Remembering the Decisions That Made Our World

Throughout his book Between the World and Me, author Ta-Nehisi Coats looks at the current situation of minority groups in the US relative to white people and honestly assesses the history that lead to our current moment. Our country focuses on personal responsibility, hard work, and overcoming obstacles, but we fail to recognize we as a society have created many of the obstacles that people from certain minority groups face. Not only do we forget the obstacles that we created, we seem to be unable to understand how limiting, painful, and exclusionary our past decisions were for so many Americans. Coats calls the world we live in when we forget about our past decisions and assume than anyone can be industrious and achieve the same level of success The Dream.

In his book Coats writes, “The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of The Dream. They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down her in the world.”

When we do not acknowledge the true cost of slavery, of discriminatory segregation, or the true cost of our stereotyping we fail to see the impact that our choices and decisions have on the lives of so many black people. At the founding of our nation white people reached success and economic prosperity through the forced labor of human beings and creating excuses for their Dream by labeling black people as inferior savages. A war was fought to end the practice of owning another human being, but coming out of that war was the idea that black people were still below white people. Stereotypes grew to suggest that biological differences explained a white superiority and black inferiority across the country, limiting the opportunities for black people to participate in society and build financial bases for themselves and their families. Economic segregation was also at play when restrictive housing policies limited where black people could live, creating ghettos and only allowing black people to settle in isolated areas. At the same time, white people moved outward, buying expensive land and building expensive homes that would become valuable assets appreciating in price overtime. The black people who were economically segregated could not purchase such valuable land and were denied a chance to build wealth through home equity.

Coats calls the world of white people The Dream because this history is lost for so many. It is easy to look at poor black people today and assume that is their personal choices that lead to their current lifestyles and their challenges in building wealth and achieving legal and social parity with white people. When we begin to look at how the situation of today was shaped by the decisions of yesterday, the Dream begins to crumble. We see that restrictive housing practices forced black people into communities built in less valuable and more vulnerable land, making natural disasters like hurricanes more costly to black people than white people who live in houses and communities built for them years ago on more valuable land in higher and safer areas. Looking at our decisions helps us to also see the way that wealth has persisted among white families through smart financial decisions, but decisions and opportunities that were afforded to them at the exclusion of black people.

To have a better understanding of our racial tensions today we must understand the decisions that created and supported two different worlds for white and black people. White people were able to create a safe and comfortable world for themselves, while the world of black people was held back and limited. We cannot honestly discuss the challenges of implicit bias, of unintentional discrimination, or of cultural differences between white and black people if we cannot understand the choices of those who came before us and how they shaped their futures. When we honestly assess the ways in which we legally or culturally advantaged whites and white wealth building while excluding black people, we can begin to discuss what can and should be done to reduce discrimination and racial tension today.
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Pointing Out What is Wrong

America has laws to protect whistleblowers within corporations and within government because we understand how important it is to shine a light on the negativity and unfair practices of those with impure motives. When we turn this idea toward society, however, we suddenly become quite disdainful of those who acknowledge and speak out against the lack of racial progress, equality, and fairness within our nation. In a system of capitalism there are winners and losers, and the American system of capitalism has a history of creating winners at the absolute expense of other people. This is what happened with slavery and was maintained through legally sanctioned segregation and discrimination with Jim Crow laws. The protections we offer corporate and government whistleblowers disappear completely when the light is pointed toward market failures that advantage one group over another or when that light is pointed toward things that we associate with positive parts of our individual identities. My belief is that this relates back to our tribal nature as human beings. Pointing out the flaws of corporations and government is an attack against the other team and against someone else with more power, but observing the inequities in social systems that benefit us is a direct attack against our tribe and against who we are. Criticizing the system that has helped us be successful individually is criticizing us and taking away from what we did to become successful.

 

Ta-Nehisi Coats in his book, Between the World and Me, observes this phenomenon from the side of an African American living in a society that is in some ways divorced from reality in terms of opportunity, justice, and equity. He writes, “But part of what I know is that there is the burden of living among Dreamers, and there is the extra burden of your country telling you the Dream is just, noble, and real, and you are crazy for seeing the corruption and smelling the sulfur. For their innocence, they nullify your anger, your fear, until you are coming and going and you find yourself inveighing against yourself.” The idea that Coats shares in this quote is that any observation of racial injustice is frowned upon in our society, and that the only approach to racial observation that is allowed is a criticism of black culture.

