Let me get one thing straight right away. I am white, and as a white male, I think I get this much: I will never be able to internalize what it is like to be black in America the way a black person does. This strikes me as axiomatic, or at least it would seem to be axiomatic to anyone who is not deaf and blind and who knows something about American history and the ongoing struggle against racism. But it is also a realization that often makes me wary about treading into the volatile conversation about race relations in America. If I cannot relate to the experience of being black, what say do I have in any conversation about the ongoing problem of racism? It sometimes seems that all I am expected to do is shut up and listen.
That’s fine. But then what? Am I simply to be told what to think? That is not helpful, since it also strikes me as axiomatic that rote learning pales in comparison to asking questions and having occasional disagreements and carrying on with a healthy skepticism, all of which are key parts of any honest discussion and analysis, and are also among the most effective ways to cultivate active interest in a subject and ultimately to build awareness and understanding.
So can I ever actively participate in the cause to end racism in America? Can I offer ideas of my own on how to help? The answer, I believe, is yes. Being white does not disqualify me from the conversation. For example, think of someone who has never picked up a drink in his life, but who was raised by parents who were alcoholics. This person, who does not know the taste of a good Chardonnay or Cabernet, who does not know the mirth and merriment to be had from a fresh bottle of sack like the immortal sir John Falstaff, this is nevertheless a person who knows how addiction to alcohol can destroy the internal fabric of home and family. Like a teetotaler who has not the palate of a wine connoisseur but whose upbringing leaves him alert to the corrosive effects of alcohol addiction, a white man who can never know internally the frustrations of being black in America is not forever blind to the straightjacket that racial prejudice places on the skin of black America.
So for starters, here’s what I have to say, as a white man in America, to anyone who may wish for the race issue to go away:
It is most certainly true that we have come a long way as a country. Poverty is still poverty, but it is not the poverty of a hundred years ago. Sickness is still sickness, but health care is far superior to what it was a hundred years ago, and I would venture to say that far fewer people live outside the vicinity of a doctor or hospital, where they can go to receive emergency care they cannot afford and would be denied but for the Hippocratic Oath (please disabuse me of the notion if you have the data). Inequality has become more gaping over the last few decades, but unlike a hundred years ago, those at the bottom still have iPhones, iPods, television, video games, food stamps, indoor plumbing, electricity, and other amenities that were unavailable a hundred years ago to those most desperately in need. And on the all-important issue of race, there is no longer any slavery or Jim Crow, and a categorical ban on racial discrimination is written into law. The N word is regarded as hate speech.
Yes, we have come a long way. But none of that matters as much as a more poignant reality with which we live today, especially in light of racial tensions that have gripped the country over the last few years with a force and passion I have not seen since the days of Rodney King and the ’92 riots. And that is the reality that we still have a long, long way to go. At the turn of the twentieth century, America had also come a long way. There were railroads, telegrams, telephones, streetcars, and electricity (though much of this probably was available almost exclusively to the middle and upper classes). America had fought a civil war, and the union prevailed. It had become a world power after the Spanish-American War. And on the issue of race, it had abolished slavery, made a pass at Reconstruction, and made inroads in the cause of black education and economic progress.
But no reasonable person would say that progress should have stopped there. Not only was it a world without a social safety net, without television, without automobiles (except for the rich), without radio, without consumer electronics, and without the Internet. It was also a world when W.E.B. DuBois was writing about why Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise was the wrong cause, why it failed to reap the full social and political potential of black America, why it represented an intolerable concession to a racist society even if it was conceived as a necessary compromise in a world where the very fiber of white America’s being held blacks to be second-class citizens, and why it denied black America the same humanity and privilege and full enfranchisement afforded to white America. It was a world in which Reconstruction had miserably failed. It was a world when Plessy vs. Ferguson had legalized segregation by validating the institutionalization of separate but (supposedly) equal public facilities.
