But from my understanding, that’s not the experience of the black community. For their community, events are more interconnected, not just from location to location, but from past to present. When George Floyd was killed by police, a black man saw himself the last time he was pulled over by a cop for no apparent reason. When George Floyd was killed by police, a woman saw herself denied a job interview because of her name. When George Floyd was killed by police, a black boy saw his father who was unjustly imprisoned on trumped up charges. When George Floyd was killed by police, a black girl saw her brother who went to prison for 20 years on crack cocaine charges, while a white guy in the gentrified neighborhood a few blocks over only served time for powder cocaine. For centuries, whites have both consciously and subconsciously treated minorities, and specifically black people, as a group - a group to subjugate, a group to humiliate, a group to scapegoat, a group to exploit, or a group upon whom we could vent our frustrations. So when George Floyd was victimized, it wasn't just George Floyd, it was every black man and woman who felt the sting.
As a white person who was just beginning to attempt an understanding of the black experience, this chasm between the individual and group perspective was huge. I just didn't see the world as a "white man." I saw the world as me. My change of heart and desire to understand more isn’t because I used to be a hateful racist and now I’m not. No, I’ve never hated people of color. But that didn't stop me from harboring ideas and biases which were racist, or in being complicit with racist systems, structures, and friends/family. Like most who aren't overtly racist, I think my difficulty came from both my ignorance of history, and my ignorance of experience, coupled with a selfish arrogance which refused self-reflection and the potential loss of my privileges from such soul searching. I failed to recognize that being handed priveleges in society made me complicit, in a sense, with perpetuated injustices if I did nothing to learn about them and fix them. Understanding my responsibility was a huge first step for me. In that light, I want to take my fellow white community through the journey which helped me desire to join in advocacy for the black community. I don't expect that I am going to offer something you can't get from many other resources, other than that perhaps seeing my thought process may help make something click for you. But if just one more story and point of view can add to the critical mass needed for people to reflect, I hope this helps.
Ignorance of History
I’m not amazed at what I was taught in history class and through the media. It was pretty standard stuff. What is amazing are the parts which were left out. The black experience took up relatively small portions of our curriculum (to say nothing of the experience of other minorities), and when they were mentioned, we mostly emphasized the resolutions of their plight. Yes, slavery existed, but we spent our time discussing the valor of the white men who saved the Africans and freed them through self-sacrificial battle. See, slavery was fixed! Yes, segregation and discrimination existed in the United States after slavery was ended, but we didn’t spend our time talking about lynchings or continuing injustices, we talked about the Civil Right’s Movement and its resolution of the problem, which again, was only fixed when whites started putting their lives and/or reputations on the line (e.g. The Kennedys, Johnson, and the Freedom Riders). I didn’t see it then, but I see it now. It always took white people to save minorities. Part of that is because the white community has a savior complex, whether that’s played out in our altruism in developing countries or here at home. Whenever someone is saved, we envision ourselves as their savior. Conversely, whenever someone is oppressed, we never view ourselves as the oppressor, but view the oppressed as individually culpable. But beyond our savior complex inserting itself into all the resolutions in black history, there was something even more nefarious going on, because our white savior narrative was, in a sense, true. The black community did only experience significant leaps in their rights when white people stepped in. But that’s not because blacks like Tubman, Stowe, King, Jr., X, or Parks didn’t build tremendous movements – because they did. Instead, it’s because whites were fine letting blacks remain enslaved or remain in social chains. It’s only when whites were attacked or killed (e.g. Fort Sumter and the Freedom Riders) that moral force from the white community reached critical mass. We can stomach the deaths of others (blacks) more than our own (whites). Maybe that view is a bit cynicl, but I'm not so sure.
While I am no expert on history, I want to provide you with an oversimplified and succinct narrative of racism as I have begun to understand it through American history. I am hitting on some of the major issues which have impacted me, and I’m sure there are a thousand issues of which I’m unaware that could be added to this list. But the majority of events I mention here are pretty major and undisputed. Nevertheless, if you are white, I would bet you haven’t heard of at least half of these issues.
