I’ve been reading lots of conversations about racism in America lately, and it’s refreshing. Conversations are important, especially about a topic that resides at the very heart of our diverse society.
Of course, it’s also frustrating. People come at racism from different perspectives, and people are at different stages of understanding of the cause-and-effect of America’s racial issues. There are a hundred different sentiments that can (and should) be analyzed in these conversations, but one keeps coming up that always gives me pause:
Slavery ended a hundred and fifty years ago — isn’t it time for black people to get over it? At this point, they’re just using it as an excuse for higher crime and poverty rates. We all have equal rights now. They need to stop playing the victim and take responsibility. That’s not racism; that’s reality.
I’ve seen various versions of this over and over lately. I could go into all kinds of academic rhetoric about it, but instead, I’m going to tell a story.
Once upon a time, there was a handful of blue houses in a neighborhood of yellow ones. Each day, the yellow house owners would dump all of their trash into the yards of the blue houses. Their owners hated it, of course, but if they complained, the yellow house owners would beat them senseless. If they went to the authorities, they’d beat them senseless too.
Day after day, so much garbage filled the blue house yards that it was impossible to clear it all. So the blue house people did their best to live their lives around it.
After years and years of this, the blue house folks said enough was enough. They banned together and blocked the road so nobody could get home. The yellow house owners tried to beat them up like they always had, but the blue house owners refused to move until the trash dumpers would listen.
The blue house people explained the obvious fact that it was unfair to dump garbage in their yards and vowed to continue to block the road until it stopped. It took a while, but finally, the yellow house people conceded.
It was a new day for the blue house people as they cleaned the yellow house owners’ garbage out of their yards once and for all. Hallelujah!
But the blue house owners’ woes weren’t over. Their lawns were dead from years without sunlight. Their shrubs were withered from the toxic sludge that seeped in year after year. Some of the poison even penetrated the foundations of the houses, causing structural issues. The blue house people tried many things to remedy all of this, but there was so much damage, it proved difficult.
Meanwhile, the yellow house owners’ yards thrived as they always had. And soon, they started complaining about how the blue houses looked.
“What’s the matter?” they asked the blue house owners. “We don’t put garbage in your yard anymore. Why aren’t you fixing up your yard?” The blue house people explained that they’re trying, but were running into some problems. Their tools were rusty from years in storage. They needed new plants, some good soil to restart their grass, and maybe some fertilizer.
Since the yellow house owners had caused this damage with their garbage, perhaps they could be a little understanding? Maybe even help with some of what it would take to fix it?
“Nonsense!” said the yellow house people. “You’re just looking for a handout. You just need to work harder. Look at your yard! What a mess! We don’t dump our garbage on you anymore. We’re equal now. There’s nothing wrong with your soil or your tools — you just don’t want to work at it like we do. I bust my butt to get my lawn looking this way. It’s your own fault that yours isn’t thriving and your house needs work.”
See the problem? This is what it sounds like when white people refuse to acknowledge the generational, societal effects of America’s racial history. This is what it sounds like when people place the blame for crime, poverty, and other socioeconomic issues in mostly black communities solely onto black people themselves. It is patently unfair to deny that so many challenges those communities face are a direct result of centuries of white supremacy. And it is blatant arrogance for white people to expect black people to take responsibility for the racial disparities in our economic and justice systems when white people are the ones who caused them in the first place.
You cannot enslave a group of people for 300 years, systematically and legally oppress them for another 100, and think that everything is hunky-dory a mere 50 years later. I know that many white people want to “move on,” to leave that ugly history in the past, to start with a clean slate. But there’s no such thing. We can’t just wish away the far-reaching effects of oppression. We can’t pretend that a mere two generations after the Civil Rights Movement — which was opposed by a good portion of our population — we have successfully weeded out the deep-seated racism that fueled centuries of mistreatment both inside and outside our justice system.
This isn’t about “white liberal guilt.” (Man, enough with that stupid phrase.) The very least — and I mean the very least — that white Americans can do is to acknowledge that our ancestors gave birth to our current mess, even if we had nothing to do with it directly. Of course we haven’t personally enslaved anyone, but if we deny the ongoing effects of our country’s legacy of racism and refuse to own our role in helping remedy the problems it’s caused, then we are no better than that yellow house owner chastising his neighbor for the state of his yard — dishonest, unjust…and yes, racist.
So please, stop telling people of color they are “playing the victim.” Stop telling black people to “get over” the past. Stop pointing to “black on black crime” as if black people themselves created the poverty-ridden neighborhoods where such crime takes place. Start listening to people when they tell you their experiences, and stop policing their feelings about those experiences.
Just stop and listen and acknowledge. Just start there. It’s really not too much to ask.
I realize that the yard analogy is not perfect. To make it more accurate, I’d have to start with the yellow house owners forcing the blue house owners into the neighborhood to take care of the yellow houses for no pay, in addition to raping their women, stealing their children, and murdering them. But I figured a simpler illustration would make the point more clearly.