Over and over I have heard the same question arise from the average person: “Why does it always have to come down to a race thing?”
It’s on Fox “news”, it’s in my news feed, it’s been tweeted, etc. etc. Often followed by them saying that the don’t care about color, and why don’t people just do the right thing? Why does there have to be such disparity? Why can’t people just get along? Why can’t we just trust the system? Why can’t you just use the courts to get justice? Isn’t this just about upholding the law and those breaking it?
Why does it always have to come down to a race thing?
You asked (or at least read the questions), so I will tell you.
The problem comes down to understanding the issue and the scope. It is not simply a matter of respecting authority, and you cannot view it as an isolated incident and be honest. Understand that that while you may not care what race, color or creed a person is, many people in positions of authority, positions of control and just in large numbers do care about what race, color or creed a person is, and they bring those biases, prejudices and beliefs into the systems that should have no place for them…but time and time again they do, as evidenced by the over representation of brown people within the prison system, the armed forces and the impoverished neighborhoods across the country. You ask why does there have to be such a disparity and the answer is that our country was built upon that disparity and ingrained in our way of life.
Our country was constructed on slave labor and the creation of a permanent underclass. I don’t mean this in the general way that our high school history covers things, with a fleeting glance that talks about plantation slaves and cruel overseers, Jefferson Davis and the South versus the North…I mean it in the little known facts that are a significant part of our history and laying the foundation for the society that exists today. The fact that Wall Street was where you could rent out your slaves for the day, that the Capitol building in Washington DC was built by slave labor, that many companies started with slave labor to build themselves up. That it was so interwoven into our culture that we didn’t give it a second thought. For 242 years in this country, one group was in bondage, providing free labor and economic growth that bolstered the coffers and position of another, all while enduring rape, murder, mutilation, and all manner of atrocities that psychologically and morally decimated the soul of brown people. And once slavery was abolished, the same practices continued under Jim Crow LEGALLY until just over 50 years ago. As a people we have been enslaved longer than we have been free, and when you add in Jim Crow, we are barely two generations out.
This is not hyperbole or rhetoric, these are facts, easily researched, difficult to read and accept. They are a part of our history. A dark and shameful part, that we don’t like to think about because it hurts.
It hurts to think about it and this makes people defensive. Why? Because when you talk about white privilege and the advantages gleaned from it, people automatically assume there’s an active component. That there is an accusation inherent in talking about White privilege that they actively participated in the oppression…
The vast majority of White people had no more to do with the development of the system and the creation of the advantages anymore than the vast majority of Black people had anything to do with the disparity that exists for them…of course some people erroneously believe that Black people are exclusively responsible for the position they are in, but the truth is that these are integrally linked. You cannot have one without the other. They are the results of the circumstances of our country’s history and action and even inaction.
To put this in perspective, think of a relay race with two teams. The rules are set by the first team because it’s their track (well, actually the claimed it from another school that was still in session, but I digress) and they decide the members of the second team have to carry them for the first half of the race. At that point the first team climbs down, rested and ready, but only they get credit for the number of laps already run. So the second team not only is starting from a point further back in the cycle of the race, but they are tired and worn down. So they have to run harder and faster in order to just keep up, to compete they are going to have to run twice as much. Meanwhile, the first team keeps questioning why the second can’t compete, after all, they both started at the same point on the track at the halfway mark…
And to bring it full circle, it’s a relay race, with each generation being new to the race, but being handed a baton that carries with it the position and the laps completed by the previous generation. So even though they weren’t involved at the beginning, they claim the position of their forerunners…
That is what privilege and systemic racism is in an allegorical nutshell.
It’s not about wanting it, or liking it, or pursuing it, it’s where you are in the race.
Jonathan Palmer is the Executive Director of Hallie Q. Brown Community Center.