A White Girl’s Reflections on Racism

I have a confession. I have some significant blind spots when it comes to understanding racism. I have considered myself open-hearted and open-minded to people of color, but in the wake of the death of George Floyd on May 25th, I have taken a deep dive into conversations, books and movies on racism and white privilege and have realized I have been ignorant and disengaged.

What is Racial Bias?

The image of Derek Chauvin pinning George Floyd to the ground by kneeling into his neck until he died was horrifying to me, as I’m sure it was to you. The casual brutality was unconscionable. That this act lit a fuse leading to a national (and international) uprising of protest is not surprising. On the heels of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in February and the killing of Breonna Taylor in March, the outpouring of frustration and demand for justice is fully understandable. But what form should this justice take? Is it enough to punish the bad actors in each of these incidents or do we need to step back and look at the bigger picture?

It’s this bigger picture that is coming more into focus for me over the past eleven weeks. I grew up in a white suburb of Los Angeles. My Dad was a coach and teacher at East Los Angeles College and I was always proud of him for investing in the lives and development of young men of color. I was taught to be “colorblind,” which I had thought was a positive thing- look past the color of one’s skin to see the person’s heart. I have never thought of myself as racist or a participant in any form of racial injustice. Only bad people were racist. I saw racism as isolated, extreme acts of prejudice that were intentional and hateful, based on a conscious animosity for someone of a different race.

But I have learned that racism is far more insidious and pervasive than obvious and singular acts. It is far more complex and multi-layered than a good/bad dichotomy can describe. We all hold prejudices as a result of our upbringing and the culture in which we live. My parents can tell me that all people are equal and I can be offended by racist jokes, but I am still affected by the forces of racism that are embedded in my culture.

I was listening to an interview with a black pastor, T.D. Jakes, in which he described an incident where his son called him to let him know he was in trouble. He’d been in a car accident- the white driver of the other car had hit him and was likely hurt and the police were arriving. “I was scared to death. I told my son to keep me on the phone. When I heard the police officer talk to him like he was a human being, I breathed a sigh of relief.” T.D. was more terrified of the police than the car wreck. “I don’t know what to tell my kids to insure they’ll be safe.” Such a helpless feeling for a parent. When I, as a white person, get pulled over, I trust the police officer will be helpful. If I’m pulled over for a traffic violation, I never have to fear for my life. Another pastor from Oakland stated that when the black community has “the talk” with their teen sons, it’s not about sex as it would be for a non-black family. Rather, it’s about what to do and not do when they get pulled over by the police to avoid potential mistreatment. I can only imagine the level of chronic anxiety this fear of safety creates.

I have always loved the story of the Good Samaritan. A lawyer approaches Jesus to trick him, asking “Who is my neighbor?” In response, Jesus tells the parable:

A man had been stripped, beaten and left half dead. A priest, and then a Levite, pass by but look the other way. However, the Samaritan took pity on him, got down and cared for the man. I used to think this was a simple story about what it is to extend love to someone who is suffering. It is that, but it’s so much more. Jesus seems very intentional that we see two things: First, the priest and Levite were the religious folks that turned their backs on the suffering of the man. We often focus on the good of the Samaritan, but not the priest and the Levite that looked away. How often do we look away from our brothers and sisters of color when they are suffering? Second, Samaritans were a people of mixed race, and because they were different, considered impure, they were hated by the Jews. Jesus was intentional when he picked someone of another race to be his example of a good neighbor. Overcoming racial bias was important to Jesus. As a Christian, if I look away from those who are suffering around me, how am I any different from the priest or the Levite? If I am to “love my neighbor,” I need to respond when I see their suffering.

In his interview with Pastor Carl Lentz, T.D. Jakes describes the suffering of people of color as similar to a child who has been abused. When we look away, it’s like a mother who looks away when a stepfather rapes her daughter. As a trauma therapist, this comparison was powerful. I have sat with many women who have had the experience of being sexually abused by a father or stepfather. These women were as wounded by the parent who kept silent, who minimized their pain, who looked the other way or told them to be silent, as they were with the abusing parent. The loss of voice is the same as an abused child- if she speaks out, she is punished, minimized, and disbelieved. I don’t want to minimize or be indifferent any longer. As Martin Luther King expressed, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” I want to look squarely at the inequities and mistreatment that my brothers and sisters of color have been enduring and be the engaged compassionate neighbor.

Does Systemic Racism Exist?

