Jim Grimsley, Los Angeles Times, February 23, 2016
A long time ago, after a church service on a bright Sunday morning in the small town where I grew up, I heard one of the deacons tell another that he didn’t believe colored people really wanted civil rights and integration. “If God had meant white people and black people to mix he would have made them one color,” he said. He made this claim in spite of the civil rights demonstrations that were going on in our home state of North Carolina and across the country, in spite of nonviolent and violent protests.
I have written a memoir about those years, during which I watched the dismantling of Jim Crow laws, and since its publication I have taken part in many conversations about race. In those discussions I have found that black people are all too aware that progress on racial issues has hardly moved forward at all, while white people are nearly as blind to their racism as ever.
A woman at another festival came up to me during the book signing, her eyes large and round, to say she had heard me speak, had thought about the issue (for the few minutes between the talk and the signing) and was sure she did not have “any of that” inside her. She walked away with her children in hand, comfortable that she had settled the issue for both of us.
More than simple anecdotes, these are symptoms of the insanity of white culture and our refusal to understand that racism is part of our makeup–each and every one of us, north, south, east and west–from cradle to grave.
We re-segregate our schools using every available strategy and continue to profit from long-standing systems that are biased toward the hiring, advancement and empowerment of white people, all the while decrying the racism we see in others, pointing fingers at this or that extremist. As if by saying, “That one is a racist,” we exonerate ourselves of the charge.
White liberals–and I am one–are adept at using these naming and shaming tactics to avoid looking inward. Comfortable in our beliefs, we ignore the fact that we sit inside an ideology of white superiority that gives us enormous advantages even when we mouth the right opinions, trade memes about the awful racist act that one of us committed, and pat ourselves on the back for our sensitivity.
Surrounded by a world that makes it clear that white people are only a minority part of the picture, we nevertheless go on making movies in which nearly everybody is white; we go on nominating white people to win all the best prizes–this year’s Oscar nominations offer a glaring case in point–and we continue to write textbooks and develop educational curricula that surround white heroes with halos that throw the achievements of all other people into ghostly relief.