Up too early this morning, but I figure I’ll go back to bed in a couple of hours. The quiet in the house at this hour is lovely.
I’ve been thinking about the protests, especially in Louisville, and how overwhelming it feels. It’s hard to imagine how we can come to terms with the police and the political systems at this point, and that worries me. At the same time, I think about how long we’ve known that our systems are inherently biased to favor white people and how little we’ve done to remedy it in systemic ways.
I think about Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary, who has been talking about Post-Traumatic Slavery Syndrome for at least 15 years. We have made some progress in some places on offering support for black people around that. Not surprisingly, that’s happening in the context of mental health, so the work of healing is on the people that our systems have oppressed.
Healing is great, but when we offer services and maintain the systems that cause harm then we’re just creating a never ending stream of people who need those services. I think those services are necessary and important. It seems that the work is often being done by black people, which is good. But “providing services” is almost never a solution.
I think about the documentary “Uncommon Causes,” which was released nationally in 2008 and explores the social determinants of health and how race and class are factors that contribute to disparities regardless of individual health choices. I remember seeing a preview of the part of it that focuses on Louisville in 2005 or 2006 and thinking this would bring about huge changes in how we do things.
Of course, that has not happened. What has happened is that we point out the disparities over and over. Headlines read, “Black Americans more likely to get cancer/ get diabetes/ have high blood pressure/ die in childbirth/ die younger.” Over and over, we trumpet that news without the context of social determinants. Without changing the systems that maintain the disparities.
We have heard and seen, over and over, data that shows how racism plays out in the world. Disparities in school suspensions, racial profiling of black drivers, differences in arrest rates and sentence length, job opportunities, and so much more. Over and over, we have seen this and haven’t responded with real change.
We don’t change things because we – white people – benefit from the system as it is. The police tend to protect us – even if we just say, “There’s a black person here and I’m scared.”
We know that our social services such as Child Protective Services treat people differently based on race. Black people are more likely to have their children removed; white people are more likely to be offered supportive services. We have data that shows us this, and have had for a long time. It can be argued that this isn’t always a benefit for white kids, but in general it benefits white families.
The school system favors us. I heard that a black educator talking about schools was saying that white parents needed to give up the idea of “choice” with our charter schools and magnet programs and allow more room for black people to define what the education system looks like to meet the needs of black children. And my first thought? “Oh, but I love the Montessori program at my grandkids school! Surely I don’t have to give that up!”
Well, maybe not. Maybe my grandkids will still get to attend the charter school we love. But we’re going to have to give up something. We can’t end a racist system that’s existed in one form or another for hundreds of years, a system that benefits us white people, without giving up something.
Let me say this again. As things stand, the systems we have generally benefit white people. No, not all the time, not every single white person in every situation. Not all cops are bastards, not all men are sexist, not all white people are evil racists. It is almost never all or nothing. But in general, it is really clear that we white folks are more likely to get benefits and accommodations, support and protection. But only as long as we go along with the program.
You can see what’s happening with the protesters. Once white people step outside of the system, once we refuse to accept the status quo, we begin to lose privilege. Not all at once and not completely. But the unspoken agreement is that in order to benefit from white privilege, we pretty much need to maintain the system. The horrible, unfair, racist system that we say we don’t want.
I don’t have a great ending for this. Don’t have the perfect call to action. I guess the challenge, if you’re white, is to ask yourself what you are willing to give up to create a more equitable society. What are we willing to do?
This is the path ahead of us. Unclear. Unmarked. What do we do?