 

Arguments suggesting that society is not established or operating in a way that extends equity and justice toward minorities are forbidden by a pervasive sense that they are wrong or that they are simply an excuse for failure. Many of the arguments and tensions in society today are related to this idea. Most people are not outwardly racist but instead unintentionally discriminate against minorities by failing to see where inequities exist, and then by challenging observations of inequities and labeling them as excuses meant to protect lazy people who fail to overcome obstacles and make smart decisions. Moreover, if we accept that black and brown people have faced greater obstacles than we have, we admit that we have had advantages that were not extended to others. This puts our idea of personal responsibility at risk because it becomes clear that our success is not completely dependent on our own greatness, hard work, and smart decision-making, but was helped along by simply having the right skin color and benefitting from a society that discretely favors white people at the expense of minorities. Not only does this take away from our success, but it questions the level of success we have achieved, forcing us to ask if we should have become even more than we are given the advantages we have experienced. The threat that white people face when asking whether society has truly been just and equal for minorities is a threat against them, against their responsibility for their own success, and against their achievements.

 

Our country fails to give any legitimacy to those who call out our injustices or to the claims they make, and punishes individuals who make such claims. We offer protections for those who shine the light on corruption in business (if it is a business we dislike or are afraid of) and government, but those who call out the injustices of society are scorned. They are pushed back and told the problem is not with society, but with the individuals who are being discriminated against or who have failed to become successful in the eyes of society because this response is easier and preserves the image that white people want to have about themselves. If we want to move forward and reach a place where we are more equitable, white people need to be able to drop their ideas of personal responsibility and success. White people must drop  their ego and accept that their success, or image of success, is not truly connected with who they are as a person or individual. Only if we change our relationship with personal responsibility and success can we begin to see the importance and value of extending equity to minority groups and the value of honesty in our reflections on racial equality within our country.

How We Remember American Slavery

In his book, Between the World and Me, author Ta-Nehisi Coats shares his understanding of the universe with his son. He focuses on the shared experiences of black Americans dating back to slavery and the time immediately after the institution fell. What Coats returns to over and over in his book is the idea of the physical relationship between black people, white people, and our country. His views are not pretty, but they represent a reality that we have tried to forget and that many of us have done a good job ignoring.

“In America,” he writes, “it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor—it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest.”

I recently read a piece on Vox.com that was written by an individual who used to lead tours at a historical plantation in the South, and the author was struck by the questions people asked and about the way in which people made an effort to skip past the violent reality of slavery. The host was often asked questions that showed that people did not truly understand the brutality of slavery. Questions like whether or not house slaves appreciated getting to be in a house and not in a field. Many people had a view of slavery that sounded more like a view of minimum wage workers than of people forced into labor, exploited, and physically punished if they did not comply with the requests and demands of an individual with fully subjective control over their lives.

Growing up in Reno, Nevada I felt that I had a pretty good education regarding the Civil War. I was taught that the war was about slavery and not about state’s rights, but never in my classes did we truly discuss what it meant to be enslaved and the violence that the enslaved faced. I understood that there were violent reactions and punishments for those who fled slavery, but we did not discuss what it meant to not have ownership of one’s physical body, and for that body to be physically destroyed by another human being. I think that Coats is justified in arguing that we should think of slavery as not just borrowed or uncompensated labor (the way we may think about college interns today) but we should rather think of slavery as the destruction of a human being, physically, mentally, and emotionally. The toll on the body of the human being that slavery, lynchings, and punishment have brought to black people were meant to take away the power of the black person and to demote them to a lower place in a fictitious hierarchy of human beings. We must not forget what it meant to own another human being. Slavery and owning another human being meant that American’s did more than exploit an individual’s labor for economic gain. It meant that American’s had the authority to use violence, to distort the black body, and to control the physical experience of another human being for purely exploitative means.

The Onset of the Civil War

I heard recently in a podcast that the North won the Civil War, but the South won the culture war that followed. How we remember the civil war and think about the people who fought on both sides of the war is complex, and there is no easy way to remember and truly understand the history of slavery in our country. Many people in our country have a heritage that runs back to the colonial period prior to the civil war, and for many the iconography of the confederacy is a representation of that heritage. Unfortunately, that iconography, the men and women of that time, and the heritage represented cannot be untangled from the legal ownership and subjugation of human beings. There certainly had been slavery throughout the world before the United States’ Civil War, and outlawing slavery at the time our constitution was written would have required a monarch (something desperately avoided by our founders), but by the time the Civil War occurred, the legitimacy of owning people was very much in doubt. In his book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehesi Coats looks at the onset of the Civil War, and why slavery was worth protecting for white men and women in the South.

