Advocation: Voices of Power in Systemic Racism
The Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s made great changes in ending the oppression of black citizens and other people of color in this country. However, this change has happened slowly over the years, and is still a work in progress. There remains quite a lot of work to be done to reach true equality, yet often the voices of the oppressed aren’t heard over the day to day hum and buzz of the privileged lifestyle; it’s hard to make a breakthrough in what society teaches us is normal when the people who have the power to make the biggest difference, those living with white privilege (the benefit of being white in a society geared to favor, reward, and glamorize “whiteness”) don’t even realize there’s a problem, or don’t care because it doesn’t personally affect them enough. It’s beyond time for people to face the fact that privileged people should actively advocate for the rights of the oppressed because they have voices that will be heard in this society; they're empowered enough to improve the lives of people of color and to finally help put an end to inequality.
Many of the stepping stones toward equality have, after all, been put in place by the privileged. These advocates existed within the “white privilege paradigm” and were therefore able to begin to alter the structure of it from the inside out. Like the white judges of the Supreme Court, for example, who overturned our segregation laws. In 1960, too, encouraged by our government and the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Ruby Bridges Hall became the first African-American student to desegregate an elementary school. This caused an incredible uproar within the white community. Ruby was, consequently, the only child in her class for an entire year. The white parents of children attending the school removed their children from the classroom in protest, but Ruby’s Caucasian teacher chose to stay and teach her, often eating lunch with her so she wouldn’t be lonely. Ruby, a six year old, and one of the very few black children who had passed the strict testing required to enter the all white school, had to be guarded by four U.S. federal marshals, armed white men, who protected her on her walk to and from school, and even just to and from the restroom, from angry segregationist mobs that rioted her elementary school, some of them even implying a threat to the young girl’s very life (African American World - pbs.org).
Change improving the rights for Black Americans in this country, in general, has often come about by the persistent dedication of black citizens who have longed for fairer living standards, and facilitation by white advocates empowered by white privilege. Abraham Lincoln, for one, saw the importance of honoring the statement from our constitution that “all men are created equal,” and helped eliminate slavery in the United States in the 1860s. In 1922, the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, created by white politician, Leonidas C. Dyer, was passed in the House of Representatives to fine and imprison people for lynching… after FORTY YEARS of blacks having been regularly and openly tortured and murdered by racist whites in the south (The Negro Holocaust: Lynching and Race Riots in the United States,1880-1950 – yale.edu). As another example, in the 1930s, Eleanor Roosevelt sought to improve the school systems in black communities when she finally realized how underfunded they were, declaring, "wherever the standard of education is low, the standard of living is low" (Eleanor Roosevelt and Civil Rights – gwu.edu). After the “separate but equal” policy, that maintained and enforced discrimination against blacks, was abolished in 1954, “civil rights activists used nonviolent protest and civil disobedience to bring about change, and the federal government made legislative headway with initiatives such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968” (Civil Rights Movement - history.com). Progress!
These great strides toward equality, however, were met with a terrible backlash from society. None of them would exist today without support from the privileged people’s voice, and that voice is still greatly needed. According to Tim Wise, in his book, Colorblind Ambition: The Rise of Post Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity, the sad sociological truth of the matter is that “deindustrialization, the mismatch between jobs … and people of color…, and inadequate investment in education and other public goods” are only one small problem in our asymmetrical society today. He goes on to address the “depression-level job situation in communities of color (in which even blacks with college degrees are nearly twice as likely as their white counterparts to be out of work, and college educated Latinos 2/3 more likely than similar whites to be unemployed)” and the “persistent health disparities between whites and blacks,” pointing out that “Black women with college degrees have higher rates of infant mortality for their newborns than white women who dropped out after eighth grade,” and the list of disheartening statistics goes on.
Want to understand this problem better? Watch one of Tim Wise’ fantastic talks here.
