Department of Journalism
University of Texas
work: (512) 471-1990
copyright Robert Jensen 2001Delivered to a panel on racial disparity in
health at the annual conference of the American Public Health Association,
Boston, November 14, 2000; and for the "Speaking Truth to Power" series at
Schreiner University, Kerrville, Texas, April 3, 2001.
I want to start with the 34 most misused words about race ever
spoken in the United States:
"I have a dream my four little children will
one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their
skin but by the content of their character."
Those are, of course, the
famous words of Martin Luther King Jr., spoken in 1963 at the March on
Washington. King used the term "dream", but his topic was the nightmare of race
and America, of life in a racialized and racist society.
conservatives and liberals alike invoke King's dream of a color-blind society in
ways that I can only guess would deeply sadden and anger King. For to be blind
to color in the United States in the year 2000 is to be truly blind.
blindness, I think, is the wrong metaphor, and not just because it equates a
disability with lack of understanding. It is also the wrong metaphor because one
does not choose blindness; it is a condition one must deal with. The failure to
understand race in a racialized world, the failure of white America to
understand its own power and privilege, and how that power and privileged is
based on a racialized and racist system, is a choice. It is a kind of willed
ignorance, for one has to work very hard not to know what is so obvious. This
clamor for color-blindness is, I want to argue, a kind of collective willed
ignorance on the part of the majority of white Americans.
The way of out
of the ignorance, I think, is relatively simple. We must learn to hold two
seemingly contradictory things in our minds:
First, race is a fiction we
must never accept.
Second, race is a fact we must never forget.
that, I mean simply that we must let go, once and for all, of the notion that
race is a meaningful biological or genetic concept. We must understand that in a
biological sense, there are no such things as racial groups. Racial
classification systems are a biological and genetic fiction. That doesn't mean
there aren't differences in skin, hair and bone, to borrow from W. E. B. Du
Bois. It means those differences don't mean anything in biological or genetic
terms. Recent work on the human genome verifies what we have long known: There
is more genetic variation within racial groups that between them. So, we must
eliminate what cultural theorist Stuart Hall calls "the biological trace" that
is present not only in the dominant discourse but also often in anti-racist
But race is, of course, very much a fact in a social sense, and
a fact we cannot forget. Racial groups exist because people take them to be
real. Invoking reason and religion, anthropology and science, people with power
have created and imposed racial hierarchies, and those hierarchies have been
used, and are still used today, to unjustly enrich some people and impoverish
others. The consequences of that categorization and oppression are as real as
the scars that racism leaves on people's bodies, minds and souls.
these statements to be little more than truisms. Yet they would in many circles
in this country spark argument. Let me quote from a correspondence I had with a
very bright, and very white, man I met at a journalists' conference, where he
and I argued about affirmative action. He wrote to me:
"Where is your
evidence of widespread contemporary racism? I literally don't see it. In my
view, the overwhelming majority of Americans, and 99 percent of our leadership,
embrace Martin Luther King's principles as pronounced in his "I Have a Dream"
speech. Where do you see racism?"
Where do I see racism? Well, we could start
with a study by the Council of Economic Advisors for the President's Initiative
on Race hardly a radical group. They detailed how, on average, whites are more
likely than members of racial/ethnic minorities to:
primary and secondary schools with smaller class sizes;
access to computer technology in public schools and at home during primary and
· Attend and graduate from a four-year
college or university;
· Earn higher salaries;
Retain employment during a downturn in the economy;
Be covered by health insurance and consequently gain access to
· Survive certain life-threatening illnesses;
· Experience more favorable housing conditions (less crowding,
less crime, less litter and deterioration, and fewer problems with public
services); · Spend a smaller percentage of household income on
· Have unimpeded access to home mortgage loans and
· Own stocks, mutual funds and IRA accounts;
· Gain a substantial net worth.
[Council of Economic
Advisors, "Changing America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being by
Race and Hispanic Origin," September 1998,
Where do I see racism? Not
just in those statistics, but in the stories I read and hear from non-white
people about what it is like to live in this country. And I see racism in this
clamor for color-blindness.
I have often heard this comment from
well-intentioned white people: "I don't think of Joe as black. I just think of
him as a person." Such a statement could only be made in thoroughly racialized
and racist society. Why?
