

“Darnell, that’s some mighty fine work you did in here this year,” I said.

And he got this big ol’ grin on his face like he used to get before he was about to engage in some random act of mischief.

“Thanks, Mr. Singer. You’re a really good teacher.”

I smiled and said, “No, Darnell. You’re a good student.”

I remember looking him in the eye to emphasize it. This was a kid with a reputation. I’ll bet few teachers had ever commended him on his school work before.

Then the year ended, and he was gone.

He went on to 9th grade and did even better than in my class. The same in 10th, 11th and 12th.

Oh, sure. He was still a handful and got himself in trouble lots of times. But he did his work and didn’t fail his classes.

I kept an eye on him like I do all my students when they leave me. I try to keep tabs, but there’s always a new bunch just waiting for you at the beginning of the year.

You remember anytime you think about it, which isn’t much.

So it was years later when I heard the news.

Teachers were shaking their heads in the faculty room. The principal held a meeting to tell us about it in case any of our current students were upset, in case any of us had Darnell’s cousins, brothers, sisters, or friends.

He was only 18 when he was murdered.

Shot down in the streets from a passing car.

Police still don’t know whether he was the shooter’s target or if he was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The high school teachers, who knew Darnell best, said he had really straightened up his act. He had gotten into community college, wanted to be an engineer.

And they shook their heads. What else was there to say?

I walked back to my classroom and opened a file cabinet.

Inside was a bunch of dusty manila folders – one for each child I had ever made serve a detention.

It didn’t take long to spot Darnell’s. It was one of the thickest.

I opened it up and took out the stack of papers inside.

There were doodles of monsters and basketball players. There were lists of badly spelled vocabulary words in his adolescent handwriting. And there were these halting paragraphs about what he’d done to get detention and how he’d never do it again.

“I’m sorry I wuz late 2 class. I will ask to use bathrom before going.”

“i will not copy LaRonns paper. i will do it myself.”

I read through them all. Every one. I read them again and again until long after everyone else but the janitors had left the building.

I had spent so much time with Darnell.

I had poured my soul into that kid.

But what had it truly accomplished?

He is dead. A victim of his environment. Nothing but a number, a statistic, a footnote.

Just not to me.

By all accounts he had been trying to do good, trying to make something of himself. But it wasn’t enough. Bullets don’t discriminate between the hardworking and the lazy. They just do what they do.

In my mind I tried to see him walking home, a stack of books weighing him down, making him slow. I saw him walking past those ramshackle apartments and slums, that shady park with the broken benches, the street corners where you could buy heroin or pills or weed.

If he was white, would it have been different? If he was white and didn’t live in the “bad neighborhood,” would it have mattered?

If his mom didn’t have to work two or three jobs, would it have helped? If he had someone at home to watch him instead of a bunch of younger siblings and cousins to watch, would things be different?

I don’t know.

But I DO know that there is a list of dead children in my community – some of them my former students – and almost all of them are black.

Darnell wasn’t killed by a policeman, but I’m sure they knew his name. He used to tell me how the cops would often follow him and his friends into the grocery store. “Why they always be doin’ that?” he’d ask me. And I’d just shrug thinking about all the times he’d wait until I wasn’t looking before slapping another child on the neck.

But if Darnell had been white, would we have had different expectations of him? Would we have given him the benefit of the doubt to begin with – like we do white kids?

I wasn’t a very good teacher to Darnell. Every scrap of respect I gave him he had to earn. Why didn’t I give him that respect at the start? Why didn’t I expect the best and then change my expectations as the situation dictated? Why did I instead expect the worst and alter my expectations from there?

I never questioned if or why Darnell was seeking my attention. I just thought of his bad behavior. It was something I wanted to change, so here’s a punishment.

I never offered Darnell my help. I offered help to the class as a whole but not to Darnell individually. Not until he wore me down. Not until helping him was easier than arguing with him.

I never thought about Darnell’s needs. I thought about MY needs of Darnell. I need him to behave so I can teach. Never Darnell’s needs to behave so he can learn.

And there are so many other kids out there like him. I’ve taught so many other little Darnells.

I approach them differently now. It’s a lesson he taught me.

I may have bestowed upon him some spelling and grammar. He taught me humanity. Who is the better teacher?

He taught me to look at black children in a different way.

He taught me to come to them on their terms. To begin anew with an expectation that they will do well no matter what they’ve done in the past. He taught me to look beyond their behaviors and see them as little people. It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten, and it informs my teaching to this day.

As I sat there with that stack of dusty folders, I realized it doesn’t end at the classroom door.

I used to think being a parent, myself, I had an interest in the future. But that’s not entirely true. Being a parent is one of the most rewarding things you can do, but it isn’t selfless. It only means you care about your child. Not all children.

And that’s where being a teacher is different. After a while, you can’t be selfish anymore. You can’t care for only some people’s futures. You are essentially invested in a future for all, for everyone.

You can try to draw a line in the sand and say “I only care about THESE kids,” but it doesn’t work. You find yourself caring about all of them, all of the children who will become our world when we crumble to dust.

That’s how it should be for everyone.

As a human being, it is my responsibility to fight to make this world a better place for people like Darnell. It’s my responsibility to make sure they all have a future.

But it goes beyond even that. I’m not just any person. I’m a white person.

All the things stacked against a kid like Darnell were stacked in my favor. I lived in a good neighborhood. Police never followed me anywhere. No matter how much I misbehaved, it was always expected I wouldn’t cause any trouble – unless I did.

So it’s my responsibility as a white person to fight my privileged place in society. It’s my responsibility to ensure that black people aren’t held back by entitlements I have not earned and handicaps they do not deserve.

As a white teacher, it is my responsibility to see the best in my children – in ALL of my children. It is my responsibility to meet them where they are and give them support and nurturing and love.

To do so I must see beyond the walls of invisible prejudice. I must see the hurdles, the traps, the maze so I can help them overcome it.

Because Darnell never got to go to college. He never got to become an engineer.

But his life mattered.