Slavery (1776-1865): Everyone knows about slavery, of course, though it’s unfortunate that some think this institution wasn’t as bad as it was. But it was indeed terrible. There were often poor living conditions, fear of beatings, long work days, separation of families, rape, forced breeding, mutilation, execution, neglect, dehumanization, withholding of learning and other freedoms, and I’m sure some other things I’m missing. And that’s for those who made the arduous journey across the Atlantic, from Africa.
A New Slavery: But after the Civil War, while things may have improved on a relative scale, black people were still enslaved (1776-1865). The slavery just looked a little different. With a lack of opportunity for jobs due to being unqualified or from discrimination against black people, many were essentially forced into sharecropping or other menial labor, which was often essentially just legal slavery (1865-1965). Others, of course, were funneled into the prison system through the creation of new laws targeting them, and pointed discrimination by the police forces in order to fill prisons or follow antiquated laws created with racial intent (1865-present). This isn’t just a past event either. As just one example, in Ferguson, Missouri, “manner of walking” (or “walking while black,” as the community called it) was a crime which could get you stopped by the cops. This law was so subjective, it basically allowed the police to stop whoever they wanted (and the federal investigation found that they stopped black men almost exclusively). This funneling of blacks into the criminal spotlight was also legal slavery - so legal, in fact, that it’s one of the very amendments (the 13th) written into the Constitution. Prisoners may legally be enslaved. Today there are still places where groups of mostly black men are working on plantations as literal and legal slave labor, though often it appears more benign than this. Prisoners frequently work for slave wages in the service of companies and communities. On top of this, laws were created in many areas which dehumanized and disinherited prisoners even further, like those which took away the right for prisoners to vote upon their release (1865-present). If you can create laws to get a black man in jail, you get years of free, slave labor, and then a voiceless peon upon his release.
Of course that wasn’t the only way to take power away from the black community. Other initiatives were taken, and still are, to neuter the black vote. Poll taxes and literacy tests, though now illegal, were once easy ways to selectively keep blacks from voting (1865-1964). Today, stringent voter ID requirements are a different way (1950-present). While ensuring that only citizens vote is important, many of the voter ID law requirements specifically impact minorities. Minorities are disproportionately impacted by voter ID laws because they are less likely to have access to state ID facilities (particularly minorities in non-urban areas), they are less likely to be able to pay fees and have use of the ID elsewhere, and they are more likely to have a name which is different on their birth certificate than the name by which they are known - for a variety of reasons. When you see a proposal for voter ID that is more stringent in some places than an application to other government services, like welfare, or which requires a very limited pathway, you can be sure that racial discrimination is afoot. And when all else fails at keeping people away from the polls, you can, of course, keep the polls from meaning anything. Gerrymandering, which is sometimes racially pointed, and sometimes not, is yet another political tool implemented in order to keep the votes from having an impact in elections (1812-present).
And of course, when all else failed, there was execution. Up until the end of Jim Crowe in the South, lynching and beatings were not uncommon. “The Red Record” book and this website are two great resources which record some of the known lynchings which have occurred throughout American history (1776-1981). These lynchings sometimes occurred in order to shut up vocal blacks, and sometimes occurred as a punishment for any black merely accused of a crime, prior to any legal judgment. While I knew of the existence of lynching, I had never realized how prevalent they were. Even worse, I had always pictured in my mind, as with slavery, that the bad apples were a small group. Sure, there was lynching, but it was carried out by small bands of deplorables in the community. Then I did some reading, and was disgusted to discover that lynching was not an “under the cover of darkness” event. No, it was done in the light. The worst of these lynchings was that of Jesse Washington (1916), a mentally ill young man who was hung by a chain under his arms, hoisted up and down over a fire for hours, had his hands and feet chopped off so he couldn’t climb up the chain and away from the fire, and was castrated while he was still alive. That’s pretty bad, right? Now factor in that there was a crowd of over 10,000 watching this event, postcards were made with the body, and then sent by attendees to friends and family. And lest you think this is an isolated case and only happened in the South, the same thing occurred in places like Indiana with Shipp and Smith lynchings (1930) to a crowd of about 5,000, including women and children. Once again, postcards were sold. Whatever you thought of lynchings, they often were not discrete events, and represented the hearts of a broad swath of the white community, North and South. Even if the act itself was discrete, like the infamous murder of Emmit Till (1955), the communal approval and participation was solidified in the almost universal exoneration and subsequent celebration of the murderers by their communities.
