In the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin, several commentators wrote artful letters to their black sons, warning of the reality of racial profiling and discrimination that still haunt us today. Subsequently, an either insanely ignorant or willfully obnoxious National Review columnist (now fired) named John Derbyshire wrote a letter to his two white children, spewing the sort of hateful stereotypes about black people that conservatives often hasten to argue are a part of America’s past, not present. As such, Mr. Derbyshire’s letter has nothing to do with actual black folks, but is a revealing warning about a certain subset of mostly white, mostly male conservatives who like to believe that racism and related injustices are merely myths concocted to disadvantage white people.
I’d like to explain to my daughter, who is white, why this is a load of bullshit.
(1) First of all, I don’t use words like bullshit or fascist casually. You shouldn’t either. Nor should you throw around words like racist. Just like we can never know what was in George Zimmerman’s head that evening, we cannot know whether Mr. Derbyshire consciously hates people of color. And that’s not the point. While we may never be able to control the silent thoughts in our heads, we can definitely control our words and actions and the bias they implicitly or explicitly perpetuate. Mr. Zimmerman’s actions, for instance, seem to convey implicit racial bias. Mr. Derbyshire’s words seem intentionally designed to perpetuate explicit bias. While words like “racist” and “fascist” can sometimes be inflammatory and unhelpful, but when someone is intentionally trying to hurt an individual or an entire community with biased words or deeds, such labels are entirely called for.
(2) You are white. (Once upon a time, some of your ancestors who are Italian and Jewish were considered to be closer to black in the United States, but they quickly realized that it’s always been advantageous to be white in America, so they aligned themselves with white people, instead of black people, and over time came to be seen as white.) You should know that white people in America have done atrocious things to Native Americans, black people and immigrants. But at times, white people have also stood up against slavery and stood up for civil rights. Being white is the reality of your ethnic heritage and you should always be proud of who you are.
(3) In our society, it is a privilege to be white. This is not a privilege you earned, but a privilege that is automatically bestowed upon you by the simple fact of your skin. While you may face other disadvantages in life based on the fact that you’re a girl or, perhaps, if you grow up to be gay or poor or have a disability, you will nonetheless always benefit from the presumption of belonging and righteousness that attaches to your skin. You will rarely be stopped by police for no reason at all. Fellow students or co-workers won’t look askance and question whether you earned your position. You can dress however you want, drive whatever car you want, live in whatever neighborhood you want and no one will assume you’re either a drug dealer or a drug user. Whiteness will continually provide an often-invisible but always powerful shield of innocence around you for as long as you live.
(4) With privilege comes power. You have the power to use your privilege for good or evil—to make the world better for those around you or to selfishly use your power to make your own way easier while others struggle. Someday I hope you will realize that the world treats your black and brown friends differently than it treats you (just like the world will treat you less fairly than it treats boys and men). When you see this happening, you have a choice—you can stand up and do something, or be quiet. If you fight against discrimination and stand up for the equal rights and treatment of everyone, then you are celebrating the best of your ancestors’ heritage.
(5) Now, there will be some white people who disagree with this. They will try and convince you that the disparities between you and people of color and the different ways that you are treated are not unjust but, rather, justified. Sadly, though they will not admit it publicly, many agree with Mr. Derbyshire that black people are inferior to white people and, thus, believe that the inequities between our communities are the natural result. Let me make something very clear: Inequality is not natural. Of course, some kids are going to be better than others at sports, while others are better at math. But the fact that white families in our country have 20 times more wealth than black families and 18 times more than Latino families is because of unnatural bias accumulated like layers of plaque in ever crevice our society, systematically making it easier for white families like ours to succeed.
(6) The pathetic reality is that, in the United States today, the richest 1 percent of Americans control about two-thirds of all the wealth. The vast majority of that top 1 percent are white. Sadly, people like Mr. Derbyshire who resent not being part of that wealthy elite don’t blame the imbalanced structure of our economy, but instead blame struggling people of color. I hope that, instead of sharing Mr. Derbyshire’s sentiment, you spend the rest of your life trying to understand why some middle class and poor white people blame middle class and poor people of color for their economic situation rather than critiquing the systems that disproportionately favor the 1 percent. If you figure out this puzzle, I hope you will then spend all of your energy solving it. In a nation as innovative and industrious as ours, there is no justifiable reason why people of different races have to fight over crumbs at the bottom of the economic ladder. We can and must do better—for everyone.