Many people would argue that racism, discrimination, and inequality ended during the Civil Rights Movement. Blacks gained their freedom from slavery, overcame segregation, gained the human right to vote, and we even elected a black president in 2008, and re-elected him in in 2012! This perspective of a now-equal-society is sometimes coupled with a distaste for “playing the race card.” It has been argued that because the Civil Rights Movement made so much progress for people of color, that anyone crying racism now is so-called playing the race card; it’s assumed they’re victimizing themselves based on their color and seeking to get something undeserved from it. Understandably, most white people don’t want to feel like racists; we don’t want to feel like oppressive people who unintentionally ruin the lives of others just by existing! Who would want to feel that way? Most people want to feel like good people, with good hearts, who make a difference in their families and communities, and who matter to the world around them.
Herein lies what’s really at hand: It’s not necessarily so much a problem of people being a bunch of bigoted racists anymore (thank goodness that has been changing!); It’s a racist system that’s the bigger problem. The structure of this "white supremacy system" is multi-layered, including an ugly history of slavery and racism enforced by the white men in power at its foundation, the move away from slavery and racism, and, finally, our most current level of society-and-media-enforced ignorance about systemic racism that keeps the people with the most power to change anything unaware of the problem, and “white moderates” (King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail) consequently living in contented apathy. In Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies, the author demonstrates many of the micro-aggressions people of color face each day (although, I'm only sharing a few here, and the entire list is an excellent and thoughtful one). By sharing a list of her own micro-privileges, we can see the micro-aggressions that people of color face:
“3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing I can afford and in which I would want to live. 4. I can be reasonably sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me… 6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely and positively represented. 7. When I am told about our national heritage or about ‘civilization,’ I am shown that people of my color made it what it is… 14. I could arrange to protect our young children most of the time from people who might not like them. 15. I did not have to educate our children to be aware of systemic racism for protection of their own daily physical protection.”
Can you imagine your life without these often overlooked privileges?
Imagine, if you're white, that you live in a society where white people were once enslaved, openly whipped, lynched, raped, bought, and sold. With the decline of these things, there are still great amounts of your people growing up in extreme poverty, under extreme stereotypes, imprisoned far more often than anyone else for the same crimes everyone else is committing. Imagine every time you turn on the TV, go to the movies, and pick up a book or magazine, almost all of the people are black or Hispanic or whatever skin color is favored in this society. As if there aren't a lot (or even equal amount) of white people shown in the media because that would be weird, unsettling, or unsavory. You grow up wondering you should look, think, speak, and act like who you do see instead to be normal. To be favored equally. Or wondering why no one of the "empowered skin color" sees the purposeful alienation happening here. There aren't too many stories about how your people have shaped society, that's for the other folks. It's hard to even find childhood dolls made in your image; that's also just for the other, favored folks. Imagine being less likely, in this society, to have the resources and opportunities from birth to make it into and through school. And to later be less likely to have your resume submission become an interview because your name sounds too white. Count your blessings if you can make minimum wage somewhere with a name like that. Imagine living in a neighborhood with mostly colored folks and being looked at through the lenses of stereotyping, prejudice, and fear just because you are white. This, in part, is what it means to live with systemic racism.
As you can see, the progress that has been made thus far isn’t enough on its own. As white folks, living in a world of progress, a world of organic farmer’s markets and yoga classes, with pumpkin spice lattes on every block, living in a world that asks us to recycle and ride our bikes once in a while, that provides us with funny television shows to enjoy at any given whim, with smart phones, trips to Maui, high school reunions, and designer jeans, with 40+ hour work weeks, parent teacher conferences, bills to pay, and doctor’s appointments to attend, it’s easy for us to forget that while we may no longer see ourselves as racist, the struggles for people of color in our discriminating society are very real and these struggles radically affect their quality of life every single day. If you and I won’t stand up, speak out, and advocate, along with those of us who are working for true equality, who will?
© Lindsay Swanberg – 2015. All Rights Reserved