White Apathy and The Bullshit Argument That “They Could Help Themselves If They Really Wanted To”
June 8, 2020
Ten years ago, on Apr 25, 2010 at 11:56pm, I first published an opinion piece to The Middle Finger Project blog called, “White Men Can't Jump, But They've Got Other Tricks Up Their Sleeves: The (Unearned) Privilege of Being White.”
I remember writing it because even though I was only twenty-five years old (and my writing style less, ahem, sophisticated), these are the conversations I’ve been having for a decade—which I’m proud to say. This isn’t something I’m bringing up right now because I’m supposed to: it’s the very fabric of The Middle Finger Project. It’s how this blog began: as a mission to critically consider and dismantle the unexamined beliefs and societal systems that harm us.
So I went back to re-read that original post this week, and was shocked at its timelessness. It's as if the post were written yesterday, if you substitute the name “James Byrd Jr.” for “George Floyd.” Moreover, however, I was shocked—but not surprised—to read some of the historical comments on the post. (A favorite: “Stupid article……like a twelve year old who discovers that the world is not perfect…welcome to puberty.”)
These comments, along with many others I’ve seen online, expose not only white delusion, but a part of the real battle we are fighting:
White. Fucking. Supremacists. Branding. Themselves. As. Equal. Opportunists.
While overt racists are true, cold-blooded murderers—of bodies, of dignity, of basic human rights—it’s the ones who don’t see themselves as racists, but “realists,” who are the silent murderers. These are the folks who think that racism is historical and that now, everyone’s got the same opportunity and “The American Dream” works in everyone’s favor. But The American Dream was merely a marketing ploy for this country—the best marketing campaign in history, backed by the best brand promise in history—and it has made too many white people apathetic because they assume that others could help themselves, if they wanted.
That everyone has the same opportunity.
That it's about individual responsibility.
That The American Dream is up for grabs for anyone who wants to work hard to get ahead.
This is dangerous because it sounds logical. Things that sound logical are more likely to be adopted as truth and repeated—well, just like a virus. So even if you’re a person who has never had a critical thought pass through your brain, you can take this ready-made argument and use it…which is precisely the problem.
In effect, that’s what good branding does: it short-circuits critical thinking skills and makes you want to “buy” sight unseen. That’s what the brand of “The American Dream” has done to too many white Americans: it has made them follow blindly. Repeat blindly, like a parrot. And believe something blindly, regardless of how little truth there actually is.
Like: “We all have an equal opportunity.”
A population of people who started as slaves could never possibly catch up on their own when we had such a head start. As Nick Kristof so eloquently put it in his series “When Whites Just Don’t Get It“:
“We all stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. We’re in a relay race, relying on the financial and human capital of our parents and grandparents. Blacks were shackled for the early part of that relay race, and although many of the fetters have come off, whites have developed a huge lead. Do we ignore this long head start — a facet of white privilege — and pretend that the competition is now fair?”
- It began with slavery, which started all the way back in 1619.
- Once slavery ended in 1865—some two-hundred years later—the Reconstruction Amendments made all black people citizens and reallocated hundreds of thousands of acres of white-owned land for settlement by black families in 40-acre plots. Which would have been great until Andrew Johnson became president and, one year later, said “NOPE, JUST KIDDING, FUCK YOU,” and took back all of the land, declaring this: “This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men.” (He really said that.)
- In 1874, the bank where black people were allowed to save—The Freedman’s Bureau—went under thanks to all-white trustees making bad loans to white people. Black people lost $1 million dollars of the little savings they had, putting them even further behind.
- Meanwhile, white Southerners resented black Americans, who represented the Confederacy’s Civil War defeat, so they intimidated, vandalized and assassinated any black people who did accumulate wealth in the form of their businesses. (Oooo, look who the original vandals were.)
- Then the government was like, hey I know, let’s make Jim Crow laws and force segregation so we can remove political and economic gains made by black folks during the Reconstruction period!
- This meant that facilities for black people were consistently inferior and underfunded compared to the facilities for white Americans; sometimes, there were no facilities for them at all. Public libraries were only available sporadically.
- Then voting laws changed and you needed to be literate to vote! (CONVENIENT.)
- Except! If you were white and illiterate, you got a pass: if your grandfather or father had voted prior to January 1, 1867, you could vote, too. Also convenient, given that most African Americans had been slaves then.
- Eventually World War II happens and black people go to fight for an America that had been so cruel to them. Once they got back they thought, you know, maybe they had earned the right to be treated as full citizens. Enter: The Civil Rights Movement. But uh uh uh, not so fast! As federal courts started attacking Jim Crow statutes, the white-dominated governments of many southern states countered by doing things like, ohhhhh, refusing to prosecute murderers of black people.