First, think of who makes such statements --
almost exclusively white people. I have never had a black person say to me,
"When I see a white person, I don't see the color, I just see the person." Few
say that because being white historically has not been associated with
degradation, dehumanization, denigration. Being white does not make one's
humanity problematic. To see me as a fully human person, non-white people don't
have to strip away my whiteness, because whiteness is not assumed to be
less-than anything. I can be white and be a person, without complication.
no non-white person has to de-race a white person to be able to treat that white
person as a person. But white people will take that de-racing to be evidence of
having transcended the deeply embedded racism of this country, when in fact the
process of stripping non-white people of their color in order to see them as a
person implicitly acknowledges the association of color with lesserness, with
Our goal should not be to strip away the reality of our
difference, our particularity, in favor of some abstracted form. Our goal should
not be to be color-blind. Our goal should be to understand how color, hair and
bone shape all our lives.
For whites, I think that means taking seriously
not only the task of understanding what it means for people of color to live in
a racialized and racist world, but for us to start to see how the privileges
that come with being white give us advantages, some subtle and some obvious,
some overt and some covert, some material and some ideological.
worked hard in my life. I believe that, amid all my mistakes and screw-ups, I
have done some good things in the world. But to believe that, I don't have to
deny that I live in a world that unjustly advantages me because I am white (and
male, and educated, and from a professional class).
Justice starts with the
truth. The truth is we live in a society that was founded on a racist genocide
of indigenous people and enriched through a racist slave traffic in African
people, and that is maintained in its affluence through an ongoing racist attack
on the non-white people of much of the third world. Yet these three American
holocausts perpetrated by white people have become abstracted as "the race
problem" with no sense of the agency of oppression.
This goes back to the
founding of the nation. The father of our grand democracy, James Madison,
himself a slaveowner, said: "Next to the case of the black race within our
bosom, that of the red on our borders is the problem most baffling to the policy
of our country."
Like most white Americans, Madison saw the existence of
blacks and Indians as the problem, not the attacks on those people and the
exploitation of them by whites. It is by now a truism to say that racism is a
white problem. But based on my reading and interaction with whites, it is clear
to me that most of white American still sees race as a problem rooted in
communities of color, one that can only be solved when people in those
communities change, not when white people change.
I want to argue not
only that race is a white problem, but that it is one that can only be solved by
That means we must understand racism and white privilege not in
individual, psychological terms, but in social and political terms. The problems
of race are not simply that some individuals are racially prejudiced. The
problem is what can be called institutional or systemic racism: the system of
unjustly gained wealth and power, continuing resource inequality, and a deeply
embedded white-supremacist ideology. By institutional and systemic, I mean that
without intervention the institutions of society will reproduce the racism. I
mean it is to some degree present everywhere.
If that's true, then it
means white people have to rethink the question of our own connection to racism.
Each of us here could completely eliminate any vestiges of racial prejudice in
ourselves, and we would still be implicated in systemic racism. We would still
retain all the privileges that come with being white. We would still have what
George Lipsitz has termed "the possessive investment in whiteness."
means to be truly anti-racist, we must be political. I mean political in the
broadest sense politics as the struggle for the distribution of power and
resources in a society. Not just electoral politics, but the struggle in our
schools, our workplaces, and the larger society, to confront the realities of
that systemic racism. The contours of that struggle can vary from place to
place. But it is, and for the foreseeable future will be, a struggle, because as
Frederick Douglass so eloquently explained more than a century ago, "Power
concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will."
doesn't mean we white folks don't have lots of internal, personal work to do as
well. My own experience has taught me that just when I think I have shed the
last of my own racist training, just when I think I can trust myself on matters
of race, I find myself falling on my face, making mistakes.
mean I haven't learned a lot. It doesn't mean I'm the same person I was as a
kid, telling racist jokes while growing up in virtually all-white North Dakota.
It doesn't mean I'm the same person I was when as a smug, self-satisfied
journalist in my 20s I believed affirmative action was a way for underqualified
blacks to get and protect their jobs.
I have learned. I have grown. I
have been blessed with non-white friends who have held me accountable, who have
given me what I call the gift of being made uncomfortable. But I am a work in
progress, just like us all.
Because of what I have learned, I understand
now, more than ever, how that anti-racist work must go on not only inside
myself, but in the world, a world where people suffer and die because of racism.
