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A Neighborhood Workshop on Ending White Racism

by William McGaughey

 

I live in a small neighborhood just west of downtown Minneapolis called Harrison Neighborhood. It has a relatively large neighborhood association supported by funds from the city and foundation grants. The neighborhood is evenly balanced between Asian, black, and white residents. Whites make up around 30% of the population.

Harrison Neighborhood Association is highly conscious of its mission. A grant application includes this statement: “Poverty is the number one issue facing Harrison, but Racism is the number one issue keeping us from building the social capital necessary to lift our community out of poverty ... Any effort that does not directly deal with Racism will have limited success, if any.”

In that regard, the neighborhood association contracted for the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond to conduct a series of workshops and training courses embracing the theme, “Undoing Racism”. The mayor and other government officials hailed Harrison as a leader in courageously confronting racism. Neighborhood residents saw themselves as being on the cutting edge of racial progress.

While the neighborhood is racially diverse, it’s interesting that the association’s top staff person was a white male, its president was a white female, and whites headed most of the committees. So the fight against racism in Harrison was a kind of white mea culpa. It’s also noteworthy that, despite protestations of poverty, millions of dollars of development money are coming into the neighborhood as a result of two major construction projects affecting that part of the city.

I attended one of the “Undoing Racism” workshops. The two-hour session on Friday evening divided participants into two groups, whites and minorities. I was in the white group. Our session was led by a smiling man named Art. He first went over the “contract” that would govern the evening’s discussion: People must treat each other respectfully, everyone must participate, mere listening would not be allowed ...

To get things started, Art went into the rationale underlying the workshops. We must recognize, he said, that we live in a society built on the principle of white superiority. Blacks spent the first three hundred years in America as slaves and then, for the next hundred, as victims of a segregated society. Even today whites enjoy institutional privileges of which they may not be fully aware.

At this point, I raised my hand to remark that I disagreed with the premise of his argument. America was not built on the principle of white superiority, I said, since slavery was primarily an economic institution. The slave traders did not visit Africa to try to take advantage of an “inferior race” but to exploit the potential for profit of carrying human cargo in transatlantic trade. Until recently, race consciousness among whites was quite weak, I observed.

At this point, Art invited reaction from others in the group. Three women weighed in to oppose my point of view. They said that I was being blind to the racism in society benefiting whites. I responded by saying that I disagreed with their views. I was entitled to my opinion. The fact that three people disagreed with me did not mean that I was wrong.

Art was clearly irritated. He said that the “Undoing Racism” workshops had been going on for some time. I had missed the previous discussion and so did not understand the topic in its full context. It would be well if I left the group. “Fine, “ I said, “ I’d be happy to leave”, and started to gather my papers together and rise to my feet.

A man in the group remarked this exchange was making him uncomfortable. Even though he disagreed with my arguments, he felt a power play was being used against me.

At this point, Art had second thoughts. It might be better, he said, if I stayed on so I could benefit from the discussion. I said, “Fine; I’ll stay. I’ll just listen. I won’t make any more remarks. I assume I’ve already satisfied the ‘participation’ requirement,” I said. This last comment drew some chuckles.

A four-hour session took place next morning, starting at 10 a.m. As I walked into the room, a number of people went out of their way to say “Hi, Bill” or “So glad to see you today”. Presumably, they were complimenting me for my open mind or courage in returning for the second round of discussions.

The group meeting today was a racially mixed group, maybe thirty people in all. The black-female discussion leader had us sit in a circle in folding chairs as we prepared for the day’s exercise. We counted off by four. Persons having the same number were members of the same team. We would be debating two questions. The first was to consider whether the reaction to Hurricane Katrina, especially the failure to evacuate people quickly, reflected racism or something else. The second was whether the large development project in Harrison was beneficial from a racial standpoint or was a cause for worry.

I tried to keep a low profile in this exercise, letting others be spokespersons for the team. Team members readily accepted the challenge of representing views with which they might not agree. There was a certain camaraderie as we presented our arguments. To my liking, the exercise was based on the assumption that there were two sides to every question. It was forcing participants to try to imagine the other person’s point of view.

With about an hour left, our discussion leader went into the philosophy of the “undoing racism” workshop. It was that white Americans avoided the subject of race. In discussions of sensitive topics, she said, they often used code words like “welfare” or “class” when referring to black people.

Maybe we could see how those subjects had been treated in our own “debate”. Were we willing to confront racism directly or were we, like so many others, content to hide behind a facade of “Minnesota nice”. Racism was the main problem in U.S. society; it would not go away so long as the subject was kept concealed.

