Thursday, May 4, 2017

Why don't they want join us?

I have belonged to a number of all-white organizations. These were different kinds of groups. Some were progressive political groups whose commitment to opposing all racist distinctions was an important plank in their platform. Others were groups of retired people trying to continue their education, or they were neighborhood groups trying to maintain their neighborhood and in the process having occasional social events. From time to time these group would notice and deplore the absence of members of color. There would be some discussion of ways of recruiting African-Americans and other persons of color. Some members of the group would make recruitment efforts but the group remained as white as before. We would end up disappointed, shaking our heads, not knowing what to think.
Why did African-Americans not want to join our group? Because we could ask the question and be at a loss for an answer. Because we had no clue about life for African-Americans in these United States.
Let me explain this in three steps.
1. Whites do not understand the reluctance of African-Americans to join white organizations because they are oblivious to the history of African-Americans on this continent. The first black people came to this continent in 1609. For the first few years they were treated no differently from other servants. But when at the end of the 16 hundreds white and black servants together joined an uprising of farmers oppressed by their debts, the white people in power decided to sow enmity between white servants and Blacks by turning the Blacks into slaves. For the next 200 years Blacks in America, with very few exceptions, were slaves. The Civil War put an end to slavery but very soon afterwards black Americans found themselves in pretty much the same condition. They worked for very little. They had no citizen’s rights. They were in no rrespect equal to whites. When a white man or woman came down the sidewalk they had to step into the gutter to make way for them. It was not worth a black man's life to look at a white woman in any way. They were pariahs.
Significant change occurred in the 1960s. There are now some African-Americans who are wealthy, who have positions of power and respect in our society. Many earlier forms of segregation – separate restrooms and water fountains – are a thing of the past. African-Americans attend and graduate from the best white schools. White patients are attended to by black physicians; white clients have black lawyers.
A second reason why black people, most of the time, refuse to join white organizations is that whites, seeing the changes that undoubtedly have taken place, believe that racism is a thing of the past. "We even had a black president" they say. But it does not take much to see that viewpoint to be a major error.
Yes, slavery where some human beings own other human beings is dead. Gone are the slave markets. Gone are the families broken up when some members were sold off to other owners. But unpaid or unusually low paid work still remains. Forced work, work that one cannot refuse to do, continues to exist. In one way or another significant numbers of incarcerated African-Americans (and whites) work in prisons for no pay at all or for somewhere between $.93 to $2.40 an hour. This forced labor is not that different from slavery. Prisoners are forced to work; refusers end up in solitary confinement for long periods. The work is unpaid or barely paid.
The main victims of the system of quasi-slavery are African-Americans. Lynching has ceased to be a regular occurrence. But African-Americans are still not safe. The murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson brought to national attention the fact that African-Americans, both men and women, are in danger of being killed by police and that local district attorneys and grand juries ignore these as crimes of murder and fail to seek appropriate punishment. Killing African-Americans remains unpunished. Slavery and lynching have not disappeared. They have been transmuted into more modern kinds of maltreatment.
There is a third reason why African-Americans stay away from white organizations. Most white people are willing to acknowledge that racism persists in the United States. It would be hard to deny that when the President appoints an avowed racist as one of his closest advisers. But many whites draw a sharp line between themselves who oppose racism, who seek to build mixed organizations, and who profess to oppose racism wherever they encounter it and avowed white supremacists. We think of ourselves as well meaning whites opposed to whites who remain racist and full of hate. We are good whites; they are bad.
But in drawing that distinction, we good whites are being much too easy on ourselves and take credit for an opposition to racism which we do not deserve. Most whites, however well intentioned, harbor often not quite consciously white supremacist attitudes. I myself again and again catch myself in those attitudes. As a Jew who suffered serious losses during the Holocaust, I have good reason to be dead set against any kind of racist beliefs or behaviors. But very recently when I attended a convention of philosophers, I met a man whose books I had read and admired and discovered that he is African-American, which I had not known. I was just about to say "I did not know that you are a black" but fortunately caught myself at the last moment. Since he did very good work which I admired, I had of course assumed that he was white because deep down I believe that black philosophers were not good philosophers. I obviously know better because there are a number of black philosophers whose work is clearly superior to anything I myself have written. I admire their work tremendously and so does almost everybody else. I know for a fact that there are black philosophers whose work excels. But the deeply ingrained distrust remains untouched by actual experience, untouched by fact.
It was this distrust I was about to express to this man whom I admired. Did he notice my hesitation? Did he think to himself "here it comes again”?
I don't think that I am that different from many other "well-meaning" whites. We harbor serious anti-black prejudices so deeply ingrained that we don't always notice them. That allows us to deny their existence and think of ourselves as good white people. But they make black people unwilling to be around us because these prejudices are extremely hurtful.
To sum up: why don't African-Americans want to join organizations of well-meaning whites?
For three centuries African-Americans were treated with exemplary cruelty by whites. While those forms of oppression have disappeared they have been transmuted into other equally hurtful and inhumane forms. Racism is not dead it has just changed how it manifests itself. Even those of us who oppose racism sincerely cannot always stop ourselves from being seriously offensive, from giving voice to prejudices we abhor but nonetheless are host to.
And finally we are so inattentive that we do not know any of this. We do not understand significant facts about African American lives in the US. How can we say that we really care?
It is no wonder that African-Americans are very hesitant to join white organizations.