Reader Reaction: Race, white innocence, and Michael Eric Dyson

A libertarian friend writes:

I’m not buying your piece on race fully. What is a sufficient apology for those things you have no role in or control over? When you make a mistake, yes, own it. But what about those who have not made mistakes, and there are many, despite what you may think.

IOW, I don’t believe in collective guilt.

I responded:

We’ve talked about this before, and I’m not sure what to tell you: I think this remains a sharp philosophical difference between us.

I think there ought to be room for the libertarian ideal and acknowledgement this country doesn’t fully live it out. “Collective guilt” doesn’t strike me as precisely the right term, but it seems undeniable to me that A) this country has long benefitted white people at the expense of black people and b) even if you think those days are over, the legacy and ramifications live with us still.

For one example: There’s a profound disparity in wealth between whites and blacks — one magnified by the great recession. Why? Well, a good chunk of that is housing policy: Black neighborhoods were redlined, white neighborhoods weren’t, so the government ensured white people were able to buy homes, create equity and wealth, and build a buffer for themselves that they handed down to their children.

I’ve benefitted from that, as a legacy from parents who were able to help me through tough times. I bet you have benefitted from that, too. Does that make you “guilty” of something? Tough word. You’re probably heir to the picking of winners and losers, though, and you got the bright side of the deal.

Maybe you don’t agree with that, but it seems to me largely in keeping with a libertarian critique, one that doesn’t necessarily damage your overall outlook. “Government picking of winners and losers sucks” isn’t just a theory. We have evidence!

My friend adds:

What gets me is that, reading Dyson and Coates makes me want to ask: What about the adult kids of the Hungarian refugee who came to this country in the 1950s? How are they tainted with the sin of slavery? There’s very little acknowledgement of this in what I read of their work, and granted, I’m not that enthralled by it anyway.

It’s hard for me not to shrug a bit at this, on the one hand: Adult kids of Cold War refugees are probably a very small slice of the American community. The fact that they might be an exception to the general thrust of American history makes them exactly that: An exception.

In a less-shruggy vein, though, I do ask: Are our Hypothetical Hungarian Immigrants as likely as an African-American to be shot in a traffic stop? To be stopped-and-frisked? To be arrested for smoking a joint? White privilege isn’t just the accumulation of perks, after all: It’s also a free pass from the disadvantages that black folks are often subject to. That’s probably true even if you just got off the boat.


I don’t want to misrepresent my friend, who points out I omitted his comments that touch on some agreement between us. My apologies to him. Here’s part of what he additionally wrote:

Do the education, criminal-justice, and employment/housing systems treat “whites” and “others” differently? Sadly, yes, in fact if not in law. I would argue that the legal situation (as in statutes on the books) is much better than it was not so long ago. But people ultimately implement those laws, and far too often, they continue to demonstrate bigotry.
What to do about it?
IMO, blaming whitey for being whitey gets us nowhere. It may assuage some of the guilt of some people and will assuredly inflame the hostilities of others. Reviewing situations, case-by-case, and discussing responses that address the specific problem could ease some of the tensions, name-calling. And accomplish something. Maybe?
There’s a whole discussion here to be had about systemic evils versus individual trespasses. I don’t think it’s one or the other — though I agree with my friend that discussing the systemic problem does inflame hostilities. More later.

Race and “the velocity of history”


I hope you don’t mind if I take a small detour from questions of Christianity and politics to talk for a few moments about race.

This should be easy, eh?

As it happens, I’m currently reading “Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America” by Michael Eric Dyson. It feels like a companion text to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ much-lauded “Between the World and Me,” except that earlier book — ultimately — was a conversation among black folks about being black folks, one that whites might get a chance to listen in on. Dyson’s book, as the subtitle suggests, is aimed squarely at us whites, a relentlessly hectoring “What the HELL are you going to do about this injustice!?!?” tome born of anger and love and faith.

Anyway, here’s a passage I read tonight and I want to share it with you.

“Even when individual black people confront individual white people, even when we love one another, white innocence still clouds our relationships. We are two historical forces meeting, and the velocity of that history is so strong that it can break the bonds of individual love.”

I’d like to talk about the “velocity of history” a bit.

Back when I was working in Philly, I played a part in committing what I can only characterize as a “racial error.” (That’s too cloying; put it more clearly: I fucked up.) I helped arrange a magazine cover featuring students at a local elementary school — and neglected to make sure any black students were in the picture.

The response was angry and loud. And I was … well, I was a lot of things. I had written within recent months about “white privilege,” but even my familiarity with the concept wasn’t enough to make me aware enough of my own blind spots.


I learned a lot of lessons from the affair, all of them painful. But one of the chief among them was this: When you commit a racial fuckup, that racial fuckup doesn’t exist in isolation. It bears the weight of every racial fuckup, microaggression, injustice and moral outrage that has accumulated in this country since, oh, 1620. (In the case of my particular error, it also bore the weight of my publication’s own history of getting race wrong.) It has its own mass and gravity, and once you’ve entered its orbit — well, prepare yourself.

Even writing about it a couple of years later is scary, because I’m afraid that somebody will read these words and think to themselves I think the moral of my story is: “Oh, poor white me.” That’s not the moral here. I fucked up. People were hurt by it, by my choices. I don’t get to un-own it or make it better by going on the defensive. Let me be clear on that point.

I became somewhat more sympathetic to conservatives who get angry, though, when you bring up race. They’re not the ones who perpetuated slavery or Jim Crow, after all, and they don’t like being implicated in our Great National Sin — they refuse to accept the burden.

But my sympathy — for them, for myself — doesn’t extend that far, and here’s why: White people are able to refuse to accept that burden. Black folks? Not so much. We see it in the vast wealth disparity between whites and blacks. We see it when the “Black Lives Matter” slogan is treated as evidence of racism instead of a pushback against racism. We see it when police apply methods to minority neighborhoods that whites would never allow for themselves. We see it when mainstream conservatives eagerly consume “scientific” proof for white superiority. While we who are white try desperately to unburden themselves,  and often believe we have succeeded, the truth is that for many minorities in America, the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.

“White fragility is a will to innocence that serves to bury the violence it sits on top of,” Dyson writes. I can’t deny it. I don’t even really know what to do with it, except to acknowledge it, to keep acknowledging it, to try and be better than that — and know, from the clear evidence, that sometimes I am not.

I talk about the weight of history. Dyson talks about velocity. You know what mass times velocity is, don’t you?


— Joel