Now here we are, a hundred or so years later, in the digital age, with hybrid cars and airplanes and iPads and satellite television. But we are not different from our ancestors of a century ago in one crucial aspect: there is still so much more progress to be made in the redress of racial injustice. If W.E.B. DuBois said the problem of the twentieth century was the problem of the color line, the problem of the twenty-first century is: what do we do now that we have crossed that line? How do we address the ongoing legacy of institutional racism? How do we address the ongoing resource discrepancies between rich and poor communities which, in part, reflect this history of racism? How do we address the problem of how, according to one study which (as distilled in a New York Times article), though it found no racial bias in police shootings, found that, for every 10,000 stops of civilians by policemen in New York City during the stop-and-frisk era of 2003-2013 (according to police reports, and controlling for gender, age, police precinct, the reason for the stop, whether the stop was indoors or outdoors, the time of day, whether the stop took place in a high-crime area or during a high-crime time, whether the officer was in uniform, the type of identification provided, and whether others were stopped), police are still 17 percent more likely to use their hands with blacks than whites, 18 percent more likely to push blacks into a wall than whites, 16 percent more likely to use handcuffs on blacks than whites, 19 percent more likely to draw their weapons on blacks than whites, 18 percent more likely to push blacks to the ground than whites, 24 percent more likely to point their weapon at blacks than whites, and 25 percent more likely to use pepper spray or a baton on blacks than whites? How do we address the problem that similar results are found in the study for ‘compliant’ citizens stopped by police in New York City? And how do we address the problem that, based on civilian accounts from a national survey conducted by the federal government, the study found that blacks were 170 percent more likely than whites to be grabbed by police, 217 percent more likely than whites to be handcuffed by police, 305 percent more likely than whites to have a gun pointed at them by police, and 87 percent more likely than whites to be kicked or subject to a stun gun or pepper spray by police (after adjusting for type of encounter, self-reported behavior, gender, age, employment status, income, population size of civilian’s home, time of day and officer race)?
The study was conducted by Roland G. Fryer Jr., a self-professed disciple of W.E.B. DuBois and one of the most prominent young economists in America. He is also black, the youngest black economist to be awarded tenure at Harvard and the only black economist to win the John Bates Clarke medal (if you don’t know what that means, look it up). In a New York Times write up of his latest study, he is quoted as saying: “Who the hell wants to have a police officer put their hand on them or yell and scream at them? It’s an awful experience,” he said. “Every black man I know has had this experience. Every one of them. It is hard to believe that the world is your oyster if the police can rough you up without punishment. And when I talked to minority youth, almost every single one of them mentions lower level uses of force as the reason why they believe the world is corrupt.”
When one of the most prominent young black economists in America says this, it is hard for a white man such as myself to deny an obvious reality. It is a measure of great progress that we can and continue to have these conversations, that we are at a point in our history when the fight for racial equality and justice is real and poignant and pointing in the right direction, and that a black man like Fryer—who grew up in a family that included crack dealers and a father who was an alcoholic, gambler, and rapist—can become one of the most prominent young economists in America. But as Fryer’s study shows, the large discrepancy in perception between whites and blacks about the integrity of the police force, as show in one recent poll which found that a majority of blacks rate their local police department fair or poor and (unlike with whites and Hispanics) 40 percent of black people say the police make them feel more anxious than safe, is not unfounded in facts and reality (though Fryer’s finding that there is no racial bias in police shootings contrasts with the poll’s finding that three-quarters of African-Americans answered yes to the question of whether the police in most communities are more likely to use deadly force against a black person than a white person).
So if I ask myself what I have to say, as a white man, about race in America, it is this: in spite of the progress that has been made on many fronts in our nation’s history, we still have a long, long way to go in America before the color line is a thing of the distant past, before the sins of slavery are redeemed, before a black man in America can walk down the street and not feel a thump in his heartbeat, a stiffening of his body, or a clenching of his teeth, when he sees a police officer stare him down with eyes of suspicion, distrust, or hostility. That realization seems a first step toward empathy, and empathy is a first step toward awareness, and awareness is the first step toward action which, we can only hope, will bring us another step closer toward racial equality and justice. As a white man in America, that is my hope.
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