Going on fifty years, the US incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation in the world. The incarceration rates fall dis-proportionally on people of color (as predicted by the Nixon team).
A Conservative friend of mine asked me why, since Progressives say that they would like a color blind society, so many of my posts focus on race. He brought up the idea of white guilt and the fact that he didn’t have any, that his ancestors had fought for freedom and equality, and he didn’t feel that whites should be singled out as being especially culpable in terms of historical bad behavior. All of these are the standard arguments trotted out by folks who wish to ignore the fact that the past has produced the present and that understanding how we created the present is crucial to finding solutions to our problems.
… Suffice it to say that, while the Chinese, the Mongols, the Japanese, the Turks, and so on have all had their turns at empire, grabbing territory, enslaving other cultures, and so on, for the past 500 years it has been about white folks from Europe.
I never said that white folks are somehow unique in treating other peoples badly. But it is a fact that Europeans conquered the New World, exterminated most of the native population, relegated the rest to the land that no one else wanted. Then, as resources were discovered, treaties have been broken right down unto the present day. Our native population had their children taken forcibly from their families and placed in schools designed to eradicate their native culture and languages. This was still going on when I was a young adult. In parts of the West, no white man would be convicted of killing a native American in any court. This discrimination continues to this day.
But is just a fact that you cannot talk about any of our current unsolved social problems without understanding the relationship of the white community to the African Americans, initially as slaves, then as a much discriminated against minority. During Reconstruction an essentially terrorist resistance was mounted against Northern rule with lynchings, beatings, and assassination used to thwart implementation of equal rights for Blacks. In the 1920’s the KKK marched in force down Pennsylvania Ave in our nation’s capitol. Even on the North, red lining ensured ghetto-ization of the Black population. Jim Crow still existed in the South when I was young and the Civil Rights Movement was a mere fifty years ago. It is simply a fact that unequal treatment continues to this day.
It is a fact that a good portion of the United States used to be Mexico and that we went to war and took the portion we wanted and left the rest. Since that time our Hispanic citizens, many of whom have roots that go back before our Revolution, had their heritage stolen, their culture devalued, and been discriminated against. It is a fact that in my parent’s lifetime, we engaged in what amounted to ethnic cleansing by deporting millions of them to Mexico, regardless of citizenship. This discrimination continues to this day.
It is a fact that white Americans basically took over the independent kingdom of Hawaii, deposed their Queen, relegated the native Hawaiians to second class citizens. We attempted to destroy their language and culture and that discrimination continues to this day.
In terms of foreign policy, it is a fact that the majority of our most serious problems cannot be considered without an understanding of European colonialism which was still in effect when I was a young student. Virtually all of the main military interventions we have had since WWII have involved former European colonies. Most of the international issues we face involve really bad decisions about how to divide up the Ottoman Empire after WWII, decisions made by a bunch of old white guys in Europe.
Nobody expects you to feel guilty about your or my ancestors did. My own ancestors included slave owners and abolitionists. One, who as a slave owner, paid $10,000 to private investigators to find and re-unite one of his slaves with his wife, a fortune at the time. Was he a bad man for being a slave owner or was he a good man for caring? Probably a bit of both. But that is history. People are the product of their times.
So, white guilt is irrelevant. But an understanding of how we got where we are and how old patterns of thought, old social relationships perpetuate themselves in a society long after the institutions that created them are gone is indispensable to finding solutions going forward. The fact that I have abolitionists in the family tree or you have civil war heroes does not absolve us of the responsibility to correct the injustices and inequality which have persisted since the country was founded. The fact is that most of the wealth, most of the power, in this country still lies in the hands of white folks and while opportunity exists for our minority citizens in ways that didn’t exist even when I was younger, it is by no means equal.
So, that is why we have to talk about color. We might wish to get to a color blind society. But color blindness right now is just an excuse to ignore legacy racial inequality and injustice.