October 2020, with weeks to go before an election made controversial by Donald Trump. Is racial injustice an issue in America? The question is not about the existence of racial injustice, but is it, at this moment in 2020, an issue? That’s a good question and at the same time an unfortunate one given that we’re four hundred years into the problem. Depending on who you ask there’s a perception and a reality.
Pose the question to a random sampling of white America and you might get a range of responses from a firm “yes” to a firm “no,” to a noncommittal “we’re working on it,” to a lecture on the so-called left wing red herring of identity politics. If you ask the Vice-President of the United States he’ll deny that systemic racism exists at all as will his boss and the cult that follows this administration. Those are the perceptions.
If you ask a sampling of people of color if race is an issue in America your answer will be something along the lines of “Hell, yes it is. Every day of my life.” Being on the receiving end of racial injustice tends to make one expert in the reality.
My last post describes racial injustice as a peripheral, almost non-issue in suburban white America where I’ve spent most of my life. It is, for the most part, a look back on the days of my childhood and young adult years and it’s a story that speaks largely of indifference. Indifference to racial injustice has been the subplot of the main storyline of America’s tragedy. It’s a play that’s been repeated on the American stage for decades.
A person of color is killed under suspect circumstances or a church is torched or a klan/white supremacist rally get its 15 minutes of undeserved fame; maybe a traffic stop goes wrong or a group of good ol’ boys working off an excess of beer and boredom goes on a rampage and assaults some poor soul who had the nerve to simply be born with more melanin than his tormentors. Maybe an arrest is made, maybe not. Maybe justice is served, maybe not.
The storyline continues; protests, indignation, conflict, anger, rhetoric and calls for a divided nation to come together and to “do better.” And then the climax – detente. It all goes away. Protesters go home, Congressional hearings adjourn, politicians move on to other matters and the white community goes back to what it was doing before being so rudely interrupted. Days, weeks, maybe months pass and then the drama starts all over again.
Clear and present racism
Racial injustice has a long history in America. We know racism when we see it. Oftentimes it’s easy to spot; a bumper sticker, a comment on the internet or a demonstration in Charlottesville. That’s the low hanging fruit, the conspicuous things like the car I saw during a visit to Virginia during the Obama Presidency. The car was plastered from bumper to roof with stickers that slandered the president in the most vile and racist terms. It doesn’t have to be that car in Virginia. It could be the novelty shop in Virginia City, Nevada with anti-Obama trinkets or the comments section of Yahoo News or Confederate flag logoed doodads from the Dixie Outfitters shop in Lynchburg, Tennessee or an indignant white couple painting over the Black Lives Matter mural in Martinez, California. The examples are everywhere and they’re the things that trigger a reaction of disbelief followed by an instinctive revulsion and the question, “How could this happen in 21st century America?”
What a question. There’s racism all around us, injustice that we often pass by, sometimes daily without even recognizing it. Comfort is the foundation of complacency which allows us to ignore the day to day racism that’s hiding in plain sight. We either don’t recognize it for what it is or worse, it registers yet we choose to overlook it.
Webster defines systemic racism as, “The systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another.”
Systemic racism is that which is all around us like the air we breathe. And like the air that surrounds us we don’t always realize it’s presence. It’s present but unless it affects us directly we often only see numbers and numbers don’t often resonate. It’s easy to dismiss numbers without realizing that they represent real people.
What do the numbers stand for? They stand for the underrepresentation of Blacks in professional, managerial and in high government (Trump’s Administration is a case in point). They represent income gaps and wealth gaps. The numbers describe a disparity in educational opportunity and a growing gap between Blacks and whites when it comes to attainment of college degrees. Blacks are less likely than whites to own their own homes and to have access to quality healthcare (Particularly evident now as we see COVID-19 ravaging communities of color). Those of us who live in relative comfort not only don’t often realize these disparities but when told of these gaps we sometimes pawn them off as defects of the community.
