Conversations about Race
In the present situation of great upset about racial killings, racial inequities, overt displays of anti-black racism, we hear a great deal about the need for conversation. A good example is a recent story in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a publication read by college and university administrators and faculty. The story reported a meeting where 300 diversity officers discussed the racial climate on campus. The suggestion was made repeatedly that campuses needed to organize opportunities for white students to have conversations where they could learn what it was like to be black in the United States today.
This seems reasonable. Until some black friends explained to me the condition of African-Americans in the United States, I did not really understand the gravity of our racial situation. White people often just don't know.
At the same time, one must understand that passing on information in conversations will not be enough to improve racial justice in our country. Giving information to people who do not want to learn is useless. Every teacher knows that. You can put important facts before students and many of them will not learn anything because they don't want to learn. History suggests some reasons for white Americans being so reluctant to apprehend the facts about racism in America.
The Founders, men like Jefferson and Washington, who determined that a Black slave was not to count for more than 3/5 of the most abject white human being knew perfectly well what they were doing. They both owned slaves. Neither of them thought that owning slaves was morally acceptable. They knew that they were compromising their high political principles. They did, in fact, talk and correspond a good deal about the moral failure of owning slaves, but did not change their behavior. Their economic interest pushed them to go against their moral principles. Slaves provided cheap labor. In a time when all work was done by hand, refusing to have slaves meant that one had to pay people to work on the farm or in the house. Paid help was more expensive than slave help. Without slaves, one would have fewer servants and thus a more cramped style of living. Economic interest was a strong support for the institution of slavery.
But it was not the only support for racism. There are other reasons why Whites refuse to grasp the ravages of racism. Once again history helps us to understand that.
The first black men and women arrived in Virginia in 1609 – just about 400 years ago. Until the 1670s both black and white servants were indentured. In order to work off the cost of their voyage to the new world, they were committed to be servants for a set period. Their indenture at an end, they would be given a piece of land and supplies, including a gun, regardless of whether they were black or white. More often than not, the land they received was marginal.
Racism was widespread among the English immigrants; slavery was not unknown. From the middle of the 17th century on, some blacks were enslaved. But that process of converting the temporary indentured servant status of Blacks to the permanent status of slaves accelerated after 1676. In that year, in Bacon's Rebellion, former indentured servants, both black and white together, rose up in Virginia to protest their land being in the foothills, and less fertile than the land of their previous masters. The rebellion was put down but afterwards the white masters encouraged the institution of slavery to drive a wedge between white and black pioneer farmers. Political rather than purely economic motives supported the development of slavery and the anti-black racism that accompanied it.
330 years later racism has become very much part of the flesh and bone of the American. Whites who are not wealthy and of high status have learned to reconcile themselves to their low condition by glorying in their whiteness, in the fact that they are not black. Racism serves a political purpose to keep large numbers of less favored Whites content. But our society, having changed a great deal in the last 330 years, now has an economy that is unable to provide jobs for everyone in the country. Racism that incarcerates large number of young black men and some black women restricts the number of job seekers and thereby serves an economic function. It reduces the opposition to prevailing economic practices.
White men and women may get a job that also has black applicants simply because they are white. That gives whites a serious economic advantage, especially when jobs are scarce. The racism that supports those practices is not going to be extinguished by having conversations about race.
As long as it is to someone's advantage to be racist, that blot on our national identity will remain. Conversations about racism will have very limited effect because Whites derive advantages—economic, political and psychological—from racism. Ours will remain a country plagued by racism until we have changed our economy to provide enough good work for everyone. Until everyone has work and lives, that they can be justly proud of, whites will bolster their self-esteem by oppressing blacks and other groups—Hispanics, immigrants, homosexuals.