(7) Many Americans will read the above and nod their heads. Conservative fascists will spontaneously burst out in flames—in no small part at the idea of white people and black people working together equally for anything. Yet many more moderate conservatives, and even some so-called liberals, will also balk at what I’ve written. Masquerading as a profound misrepresentation of the sentiments of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., they will argue that “colorblindness” means never talking about or even acknowledging the reality of race. Many of these people genuinely mean well, but think racial discrimination is a thing of the past and that, today, everyone is struggling and we should be focused on “universal” concerns rather than the needs of any one “oppressed” group. In the face of this argument, please remember that there was an unemployment crisis in the black community long before there was an economic crisis in America as a whole. Black unemployment went largely ignored. It wasn’t until the problems hit white America that the public and politicians took notice and even called it a crisis. If we never focus on the underlying problems in our economy that continue to disproportionately affect people of color, then we will never truly resolve such crises nor prevent them from happening in the future.
(8) Race is a reality in our existence. It colors the way we see everything around us. If we don’t cultivate a constructive relationship with race, a devious relationship tends to take hold. For instance, the fact is—and always has been—that most recipients of public assistance benefits are white. But in a 1994 study, researchers found that among Americans who think most welfare recipients are black, 61 percent said those people were on welfare because of “lack of effort.” But among those who think welfare recipients are white, only 38 percent said the reason was “lack of effort.” Similarly, in a 2010 poll, 73 percent of self-identified Tea Party members said “blacks would be as well off as whites if they just tried harder.” In other words, in our nation we tend to give white people the benefit of the doubt while placing blame on black people—that is, unless we consciously work against that tendency.
(9) Conservative fascists like Mr. Derbyshire will try to convince you that black people deserve blame. They will tell you that black people earn less because they don’t work hard and are less intelligent than white people, and that black people commit more crimes than white people and, thus, are more inherently dangerous. These are lies. For instance, the Department of Justice studied the homicide rates between 1974 and 2004 and found that 52 percent of offenders were black, while 46 percent of offenders were white. Even this slight discrepancy may arguably be due to disparities in policing and arrests (note, for instance, that as of this writing George Zimmerman has still not been arrested). But if you want to run your life according to crime statistics, you’d be wiser to note that most crimes against white people are committed by white people—for instance, 86 percent of white homicide victims are killed by white people. So instead of Mr. Derbyshire’s advice to avoid black neighborhoods, especially given the fact that you’re a young woman, you would be more wise to avoid any building with a large concentration of young white men and one or more Greek letters on the door.
(10) What’s more, I know you’re smart enough to realize that while committing a crime is never, ever justified, crime never happens in a vacuum. Many states, for instance, estimate how many prison beds they will need in 10 years by how kids are faring in third grade. As our investments in public schools decline, our investments in prison size expand. And incidentally, while as an upper-middle class white girl, your odds of ending up in prison are slight, divesting in public education hurts your future prospects as well.
(11) But all the statistics in the world will never persuade conservative fascists who are hell-bent on rationalizing their hatred as though it is fact, not opinion. So don’t waste your breath trying to convince those who will never be changed. Instead, I hope you will live your life as a model to those around you—showing, through constant self-awareness, generosity and true openness to your fellow human beings that you believe in the “beloved community” of which King wrote and that you intend to build that community through your own life and reside therein.
(12) In building your beloved community, choose your friends carefully. Strive always to judge others not by the color of their skin or the slouch of their hoodies but by whether they are fundamentally kind and honest human beings. With this as your guide, I suspect and hope you will find many wonderful friends amidst the large group of black kids of which John Derbyshire warns. As fair warning, if you end up hanging out with conservative fascists, I may have to disown you.
John Brown was a white man who lived in the mid-1800s and ultimately gave his life in the fight against slavery. During his trial for leading an armed insurrection against the government, Brown said, “If it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments—I submit; so let it be done.” Subsequently, just before he was hanged for his crimes, Brown declared, “This is a beautiful country.” Both things can be true. America is a complicated nation, born of a complicated history of liberation and oppression that have intermingled ever since. Today, we as a people still struggle in the pursuit of liberty and justice for all and that struggle is as essential an American endeavor as any other I can imagine. I hope that in your life you will tune out those who would try to convince us that America and all those who dwell here can never amount to more than our worst deeds, and instead that you will stand up for the principles of equality and justice that, even though they failed to achieve them in their own lives, our wise Founding Fathers knew well enough to aspire to as well. This is a beautiful country, my child, and the struggle toward justice for all is a beautiful struggle.