Behind the Veil: White Racism, White Privilege, and America’s Long Road Ahead (Part I)

I had hoped in my inaugural launch of niyabinghiblues to devote the bulk of my time writing on more pressing theological concerns rather than delving into the much discussed topic of race & racism. From my point of view what more can be said about that topic? But in light of the racial diatribes by Los Angeles Clipper owner Donald Sterling, Nevada Rancher Cliven Bundy and “plantation mistress” Paula Deen I began to wonder why, in-spite of our collective anti-racist efforts, so many white Americans still cling the view that blacks are and should remain unequal members of society?   Steve Nash, a highly respected athlete and potential NBA Hall of Famer, said it best by asking why racist ideologies like those of Sterling still remain inviolable in certain segments of our community?

The question posed by Nash gives us a platform to dialogue on racism’s saliency and why racism seeks and finds expression in a myriad of ways each no less astonishing and hurtful to Americas “majority minority” population.  Deen, Sterling and Bundy and many others believe deeply that blacks are social pariahs and better off earning their keep as plantation slaves.  The effects of this racist ideology confirm what many feel in the African American community, that the Civil Rights mission to fully integrate the bulk of black Americans has been a dismal failure.  What accounts for this phenomenon? In a series of essays to follow I will present what I believe to be the most poignant and ignored research on the topic.  Poignant because it gets to the heart of racisms ubiquity in the white community, and ignored because it nakedly exposes the rotted core of American racial ideology.

Inter-racial dialogue on racism, I argue, has failed to adequately address racism because it fails to take into account the full breadth of scholarship in the social sciences (experimental psychology, theology, history, and anthropology) to illuminate a much deeper and complex structure to white racism. The failure to do so, I argue, continues to lay waste our collective efforts to rid America of this pattern of racism.  I will present a broad scope of cross-disciplinary research (transdiciplinarity) so that we may attempt to positively push forward the stagnated dialogue on the subject. Ultimately, I believe that we must use relevant scholarship within the social sciences to explore racism, its effects on subject populations, and then construct theological based mythologies to combat and finally put an end to this American scourge.  The power to do so is within all of us, black, white, no matter.

The ideology of an American multi-cultural meritocracy, if not already, should be laid to rest.   Egregious acts of racism in America are so regular they appear universally accepted by all classes within the white community.  Whether it’s septuagenarians like Sterling, racist “tweets” against Joel Ward’s 2012 NHL playoff goal, or NFL WR Riley Cooper’s indignation at “niggers.”   It would appear, efforts to racially equalize American society, finds its greatest resistance within the white community.  We should consider why racism continues to be durable even with the consistent dedication of educational institutions and the efforts of good citizens of every color in combating racism?  Rather, racism and the resistance of many whites to multiculturalism have defied efforts to remake the United States into the racial utopia envisioned by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  We Americans are seemingly unable to come to terms with what should be self-evident, that we have failed in King’s efforts to create a color-blind society.

Without a doubt we no longer live in a society where Klan rallies, cross burnings, rapes, and lynchings are a mainstay of life for blacks as they were just 60 years ago. Some will point out, justifiably, that African Americans have made enormous progress in American society. For example, there are more black millionaires, blacks in the middle class, and a higher percentage of black high school graduates than any other time in America history. No longer are African American women raped indiscriminately; black neighborhoods, churches and schools burned, nor are black men taken from their wives and murdered in front of their children.   Local, State and Federal agencies no longer act as a unified chorus in sanctioning ritualized acts of barbarity as they had after the Civil War.  However, this ignores the mountain of evidence suggesting that for the masses of African Americans little of life has changed since Reconstruction. In a nation where concentrated wealth would shame Caesar Augustus, Black poverty is persistent at 28.1%; 33% of black children (3.6 million) live below the poverty level; only 16% of blacks hold bachelors degrees compared to 37% of whites and 51% Asian Americans; In the 10 most populated states, rates of child poverty among black children range from 29% in California and Florida to 47% in Ohio; incarceration rates by race should cause the most hardened criminalist embarrassment and self-reflection.

Law professor Michelle Alexander has illuminated the state of black males and prison in her work The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2012). This should be required reading for every American citizen. Yet, a more chilling assessment of our prison system was offered in a 2007 report from the Center on Media, Crime and Justice: Unlocking America – Why and How to Reduce America’s Prison Population.  The report summarizes and demonstrates that incarcerating large numbers of people, in particular people of color, has little impact on crime and is not cost effective.  According to the report, prison policy has exacerbated the festering national problem of social and racial inequality. Incarceration rates for blacks and Latinos are now more than six times higher than for whites; 60% of America’s prison population is either African- American or Latino. A shocking eight percent of black men of working age are now behind bars, and 21% of those between the ages of 25 and 44 have served a sentence at some point in their lives. At current rates, one-third of all black males, one- sixth of Latino males, and one in 17 white males will go to prison during their lives. Incarceration rates this high are a national tragedy.