But fear of enslavement and death weren’t the only oppressions faced by the black community. The community also faced hardship as they attempted to advance themselves. Discrimination in hiring, rental housing, and bank loans (1776-1964) meant that blacks had a harder time earning income, starting businesses, or buying land. “Red lining” was a common phenomenon which shaped many of our cities in the United States. Through discriminatory practices, as well as through legislation which specifically districted property in ways which helped the white community while harming the black community, blacks had a difficult time advancing financially and professionally. This practice still exists today, though there is legal recourse for discrimination. However, some banks have also begun “reverse redlining,” otherwise known as predatory lending (to-present). Couple this with the segregation of schools (1776-2001 as seen in “NAACP Jacksonville Branch v. Duval County School” ruling, though de jure segregation is arguably still present), and the white flight (1950-present) which ensued after desegregation, having the effect of re-segregating schools, and inequality and injustice continued. And when blacks did make advances, like those in Seneca Village (1853), which stood where Central Park is now, or in the “Black Wall Street” of Greenwood, Oklahoma (1921), the communities figured out ways to acquire their property or burn the competition to the ground.
While all of these things were occurring, a fantastic opportunity arose for blacks to advance. After World War II, the G.I. Bill went into effect (1944-1956), which rewarded those who had served in the military to receive benefits which extended to higher education and housing. In theory, this applied to blacks who had served in the military, but as they attempted to enter many colleges or get loans in particular parts of the country, they found that the bill did them no good, as colleges and banks refused to acknowledge their benefits. With all of these discriminations compounded, the United States, while desegregated on paper, fostered continued desegregation and exacerbated it in some ways. Whole cities and regions were now zoned by race (1910-present). And since blacks, who had been denied nearly every opportunity to advance economically and socially were now effectively segregated (on top of the white flight and shady districting), schools became increasingly unequal. As impoverished minorities, through circumstance and not choice, were forced into remaining in zones where those with opportunities and white skin left, public schools funded by local property taxes began to diverge (to present). In the white suburbs, schools became nicer, better equipped, and better staffed, while those in the minority areas had little income, and therefore few resources with which to provide a quality environment for their students. In a post-Civil Right’s Era which demolished so many of the previous barriers to equality, education was the tool to one’s advancement. But it is clear that the effects of generations of racism means that the playing field hasn’t really leveled. Racism and its effects are still ingrained into the system.
And now, with all of these effects of racism heaped upon our society, we have a group who has been overtly discriminated against and held back throughout history and up to the present time, held back in social and economic advancement, denied equal education because of how our educational system is structured, and now statistically suffer the consequences. With poverty rates understandably higher in the black community, the results of poverty now run rampant. Two parent homes are less common, dysthymic disorder (perpetual depression as opposed to major onset depression) seems to be higher, education levels tend to be lower, and crime rates and all that entails (e.g. death by homicide) are higher as well. Whether consciously or subconsciously, blacks are often viewed by the criminal justice system and legislators as natural criminals, which can be seen in the types of laws aimed towards them (e.g. “walking while black”), the disparity in legislation (e.g. longer sentences for black oriented crimes like crack cocaine vs. white oriented crimes like powder cocaine), disparity in length of sentencing (e.g. blacks are sentenced to longer terms, on average, than whites for the same crime), and the disproportionate rate and degree of violence exacted against the black community by the police. In this way, a community which has been dominated by fear and ravaged by oppression continues to reap oppression and destruction in their communities as fathers and brothers are taken away or killed in greater degrees than their white counterparts.
In all of these deep-rooted systemic issues, I have also failed to mention incidents which were done on smaller scales and at moments in history, but which are representative of the oppression which just seems to be piled up against the black community by the majority who views them as disposable. As just a representative sample, let me mention the Tuskegee Experiments and the prison experiments (around 40 known prison experiments conducted in the U.S., some of which impacted blacks to a higher degree than others). Black men, prisoners, and patients in insane asylums were subjected to diseases and experimental treatments against their will, for the good of others. And then, of course, there was a Supreme Court case, Buck v. Bell (1927), in which the United States established that forced sterilization of those with lower IQ’s was constitutional and good. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “one generation of imbeciles is enough.” Though this really focused on the impoverished at large and we don't have numbers on the race of those sterilized, it makes sense that black minorities would be disproportionately impacted (as were the Native American communities through precedents and attitudes like these). Sadly, at the Nuremburg trials, the Nazis pointed to this very case (and other eugenics activity) in the United States as a justification for what they did.
