Democracy comes from conversation. It comes from different people looking at a common issue, looking at the facts, and deciding together what to do from there.
That being said, there’s still a lot of knowledge that should be more common, especially around the topic of race. Some people don’t want to learn about it. Some people think they already know enough. Some people just don’t care. You should care. The conversation is happening now, and depending on how we shape it, we can benefit future generations for decades to come, or we can set back decades of progress. There are three things that should shape how this conversation plays out:
1. It’s all more recent than you think it is.
Wooly mammoths were still alive when the pyramids were being built. Nintendo was founded when Jack the Ripper was still stalking the streets of London. Anne Frank and Martin Luther King, Jr. were born in the same year. Lots of history is closer together than you’d expect.
Interracial marriage bans weren’t declared unconstitutional until 1967: the same year Will Ferrell is born, The Jungle Book is released, and JFK is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. From that point on, no such laws were enforceable. It still took Delaware 19 years to officially remove the prohibition of interracial marriage from their state constitution. Alabama didn’t remove it until 2000, when it was taken out by a 60–40 vote by the state legislature. In the same year that George W. Bush was elected president, 40 elected officials were still defending the ideals of segregation.
If you were to go to America’s public schools, you’d learn a clear cut, simple history of civil rights. It usually goes along the lines of “Slavery was bad, so we stopped it. Then some people were still really mean and rude to black people, so Martin Luther King and his friends all went on a big walk to tell the president about it. Then president made racism illegal and everyone stopped.” Slavery is made out to be as far back in the past as the American Revolution, as if there aren’t people alive today whose grandparents were slaves. Sylvester Magee, one of the last living slaves and a Civil War veteran, lived until 1971. The Civil Rights movement is also presented in black and white, with old, grainy videos and the same clip of Martin Luther King saying “I have a dream.” The civil rights problem is always presented as something that was in the past, as if we solved it and it’s done now.
When racial grievances are aired, a common objection is “You people are just mad about things that happened a hundred years ago. Let go and move on!” If we were living in 2120, that argument may hold some merit. Right now, letting go and moving on would be the absolute worst course of action. Segregation may be technically illegal, but we’re not as far away from those problems yet as we’d like to believe. Even if we as a people completely abandon those beliefs, we’d still have to fix the broken systems where we live.
2. It’s about systems, not people
When questioned about race, people might say they’re colorblind. That sounds like a great quality until you think about it. Essentially, it’s making ignorance into a virtue. It’s a line of thinking that leaves you very vulnerable to manipulation. The most harmful form of racism is not the visible interpersonal kind. It’s the systems that were set up with racial motivations that we haven’t yet made equal.
From the 1930s to the 1960s, the Federal Housing Administration overwhelmingly approved housing loans for white Americans. African-American citizens were denied this resource. In fact, predominantly African-American neighborhoods were marked in red on city planning maps to indicate that they were high risk zones, leading to the practice being dubbed as “redlining.” This practice also prohibited hundreds of thousands of African-American WWI veterans from taking advantage of the housing, business, and educational help offered by the G.I. Bill as part of the New Deal.
Though redlining was officially stopped by the Fair Housing Act in 1968, the people who ran those systems still believed in racist philosophies. A new predatory tactic of subprime loans was developed. Through the 1980s, banks routinely offered higher interest rates on loans with stricter repayment schedules to whites than blacks. During the Great Recession of 2012, black households faced foreclosure at twice the rate of their white neighbors directly because of these policies. This lack of wealth-building opportunities for such a prolonged period of time means that black people in America today start off with a huge disadvantage compared to white people. As of early 2020, 44% of black families owned their homes, compared to 73% of white families.
The American ideal is always to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, work to earn the future you want. That’s a sad impossibility for many African-Americans today. In addition to housing discrimination, black people also face higher incarceration rates for the same crimes as the rest of the nation. This means that many of them are considered felons, and as such face monumental difficulties getting a job. Even if they manage to find employment, a huge part of their income will go to just keeping a roof over their head. Just about every area of normal life, from housing to work to education, is influenced by a system that was, at one point, designed to keep them out. The people running them may be different, but the institutions and tactics remain largely unchanged.
Again, we’re not as far away as we want to think we are from openly racist policies like redlining. Communities today are still hurt by it. To be colorblind is to ignore the huge debt owed by the government and society at large to these communities. Helping them get better loans and better neighborhoods isn’t special treatment or favoritism. It’s fixing our ways. It’s adhering to the true American values of giving all men life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
3. You can do more than you think.
This information is difficult for some to process. This is just a small part of a very large, very ugly story. I didn’t even get into how brutal slavery was, or how widespread the lynchings were, or even how the SAT was started by a white supremacist. It conflicts with the popular narrative that America is the greatest country in the world. Here’s the thing about narratives:
We decide what the story is. Elected officials and other leaders shape policy, but it al comes down to what we as a culture decide. We decide where we go from here. We decide how it will be taught in the future. Just by reading this, you’re taking steps in the right direction, understanding the issues. The history of race shows the worst and the best of America. Countless freed slaves risked life and limb to vote in the Reconstruction era. Organizations like the Black Panthers resisted unjust authority over them. Leaders and orators like James Baldwin, John Lewis, and Malcolm X gave profound and moving speeches. They were some of the most powerful and most brilliant minds our nation has had to offer. We can decide to put them back into the history books.
So right now, you can go write a letter to your congressional representative. You can donate or volunteer for a candidate with beliefs you support. You can learn more about reparations, mass incarceration, and voter suppression. You can have a conversation with your friends, with anyone in your community. You can inform them, help everyone get onto the same page.
We like to look at movements as being the work of just a few leaders. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X. The truth is, they didn’t do it. They helped, they communicated and planned. But real change was made on an individual level. It was made by people like you and me deciding to care.