A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep. – Saul Bellow
Recently, I wrote an essay observing white supremacy at work in two of my friends who had urged me to consider the apparent tragedy of increasing crime in Buckhead, Georgia. Interestingly, there were three responses to my essay (and a private email or two) that demonstrate one of the classic, reflexive white response mechanisms to discussions about racism: Change the subject.
My essay was not about crime in the cities and the suburbs. It was about the core beliefs and behaviors of Americans, white Americans in particular. It was about observing how white supremacy works unconsciously within so many of us, including me.
We have lived so long with societally-imposed differences between whites and Blacks (differences like where we live, how we’re educated, how the criminal justice system treats us) that we now accept those differences as the natural, pre-ordained way of life. We believe in our hearts that those differences are natural, that the life of Blacks is naturally brutish and violent and that the life of white people is naturally civil and pleasant. That’s just the way it’s always been, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be: whites on top and Blacks on the bottom. That’s why we take note when we meet a “successful” Black person – we find it unusual that some Black person is “outperforming” the norm.
The notion that deep within us we believe it’s normal for Blacks to be relegated to an inferior life is an ugly, troubling thought. We don’t like to see that thought within us, because that thought conflicts with the American ideal also deeply embedded in us. Violation of fundamental American principles of freedom and justice look and feel to us like sacrilege, like evil. We don’t want to deal with that conflict.
Life’s easier if we don’t see our racist assumptions conflicting with other values. Life’s easier if we change the subject.
My discussion of crime in Buckhead pointed out what white America doesn’t want to acknowledge: That we view crimes against whites as of significantly greater concern than crimes against Blacks. It’s a seriously troubling truth, a truth that is difficult to face, and several people responded to what I said by changing the subject. They talked about crimes against Asians, or they talked about solutions to crime, or they blamed the problem on the Democrats and the liberal media. We’ll change the subject to anything, just so long as we don’t have to look in the mirror and recognize that we believe we are entitled to a better world simply because we are white.
If the subject is racial disparities in the criminal justice system, crime isn’t the problem. If the subject is racial inequity in the health care system, health insurance isn’t the problem. When the subject is where Black and white people live in America, zoning laws aren’t the problem When the subject is unequal education, funding isn’t the problem.
Racism is the problem. White supremacist ideas living in each of us are the problem. We have racial inequities throughout most arenas in American life because white people have always believed that racial inequities are the natural order of things. White people built this country on those beliefs (and on the labor of subjugated Blacks), and our culture maintains those beliefs within us. Racism is why we think crime and violence is a problem in Buckhead but not in our cities.
The solution to racial inequity in America will not be found in more laws or more spending or more rhetoric. The solution will be found within us, and that starts with facing and not avoiding the problem.
For a change, let’s not change the subject.