It’s not enough to not be racist; racism did not start as an idea – it started as a policy of oppression
What if I told you the sad and ignorant man who called my wife the N-word in New Hampshire isn’t really the problem? What if I said that well-mannered ‘white’ folk like you and me are just as much the problem as he? Let me explain.
The term ‘structural racism’ is redundant. Racism didn’t start as an idea about individual biology, hardwired into crooked minds like his from the beginning. It started as a structure, a set of policies established by powerful people to increase their wealth and power. Its perpetrators happened to come from Europe and have lighter skin. Its victims happened to come from Africa and have darker skin.
To protect their ill-gotten gains, racist Europeans set out to invent odious ideas – about increased melanin in skin corresponding to decreased abilities and worth, and a curse that lasts forever – and called them ‘scientific’ and ‘God-ordained’, respectively. The ideas stuck. In the words of Ta’Nehisi Coates, “race is the child of racism, not the father.”
With the idea of ‘white supremacy’ firmly in place, anti-black racism perfected its hierarchical structures by pitting those with less wealth and power (poorer ‘whites’) against those with none at all (enslaved ‘blacks’) through policies of separate and unequal. Take 50 acre land grants to European farmers who completed their indentured servitude in Colonial America and 50 lashings, or worse, for enslaved Africans who dared to seek their freedom. Or take reparations paid to former enslavers by the U.S. government during the Civil War and denied to their human captives after it. The goal of these structures was to ensure less powerful people of all backgrounds would not unite to end the vicious charade. It worked.
That’s what makes the edifice of racism so impregnable, even after the Human Genome Project definitively proved that race itself is a biological illusion: too many well-meaning people of European descent ignore the systemic nature of racism from which we benefit and instead assuage our guilt by focusing on racist ideas or the deeds of some bad cops. Those we superficially reject by proudly proclaiming “I don’t see color” or “I have black friends” or #BlackLivesMatter!
Which is why that sad and ignorant man who insulted my wife doesn’t bother me half as much as, say, the way we fund our public schools through local property taxes. If that sounds like a stretch, let’s take a tour at America’s racist policies through the lens of housing and education.
If you descended from Europeans like me, chances are your forebears came to this country in search of opportunity, encountered a period of hardship or even discrimination, assimilated into the dominant society of people who looked like them, and set about building a better future for their kids with the help of public schools. Rarely, if ever, did policies set them back. As a result, you probably received a decent education that helped you get a decent job that pays the rent or mortgage on a decent home, albeit with hard work and hardships of your own along the way. Maybe you even inherited your home from your hardworking parents.
Regardless of how you came to live where you do, chances are your predominantly-‘white’ New Hampshire town can afford a decent education for your kids through local property taxes (albeit unequally), thereby ensuring your kids will have a decent chance of getting a decent job, affording a decent home, and sending their kids to a decent school like you. Rinse and repeat. For centuries.
But that is only half the story of housing and education in America. Unlike my freedom-seeking forebears who came to Portsmouth voluntarily in the 1600s to build a better life on land they did not own, the descendants of African Americans were stolen from their homes and brought to the ‘Land of Liberty’ in chains. While my ancestors worked hard to own houses and attend school, enslaved ‘black’ people, from New Hampshire to the Deep South, worked hard to enrich the whole of ‘white’ society and were barred from owning even themselves for centuries. Those who dared assert their human rights were lynched and burned or beaten and resold with impunity.
In the 20th century, African Americans joined my grandfather in fighting for democracy abroad in World War II only to find their democratic rights again curtailed back home. They were denied Social Security as ‘domestic servants’ and blocked from effectively accessing government-backed home loans under the GI Bill of Rights. When they saved up enough money to buy a decent house so their kids could attend a decent public school, they were denied access to suburbs by redlining and private covenants in a pattern of residential segregation that continues, de facto, to this day. When they won the right to vote for better housing and schools, they were systematically blocked from going to the polls in many states through discriminatory registration and other practices that continue unabated. And when they finally won the right to government-backed housing and financial aid, they were barred by the millions because of a criminal record conferred by a criminal ‘justice’ system that has been termed ‘the new Jim Crow’.
As a result, African Americans continue to occupy a world apart from ‘white’ society when it comes to housing and education, and the right to life itself. Not only do more ‘black’ men receive a criminal conviction than a college degree (mainly for nonviolent ‘offenses’ that are humanely treated or ignored in ‘white’ communities) but their children are effectively locked in substandard housing and schools, where over-policing and under-investment are the norm. Now, as African Americans die in disproportionate numbers from both COVID-19 and police brutality, their schools are falling still further behind for lack of funds to facilitate remote learning. Is it any wonder the median ‘white’ family has 41 times more wealth than the median ‘black’ family in the United States today?
Racism did not start as an idea – it started as a policy of oppression and insinuated itself into every aspect of American life. For more than 400 years, it has profited people like me at the expense of people of color like my wife and kids. To overcome our country’s ‘original sin’, we must do more than relinquish our odious ideas and not be racist – we must learn to become active practitioners of antiracism by dismantling the structures themselves.
Dan Weeks is a director at ReVision Energy, an employee-owned Benefit Corporation that supports climate and racial justice. He lives in Nashua with his wife and kids.