I’m feeling feelings based on events in the news and I don’t really know what to do with them. I see comments online, not so much from my own friends but from their friends on Facebook or comments on news stories (why? why do I keep reading those?) that indicate a lot of white people who don’t seem to understand that the racial tension in America stems from very real things that need to be dealt with in a very real way. The general tone seems to be that people in bad situations are personally responsible for being there. I want to share some things that have helped open my eyes to the depth of the racial problems in America and what “institutional” really means. These are things I’ve learned from just listening. I think the first thing a privileged group should do when another group claims oppression is just listen. It’s literally the least you can do. Listen, absorb, consider.
You can draw a pretty straight line from slavery to Reconstruction to Jim Crow to the institutional racism of 20th-century housing practices, drug laws, and law enforcement. It’s like forcing someone to race to earn a living, breaking their legs before they run the race, then fining them for not finishing it. Here are some things that helped me trace that line.
The first time I began to understand just how fundamentally different things can be between white America and black America was after Trayvon Martin was killed. I was appalled that it happened, but unfortunately that wasn’t the first or last time a child of color would be killed as a result of gross overreaction. It wasn’t the actual murder that opened my eyes as much as it was an article about “the talk” a black parent gave their children about how to behave in public in order not to get murdered. Here’s one example, but I encourage you to dig around for more if you’re interested (that goes for the other points I’ll bring up). I’d been brought up to respect police and to know they were there for my protection. If I was ever in trouble, I could go to them and they’d help me. One of my only real contacts with the police was the DARE officer in my elementary school. He was a good guy.
Which reminds me, you should also google the disproportionately racial aspects of the war on drugs. I know that’s another field where it’s easy to say “well, what do you expect? If you get caught with drugs you should get punished.” Sure, but the laws don’t seem to act the same for white people and black people. And one of Nixon’s aides recently made an astonishing admission that their drug policy was enacted with the direct intention of keeping African Americans oppressed.
Anyway. Learning about this talk that a lot of black parents have with their children really shook me into a realization that things just don’t work the same way in America for white people and black people. Another thing that really helped me understand what “institutional racism” means was an easy-to-understand article about the history of racist housing policies and their effects on the black community. We all had to read A Raisin in the Sun in high school right? I would argue that very few teachers are actually teaching that play, unfortunately, because it was just a couple months ago that this lesson was really brought home for me. Home ownership played a big part in the rise of the middle class in America post-WWII. For white people. Black people weren’t given the same access to the loans needed to own these homes. They were denied access to wealth in the form of property in a country where wealth more or less equals political power, or at least the power to make decisions about your own life. Denial of this access led to lower property values for de facto segregated black communities, which led to poorer schools, which leads to that societal handicap I referred to in my second paragraph. Nikole Hannah-Jones has done some absolutely fabulous work on the problem with race and schools in this country, both for This American Life and the New York Times. Please check out her work.
And now, obviously, we have high-profile killings of African Americans at the hands of police when it seems that such force was completely unnecessary. This has been particularly hairy. I know that most cops aren’t racist and most cops aren’t shooting people who don’t need to be shot. But there is no room for error in that job. It’s not an easy one. I’m certainly not cut out for it. It requires literally supernatural abilities to divorce yourself from emotion so you can make split second decisions in life or death situations. I think we need to examine who we’re hiring for this job and how we’re training them. And until we start seeing a wave of videos of white people dying in these same circumstances, you can’t deny that this is a problem for minorities in America. I don’t think this is going to change until the good cops start speaking publicly about the bad ones. I don’t know, I’m not here to provide answers. I’m just an actor, I have no idea what to do to fix these problems, but acknowledging the problem has to be step one.
Everything I’ve mentioned is recent history. We were all taught about slavery and the Jim Crow laws and their defeat by the civil rights movement; however, I’m not sure we were made to understand the reality of these things beyond facts on a page. Africans started out life in this country as literally less than full people, per the United States Constitution. We eventually fought a war over that and changed it with new amendments, and that needed to happen, but understand that those amendments were ultimately just words on a page. You can’t pass a law that changes how people see things, and the Civil War didn’t end that long ago in terms of generations. The practice of lynching certainly didn’t end long ago, generationally speaking. Something that helped me understand how widespread this heinous practice was, and the monumental ignorance of it on the part of the US government, was Ann Hagedorn’s Savage Peace. It covers the year 1919 from start to finish. You will never see Woodrow Wilson the same way. And lynchings were common for decades after that.
Wealth and power take generations to build. The Irish were coldly received in this country when they began flooding in after the famines in the mid-1800s. Eastern Europeans weren’t welcome at the end of the 19th century. But they didn’t face the same institutional roadblocks that African Americans have faced in this country. They were able to start businesses, buy property where they liked, elect their own to office and build wealth they could pass on to their children who would then continue to grow. It took generations. So when I see people complaining that affirmative action is trying to fix racism with racism, I shake my head. I understand the reasoning of the argument, which as I understand it is that you’re trying to end discrimination based on race by using discrimination based on race. This would be true in an even playing field, but I hope I’ve shown that America has been anything but. To shut your eyes to race is to shut your eyes to the history that has led us here.
I really hope this has been helpful. If you thought so, please pass it along. I’m painfully self-conscious of trying to play some sort of white savior here, because that’s not my intention. I just want this to serve as a platform to help white people who say otherwise realize that there are very real problems in the country that can’t be ignored. We need to take it upon ourselves to get educated about them and listen. Your experience is not THE experience. Listen. And hopefully then take some sort of action.
Colin Fisher is many things to many people, but mostly he’s an actor and writer.