Where the marginalized are hidden
For those like me who live comfortable lives, breath clean air, drink clean water, drive past nice neighborhood schools and parks and find our necessities a short drive away in secure shopping centers, systemic racism isn’t an issue unless we make the effort to recognize it. Systemic racism is alive and thriving in Contra Costa, the county I’ve called home for over 30 years. If you look, really look, and you don’t have to look too hard, systemic racism is right in front of you; it’s as clear as a Confederate flag flapping in the wind.
Contra Costa is a relatively large county resting between the San Francisco Bay on the west to the edge of California’s Central Valley on the east. Near the western shoreline of the county sits Richmond, largely a community of color; a mix of Black, Asian, Pacific-Islander and Latinx. The westerly winds off the bay push odors from the county landfill along with noxious vapors from the nearby Chevron refinery across the Richmond Parkway and into the adjacent communities.
The refinery occupies 2900 acres of bayside land. Low hills that look out over the bay to the west and the community just to the north and east are home to an unsightly colony of brown colored flat topped tanks that hold the petroleum products produced at the facility. Two hundred and fifty thousand barrels of crude are daily refined into gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, fuel oil and lubricating base oils.
Parks, schools and public pools sit within a mile of the refinery and on a bad day at Chevron the stacks pour out tainted clouds that cast a dark shadow of pollution over the community. The polluted fogs come from refinery potions that can contain benzene, butadiene nickel, toluene, hydrocyanide, ammonia, sulfuric acid and ethylbenzene. These potions are known to have respiratory and neurological ramifications. A fire at the refinery sends black clouds over the community resulting in trips to the emergency room and comments and accusatory remarks from those under blue skies that those ER visits are just setups for impending lawsuits and get rich quick settlements.
Some of the area’s other resident industries include, auto wrecking yards, metal fabricators, a tire recycler, an environmental waste recycler and acres of railyards that serve the refinery.
The residents of Richmond are at higher risk for stroke and heart attacks than the residents of the rest of CoCo County. The children of Richmond account for twice the rate of asthma as the rest of the county.
In North Richmond the schools struggle to keep up. A particularly marginalized section of Richmond, the one you drive quickly through, making only rolling stops at Stop signs, has earned the dubious nickname, “iron triangle.” Iron bars over windows and doors are not uncommon here. The area is dotted with little mom and pop shops and liquor stores and on the fringes you’ll find a few fast food restaurants. There’s a conspicuous dearth of supermarkets and wholesome food and if you’re passing through don’t waste your time looking for a Home Depot or a quick bite at a bistro. The nearest barista? She’s miles away in another zip code. North Richmond is one of those places where society hides the low income population, the ones on the edge of homelessness and smack in the middle of despair.
When Highway 80 is clogged with commute traffic the usual bypass is the Richmond Parkway that slices between the refinery and the neighborhoods. I’ve driven the parkway many times and never paid any heed to the plight of the residents. You notice the industry on one side of the parkway and you notice a visibly low income neighborhood on the other side but you don’t connect the dots.
The dots? In communities like Richmond, poverty begets poor schools, poor schools beget illiteracy, illiteracy begets lost opportunity, lost opportunity begets apathy, apathy begets frustration, frustration begets anger, anger begets crime, crime begets fatherless sons, which begets single moms which begets poverty and the circle remains unbroken.
“Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail. What you gain at one end you lose at the other. It’s like feeding a dog on his own tail. It won’t fatten the dog,” wrote Mark Twain.
There are those who live in comfort who work to help break the circle, others watch in sympathy and still others, the callous ones blame the marginalized for their own plight. “No pride, no self-respect.” And let’s not forget the tried and tired, patronizing bromides about “bootstraps.”