And there is no end to the growth of prisons under current policies. In 1972 there were roughly 200,000 prisoners, by 2012 roughly 1,571,013.   Elites within political, police, and judicial institutions, dominated by white males, sought to incarcerate low level, non-violent drug offenders by appealing for support from traditional black allies: poor and working class whites. The net result, of white Americas War on Drugs, was the creation of prison culture in the black and brown communities, an armed police state within the white community (Stand Your Ground and Open Carry Laws) and the loss of American claims to exceptionalism. The Sentencing Project has confirmed that sentencing policies since 1982, have resulted in the dramatic growth in the number of Americans incarcerated for drug offenses from 41,000 in 1980 to half a million in 2011. Furthermore, harsh sentencing laws such as mandatory minimums keep drug offenders in prison for longer periods of time: in 1986, released drug offenders had spent an average of 22 months in federal prison. By 2004, federal drug offenders were expected to serve almost three times that length: 62 months in prison. Alexander has narrated the sinful irony of the political realignment gained by politicians in creating and supporting the prison industrial complex (PIC). Alexander wrote: President Ronald Reagan officially declared the current drug war in 1982, when drug crime was declining, not rising.  From the outset, the war had little to do with drug crime and nearly everything to do with racial politics.  The drug war was part of a grand and highly successful Republican Party strategy of using racially coded political appeals on issues of crime and welfare to attract poor and working class white voters who were resentful of, and threatened by, desegregation, busing, and affirmative action.  In the words of H.R. Haldeman, President Richard Nixon’s White House Chief of Staff: “[T]he whole problem is really the blacks.  The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” I will show in subsequent articles how the regulators of the PIC are the direct descendants of the Slave Powers that were violently expunged from power in the Antebellum South. I argue that the incarceration of black males was an all out war on the black family, specifically black males to ensure white male hegemony in America.  The facts are indisputable.

Anti-racists have failed to accept the idea that there is a durable and accepted ideology among white America that black life is of lesser value than white life. How would one explain the consistent parroting of white kids in black face, the hanging of President Obama in effigy on college and high school campuses or the harassment of Obama supporters after his election victory by young white males? The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reported violence against Obama supporters in “Racist Backlash Greets President Barack Obama,” (2009). The SPLC documented assaults on Black citizens is no less chilling than the violence perpetrated on blacks during the Age of Jim Crow. Obama effigies were hung from trees at the University of Kentucky. In Snellville, Ga., a boy on a school bus told a 9-year-old girl that he hoped Obama would be assassinated. A dark-skinned doll labeled “Obama” was hung in a high-school stairwell east of Tacoma, Wash; five students were expelled. A University of Alabama professor reported that an Obama poster was ripped off her office door. When she put up another one, somebody wrote a death threat against Obama and a racial slur on it. A biracial student at a high school north of Pittsburgh complained that a teacher’s aide said to a student that Obama would be killed, that the American flag would be changed to the KFC chicken chain’s emblem, and the national anthem would become “Movin’ on Up” — the theme song of “The Jeffersons,” a sitcom about a black family. The aide also berated her for supporting Obama, the student said. How does anyone explain why so many (young) whites hold these views and feel free to express them openly? The typical explanation, offered is that white children are taught racism at home and receive media and consumer messages that blacks are intellectually & morally inferior and spiritually bankrupt.   Yet, intuitively this line of argument defies logic. I am not arguing that racism is not passed from one generation to the next or not perpetuated by the media. What I am saying is that there are enough competing positive racial images that should have rendered these negative images of blacks unworkable. Black movie stars, intellectuals, and athletes have been dominant for nearly 40 years providing clear refutation of stereotyped images. Yet, while Magic Johnson, is arguably one of Americas most beloved celebrities, Don Sterling and his peer group feel he barely warrants an admission ticket to a Clippers game. The long held belief of racisms inevitable demise is grossly premature.

The task ahead is fraught with peril and many will resist the idea that white privilege, and white hegemony exist at all. Coming in consciousness of ones own power, especially to acknowledge this privilege is to be open to the possibility that one’s own personal economic, political and social standing has been achieved not by the sweat of one’s brow but by the sweat and pain of loss by another. The possibility of unrecompensed material gain in an alleged meritocracy smacks at the face of Americas greatest article of faith: The Self Made Man. For some, the very nature of inter-racial dialogue would question the very core of American values and the very foundation these American institutions rest. This may explain, in part, why racism refuses obsolescence. In short, racism is a product so deeply woven into the fabric of American society that to end racism may be to end America as we know it. At best it will require the complete eradication of the institutions that have supported American exceptionalism since the founding.  But by doing so, by examining, questioning and discarding the very ideologies that supported the genocidal massacre of Native Americans and Africans might prove liberating and reveal a stronger, freer and more inclusive America.

Over the course of months I will provide a series of articles that will examine the construction of American ideologies of white racism, white privilege, and African American’s responses over the past four centuries of black life in America. These uniquely American ideologies work in concert to perpetuate white over black even while we sleep. The challenge is to rise above these ideologies to seek love rather than hate, brotherhood over antagonism and to work with white and other Americans to deconstruct racial privilege. As we move to a “majority minority” society our greatest necessity and challenge in the 21st century will be to dismantle white privilege peacefully and without the chaos and loss of life America experienced from 1861-65.