The point of the workshop was to suggest that a “colorblind” society was not enough. We had to be aware of the racial element in each situation to be able to deal with the “institutional racism” that exists in society. This meant that racism was not a matter of individual thought or behavior but was embedded in society itself. The racist society needed to be changed.

The discussion leader distributed a printed sheet which exhibited the opposing perspectives in two columns. There was a “Colorblind Perspective” which “denies seeing race or racism”; and a “Racial Justice / Race Conscious Perspective” which “acknowledges and challenges racism”. The colorblind-perspective assumes that racism is a thing of the past and social inequalities are due to economic factors. The racial-justice perspective sees that racism is pervasive in society. This is the factor mainly responsible for disparities of wealth and opportunity between racial groups.

The definition of “racism” is important, the discussion leader said. The colorblind perspective thinks that “racism is bias, prejudice, bigotry or hatred between individuals of different races. Racism involves willful, prejudicial intent.” The racial-justice perspective holds that “racism in the U.S. is a system of inequity and hierarchy permeating institutions across our society. It is based on white supremacy, which advantages whites while disadvantaging and excluding people of color. Racism involves inequitable impacts across race, regardless of intent.”

The colorblind perspective holds that “extreme bigots” and “bad apples” (like the Ku Klux Klan) are responsible for racism, and also that blacks “act like victims” and “play the race card.” These people “need to get over it and get on with it” since slavery was abolished years ago.

The racial-justice perspective holds that “inequitable institutions and policies in a system of white supremacy” are responsible for racism, and there are “individuals who use racial privilege, consciously or not, for advantage at the expense of others.” “Ongoing race consciousness and anti-racist action are needed. We need “institutional accountability, policy changes, and racial impact assessments ... to produce and measure racial equality.”

I raised my hand and was recognized. I said I disagreed with this analysis. I said that the idea that institutions are racist, and individual actions irrelevant, puts the problem of racism beyond reach. Institutions are the sum total of individual actions undertaken by human beings, I said. The idea of an impersonal mechanism driving this situation is absurd.

Furthermore, I said I doubted that making race an overt factor in each situation will help to improve race relations. People have identities in each situation. I do not see black people as “Mr. Black Man” or “Ms. Black Woman” but as Jim, or John, or Alice, or as a tenant, or a repairman, or someone with whom I am dealing in a particular context. What’s wrong with considering people in this way, I asked? Why is it useful always to be conscious of a person’s race?

I offered this analogy: If I know or suspect that a person is gay, ought I to bring the subject of the person’s sexual preference out into the open? Why would such consciousness help? Wouldn’t the gay person prefer that I keep quiet about his homosexual condition, let him remain “in the closet”, and simply treat him or her as an individual having some role or relationship at the moment?

A black woman to my right fired back: “When you see me, you think of me as a black woman, don’t you? I know you do.” “No, you do not,” I responded. “You have no way of knowing what I think. You’re not a mind reader ... As a matter of fact, I think of you more as a daycare provider although it’s also obvious that you are a black woman.” She said nothing more.

Then I offered my own definition of racism. I said that, in my opinion, a racist is someone whose racial identity is more important to him or her than being a member of the human race. Racism is therefore a matter of self-definition. By this standard, black people can be as racist as white people.

A black woman on the other side of the circle responded: “Yes, I admit I’m a racist”, she said. Many of you white males are pedophiles. I’m proud not to be like you.” I said to her simply: “I’m not a pedophile.”

At this point, the discussion leader became alarmed. We were getting off track, she said. But she did want to point out that the situation of identifying the gay person as gay was different from the situation involving black people. You can’t always tell whether or not a person is gay, but blacks can’t conceal their racial identities.

A white man sitting next to her right chided me for being the beneficiary of white privilege and refusing to acknowledge it. I asked him to be specific about my “white privilege”. He said it was evident in my present situation.

I looked at him squarely and told him that he didn’t know what he was talking about. He didn’t know me. He didn’t know anything about my past.

I then told the group that I was a landlord renting to predominantly black tenants. About ten years ago, Harrison Neighborhood Association was instrumental in having the city condemn my building because of alleged tenant misconduct. “You people did not have the courage to put the blame where it belonged - on the tenants - because they were black. You had to put a white face on the problem. This is an example of my ‘white privilege’?, I asked sarcastically. My accuser had no answer for this.

The discussion leader rather adroitly observed that maybe the neighborhood group had some more work to do in overcoming racism.