I can begin to restructure my own thinking, even my own feeling, and that's
But what does that mean for Amadou Diallo, a black man in New York
who in 1999 committed the crime of being afraid in the presence of four white
police officers and reaching for his wallet? His punishment was 41 shots. What
does is mean for Patrick Dorismond, who the following year was shot and killed
on the street by an undercover drug cop who, for no reason other than
Dorismond's black skin, approached him to try to make a drug buy. Dorismond made
the mistake of being outraged that he was targeted, of confronting the officer.
For that crime, he was shot on the street.
There were many white liberals
in New York who stood silent when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani instituted reactionary
policing policies that, we are told, "cleaned up the city" and made it safer to
walk the streets. Safer, that is, so long as you aren't a young black man who
carries the presumption of criminality. I assume many of those white liberals
have worked on their own racism, as they quietly endorsed the mayor's
initiatives, as they secretly were glad when the white police officers in the
Diallo case were acquitted of murder charges.
I can and should work on my
own racism, and I can feel better about myself and my racial politics. I can do
that, and Amadou Diallo is still dead. Patrick Dorismond is still dead. And Rudy
is still mayor of New York. And white folks in New York still talk about how
safe the streets are. For them. For us. The ones with the privilege to see
police on the street and feel safe. The ones who don't have to worry about 41
So, if whiteness does make one's life easier, why should white people
with privilege -- including the privilege to ignore racism -- bother? Why should
we care? Why should be act?
I think there are always two main motivations
for such a stance. One is the question of justice, the simple plea for decent
human lives for all. If we see someone being hurt, we know we should help. When
we see someone being brutalized, we know it is wrong. When these things happen
systemically, it is just as obvious that we should act.
But there is also
an argument from self-interest, at two different levels. One is that somewhere
inside ourselves, we know that our own privilege is built on the backs of other
people, and when we acknowledge that, it doesn.t feel good. To be fully human is
to resist a system that conditions your pleasure on someone else.s pain. I can.t
prove this, but it is an article of faith for me. It is what it means to be
human. And I believe we all want to be fully human.
But there's another
self-interest to recognize, which is the simple lesson from history of what
happens to empires built on exploitation and injustice and cruelty. They fall.
Dr. King understood this, when in 1961 he warned white America that the "price
America must pay for the continued exploitation of the Negro and other minority
groups is the price of its own destruction."
Martin Luther King, Jr., had
no illusions about this country. As he grew older, his critique deepened and his
language grew more blunt. He connected questions of domestic racism to the
exploitation of capitalism and U.S. brutality abroad. He talked not just of race
but of the "triplets of social misery": racism, economic inequality, and
militarism. (I would add sexism to this list as well. And homophobia.)
the night before his death, Martin Luther King Jr, the man who white
conservatives now use for rhetorical cover in their opposition to affirmative
action, warned, "if something isn't done, and in a hurry, to bring the colored
people of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt
and neglect, the whole world is doomed."
I do not pretend to have easy
answers to the difficult questions of policy and strategy, the questions about
how we are going to change the system. But I know that the first step toward
answering those questions is to be honest about how deeply woven into the
material and ideological fabric of our society racism is.
people, that means holding two seemingly contradictory things in
First, our whiteness (in the sense of notions of white supremacy)
is a depraved fiction that we must give up.
Second, our whiteness (in the
sense of white privilege) is a fact we cannot simply wish away. For white people
to be fully human, we must take seriously the moral imperative for political
To do that, I think, we must give up on the pathological
individualism of this culture and start to see ourselves differently, to see how
our successes and our failures are always partly social, not strictly
individual. I'll end by quoting from myself, from my response to my white
correspondent who couldn.t see racism. My final words of that correspondence
"I think people in this country tend to see life as an auto race --
we're all in separate cars, racing each other, competing for advantages, seeing
our success as requiring someone else's defeat. That's a short-term view, and
it's the wrong way to understand ourselves. I think life is like an ocean voyage
with one ship. We're all on the same ship. We're all in the same boat. When a
leak springs in one part of the ship, we're all in trouble. On this voyage,
there's no dry dock to head to make repairs. Life is lived out on the water,
plugging leaks and caring for each other."
Our task is not complicated to
articulate, though often difficult to make real in the world: We must create
connection while not denying difference, in a politics that does not turn away
from the pain of the world but also does not forget the pleasure and joy that
comes from resistance to oppression in solidarity with others, as we keep trying
to get as close as we can to what Paulo Freire eloquently called "the beauty of
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