Richmond is just one example. In Dickson County Tennessee, toxins from a landfill leached into wells impacting the local community of color. In his podcast, Silence is Not an Option, Don Lemon talks about having lived in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” an 85 mile stretch along the Mississippi where a predominantly African-American population suffers the effects of industrial pollution. Three years ago I drove along a section of “Cancer Alley” (at the time I didn’t know of the area’s reputation) and was stunned to see people fishing in the shadows of industrial plants with stacks belching smoke. The tainted water crisis of Flint, Michigan was found by a government appointed civil rights commission to be the result of “historical, structural and systemic racism combined with implicit bias.” These are the corners of communities where society hides people of color and the poor. These are the places that the locals avoid when possible, and Tripadvisor only mentions as cautionary tales.
Below, clockwise from top left: Chevron refinery, Richmond CA.; Tainted water, Flint MI; Cancer Alley, LA. The poisoned fruits of systemic racism.
How the other half lives.
On a good traffic day the East Bay hills are about a fifteen minute drive out of Richmond. Once you clear the hills you drive fifteen minutes or so south to Walnut Creek, Dublin, San Ramon and Livermore, an area called the Tri-valley. This is where the money lives. One doesn’t shop mom and pop here where Whole Foods and other upscale opportunities abound. Property taxes are high here and families have high salaries, high standards and high expectations. The schools reflect that, some of them resembling immaculate junior college campuses.
Parks in the Tri-valley are green and manicured. Athletic fields are safe and well groomed. The residents here have the time and the resources to devote to the community.
When I was a child the adage went something like, “The Negroes need to be more patient.” If impatience wasn’t the issue there was the notion that a character defect was in play, “Look how they let their neighborhoods go to hell. They need to take more pride in their community.”
If those rationalizations didn’t fit there was always, “They’re always playing the race card. It’s like a crutch.” It wasn’t very long ago that I responded to Black lives matter with the assertion that, “All lives matter.” Indeed all lives do matter but we live in a society that has to be constantly reminded that Black lives are often omitted from the equation of the “all.”
White privilege versus Black reality
White privilege; it’s a term that I never took to heart, never really gave any thought to and that was still true not so long ago. That indifference put me in league with Ted Cruz who termed the notion of white privilege as “utter BS,” and Donald Trump, who’s administration recently cited white privilege as being “divisive and un-American.”
It wasn’t until as recently as Ahmaud Arbery’s execution at the hands of a pair of white supremacists that I fully grasped the notion of white privilege. Mr. Arbery was doing what I’ve done for a half century when he was killed. He was jogging. I could say, “Could’ve been me,” but that would be a lie wouldn’t it? I go about my daily business with no worries.
When I go out for a run every morning the only thing that I have to worry about is the occasional unleashed dog or texting driver. Nobody is going to see me running and wonder what I stole or what crime I’m trying to escape. Certainly no worries about an unhinged racist vigilante in a pickup truck, tracking me like quarry and then gunning me down.
I’ve recently learned that a rite of passage for Black children is to memorize a long checklist of routine activities that might arouse suspicion, things that I can do and not invite a second look much less a 911 call. I don’t have to think twice before taking a walk on a chilly evening wearing a hoodie with the hood pulled tightly over my head and hands stuffed in my pocket. I can walk through a department store without being stalked by a wary employee, or walk out of the supermarket with unbagged groceries without arousing suspicion. I could drive a BMW through a posh neighborhood or any neighborhood for that matter without being stopped and told to, “Get out of the car sir.” I don’t have to worry about a traffic stop for an expired car registration or burned out brake light leading to a detailed interrogation and a feeling of dread deep in my gut. I can paint Black Lives Matter on my fence and not be accosted by a stranger asking me if I own the house. If I choose to own a Glock I could carry it visibly in a holster and not get reported by a stranger and then be confronted by police with guns drawn, screaming at me to “get down on the ground.”
“Can I ask you what you’re doing with that weapon sir? Is it your weapon and is it registered? Thank you sir and have a nice evening.”
I only know about this checklist because I’ve read about it. It’s not something that I have to be conversant with. It’s never applied to me.