Ignorance of Experience
The second reason I struggled with being a vocal advocate for the black community was due to my ignorance of experience. I mean this in two ways.
First, the experience of experiencing is different for me than it is for many blacks. When I walk down the street, I’m just a person walking down the street. When I apply for a job, I’m just another candidate who has a chance at getting a job. My individual experiences are exactly that. They’re experiences of myself, independent of anyone else. But that’s not how many blacks experience things.
When a black woman, Shakwanda, applies for a job, she knows her name is clearly a “black” name. There’s a good chance that to her potential employers, they fail to see Shakwanda, and instead, see their stereotype of a black woman. Shakwanda is not Shakwanda, she’s every black woman, or at least the stereotype of them. When Malik, a well-to do lawyer is parked in his car outside his nice, suburban home, he has to worry about sitting in his car for too long lest those in the community see a black man hovering around the nice neighborhood and call the cops. Malik isn’t Malik, a neighbor and a respected professional, he’s every black man, or at least the stereotype of them.
My experience as a white individual is very different than many experiences our black neighbors have. I am an individual with individual experiences while they are individuals with few individual experiences, and many collective ones.
The second ignorance of experience for me was my lack of black friends. I know, I know, it’s so cliché for white people to point to black friends as their non-racist card. But seriously, having black friends – and I mean good friends, not mere acquaintances – is important in helping us understand the black community. I have sucked at this, likely for a lot of personal reasons, but also because of how my life was structured. The places I lived and the institutions I attended (largely private, Christian schools) were almost completely devoid of any minority. Relationship is a far different teacher than a textbook, as love and concern for our friend causes us not just hear, but listen to their story. When the black community, which tends to vote differently than us, speaks on an issue, they are just political enemies and hurdles for us. Why would we listen to those who are impediments to us? But when we have black friends, or when we choose to shut up and listen to the black community and not dismiss all of their collective experiences as incongruent with our own individual experiences, things change. And what changes is what most needs to change first – our own hearts. I spent most of my life outside of the black community and judging into it, demanding that their community change and fix itself. In reality, it was my heart and our hearts which needed to change so the black community could feel heard, loved, respected, and maybe for the first time in American history, feel as though they were recognized as equally human.
I still suck. I don’t really have any close black friends. But I’ve started to listen to the community, and my heart’s transformation is something which makes me seek change in myself.
The Conservative Response
Having grown up and still now living in a conservative community, I know that there are two main lines of push-back I’m going to get here.
First, some conservatives have a problem with group narratives because it makes them think of Marxism, Communism, Socialism, or countries like China and the former Soviet Union which engaged in class warfare and imputed guilt to whole groups of people. That is not at all what this is. I am not saying that all, or even most whites are guilty of hating black people. What I am saying is that as a general rule, the America I’ve been handed and experienced is different than the ones my black brothers and sisters have been handed and experience. As a Christian, my job is to take this much which I have received and steward it well for justice. I am not to view my privilege, opportunities, and possessions as either fortunate happenstance or meritorious earnings I can relish in, but rather as blessings which my Father has given me as tools to extend his reign, through love and justice, in the world. I don’t inherit the guilt of my forefathers, but I do inherit the privileges they have handed down to me, which were often created through their injustices. How I use that privilege is most certainly my responsibility, to which God will one day hold me severely accountable.
Second, if listening to the black community and learning about history doesn’t work, conservatives will still try to deny that systemic issues exist. They will argue that George Floyd’s death was an isolated incident which has no connection to the history of injustice and oppression laid out in my succinct history above, or in all the data we see in the criminal justice system. The cop who killed Floyd didn’t intend to kill him, so Floyd’s death isn’t racially charged. Such a denial ignores how our society has dictated to each of our minds through its structuring, black and white alike, that Floyd and/or his community was a threat, and strong authority had to be maintained. I have no doubt in my mind that the cop who killed Floyd was not seeking to murder minorities, but that doesn’t mean his actions weren’t directed by his personal, subconscious views of minorities, which in large part, reflect our society’s subconscious views of minorities.
