Black Lives Matter (BLM) has certainly opened my eyes to many shades of white racism. I confess this with a large dollop of embarrassment. As a white, middle-class, middle-aged, man, someone who the college kids today would consider thoroughly privileged, I thought I knew white people. Now I can see that I have missed much. None of this is to say that I agree with all BLM has to say. That would be difficult, since it hardly speaks with one voice. But it universally insists on white racism, and I can no longer deny that. Of course, many people of color might exhibit racism, too. It would only be human. But that is a separate matter. White people, the folks I thought I knew, are my focus here.
Before BLM bust onto the scene, my thinking about race centered mostly on the progress this society has made over the years. Even now, I can look back and see admirable strides over our admittedly checkered history. (Does any country have any other kind?). Slavery is dead. Jim Crow is gone. Most people refuse to countenance foul, race-based language. Many more African Americans enjoy respect in the professions, business circles, and the prosperous middle and upper classes. Elite schools, clubs, and associations count many more African American students, faculty, members, associates, whatever. All this is much to the good, and no one, regardless of color, should deny it. But it is also now clear that this is neither the whole story nor all that needs to happen.
Previously, I would also have mounted an uncompromising defense of the judicial system, at least where race is concerned. I still believe that most police are fair and thoroughly professional and that the bias in the judicial system is less about black and white than about green, the color of money. Because dollars and social position move the system, white middle-class kids who commit felonies are certainly less likely to see the inside of a jail than are ghetto youth for the same offenses. But for the same reason, the sons and daughters of African-American undersecretaries and business executives are less likely to go to jail than the blond-headed son of a laborer. Still, BLM makes a valid point when it argues that in practice the inequalities, whatever their underlying cause, burden black youth more than white.
And now, in white reactions to BLM, I can see clearer signs of white racism. The most obvious lies with that large group of white folks who simply refuse to listen. They reject anything negative about themselves and their group. When BLM complains about police prejudice or systematic bias, these white people instinctively mount a defense. If they consider matters at all, they do so entirely in partisan terms. All they see is an attack from a different group that looks, speaks, and behaves in ways foreign to their eyes and ears. They push away any taint of wrongdoing by attacking their accusers. It is no fault of white people, they insist. Black people, the assert, have brought the problems on themselves, and BLM is only making matters worse. I suppose it is a natural, if primitive response and perhaps, in a perverse way, a step upward. In the past, such people would not have even given a thought to questions of equality. But that is small comfort to the black community which suffers bias daily and is rightfully tired of hearing such excuses and coping with the counter attacks.
But this is only the most obvious form of white prejudice. Many who claim sympathy with BLM, even ware its t-shirt, practice their own brand of racism. When these people see discrimination, they turn their focus almost immediately and exclusively away from those who suffer and onto other whites. They seem much more interested in punishing the blameworthy than finding a remedies to injustice. It is almost as if they delight inequity as giving them the means to point a finger at other whites and feel superior. All this may at times serve certain black political interests, but it degrades people of color nonetheless. It hardly shows respect to use people of color as a weapon in a white civil war. When these sympathizers, to make other whites seem especially villainous, characterize people of color as entirely passive innocents, they also glibly steal their humanity, denying implicitly that they have any volition of their own, that they are less than independently minded men and women.
Then there are the white people who take such thinking to an almost spiritual level. They see black victims of prejudice as something more than universally innocent. They ascribe to them a special level of virtue, one that gives individual black people the power to redeem individual white people from the guilt of belonging to an oppressive race. These seemingly sympathetic whites may even seek out black men and women in search of a kind of secular salvation. It is a remarkable turn of circumstances, a far cry from when whites saw people of color as inferior. It is racist nonetheless, for it steals the humanity of black people as surely as the bigots who once describe them as less than human. Angles, after all, are neither men nor women. To equate people of color with them is to exclude them as thoroughly, if less brutally, as Jim Crow did.
It has been quite an education for which I thank BLM. But like all learning, it has brought me a feeling of sadness. I am now less comfortable with all the still admirable progress the society has made over the years, less confident that the divides and prejudices will pass any time soon. No doubt there are white men and women who stand outside such patterns. Perhaps (hopefully) there are many of them. Whatever the numbers, however, BLM has nonetheless made clear that there are many who harbor racist beliefs and manners of one sort or another. No doubt many people of color harbor ugly racist feelings of their own. I cannot speak to that. I am not competent to do so. For that, African Americans will have to turn their faces away from white folks for a while and look critically at their own to identify the good and the bad, the just and the unjust, quite aside from what white people think and do.