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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

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