,A few years ago, I visited the family farm founded by ancestors from Germany in the Pokonos with a newly discovered cousin. The woman I met was delightful: warm and friendly and very much connected to family still living in the area. Her mother had vivid memories of the farm. In contrast, my great-grandmother left home to marry in Brooklyn. My father had fond memories of visiting the farm as a child, but lost touch with the relatives there when his family moved to California in the 1930s.
My cousin was working as a department manager at Walmart. She seemed smart as a button, so I asked her why she had not gone to college. She said that though she had the grades no one encouraged her to do so. Her response made me wonder if I would have gone to college if my part of the family had remained close to the family farm. I was stunned by the roles chance and the choices of others play in our lives. Though I had more education than my cousin, I was not sure that mine was a happier life. I envied the family ties that shaped and defined her days.
About two weeks ago my cousin wrote on facebook:
I have often wondered about why Whites are racists, and no other race is. Someone finally said it. How many are actually paying attention to this?
She then reposted a comment that began:
There are African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Arab Americans, etc.
And then there are just Americans. You pass me on the street and sneer in my direction.
You call me ‘White boy,’ ‘Cracker,’ ‘Honkey,’ ‘Whitey,’ ‘Caveman’… And that’s OK..
You say that whites commit a lot of violence against you.
So why are the ghettos the most dangerous places to live?
Of course, it is just as wrong to call white people names simply because they are white as it is to call black people names simply because they are black. At the same time, unless accompanied by violence, this behavior falls into the category of “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But this, dear cousin, is not what the #BlackLivesMatter movement is concerned about. If racist behavior stopped with name-calling, we could all just ignore it.
Like you, dear cousin, I grew up in a largely white community. I did not grow up in the South, so I never saw a lynching or passed by a tree where a black man’s body was hanging. The Klu Klux Klan was as far from my experience as Hitler’s armies. I did not know that when you are black in America, name-calling often is followed by violence. Yes, sometimes “whitey” is attacked too, but this happens far more rarely than we tend to think.
After the Civil War, black people were never compensated for their work as slaves. Although technically able to buy land, most were forced to rent from their former owners, usually with unfair conditions. When some black people began to prosper in the old South, they were prevented from succeeding by legal and illegal means and by violence. Voting laws were introduced in the South to prevent black people from voting. Could you write out parts of the Constitution from memory with no spelling errors? This is what some black would-be voters were asked to do.
Moreover—and worse—if you were black and owned property in the old South, you lived in fear that your shop or your home or your barn would be burned down in the night by the Klan. Yes, you would probably respond, you have heard of that too, but how often did it happen? More often than you or I were ever told, I am sure. OK, you might say, but those things only happened in the South, not in the places where you and I were brought up.
As I said, you and I were brought up in predominantly white communities. I don’t know about your father, but my father served in the Second World War. After the war he took advantage of the GI Bill which gave him a leg up on the property ladder and provided the nest egg that enabled him to buy his own business and later to send me to college. There was nothing special about his situation: most other men of his generation benefited from the GI Bill.
I certainly was never taught that black veterans were effectively excluded from the GI Bill. How could that happen? Wasn’t it a government program? Yes, it was, but in order to take advantage of it, you had to find a home to buy. Segregation meant that black people were excluded from buying the new homes in the suburbs that sprung up after the war. And a practice known as “red lining” was used by the banks to designate homes in predominantly black areas as “poor risks” that were ineligible for loans.
This was only one of the many reasons that many hard-working black people who moved North were confined in segregated areas that became known as “ghettos.”
Now let’s talk about the “police violence” that was the catalyst for the recent #BlackLivesMatter uprisings. As a child, I was taught that “the policeman is your friend.” I never made friends with one, but I also had no reason to doubt what I had been told. It was not until I was in graduate school that I began to learn that the police were not necessarily my friends. When I peacefully protested against the Vietnam War and for Civil Rights, I came face to face armed police standing by to keep the peace who sometimes incited violence. The look in their eyes told me that they definitely did not view me as their friend.
Still, when Yale University went on strike against the war and in favor of Civil Rights in 1971, I was surprised to hear black leaders strongly admonish the students to keep their demonstrations peaceful. Should violence erupt, they said, the anger of the police would be visited on the black community over the summer after all the students had gone home.
Fast forward to the killing of a young man named Trayvon Martin who was walking home from a convenience store by man who decided to “stand his ground.” In the next days, MSNBC host Melissa Harris Perry assembled a group of educated black women to speak about what had happened. They were emotional as they spoke of the fears they had that their black sons could become innocent victims of police or vigilante violence.
Melissa Harris Perry brought me to tears when she said she breathed a deep sigh of relief when they told her that her first child was a girl. If her baby had been a boy, she said, she would have lived in fear all her life that no matter how good a kid he was or how good a man he became,: he still might be killed by the police. I became aware of an enormous gulf that separated my life from hers.
Dear cousin, though we are both descended from ancestors who built a farm in the Pokonos, we are separated by chance and by the choices made by their descendants. I do not blame you for thinking that the #BlackLivesMatter movement is primarily about racist name-calling—which as you rightly note—can go both ways. Nor do I blame you for not having wrapped your head around a concept that I have learned to call “structural racism.” I too was confused by the term when I first heard it.
Structural racism describes ways in which the structures of society inscribe racism into our lives irrespective of our own personal feelings about black people or white people. When our German ancestors bought farmland in the Pokonos, no one burned down their farm when they prospered, nor did it ever cross their minds that anyone might do so. But every black person who owned property lived with the fear–or the reality–that this could happen.
Restrictive voting laws made it nearly impossible for black people to vote those who persecuted them out of office or to appeal to the police for justice. In fact, some of the all-white police forces and all-white government were members of the Klan or other racist groups.
Structural racism is found in our laws, our government institutions and programs, and in our economic system. It is not about name-calling. While anyone can call or be called names, structural racism describes a system that is rigged to the advantage of people who are white and the disadvantage of people who are black. This is the “white privilege” that some call “white racism.” I understand that you may feel unfairly attacked by those terms: I have too. Neither of us hates black people. Nor did we create the system called white racism, dear cousin. But once we recognize that it exists, instead of feeling attacked, we can join the efforts to create a more fair and just system where we all can thrive. I believe that, deep down, this is what we all want.
Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist, and educator who lives in Heraklion, Crete. Carol’s recent book is Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Carol has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.
Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parliament of World’s Religions.