 

“At the onset of the Civil War, our stolen bodies were worth four billion dollars, more than all of American industry, all of American railroads, workshops, and factories combined, and the prime product rendered by our stolen bodies —cotton—was America’s primary export. The richest men in America lived in the Mississippi River Valley, and they made their riches off our stolen bodies. Our bodies were held in bondage by the early presidents. Our bodies were traded from the White House by James K. Polk. Our bodies built the Capitol and the National Mall. The first shot of the Civil War was fired in South Carolina, where our bodies constituted the majority of human bodies in the state. Here is the motive for the great war. It’s not a secret. But we can do better and find the bandit confessing his crime. ‘Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery,’ declared Mississippi as it left the Union, ‘the greatest material interest of the world.'”

 

The right that Southern states wanted to protect was the right for white men and women to own black people as property. The South won a cultural war in changing the meaning and purpose behind the Civil War and throughout reconstruction and the early 1900s this idea was able to spread and gained legitimacy. When we reflect back on the period we should recognize that our history was not guided by angels but shaped by human beings. We made mistakes, we acted in self-interest, and we found ways to excuse our behaviors. We allowed the exploitation of human beings to form the backbone of our greatness, and then we made excuses to allow such exploitation to persist. As deplorable as our humanity may have been, we can still look back and celebrate the best part of our history, but we should not work to salvage memories of the worst part of our history. We can celebrate what men like Washington and Jefferson accomplished despite the fact that they owned slaves, but we should not revere the Confederacy or men like Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, or Alexander Stephenson who were major players in history precisely because they owned slaves and fought for the right to continue to subjugate human beings as property. The iconography of the civil war should be understood not as pride in being southern, but as the very battle symbol that men wielded in the fight to maintain the exploitation of black men and women. We cannot compartmentalize the state’s right that the south fought for, and the iconography of the time.

Believing You Are Doing Right When Doing Wrong

A trait we all share as human beings is the ability to rationalize our actions and find fitting excuses for our decisions, priorities, shortcomings, habits, and behaviors. We can take the worst part of ourselves and put a positive spin on it, explaining away the negativity or at least explaining why we are justified in our wrongdoing. Ta-Nehisi Coats looks at this human ability in terms of racism in his book Between The World and Me.

 

Coats quotes Solzhenitsyn and writes, “‘We would prefer to say that such people cannot exist, that there aren’t any,’ writes Solzhenitsyn. ‘To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.’ This is the foundation of the Dream—its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works.”

 

In the passage above, Coats refers to The Dream as the false history and false memory of our nation’s founding, of slavery, and of our nation’s reconstruction following the Civil War. The Dream is not any one particular thing, but a set of experiences and life expectations afforded to white people in America but historically denied to African Americans. At the turn of the 20th century The Dream was denied to African American’s based on a false understanding of biology, genetics, and race, and allowed stereotypes to mascaraed as evidence based truths, lodging deep within our countries consciousness and as Coats would argue, still affecting us today.

 

We do not see overt racism very often in the United States today and it is generally quickly condemned by all. With overt segregation behind us, it is easy to assume that we have opened the doors of opportunity to all, and to assume that our success as an individual was no more likely than the success of any other person. We all had to make good decisions along our path and we all had to fight through obstacles with a sense of pride. Surely if we could do it, then so could any other person. Our focus on ourselves and the challenges we surmounted blind us to the reality that other people did not have the support, the starting point, and the random good luck that we had. What Coats refers to as The Dream is a set of circumstances that provide opportunities to some (opportunities that are hard to see) and criticizes those who do not achieve the same level of success without also having the same opportunities.

 

We think that what we are doing is good and just, but we are failing to recognize the ways in which we are maintaining division within society. We explain away our failure to act to help people by focusing on the sacrifices we had to make, on the frugal decisions we made with our money, and on the challenges we overcame. We do not see how our jokes, our inability to act, and our hidden acts of segregation (hiding behind economic household segregation) change the lives and opportunities of others.