- Then The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is passed, right? And you’re thinking, fucking finally. And then there was WHITE BACKLASH. Which is another word for the argument that whites started making saying that their immigrant descendants did not receive the benefits that were given to African Americans in the Civil Rights Act. OH, PLEASE. (P.S. This is why many say that Trump won the election: as “whitelash” to the election of Obama.”)
- This then caused The great Migration during the first half of the 20th century, when black people started migrating to cities in the north and west.
- Which seemed like a good idea, until The Federal Housing Administration literally prohibited black families from buying homes in the suburbs! Literally! Maps were divided up along racial lines with different colors on the maps, and black neighborhoods were painted with the color red—hence the term “redlining.” I CAN’T MAKE THIS UP.
- Then, of course, the Home Owners Loan Corporation decided to give out mortgages based on where you were located on a map—presumably an assessment of your “risk.” Non-white neighborhoods were “hazardous” and bring down property values. So no matter where they were on this bullshit map, black people couldn’t get a freaking mortgage, either.
- So black people made do. And they made do. And they made do. Even though they kept getting pushed farther behind. And farther behind. All of these years, they’ve been making do. They stayed in their man-made cages. And then right as they’ve started to establish a sense of belonging and community? Lawmakers would come up with great excuses for ways to displace all of them. Central Park, for example, used to be a thriving black community. Or they put highways through the little bit of community that black people had been able to build, to the benefit of white commuters from the very suburbs black people were prohibited from living. (See the literature on the history of Atlanta’s highway systems for an example on this.)
- Of course, white people eventually got tired of all the commuting and congestion and decided to make it fashionable to live in cities again. So HERE WE GO AGAIN, FOLKS: let’s gentrify neighborhoods and move the black people out of our way! Again..and again…and again.
And as a result of these events, and so many more, today:
- White Americans have seven times the wealth of black Americans.
- The median family wealth for white people is $171,000, compared with just $17,600 for black people.
- The average white or Asian-American student attends a school in at least the 60th percentile in test performance; the average black student is at a school at the 37th percentile.
- Whites are twice as likely to get job callbacks.
- Emails from stereotypically black names seeking apartments are less likely to get responses from landlords.
- Black men receive sentences about 20 percent longer than white men for similar crimes.
- They have no benefit of the doubt, ever.
- And all people of color are being killed, daily, by the people who are supposed to be protecting them.
So no, nothing is equal. Nothing. We might have the same “opportunity” on paper, but we certainly do not have the same odds. People are biased in white people's favor, even if it’s unintentional. (One of my favorite illustrations of how white privilege operates behind the scenes is this three-minute video.) And over time all of that bias piles up, and piles up, and piles up, and soon past injustices become present disadvantages.
And I think most of us reading here get this: the TMF audience is overwhelmingly liberal and progressive. So I don’t write this to you: I write this to give you the facts that you need to educate others when they say to you, “Can we get over racism already? Black people are just whining. Maybe they should get off their ass and get to work.”
This, to me, is the work that must be done: that each of us picks a person we know who’s an “equal opportunity racist” and chooses to have a conversation about it, rather than ignore it. It is much easier to preach to those who you know will agree with you. It is much harder to speak up with someone you know will disagree and endeavor to change their perception of the issue.
BUT—it is one of the most important things you can do with the privilege you have.
Use it to influence those with whom you have real-world rapport, to increase the chances that the message will be heard. That’s my challenge to you, and the challenge I have taken upon myself: I’m having thoughtful conversations with people from my hometown who don’t get it, but who respect my opinion. That’s a way in. That’s the beginning of a ripple effect. And it all starts with having the courage to go outside and do the work. Preaching on the internet is cool (hi, I’m all about the internet), but be careful not to preach to the choir and then be satisfied with your efforts, merely checking a to-do off a list.
So much of what I’m reading right now feels like mere lip service, like sending out an obligatory GDPR email. “Here is a list of black people!” (Phew, did it, said something!) Good, but it’s cheap. And it’s empty, if that’s all you’re inclined to do.
Commit to changing one person’s perception every day. We must do the emotional labor every day for the rest of our lives as people who give a shit: as critical thinkers, as leaders, as action takers. Not as a one-time event this week, but as a lifelong commitment to using your privilege to sway the minds of those whom your privilege allows you to reach.
Have the courage to say what needs to be said to the people who need to hear it.