Martin Luther King, Jr. is embraced as a civil rights hero by black and white alike. One DailyKos.com writer wrote a thought-provoking diary entitled, “Most of you have no idea what Martin Luther King actually did,” in which the author implicitly raises two points that white people should ponder in the process of celebrating the man and his achievements. The first point is that what King actually achieved was not equality but an environment of safety. The second point, never made in so many words, is that white people need to move on from congratulating themselves for ending their pathological violence to the next task of embracing the truth about how things were and how it is.
King’s greatest legacy was the end of a reign of terror. This year is the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and it’s a natural time to examine how equal things have become since King put his life on the line for racial justice. White people are largely no longer permitted to be menacing and violent. It reminds me of an old story told in multicultural education to show people how oppression works:
Grab a plate and throw it on the ground
Did it break?
Now say you are sorry
I am sorry I broke it
Did it go back to the way it was before?
Do you understand?
Ever since seeing the reports this month that researchers found white people believe they experience more racism than black people, I have been dismayed. We cannot, as a group, possibly be that cognitively dysfunctional, could we? But, white people actually think we’re the plate. Racial disparities abound in everything from health, education, and wealth to unemployment, criminal justice, and infant mortality, and we’re not on the losing end. Social problems are like viruses. They invade when a community’s immune system has weakened. Whites haven’t been crippled by an infestation of social problems brought about by a festering wound. We haven’t had another race inflicting a multi-century wound on us. But, affirmative action? Clutch my pearls. Don’t get us started at the injustice.
Our cognitive pathology as white people is, and historically has been, profound. There is no other earthly explanation for why one group of human beings could treat another group of human beings with such vicious malice or apathetic disregard. Too many conservatives think white liberals educate themselves about the history of race relations only to wallow in guilt. Let’s be generous and say this is either because they have been exposed to poorly executed multicultural education or they’ve had no opportunity to learn about how to think of people from this nation’s other diverse races as being like themselves.
A good multicultural education always begins grounded in an accurate history. The best place to learn about slavery quickly is in Howard Zinn’s, “People’s History of the United States.” There is no better source for an honest portrayal of that era. Conservatives who hear this will no doubt get apoplectic. They do not like people to read original documents or first person accounts as these challenge the racist infrastructure. But, don’t stop the history lesson with slavery. Learn about Sundown Towns…the use of unsuspecting black strikebreakers in white Midwestern towns during the early days of the unions…the town of Buxton, Iowa. Read Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon that eloquently describes apartheid, violence, and enforced inequality from the end of the Civil War to World War II. Talk about how the criminal justice system continues to reinforce race control methods. Admit the way we use property tax to fund public schools instead of trying a uniform national per student funding strategy shows we do not actually want our schools to be equal. With all of this information as context, we are then able to process what this history of oppression means. We don’t need to feel guilty. We simply need to know the history and its consequences.
Just by virtue of being black, a child does not inherit the fortunes of ancestors whose commerce was built on the backs of stolen labor. All of those hundreds of years of “pilfered” money were invested in schools, infrastructure, wealth, leisure, health, and family stability that benefited white people. Meanwhile, a self-deluding, hateful part of the white population was hell-bent on the exploitation and control of black people. In the process, they went to lengths heretofore unseen in history in terms of being dehumanizing, cruel, and destructive. They deliberately split apart families, punished people for learning, and treated human beings like pets. The generations of behavior that followed were equally atrocious. Just as we give no excuse to those who oppress gay and lesbian individuals today, there is no reason to excuse our ancestors for their behavior. We can’t simply say, “Well, it was the times.” The time frame of American slavery was a period of international scorn for slavery even in that era; people made eloquent, passionate arguments against slavery that anyone had the choice to adopt. People also tried to use the Bible to justify slavery just as they use it today to underpin their homosexual bigotry.
Armed with this history, white people can move through the rest of the process of developing a white identity and accepting white privilege. When people have multicultural education that does not include an overview of the process privileged people go through in cognitively and emotionally adjusting to learning about their status, their training is incomplete and they are missing a vital piece of their education. In the case of white privilege, professionals have labeled the process, white identity development.
One model proposed by Helms has six stages. It begins with “contact” which is when the white person first meets someone of a different race; he or she has little sense of themselves as a white person but feels uncomfortable with the different race person. A surprisingly high number of White Americans have no friends of another race (40%). In the second stage, “disintegration,” the white person starts to see racial inequities and feels guilty about them. Some massive percentage of conservatives must be in this stage, because it is the only one they can imagine white liberals could be in, especially with regard to voters for President Obama. Their hyper-focus suggests a lack of familiarity with many of the other stages of white identity or acceptance of white privilege.
In the third stage, “reintegration,” the white people now sees themselves as a white person in an empirically “superior” group, but they may be likely to blame inequalities on the shortcomings of individuals. For example, a person may have the attitude, “Well yes, white people are financially better off in the United States, but that is because they work harder. Those minorities who are successful [either tokens or model minorities] only prove racial groups have equal chances of success; the racial groups only have unequal outcomes because they have unequal effort.”
Conservatives always seem to be in one of these three early stages of development of a white identity. It is truly uncanny. However, I have witnessed, through teaching social work courses, conservatives transform into liberals through their work on privilege. This is why conservatives view multicultural education as such a threat.
The next three stages really focus on building a positive white identity (otherwise known as accepting white privilege) beginning with “pseudo-independence,” which is when one understands that white people are responsible for racism, including oneself. At this point, a white person understands that he/she does not have to personally dislike racial minorities to benefit from a racist power structure. Stage five, “immersion/emersion,” is one in which the person turns away from trying to “fix” racial minorities to working to overcome racism. For example, building an in-depth statistical profile of racial disparities in the criminal justice system should not make you want to teach black mothers how to parent. It’s amazing how many of my conservative social work students thought otherwise.
And then finally, “autonomy,” a period of expansion of learning about white identity to learning about other forms of privilege such as heterosexual, gender, and class privilege. More and more White Americans have learned about white privilege and developed a healthy white identity. Notably, the odds that people have actually gone through the process of accepting class privilege are practically nil, making discussions of inequality particularly uncomfortable.
As our country slowly moves toward equality, it is rarely asked what white people will need to do move our society forward at this juncture. If I were to pick our next collective task, it would be embracing truth particularly about white privilege. There may, in fact, be some increase in anti-white attitudes and actions, even honestly acknowledged by black respondents as well, as seen in the Harvard/Tuft study. However, losing privilege is actually being interpreted as anti-white racism. How can we tell? Because white people have the ridiculous belief that they face more racism than black people. This suggests we have a lot of work to do.
Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.