After the murder of George Floyd a wave against injustice crashed in America and around the world. It’s something we hadn’t seen since the 1960’s and while it’s shown some promise of lasting, let’s not forget that the 1960’s came and went and 50 years later America has saddled itself with a racist president complete with a cult following, all aching to turn the clock all the way back to 1930.
As with any movement like Black Lives Matter there’s always a counter movement. We’re seeing that in a backlash from the president, his administration and his cult claiming that BLM is Marxist and the left will loose gangs, disreputables, Antifa and the poor (read, people of color) on the suburbs.
These are tough times to keep a movement in motion. We’re months into a botched response to a pandemic that long ago got politicized, there’s angst over the makeup of the Supreme Court, and the nation as a whole seems as divided as it was during the antebellum period and the ensuing Civil War. The political and social environment is a waste dump. And to top all of this off, we’re on the cusp of a presidential election, one of the most important in the nation’s history and one that a raving president is warning will be tainted by voter fraud. He’s gone so far as to hint at staging a coup if he loses. Clearly if he loses, his rank and file supporters, the cult, will not take it graciously. Will they take to the streets, guns and all, and will they be goaded by a lame duck president who will have more than two months to pour gasoline on the nation’s fire?
Elie Mystal writing in The Nation knows the cycle all too well, “If you want to help me, be on my side. Not just during “protest week” but also during restaurant week and beach week and finals week and “I know a guy who has a yacht” week and all the weeks in between. Be one-tenth as pissed off about racism two weeks from now as I am every day, and let all your white friends know about it.” https://www.thenation.com/article/society/white-people-anti-racism/
In Don Lemon’s podcast Silence is Not an Option, journalist William C. Rhoden said in early August, “These things (the current Black Lives Matter resurgence) have a shelf life, before people get tired of it…okay, everybody out of the pool. Hope you got your promotion, your whatever, cuz this is only going to last for so long and who knows, it may crescendo after the election.” https://www.cnn.com/audio/podcasts/don-lemon-silence-is-not-an-option?episodeguid=25d2c8c7-722a-49ec-8e90-ac160000f15a
Is race still the issue that it was months after George Floyd’s murder? The recent un-decision in the Breona Taylor shooting shifted race front and center again followed by Donald Trump melting down in a debate. His brutish outbursts and refusal to denounce white supremacy kept race front and center but that was only a passing thing. Two days later everything, with the possible exception of quarterback Cam Newton testing positive for COVID, took a back seat to Trump’s own bout with the virus. Trump’s coronavirus adventure has caused a three ring spectacle of a White House COVID hotspot, complete with an ensuing extravaganza of lies, disinformation, irresponsible behavior and an excess of Executive Department confusion all under the direction of a mad president apparently hopped up on ‘roids.
So how do you keep your movement for racial justice front and center? How do you keep a white community focussed while the nation is bearing witness to death; over 210,000 to coronavirus and the seeming impending death of the Constitution, the republic and democracy? Racism never stops being an issue in the communities of color. It’s there, 24/7/365.
In 2020, like no other time before, the white community has been admonished in no uncertain terms that it needs to get involved, to speak up and in the words of John Lewis get in “good trouble.” It’s up to the white community to avoid dropping the racial injustice ball while juggling all the rest. Right now with the rapidly approaching election and all the turmoil surrounding it, it seems we’re failing. Sadly the racial injustice ball seems to be once again rolling away.
In 2008 when Barack Obama was elected to the presidency I came to the personal conclusion that racism was dead in America. How could that not be the case? We’d elected a Black president. I’m certain that I wasn’t the only one in white America who’d come to the same conclusion. Exhale. And then came the backlash, eight years of it. And then came 2016.
In 2020 the lesson is, or certainly should be, clear. Racial injustice cannot be just a problem for the communities of color to solve. It can’t be a series of blips on the white community’s radar. It’s going to take the efforts and the focus of all communities and that’s particularly true in light of the damage that Donald Trump has caused in a mere four years.
Coming soon: An old white guy’s perspective on what white people can do.
