by Ron Lester Whyte
What do the deaths of Aiyana Jones, Trayvon Martin, Andy Lopez, and Michael Brown, the 2012 Wisconsin Sikh Temple shooting, and the continued exploitation and occupation of Native lands all have in common? These cases, all just the tip of a very large and very ugly iceberg, show us that the methods used by our society to fight racism and prejudice have failed to tackle the root of the problem: entrenched structures of white supremacy and the cultural narratives that support it.
A recent article by Rachel Shadoan entitled, “I am racist, and so are you” is a perfect illustration of the problem we’re facing. According to Shadoan, the health, well being, and prosperity of people of color are almost entirely dependent upon the goodwill and soul searching capacities of white people. Unfortunately, laws meant to protect fundamental human rights of Black people, for example, never translated into any meaningful anti-racist cultural renaissance for white Americans. Self reflection and self examination are wonderful, but many people simply choose not to do it.
When people’s lives and livelihoods are under threat, we cannot leave anti-racist education to chance or whim. In his book ‘Racism’s Hidden Toll’, Ryan Blitstein asks, “Does the stress of living in a white‐dominated society make African Americans get sick and die younger than their white counterparts? Apparently, yes.” He goes on to say:
“American minorities face a bevy of chronic obstacles that whites and the socioeconomically advantaged cope with far less often: environmental pollution, high crime, poor health care, overt racism, concentrated poverty. Over the course of a person’s life, the psychological and physiological response to this kind of stress leads to dire health problems, advanced aging and early death.”
Empathy and mutual respect for different types of people and other cultures requires a constant process of learning, yet the system of white privilege that exists in this country depends upon the ignorance and naïveté of those who are meant to benefit from the exploitation and disenfranchisement of the racialized, objectified, and exoticized “other.” It would be ridiculous to expect a society whose foundations are built upon this sort of arrangement to voluntarily purge itself of its own self-serving racism, yet that’s exactly what we’ve been doing.
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What we see happening now is that many aspects of our culture, especially the education system, are failing to challenge and refute narratives that prop up and legitimize white supremacy. The fact that schoolchildren are still indoctrinated to appreciate and celebrate Columbus Day is just one small example of the perpetuation of these damaging narratives, but there are many others. Until these narratives and the structures that enable them are reconfigured or dismantled, many people of color, in some ways Black and Native American people especially, will continue to suffer tremendously in this society that privileges whiteness.
Layla AbdelRahim is a radical author and theorist whose work examines how the values of society are transmitted to children through the education system. In her book, ‘Wild Children-Domesticated Dreams: Civilization and the Birth of Education’, she states that:
“…if we continue to view our current institutions and pedagogies as benign and essential, inevitable attributes of life, we remain complicit in the reenactment of the deadly narrative that has colonized the world and brought it to the brink of extinction.”
If we want to eradicate racism and the other harmful “isms,” we must begin with much needed radical changes to the institutions we take for granted. Anti-racist education should be grafted onto many aspects of our society, and it must be absolutely mandatory for all K-12 curriculums. Imagine if the huge amount of effort that was poured into standardized testing and ‘No Child Left Behind’ had been instead channeled into resources to teach children about race and gender. Learning to recognize and eradicate prejudice should be as fundamental as learning how to count, or learning the periodic table.
Let’s take a look at how Germany’s problem with fascism and anti-Semitism was addressed after WWII to give us some insights into the proper way to address racism. One of the first steps towards ending anti-Semitism’s grip on Germany was literal reeducation. The effort was a massive one. Teachers and professors who were known to have aligned themselves with the Nazis were barred from teaching. A massive media campaign of truth telling began, revealing in detail to the German public the crimes committed by the SS and the Wehrmacht. There was no glossing over the past, no hiding it, no romanticizing. The task of rooting out anti-Semitism was not left to chance or to wishful thinking – it was a carefully planned and coordinated campaign meant to transform all aspects of society. Is Germany a perfect paradise today? No. But racially motivated attacks are not nearly as prevalent there as they are here in the United States, and racist police murders are very, very rare.
Unlike in Germany, where careful consideration and planning went into making the society less fascist and more accepting of diversity, no such program was put in place here either after the South’s defeat in 1865, or after the passing of the Civil Rights Act one hundred years later. Sure, some laws were passed and public spaces were opened up, but there was no coordinated campaign to stamp out the still virulent racism that remained in a somewhat less visible form (except in many southern states where the Confederate flag is still proudly flown).
When 70% of Americans believe that undocumented migrants threaten “traditional values,” 63% of whites are of the opinion that Blacks are struggling due to their own shortcomings, and 60% of whites don’t find the “Redskins” name racist, we can see how much progress remains to be made. Also troubling is a rise in the belief in “reverse racism” and other ridiculous and nonsensical falsehoods, all signs of a broken education system that fails to inform people that whites collectively hold 88.4 percent of the nation’s wealth, while Blacks hold 2.7%.
Some may be uncomfortable with the idea of anti-racist education being mandatory, but the seriousness of the problem requires an equally serious solution. We must agitate for mandatory anti-racist education to be implemented as soon as possible. Germany’s denazification process is the closest thing one can find to mandatory anti-racist education implemented on a wide ranging structural level; this says a lot about the vice-like grip white supremacy has over the Western world. While some much-needed reforms have made life somewhat easier for people of color here in the United States, the snail’s pace of change is not nearly fast enough, least of all for people like Rekia Boyd, Carlos Mejia, Abdul Arian, and Eric Garner.
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Ron is a blogger and activist from Philadelphia who has been involved in alternative media since 2009. He identifies as a queer, anti-authoritarian, pro-revolution working class person of color, committed to social and ecological justice.