 

This way of thinking allows systems to operate with unjust consequences and outcomes for racial minorities. Our human mind finds ways to take the blame off us and to place it on others who suffer, face greater challenges without support, and have historically been discriminated against. The act of recognizing the opportunities afforded to us but not others, and the act of recognizing how much we would struggle in another person’s shoes without the same opportunities is quite humbling, and takes away the facade of The Dream that Coats describes. Ultimately though, if we cannot recognize our self-interest and our brain’s ability to manipulate how we describe our self-interest, we will never reach a point where we are more just in our actions and decisions.

Exoneration

In the United States we love labels. We fully embrace the part of our brain that wants to categorize and classify everything around us, and when it comes to people we search for the right label to apply to every person to help us understand who they are, what they believe, and what they are likely to do or think. Our brains are constantly looking for patters, and labels are a type of heuristic to make people easier to understand.

A label that has been used more and more over the last several years, but has only become more complicated, is the word racist. Most people do not think seriously about race, though unavoidably race does influence our behaviors. Race triggers tribal instincts deep in our brain, encouraging us to look at others and decide whether they are like us or not like us, and associate and act accordingly. Where we live, who we hang out with, the jokes we tell, and where we go out for dinner are all areas where our tribal brain shapes our behavior based on perceptions of race, which is to say perceptions of sameness and otherness. Without self-awareness these implicit biases are hard to observe, understand, and counteract in ourselves, but they can be observed and criticized by other people or within a larger society.

It is this conflict, the challenge of seeing how implicit bias impacts our individual decisions and the ways in which implicit bias manifests in racial injustice, that has made the label racist so charged and so difficult to understand. We want to group social injustice, white people who make jokes about minorities, and our segregated society into the racist label, but the people who are tied up in everything described by the label are unable to see how they could be described by such a term.

Ta-Nehisi Coats in his book Between the World and Me describes this problem and how white people in our country have reacted to the charge of racist. “My experience in this world has been that people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration.” In a sense, those who are grouped under the umbrella of racist become singularly focused with making excuses to show that they do not fit within the label. They demonstrate ways in which their behaviors are inconsistent with the most obvious forms of racism, and argue that their individual actions could not contribute to the system which has been oppressive for minorities and contributes the segregation that our society sees today.

Those charged with the label racist view racism as being overt actions, demonstrable discrimination, and unabashed ill-will toward minorities. The type of implicit racism that is rampant throughout society is somehow shielded (by hiding behind economic excuses) from the understanding of what racism is for those who are criticized as being racist. Society however, can see the way that individual decisions and historical injustice have piled on to create a society that is deeply affected by racist politics. Somehow we need a new label and new description to accurately explain society and individuals without forcing an exonerative reaction form those at fault.

Twice as Good

Something I had felt but never put into coherent thoughts was the idea that racial minorities have had to be perfect throughout time to win the trust and respect of the majority population. In his book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coats expresses this idea more clearly than I had ever managed to do. He is critical of the idea of double standards, that in order for people to be respected they need to be virtually without fault. When it comes to these types of double standards he writes,

 

“All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to “be twice as good,” which is to say “accept half as much.” These words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket. … No one told those little white children, with their tricycles, to be twice as good. I imagined their parents telling them to  take twice as much.”

 

Double standards between races lead to frustrations for minority populations because it steals part of their humanity. We are all going to make incredible mistakes along our paths and in search of what we want, but when you are forced to be perfect to overcome the prejudices of another, your mistakes become much more meaningful. Our nation has held down African American’s by restricting where they could buy housing, limiting who they could marry, and over arresting and over sentencing crimes by African Americans. We have a romanticized vision of the Civil Rights movement, and criticize African American protests of today. Historically, African American’s have been given less than freedom and opportunities than other people, and we have told them that protesting is not the way to address their inequities. We don’t expect them to be human and speak out against a system that fosters such inequalities, or is at least still haunted by the ghosts of such injustice, but instead to succeed and thrive in spite of such injustice and to be superhuman.

 

When we do this we ask a part of our nation to be more than the rest with less than the rest. We decide that we will only respect black people if they become successful and abandon the culture from which they came. What is worse, when they do find success, we use individual success to show that anyone can overcome the obstacles placed on them by society, and we chose to believe that the injustices faced by masses are simply excuses of laziness and failure. We do not see the double standards we set for African American populations, and we do not see the reality that we are asking them to be twice as good before we give people the respect they deserve simply by being human.