First, There is Racism

When my husband and I built our house at Pickwick Lake, we built it into the high bluffs that circle the lake. In order for this to work, the architect had to take steel beams and drive them through the shifting mud until he hit bedrock. The house was thus anchored and then built around these beams.

I keep thinking of this image as I ponder the murders in Charleston, South Carolina. What I keep seeing is that the steel beams anchoring the house of America is racism. Yes, the house we’ve built around these beams has many wonderful things, particularly an impetus to help others during times of need. But the beams are there, firmly embedded in the rock, holding up the house.

I can’t wish away the beams. I can’t pretend they aren’t holding up the house. I have to say, hunh–look at that. Without these beams, we wouldn’t have the country we have. Slaves built the White House. Slaves built Wall Street. Leased convicts and sharecroppers and Jim Crow labor—our entire economy has segued from one racist exploitation to the next. The steel beams of racism have run through our American house since we laid the 3/5 brick then wearied of Southern complaint and let Reconstruction lapse into Jim Crow and then discovered the magic of mass incarceration. Was this racism necessary to build the house we chose? Could we have created a wonderful country without it? Sure, but that’s not what we chose. We white Americans chose where we wanted to go and we chose racism as the tool to get us there. We forged those beams and hammered them into the bedrock and never looked back.

Now what do I do? First, I own it. I quit crawfishing. I quit attributing our social problems to everything but our bedrock racism. When our racism erupts into view I do not automatically blame mental illness. Lack of gun control. Erosion of family values. Economic disparity. Too little God in our lives. When our leaders and those around me try to obfuscate, I say, well, first, there’s racism.

First, there’s racial hatred. When I’m unwilling to purely and cleanly condemn white culture’s jokes, name-calling, “Southern” pride, and revisionist history. When I deny the pain we’re causing with our racist statues and buildings and street names and flags and holidays. When I place other things above the pain we’re causing. When I cannot even admit we are causing pain, there’s racial hatred.

First, there’s obdurate racial blindness. When I believe I must somehow allow white people to be victims too; when I insist my white feelings be taken into account; when nine African-Americans have died at the hands of a racist white man and yet I must type all lives matter. When I cannot step off the stage, cannot keep from pushing myself into the forefront, cannot quit bleating about my own issues. When I feel the need to say, okay, but. When I don’t even realize it’s my white culture causing the problem, when I think the naming of pre-existing racism is divisive or hostile, there’s racial blindness.

First, there is racial denigration. When I refuse to acknowledge that we Americans have always used black lives to create our shelter, when I can’t see that we are still doing it. When I let state legislatures pass laws that place the burden of “progress” on black lives—balanced budgets, criminal reform, drug wars, voter ID: is there any social “problem” we haven’t asked blacks to bear the burden of solving?—then label it “politics” or “conservative” or “Southern” or “sound fiscal policies,” instead of calling it racism, there’s racial denigration. When I cannot admit the truth but keep adding stories to the racist house, then I must stop and say: first, there is racism.

First, there is racism.

First, there is racism.

What is the answer, what is the second thing? I don’t know. But I cannot go onto the second thing until I give up my vested interest in denying, until I give up any and all push-back against the reality, until I admit the first thing.

First, there is racism.





American racism, Charleston murders, racial blindness, racism

Comments (12)

  • Very thoughtful, Ellen. Gave me pause. I think I’m not as progressive as I think I am. Something new to work on. Thanks.

  • I agree. Racism is embedded in our culture. Racism is embedded in us, and as you say, it shapes the way we see the world. And white privilege is like blinders that hamper our ability to see. I don’t agree that there is no hope. Slavery is no longer legal. “Separate but equal” is no longer then law of the land.
    Jim Crow laws are off the books. We have moved from the total racism of our country’s early years, so we can change. But we have continue to change until we are no longer divided by race.

    • Maybe I’m naive, but I do think this is a moment where change is coming. That which has been socially acceptable in the past, such as defense of the Confederate flag, will no longer be considered acceptable. Racist code words and policies will be called out. Lives have been given in this battle, and whatever the ideology is, it’s not worth lives.

  • Ugh, I just wrote a longish comment here and it timed out and was lost. I’ll be brief this time. Very thought-provoking and strong and to the point post, Ellen. Thank you.

    • Thank you for both comments ( 🙂 ). I much appreciate it–this is one of those posts that I hit send and don’t know what will happen. But one of my African American friends said “I’m tired; you white people gotta step up.” So I gathered my courage and hit “post.” Sorry you ran into technical difficulties but glad you persevered.

      • One of my AA friends said the same thing about feeling exhausted and then she read an article about that effect and posted it on FB. Also, on FB, several of my white friends posted statements that said they weren’t going to ignore any longer. We are moving forward, but I think white Northerners are coming along more slowly. The ones who posted have Southern or European roots. Many Northerners still seem to think “not my problem.”

        • I hadn’t thought about that, Luanne–the difference in regional responses. I know the reason I focus on racism is because I was born in the civil rights South, Mississippi to be exact. Makes it hard to ignore. Thinking about you after this Father’s Day weekend; the first holidays after losing a parent can be hard.

  • Thanks for sharing this again by tweet six years on. I appreciate your frank insight and wish that the last six years made it seem dated, but they haven’t, although perhaps 2020 highlighted racism in a way that makes it even more difficult to deny. As always, I appreciate your witness.

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