In the early 1980’s, I started worked as a teaching assistant in American history classes at a major Midwestern university. The professor for the course delivered weekly lectures; I went over reading assignments and lecture materials with the students each week in small groups.
In those days it was a rare experience to have any student of color in any of my classrooms. All the professors I worked with were white; I am white.
I used to give a speech at the outset of the semester to my white students about the importance of studying history. I spoke to the way each one of us were heirs to legacies we needed to understand. I spoke to the need for us to take responsibility for the real outcomes of those legacies in our time.
As white Americans, we inherited the legacy of racism, a racism that dispossessed Native Americans, decimated their peoples, and condemned them to the status of despised strangers in their own land. We had inherited the racism which had enslaved Africans and continued, post-Civil War, to devise systemic ways of keeping Black Americans oppressed, marginalized, and condemned to a lifetime of struggle. We were the inheritors of the racism that made immigrants subject to peonage and sex slavery.
Inevitably, a student would raise a hand to inform and correct me. “My grandparents,” said student, “came to this country as hardworking immigrants and had nothing to do with…”
- “wars against Native Americans.”
- whatever else was on my list.
Students told me that what I described was part of the past, “history.” I heard the claim that “anyone can do anything they want in this country if they just work hard enough…” Or I was offered personal, anecdotal evidence. “My great grandparents experienced prejudice, too, as Irish Americans.” (Prejudice = racism, in this view.)
“It doesn’t actually matter,” I’d say. “You are white Americans. As white Americans you have inherited a legacy and a burden of white Americans did and do to people of color. As white Americans you have to know what that legacy and burden looks like and how it is plays out right now to ensure that people of color continue to suffer. That inheritance makes you responsible.”
That was 40 years ago. We did not have the words we have now in common parlance. My students then would not have known phrases like “white privilege” or “systemic oppression” or “school to prison pipeline.”
Black men were being arrested, shot, and killed by white police in the 1980’s. Black men and Black communities knew (as they know now) that the world they live in is permeated by vicious barriers to their safety, and life itself. Police brutality is not a creation of our recent past; it was part and parcel of the first formation of police forces in the 1700’s, organized by white men to capture, beat, whip, and reenslave any Black person trying to escape. Systemic racism? That is our history, and from the outset.
People of color cannot breathe in this country. The looters we ignore are white Americans who have stolen their breath. The looters we need to name are those white people who are part and parcel of a system of white privilege that permits black schoolchildren to be punished for behavior white children can display with impunity. That system which permits redlining, which permits unfair mortgage rates to be the only mortgage people of color can receive, which permits people of color being paid less when they have the same educational background and/or experience, which permits…. That list is a long one.
White looters sit in Congress, creating tax benefits for a wealthy and white upper class, traveling on taxpayer money to their homes and resorts, passing laws which protect their privileges — these men and women have gotten away with their own kind of murder. Our current president refused to pay people who worked for him, created a sham “university” to rook people out of tens of thousands of dollars, and routinely relied on the undocumented immigrants he pillories to clean his toilets. He will loot even the right to protest peacefully, using tear gas on protestors so he can stand in front of a church for a photo op.
The students I taught forty years ago are now in their late fifties and early sixties. They run America, as white Americans do. They failed, as did all the white generations in our history, to understand the burden of the inheritance of systemic racism. They refused to take responsibility for its pernicious, murderous outcomes.
A white police officer pressed his knee into George Floyd’s neck and killed him. Two others kneeled on his back and legs; a fourth stood by and watched. George Floyd died, as so many have before him, because he could not breathe.
White people are not just implicated. We are responsible.
This post is dedicated to my colleagues and students of color.