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This essay was originally published after Charlottesville in 2017.
Race has been an issue for this country since before it was even a nation. My friend and artist, Jen Hereth, referred to “race” as the “black elephant in the room.” In the wake of Charlottesville, the United States of America (or at the very least, the media) has had to revisit this country’s “legacy” of rthe enslavement of Africans. The civil war, the Jim Crow era, and the civil rights movements all were products of this legacy.
People of all races have lost their lives fighting racial injustice in America. Heather Heyer was not the first, and will probably not be the last martyr in this cause. I would argue that many white Americans probably find the type of “white power” touted by hate groups like the klan and neo-nazis to be deplorable. “This is not who we are” was heard frequently after Charlottesville. This asserted the belief that most Americans do not identify with the extreme racial views touted by these hate groups.
While a noble sentiment, that statement of identity does not account for history, or our present reality. It is essentially Pollyanna tossing peanuts at the dead “elephant in the room” that we, as a nation, have avoided for so long, we have become blind to the stench. And when the funk could not be ignored in Charlottesville, the klan and neo-nazis became scapegoats for American racism. Unfortunately, these groups relish the opportunity to be the scapegoated vanguard of white privilege.
There are millions of actual “good white people” who benefit from the privilege of being considered “white.” But focusing solely on the klan and neo-nazis, creates the false premise that only a small sector of Americans support the concept of “white power.” Which may in fact be true. However, implicit white privilege is the oil that actually sustains institutionalized racism or de facto white supremacy.
This implicit privilege manifests in practically every area of American life- literally from the cradle to the grave. If you look at any of the disparities (infant mortality, education, income, criminal justice, and life expectancy) between the descendants of enslaved Africans, and their white counterparts, the differences are striking.
Hate groups are only symptoms of the greater issues of race, class, and privilege. The FBI has supposedly been “after” these hate groups since the previous century. But these law enforcement efforts have done nothing to improve the systemic racism that maintains white privilege and a permanent black and brown underclass. Poor white people, also an integral part of the underclass, are merely collateral damage.
We will not move forward as a truly United States of America, until we collectively address race, class and privilege. While vital to our nation’s survival, I realize that this will not be a comfortable public conversation. It will be a real struggle. There will probably be shouting matches, protests, marches, and unfortunately more bloodshed. But as Frederick Douglass said two centuries ago, “Without struggle, there can be no progress.”
America is suffering today because traumas from our nation’s infancy have not been treated. We cannot continue to treat the symptoms of this trauma with bandaids and pharmaceuticals. America’s social illness is beyond those short-term remedies. We need to surgically crack our rib-cage and get to the heart of this situation. Our recuperation will also mandate a drastic change to our lifestyle. Until we commit to dismantling systemic racism and white privilege in America, “land of the free” will only be a line from a propagandists song.