Some deny that there are inequities. Some dispute the existence of systemic racism. Most Americans would deny that racism exists in themselves. But racism is sneaky. It is embedded in our culture and through socialization, becomes embedded in us. As a child, I watched cowboy and Indian movies. My childhood conclusion: cowboys were good, and Indians were violent and bad. When I was eleven, I watched the Watts riots unfold on television from the segregated safety of my all white community. My uninformed takeaway: black neighborhoods are not safe. Media is powerful but we have many influences that shape our attitudes. Bias is implicit and unconscious. I don’t expect to be aware of mine without a great deal of effort on my part and a heart to change.

I, too, would like to think that systemic racism doesn’t exist but to believe this is to deny the facts. One evidence is mass incarceration. [1]

The strategic incarceration of blacks dates back to just after the civil war when the loophole provided by the 13th amendment that offered freedom to blacks “except as a punishment for a crime,” led to the widespread incarceration of recently freed slaves, as the south, their economy in shambles, needed a labor force to rebuild. Laws were created “Black Codes”) which allowed local authorities to arrest freed people for minor infractions such as vagrancy and loitering. They then could be committed to involuntary labor. This period was also the start of the convict leasing system in which Southern states leased prisoners to private railways, mines, and large plantations. While states profited, prisoners earned no pay and faced inhumane, dangerous, and often deadly work conditions. The Jim Crow laws, enacted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mandated the segregation of public schools, public places, and public transportation, and the segregation of restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains between white and Black people, and remained in force until 1965. These laws also allowed for the incarceration of people of color for minor infractions.

Mass incarceration of minorities experienced a dramatic resurgence during the Nixon era and exploded during Reagan’s administration. After the Civil Rights movement, Nixon enacted his “Southern Strategy.” This was an attempt to recruit staunch democrats from the south into the Republican party by persuading poor and working-class whites to join the fold using thinly veiled racial appeals. By being for “Law and Order,” they could continue the criminalization of blacks and maintain white superiority. This strategy has continued through many subsequent campaigns and administrations and continues to be used to this day.

John Ehrlichman, advisor to Nixon, describes the systemic racism of his “Law and Order” administration in this way: “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”

Due to mass incarceration, the prison population in the U.S. has grown from 357,292 in 1972 to over 2.3 million today. The U.S. is home to only 5% of the world’s population but holds 25% of the world’s prisoners. We have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. More specifically, the Bureau of Justice issued a report that 1 in 3 black males are expected to go to prison in their lifetime compared to one in 17 white males, and although black males make up 6.5% of the U.S. population, they make up 40.2% of the prison population. One factor in this disparity is described by T.D. Jakes: “If you live in one part of Chicago and you have a drug problem, you go to jail. If you live in another part, it’s a sickness and you go to rehab.”

By criminalizing low level, non-violent crimes the prisons filled. Today, mass incarceration supports a multi-billion-dollar industry made up of partnerships between correctional facilities and private business. Federal inmates provide free labor for many large corporations who are thereby profiting from punishment.[2] T.D. Jakes asserts, “As long as you make it profitable to incarcerate me, subjugate me, it will be difficult to eradicate.”

Other forms of systemic racism exist which cripple our healing and health as a nation. Excessive police force is disproportionately experienced by blacks.[3] T.D. Jakes succinctly comments: “We’re not asking not to be arrested- we’re just asking not to be tried on the sidewalk.”

Redlining, a practice started by the federal government of outlining areas with sizable Black populations in red ink on maps as a warning to mortgage lenders, effectively isolated Black people in areas that would suffer lower levels of investment than their white counterparts. Although redlining was banned by the Fair Housing Act of 1968, it continues to have impact today.[4]  Discrimination in hiring practices[5], predatory lending[6] and the bail bond system which discriminates against those who can’t afford bail and disproportionately effects people of color[7], are all practices which need our attention if we truly want to be just and equal. Systemic racism is a real thing.

The Stumbling Block of Language

Some people take offense to the language of our current cultural dialogue that highlights the mistreatment of people of color. The terms “racism” and “white privilege” trigger defensiveness. Many whites see the naming of white privilege as divisive. The problem isn’t the inequity itself, but the naming of the inequity. They believe that not talking about difference is necessary for unity.

But inequalities cannot be challenged if they are not acknowledged. I do think it is essential to name our white privilege to truly understand and empathize with the experience of being black in America. When my children get pulled me over by the police, I never worry that they might be endangered. When I get in an elevator, I don’t have the experience of the other person clutching at their purse. I can live wherever I choose without fearing that I will make others uncomfortable or have difficulty getting a mortgage loan. I don’t experience common black experiences because I do enjoy a certain amount of privilege as a white in our culture. To empathize, I must understand and become conscious of these realities.