6 thoughts on “Keeping Race an Issue in Troubled Times”
Oh, Paulie, you’ve said it all. And one might have hoped we could have continued to focus on this – making the world a better place for everyone – but clearly that’s not what the WH agenda is about in any way, shape or form. And the man in the WH is a master at making every headline about him and only him. Any notion of good government seems to have gone out the window. 😥
Jane, we’ve historically lost focus on the issues around racial injustice and economic injustice. After the lip service has been paid then everyone moves on to something else.
My feeling is that Trump’s train wrecks have caused more focus over the last 3 1/2 years than in years past. That’s because his policies and his rhetoric have created more division and emboldened the fringe right in a way that we haven’t seen in probably a century. The problem is that we take our eyes off the injustice wreck when another wreck occurs somewhere else on the political and social tracks.
Let’s see what happens if Biden is elected. Will the mere fact that he’s in office signal detente and another period of false complacency?
If the only options for the U.S. are what’s happening now (the list of negative adjectives is too long to list) and a period of false complacency, the future looks pretty dim. Let’s hope there’s a third path forward!
I am glad you thought it through so well and could internalize the fears and struggles of the black community. Unfortunately, very few white people have such a deep understanding. Unfortunately, too many falsely believe that black “have too many privileges.” For me, even before all this year’s event, there was one thing which said it all. That is, that my black friends always say “be safe” after they say “goodbye,” even if we part in the broad daylight in the middle of Chicago Financial District. I stopped making fun of this long time ago. And with my black friends, I am not annoyed when they ask me: please text me when you reach home/
Thank you Hettie. I have to confess that through most of my life I’ve been largely non-committal. I think that many of us in the white community have feared that we have no standing in the discussion about race. I also think that the events of the recent past have caused a more forceful voice from the Black community that the white community needs to get involved and get vocal.
So, Paul, you know I’ve been hopping around your site, and I happened upon your series on race awhile ago. I’ve been meaning to respond before now. I reread the pieces a few times and needed for them to sink in, but in light of what’s just happened in Atlanta, I thought I’d better send this off before it turns into a thesis. A few thoughts …
Your articles are intelligent, historical, and thoughtful. I suppose I was a bit afraid I’d read something hurtful, not because it’s about racism which is an explosive topic anyway, but hurtful on a more personal level.
It’s like finding out something awful about someone you don’t know well, but about whom you’ve already formed a positive opinion. That person appears to be a critical thinker, but then turns out to be an asshole on the issue of race.
I’m really happy this isn’t you.
It’s obvious you took a lot of time to piece together your blogs — a lot of history, a lot of research, a lot of care with your words. But for me, it’s this simple line that is the heart of the series. >>
“And it’s mostly white folks lowering the eyes and shuffling the feet. I know that because I’m one of those white folks.”
The line made me cry, but I want to thank you for writing it.
I know the issue of race is difficult for white people. It’s difficult for people of colour as well.
Speaking for myself only, when I bring up the issue of race with a white person, I am very aware I’m a minority voice in a society dominated by white folks. It’s uncomfortable on both sides, and I get tired of being challenged or being met with a defensive attitude when I express what is true to me.
I cannot know what it feels like to be white, to live in a social environment that protects and insulates me from racism. I don’t imagine a white person wakes up thinking how the colour of their skin might make them a target, but please correct me if I’m wrong.
On the other hand, the colour of my skin, shape of my eyes, nose—that which makes me different from white people is enough to make me a victim of verbal or physical abuse.
So yes, it’s never going to be comfortable to talk about race, to admit that white folks are the direct beneficiaries of inequality and segregation—a racist worldview, yet, we need to do it.
We need to move beyond the discomfort to educate, to have a firm grasp of history that can be traced into the present, to show compassion, empathy, respect for others. This is not just about Americans. I include Canadians, Brits, all the predominantly white nations when I hear the phrase you quoted in one of your articles: “We’re better than this.”
The proof is we are not … not yet anyway.
Thanks for putting all of this out there,