I want to preface this opinion by stating that my premises lay buried in my North American roots. I think that what I say can be cautiously extrapolated to the West in general, but please understand that my comprehension of culture is very limited and my archetypes don’t match other areas of the world (at least not with any sort of confidence).
On Monday, author and speaker Jemar Tisby visited Dordt as part of the First Monday Lecture Series put on by the Andreas Center. I attended both his 11 AM lecture as well as his evening Q&A session. My thoughts on the ideas Tisby shared will be saved for another time, but he made a call to action that I couldn’t shake from my brain and has thus driven me to write what is below.
This call was twofold: First, he expressed that black people are exhausted of always having to be the ones to stand up for and explain themselves, their culture, and their history and shouldn’t have to anymore. Second, he encouraged white students to, even if they are awkward and stumble, rise to their feet in the fight against racism and against the ignorance that so many Caucasians have of minorities.
This is my attempt to address one of the many facets of race relations that I perceive to be a driving factor in the ravenous cycle that continually widens the divide between God’s children.
It is clear to anyone who has even the smallest background in western civilization that now-underprivileged minorities—especially Africans—have been subjugated by the lighter-skinned Europeans since early in recorded history. Warlords, empires and even democratic states have, for millennia, sought to rule over people with darker skin.
I’m obviously generalizing dramatically. Very smart people have written a many PhD theses on the innumerable intricate ways groups across the globe may have been marginalized at some point in history by some principality or power. Recognizing this, it would be impossible for me in this column (nay, in this lifetime) to come close to giving this topic the historical and academic rigor that it deserves. Forgive me for that.
It shall suffice to say that through a variety of means such as colonization, war, unjust laws, and cultural prejudices, racial minorities in the West have—on average—been prevented from acquiring and growing capital at the rate that Caucasians have—on average. (Of course there are exceptions to this rule—please don’t go off listing rap artists and white trash as proof that the casting doesn’t match the die. I still maintain the belief that anyone born into a society with as much freedom as the US, can—save being the victim of some debilitating tragedy—improve their socioeconomic status significantly. I don’t think all people have equal opportunity to move up, but I think anyone can.)
What better example of this phenomenon is there than the pre-Emancipation Proclamation South? While white folk in the south were growing richer via cotton production—accruing capital in the form of land, cash and luxuries—on the backs of slaves, who themselves had no property rights.
Indeed, African Americans couldn’t even own themselves.
The current impacts of historical realities like these are undeniable. Slavery, segregation and Jim Crow laws are thankfully relics of the past; but while attaining legal equity is as easy as the stroke of a pen accompanied by maybe a couple growing pains in the form of lawsuits (and I don’t mean to in any way downplay the civil rights movement), bridging the socioeconomic gap has proven to be a much, much harder feat.
It’s not a hard concept to understand. If two men, in all other ways equal, are told to fish for their food, but only one is given a fishing pole, it’s no mystery who will catch the first fish and who will catch more fish. Sometime later, the pole-less man may be able to procure a pole like the first man, only to find that he has no bait. In the meantime the first man has sold his fish for building supplies, diverted the river to his private pond, and forbade the second man from accessing his private stock.
Such is the sad story of the African American who, once free, realized that he had nothing to work with and signs barring his access to many of the privileges afforded to whites.
I acknowledge that there are countless nuanced factors and features that characterize privilege, but I think for the average American, reducing the concept down to its economic underpinnings is the easiest way to grapple with it. Once grasped at its simplest, other social variables can be added into the equation without much difficulty.
So, what’s the cost of denouncing my last few paragraphs as rubbish?
Personally, I think it makes you a racist. When one fails to acknowledge that certain races (cough* whites) have historically stacked the cards in their favor, the alternative is to assume a fair hand has been dealt to all races. The person who doesn’t believe in white privilege must accept that when the round ends, the number of chips held by each of the players must solely be the result of one’s ability or lack thereof to play the game. The lack of chips in front of the minority players must, in the absence of a stacked deck, be the cost of a poorly played hand at best or complete negligence/incapacity at worst. (For this analogy cards refer to historical capital and chips to current socioeconomic status)
If your method for reconciling the current socioeconomic disparity between the average African American and the average Caucasian (the sextupled incarceration rate of blacks, the doubled likelihood of whites to graduate from a four-year college on time, the fact that African American children are three times more likely to live in poverty than Caucasian children, and the increased likelihood of blacks [53%] to whites [18%] to receive high-cost mortgages) does not include white privilege, you probably believe that blacks are responsible for their lacking socioeconomic status.
The flip side of that coin is white supremacy.
Speaking from experience, realizing that I was indirectly racist by failing to acknowledge my own privilege was not fun. It wasn’t isn’t easy to actively confront myself when, having seen African Americans protesting in the streets, I begin to think that they should “just get over it and stop blaming white people” or “take responsibility for the issues that plague their neighborhoods.”
I know that I must face my privilege, and everyone reading this column should as well, because as harmful as racism is to one’s soul and personal relationships, the individual sin yields to the even more egregious collective crime of perpetrating the cycle of racial privilege.
Racism is the root of privilege. Privilege arises over time as the “fruit” of racism. Rejecting the existence of privilege begets more racism. The cycle continues.
Stop the cycle. Acknowledge your privilege. Employ love and justice to bring others up to your level in every way.