I’m going to take a stab today at bridging some deep chasms that we all run into, talking about race and class online. This one is mainly aimed at white readers, who find themselves being jumped on for correcting things like “BlackLivesMatter” to more neutral “Actually, All Lives…” And this one didn’t reach me easy. It’s a journey, and like most of us, I started on the wrong side of this one. Life is growth, and we all have growth to do. So let me walk you past the obstacles that I found in my way.
When you’re a part of an in-group, the word “All” reads differently. It reads as benevolent. It says, “Not just us, but those other people, too, who don’t have what we have.” It grew in the soil of the 60’s civil rights struggles, that asked in-groups with power to admit those from outside it, in to share.
Language shapes thought. And this is the language that the parts of America who grew up feeling like a true part of America – welcome, and with access to the dream – first encounter the idea of justice through.
“For us all to be equal, we must break down racial designations, stop excluding, and most of all, stop thinking about race.” The task, to in-group members is one of inclusion, reflective of the language that it comes through. No more racial slurs. No more caveats. “One-size-fits-all approaches are the only that don’t show a race or gender bias,” goes the thinking.
We come to this idea because a lack of Inclusion is the way that we encountered the idea of the problem. “Out-group people had to be treated differently by law, and that was wrong” is how the problem was described to us. And so we thought that with de-segregation, it was over.
“All,” was the language of the 60’s civil rights struggle, framed in the language of the power structures that the 60’s took for granted. Couched in an appeal to the benevolence of groups that had the American Dream and ought to stop telling their neighbors that they couldn’t have the same.
We, DefaultAmericans, the white people, born here, to situations that look like whitebread America – encounter “All” as the ultimate expression of egalitarianism. It’s how the idea that everybody should have the same rights we enjoy gets framed when we first hear about it in schools. “The laws weren’t fair, and now they are. We fixed that,” we were taught.
SO it confuses us when racial outcomes aren’t the same. We think there must be some kind of moral reason, some cultural or social, or even genetic difference, that prevents these previously-excluded groups from ending up no different from their white counterparts. It confuses us when we hear people outside the White umbrella asking not just for the lifting of restrictions on their freedoms to associate and chase the dream, but also for solutions to the problems faced uniquely by the groups that lived so long outside prosperity that their field is still not even. It sounds to us, like they don’t want “All” after all. Like really, they want extra special treatment.
We were taught that it was wrong to Hate or Exclude or Punish anybody for the race they were born into.
But that’s where it stopped.
And the problem is, the way Desegregation was sold and taught to the nation’s white people was all framed in terms where “All” meant only talking about everyone all at once. No talking about race. No singling any one group out. Equality meant benign neglect, the freedom to go unencumbered by legal discrimination – that is, discrimination enshrined in law. Equality meant it wasn’t cool to exclude someone based on who they were. What it did not mean was anything pro-active. Equality just meant nobody got held back artificially, rather than taking a hard and solemn look at what it would take to create a nation where all races really had the same playing field.
But that’s not Equality. That’s the removal of one obstacle to it. Only one.
What we got was a laissez-faire Free-Market Equality, derived from unequal starting lines, so we can justify disparities in outcomes as disparities in work, effort, or talent. Lazy-Equality that didn’t just LET us, but almost forced us to explain disparities in outcomes as Disparities in Worth. We got just enough of an illusion of Equality that it almost guaranteed a rise in genuine racism. A racism that wasn’t alright to talk about, because people would look down on you if you mentioned that you noticed now that everything was “fair,” some groups of people didn’t rise. And so we also got resentment.
When you have an advantage, you notice it. But when the advantage you have, is simply lacking disadvantages that you can’t even see from where you are, a lack of permissible discrimination – a lack of – visible legal obstacles to prosperity, looks like all Fairness requires.
It goes like this:
Everybody is created Equal. So everybody starts at the same block, right? Make intentional sabotage illegal, and you get fairness, right? By default? You laugh, but that’s what so many of us were taught. And if you don’t look much closer (and why would anyone look closer at what looked like a solved-issue?) you get no further than that.
So when you hear white people resentfully correcting, “All Lives Matter,” what you’re hearing is reinforcement of the idea that keeps them from being racists. “You can’t single any one race out,” is how they learned not to be dicks. They see it as a breaking of the rules – as being RACIST – when they hear somebody say that Black lives matter. It’s specific. It’s a singling-out. That’s wrong. It’s ALL or nothing, or it’s racist, on the grounds that it acknowledges a race. I lay this out because I think that lots of times this goes without being understood. These people – people like me – were taught wrong: taught in low-resolution, by a generation this was all NEW to, who were just looking to stop violence and legal segregation, on the fly. They did their best. But what they gave us was a framework that encouraged race disparities feeling more justified. Furthermore, it gave us a framework of how to think about disparities in racial outcomes that let us off the hook to do anything about it. It’s “fair” now, right? So we don’t need to do anything more to make the problems faced by others go away. If they don’t thrive the way we do, then it’s on them… Or so the framework we were given, with its limits, leads smart people to believe.
The framework needs reworking. Not because the basic lesson that legally-enshrined discrimination is a problem, wasn’t true. But because we teach racism as “Solved,” when every other group but ‘white’ that’s living here still faces things that average white people don’t face. Academia has done a truly rotten job explaining how this all shakes out, talking in terms like Privilege, which while they’re technically true, require loads of education just to grasp the ways they work inside your life. An education that most people just won’t get. And so discussions about how to fix these problems end up making all the people whose ideas will need to change, just feel demonized, and picked-on, over racial grounds, instead.
Ludicrous claims by nazis like “white genocide” and “anti-white-bias” start to sound truly compelling, if you bump into ideas like privilege, without all the proper groundwork, or when fielded as a weapon rather than an educational outreach.
And so I’m starting just by taking apart “All.”
Because for me that was a lynchpin in the wall that for too long kept me from really understanding what was happening in the country. All = Tolerance. Specificity = Racism. Those were rules that we all learned, that just aren’t true.
The modern left (rightly) sees racist outcomes – outcomes that make being born a color that’s not white – as problems that we ought to solve, and not absolve ourselves from looking at on grounds that they require talking more now about race. They understand what people like me for entirely too long didn’t. That you don’t have to feel hatred for anybody, to perpetuate disparities in race, and that by saying things are “fair” because we ended segregation, we are working by default against the outcome of a truly Equal nation.
Equality is a destination. It’s not the means to reach one. Equality when treated as the only proper means to address racism leaves the people who start at a disadvantage out to dry. It says, “you’re in this on your own.” That what we have is ours because our ancestors built it for us (on your backs) and if you want it too, nothing (except our newly-embraced unwillingness to allow the race-based exploitation that built the prosperity we inherited) stops you from doing the same over the next few generations. You see the problem.
The way we approach “All” as the only way to get us all to “Equal,” means not even asking the question of how to get everyone on the same starting-line, let alone acknowledging other starting lines exist, and are our problem.
Now I don’t have an answer or a policy solution right at hand. That will take work.
But what I have is a reminder: We’re not there yet, and if you really care about America the Land of Opportunity – it’s not enough to stop at “don’t think about race.” We need to put our heads together honestly to climb out of the holes of history, and grow into the nation we could be if we lived up to our ideals with more than Very Pretty Words that let us justify the way things are, rather than make them right.