By Mel Harkrader Pine
Over coffee with a white friend born in rural North Carolina, she asked me about the racism I (also white) find within me. She was surprised to hear that, after much soul-searching, I really don’t believe I have a core of white supremacy. And that exchange is emblematic of what’s wrong with the current anti-racism and Black Lives Matter movements.
They paint an entire group of people (those we call “white”) with a broad monochromatic brush — no room for variation.
I do believe we all have prejudices and biases and will never be colorblind, at least until we’re all the color of light coffee. But the anti-racists and I agree on at least one thing: There’s a big difference between prejudice and racism/white supremacy. The latter involve actual oppression of, or a desire to oppress, the “other.”
Biases are natural. We’re wired to detect the “otherness” of a being we encounter. When I sense that in myself, as for example when I meet someone in a wheelchair, I work to overcome it. I step forward rather than back.
My college-age years occurred in the 1960’s in the heart of Philadelphia inner city. So I dealt with my discomfort around black people long ago.
Am I still aware of what we call race? You bet!
Do I act differently around people who are what we call black? I hope not, but I stay awake to the possibility.
Do I think I’m superior or do I benefit from my relative staus? Absolutely not!
Oppression harms all of us.
While acknowledging that growing up in the South was different from growing up in the North, my friend shook her head grimly at the racism she was certain existed, in another form, where I came from. I’m sure there was racism in some parts of Philadelphia, and in some other parts of the North. And, yes, I witnessed prejudice and stereotyping. But, in my immigrant family and my row-house neighborhood, I saw no racism.
Every white person is not the same, nor is every white neighborhood. And regional differences can be huge. We all know how white supremacists used lynchings in much of the South to terrorize black communities. In Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, author Gilbert King paints a vivid and painful picture of how that worked less than a century ago in Northern Florida.
But racial terrorism wasn’t the only force behind lynchings. The Charles Chestnut Digital Archive gives a breakdown of the 4,743 lynchings in the Unites States by state and by race (black or white). The statistics come from the Archives at Tuskegee Institute.
The highest total was in Mississippi, where 539 blacks and 42 whites were lynched. For Georgia, it was 492 blacks and 39 whites. In North Carolina, where my friend came from, it was 86 blacks and 15 whites.
In Arizona, on the other hand, no blacks but 31 whites died of lynchings. Montana experienced two lynchings of blacks and 82 of whites. I guess the Western string-’em-up movies were based on real life. New York State had just two lynchings, one for each skin color. In Pennsylvania, my state, two whites and six blacks were lynched.
Those statistics are not, I’m sure, a precise measure of degrees of racism, and lynchings were just one device to enforce Jim Crow’s dominance. But they do show variations from state to state.
The Unitarian Universalist doctrine says we all swim in the sea of white supremacy. I’ll admit to being in a sea of various forms of bias, but not terribly deep.
Copyright 2017 © Mel Harkrader Pine