During the discussion, I also made the point that the recommended approach wouldn’t work where blacks and whites lived closely together. “Whites can’t be expected to ‘walk on eggshells’ all the time around blacks, always fearful of offending them,” I said. “Life doesn’t work that way.” You can only afford to put someone on a pedestal if you deal with them infrequently. A white woman commented that, yes, she agreed whites should not be “walking on eggshells” around blacks.

The session ended not long after this. I went out of my way to remark that I thought the debate format was helpful in overcoming racial divisions because it suggested that there were two sides to every question and we should each try to be objective. The discussion leader smiled. She also asked everyone to summarize their thoughts or feelings in a word of two. My words were “freedom of speech.” No one became angry.

What were my thoughts about this experience? To be charitable to the presenters, I recognize that putting on this workshop was a job. It’s hard to support oneself nowadays. The woman in charge did present her arguments in a compelling way. So as a vehicle for provoking discussion, this workshop lived up to its billing.

But, of course, it was not supposed to be a real discussion but an exercise in “educating” participants to accept a particular point of view. That’s what I found objectionable. If participants were expected to be “persuaded” by the presenters’ arguments, the program encroached upon their individual conscience and freedom of thought.

However, the fact that I explicitly disagreed with the presenters’ approach to race blew away their argument that whites conceal their “racist” thoughts. Much of the workshop was devoted to the idea that whites are afraid to express their true feelings about race but instead use “code words”. But here I was stating quite plainly that I disagreed with their approach.

Did that make me a “white racist”? I think it did in most people’s minds. The black woman who implied that I, as a white man, belonged to a group of pedophiles suggested what some blacks thought of me. To hold unacceptable views on race was, in their mind, like being a pedophile. I was reprehensible for thinking certain things.

I am not surprised that blacks would hold the views presented in the workshop. If I were them, I’d rather enjoy watching the white people squirm as the subject of race was discussed. It was an entirely one-sided discussion. Whites, by definition, were the only ones guilty of racism. And the amazing thing was that whites emphatically agreed with that concept! Black people were cracking the whip - expressing their displeasure over minor misstatements - and white people were jumping to get back in step. Is America great or what!

The argument is made that black people cannot be racist because racism is defined as hateful racial feelings plus power. Since white people hold most of the powerful positions in society, whites in general are powerful. Therefore, they alone can be racist.

This argument is belied by the fact that white racism is most often linked to poor powerless whites. The stereotypical racist is an impoverished white southerner living in the backwoods or in a small town. By contrast, the corporate and professional world wholeheartedly supports the fight against white racism. Every U.S. President or Congressional leader of whom I am aware, since Eisenhower, has at least nominally opposed white racism. So if the element of power is factored into the equation, the true “racists” would be the ones calling themselves “anti-racist”. They are the ones who get funding to hold this kind of workshop - the ones holding most of the cards.

I am old enough to remember the original argument which advocates of civil rights for black people made to whites in our society. It was something like this: Yes, you may have seen some black people doing bad things - committing crimes, letting their homes fall into disrepair, bearing children out of wedlock, etc. - but not all black people are like that. Most black people are responsible citizens like you. Therefore, recognize that racial stereotypes are unfair to many blacks. As a white person, try not to be prejudiced against blacks. Try to judge each person by the content of his individual character. I would say that most whites at the time bought into that reasoning and did try to be fair.

But now the pendulum has swung to the point of saying that if race relations in our country are in a bad state, it is entirely the fault of white people. White people alone are racist. In fact, the entire society is racist. There is an institutional racism that does not depend on what whites individually think or do. White people as a race are guilty of a kind of Original Sin. They are guilty of racism by virtue of being white even if there is not a shred of evidence that they hate black people or have engaged in harmful racial acts.

There is a passage in the Bible in which Jesus was moved to say: “When an unclean spirit comes out of a man it wanders over the deserts seeking a resting-place; and if it finds none, it says, ‘I will go back to the home I left.’ So it returns and finds the house swept clean, and tidy. Off it goes and collects several other spirits more wicked than itself, and they all come in and settle down; and in the end the man’s plight is worse than before.” (Luke 11: 24-26)

White racism has been and is an unclean spirit. But in the past fifty years, there has been a concerted effort to drive this spirit out of the American psyche. White racism is now thoroughly discredited. But what has been the result? The result is political correctness, a spirit more malignant and persistent than the garden-variety of racism found among white hill-billies and other despised groups of the old South.

I would argue that our nation’s “plight is worse than before” because we have allowed systematic dishonesty to control our discussions of race. We have allowed political pressure and propaganda to control our thought processes. Whites in large numbers have succumbed to the disease of racial self-hatred. Some sort of “exorcism” is required but, when religious leaders are themselves implicated in the problem, one must despair of finding a cure.

 

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