Carl Lentz clarified in his conversation with T.D. Jakes (below) that “White privilege doesn’t mean you need to apologize. It doesn’t mean you don’t work hard. It’s just an acknowledgement that our world is uneven and I (as a white) started at a place you did not. Blacks started on a different premise. We live in a country that’s unequal.”

T.D. Jakes states that “privilege” is when others respond to you differently based on your position. If you’ve always had privilege, you don’t notice it. Everyone can have privilege when there’s a sociological construct designed for them. “If I take you over in the hood, in the middle of the night, I will have privileges over there that you won’t have.” As a white in the U.S., you have the privilege accorded to you by our society. It is the privileged person who needs to make sure the floor is leveled.

What I have learned about the term, “colorblind” is how it lands on people of color. One woman explained, “If you don’t see my color, you don’t see my pain.” When we don’t “see” color, we will tend to project our own reality onto the person of color. Miles McPherson states, “To say you don’t see color is to deny the burden that comes with color.” T.D. Jakes offers, “God is not colorblind. He didn’t have to go blind to love us. He intentionally painted us our colors. We ought to be loved in the skin we’re in.” What I hear my siblings of color asking for is to be fully seen, received and celebrated. Rather than deny racial differentness and defend the term, if it is offensive to others, I can let it go.

What Can I Do?

Perhaps you are at a place where you realize you have much to learn like I do. Would you like to join me in this journey of learning? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Acknowledge that you have blind spots. Knowing we all have biases, ask yourself where your current stances on race and inequality come from. What was your upbringing that shaped your point of view? If you are a Christian, this exploration is critical to your becoming more like Jesus. A verse from the Psalms informs this self-examination: “Search me, O God, and know my heart. Try me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalm 139: 23,24).
  2. Listen. Open your heart and mind to growing in your understanding of racial issues. Listen to your brothers and sisters of color. Listen to their experiences, their pain, their hopes, their discouragement, their counsel. Let yourself get uncomfortable. Be open to change. There are many great conversations taking place that you can listen to. I would highly recommend these two:
  3. Learn. Read books and articles. Two helpful reads are Under Our Skin by Benjamin Watson and Be the Bridge by Latasha Morrison. Educate yourself on the history of race relations in America. Watch movies that will help you understand the black experience. “Just Mercy” is an excellent look into discrimination in the criminal justice system. Discover what the bible says about racism and God’s character (He loves justice!) I was reminded this past week of the incident in the bible where the Apostle Paul sternly chastised the Apostle Peter for his racism. Check it out in Galatians 2:11-16!
  4. Speak out. If you are present when a racial “joke” is spoken, call it out. Our silence is not benign. It protects our place in the racial hierarchy. The joke can be perpetuated because of my complicity. If we, as white people, are not part of the solution, then we are part of the problem.

Our brothers and sisters of color need more than our compassion. They need our full presence. They need us to be engaged. I was moved by a recent talk by Albert Tate who said, “Our pain is real, our burden is real, but the empathy and compassion is distant and that gap is painful and discouraging as a fellow black Christian sibling.” If our brothers and sisters of color don’t experience our advocacy, if we look the other way when they are suffering, we are the priest and Levite. We need to stop and do something to change their circumstance.

What is required of you and me? If we call ourselves Christians, the answer is easy. I am reminded by the prophet Micah, “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8

[1] “Mass Incarceration” by Bruce Western (The Atlantic) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u51_pzax4M0
[2] “Cheap Labor Means Prisons Still Turn a Profit, Even During a Pandemic.” PBS. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/cheap-labor-means-prisons-still-turn-a-profit-even-during-a-pandemic
[3] A study published by the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, found that “Black men and boys face the highest risk of being killed by police- at a rate of 96 out of 100,000 deaths. By comparison, white men and boys face a lower rate of 39 per 100,000 deaths, despite being a bigger portion of the U.S. population.
[4]“How Redlining’s Racist Effects Lasted for Decades,” New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/24/upshot/how-redlinings-racist-effects-lasted-for-decades.html
[5] “Employers Replies to Racial Names,” National Bureau of Economic Research: https://www.nber.org/digest/sep03/w9873.html
[6] “Racial predatory loans fueled U.S. housing crisis: study.” Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-foreclosures-race/racial-predatory-loans-fueled-u-s-housing-crisis-study-idUSTRE6930K520101004
[7] “Detaining the Poor.” Prison Policy Initiative. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/incomejails.html