White People Americans Do
Over at Stuff White People Do, Nikki has a great guest post explaining one of the tactics (some) white people use to justify or explain their opposition to affirmative action and other forms of “reverse racism”:
Usually when I hear these sorts of lines from white people, they are offered in explanation of why they vehemently oppose affirmative action, or any other race-based help/“handouts” for people of color. Their justification, in most cases, is this insistence on their own helplessness to change history, and their unwillingness to “pay” or be “held responsible” for it.
The way they tell it, they, too, are victims of unjust, ignorant, and/or racist white ancestors — because they, white Americans living today, are the unfortunate ones who must deal with affirmative action, “reverse racism,” and angry, greedy people of color. Sure, black people suffered tremendously under slavery, but many white people now feel that they are the oppressed ones, paying unfairly for “the sins of the fathers.”
We reap what others have sown before us, and that includes deep mistrust, prejudice, and racism. And we do bear the burden, as their descendants — and the only people with the power to change anything now — to try to right at least some of the wrongs. It’s time to challenge all the people of our generation who want to simply wash their hands of history. Why should we expect to be excused from addressing this injustice, and working to eradicate it, even if we are not the ones “directly responsible” for it?
This is of course all speculation, but something tells me that part of the reason why Americans have such a problem dealing with the past is that it flies in the face of our belief in the ability of an individual, a community or a nation to reinvent itself. As a general matter, Americans don’t like to believe that we are just as weighted down and just as captured by the past as everyone else. The past is there, yes, but it’s something to honored or disregarded, not dwelled upon.
The simple act of acknowledging institutional racism requires an explicit rejection of that idea. Indeed, we’re no longer allowed to avoid the injustices of the past — not only do we have to pay attention to the actions of our forefathers, but we also are required to recognize that our forefathers still have enduring influence over the shape of our society. The only way to really understand – and thus work against – institutional racism then is to dwell on the stories and tragedies of the past and really grapple with our history of racism and apartheid. Then-candidate Obama tried to say as much in his “race” speech last year, but I’m not sure if it actually resonated, beyond the fact that everyone was impressed with his not-really-that-impressive use of a Faulkner quote (admittedly one that holds a lot of resonance for this conversation).
Update: Edited for clarity and quality.