At the same time, many conservatives will point to racism as a thing of the past, pointing out black individuals who have been successful in America. I agree that we have come a long way, and opportunities are certainly much better for minorities today. But can you take individual, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, success stories and make them prescriptive for the whole community? Conservatives may argue that this is exactly what I’m doing with police violence towards blacks, so why aren’t they entitled to do the same thing?
It seems to me like success for blacks is a little like playing the lottery. You have to get lucky that the ticket is sold in your area, you have to get lucky at guessing the right numbers, and you have to have the money to buy some tickets. The more money you have, the better your chances. Similarly, the United States does offer opportunity to succeed. But if you’re in a run down neighborhood with terrible schools, your father left and you get a job to take care of your family, you have no parental support for tutoring or assistance, you try to stay out on the streets as much as possible because your mom’s boyfriend abuses you when you’re at home, you have no time, you’re scared for your life with all the gangs around, you view authority and culture as against you because you know too many people accosted by the police, and selling drugs offers you the best chance at surviving and providing for your family who won’t eat if you don’t – your odds of “winning the lottery” are low. Admittedly, this is a somewhat extreme example (though more common than those of us who are extremely sheltered want to acknowledge). But there are plenty of kids out there, with minorities making up a disproportionate number, who find that playing the lottery does not favor them. Society tells them that gambling is bad. For white people, that means you they should invest in school instead of trying to make it big in a rock band, since school’s the sure thing. But for many minorities, school is the gamble. Pointing out that some people win the lottery provides no hope for most, just as it likely provides no hope for you, because chances are, you don’t play the lottery. Why? Because you know your odds.
At the same time, racially charged events, like the killing of George Floyd, seem to me more like a lightning strike. When lightning approaches, everyone does the smart thing and runs inside. If you’re outdoors, you try to get away from the tallest objects, any lone objects with significant height, and out of the middle of wide open fields. You know that lightning could strike you or anyone else without warning and without reason (as far as you can calculate). Everyone fears lightning as it could strike anywhere.
If I have heard correctly, that’s how black people view police killings and other racially charged events (like being stopped for no apparent reason). Black men, like Philando Castile, try to comply with police, and get killed. Black men, like George Floyd, submit to being handcuffed, and then wind up dead. Sandra Bland gets taken to jail and winds up dead in her cell. Ahmaud Arbery takes a look at a vacant property, like lots of other people, and gets killed by vigilantes. Lightning strikes, and it strikes again. You never know where it’s going to strike next or what precipitates it. There’s no rationale to it other than that you were at the wrong place at the wrong time, or you were black.
When you compare these two scenarios - the pull yourself up by the bootstraps and the denial of collective experiences of racism – they seem completely different to me. In the first, those who see others buy into the lottery and win gain no hope for themselves because they don’t gamble. What connection does some lucky person have with them? At the same time, when another black man gets killed or another black man gets pulled over for no apparent reason, it perpetuates fear in the black community. You don’t have to buy into “lightning” to get struck by it. It chooses you, and it does so in large part regardless of what you do. Both games of chance, the lottery and the lightning, are games which instill and foster hopelessness in a community who doesn’t want chance, but equality treatment and opportunity. It's just that the first game you have to buy into for a slim chance, while the second is one you can't avoid.
Whether we like it or not, the black community has a collective experience because the white collective has given itself advantages which allow them to experience life to its fullest, as individual humans with equal value. It is unjust to view blacks as a collective and structure society to ingrain this in us and them, and then deny them their grievance of experiencing injustice collectively. I don’t claim to know how to solve everything, or anything, but I think a good place to start is by listening and advocating. By using our individual voices to speak to our collective, hold ourselves accountable, and call for change, we may eventually find that our fighting for “them” to be acknowledged as those like “us” will make it so that we become “we,” the People.
*There are tons of resources out there, but one which really helped bridge the gap for me was "Scene on Radio." The series was great, but you can also find follow-up resources through them.