A thought that regularly keeps me up at night is what the future will look like. If history is any precedent, there aren’t many reasons to be optimistic. For the entirety of America’s existence, race, specifically as it pertains to black people, has remained an impossible issue to reconcile. First it was simply not talked about; it was a foregone conclusion that black people were “supposed” to be subservient to whites. Even after ostensible markers of progress — the Civil Rights Act of 1968, the first black president, Beyoncé’s birth — there is still an impossible hurdle to overcome regarding how we view race in America. And more likely than not, that will never change.
This week, two events demonstrated, albeit to different degrees, the pernicious misunderstanding of race that plagues the country. On Monday, former American Idol contestant Bo Bice was allegedly called a “white boy” by the staff at an airport Popeye’s in Atlanta. Bice took to Facebook, and then to television news, to air his grievance with what he felt was racialized mistreatment. If the tables were turned, he claimed, “I would be boycotted, there would be people not buying my albums, there would be people coming and picketing at my shows and everything else.”
This kind of thinking is the most disastrous and commonplace false equivalency in American society. The idea that racism is the simple act of acknowledging race relinquishes the responsibility of white people to reconcile with the evil acts that their not-so-distant relatives perpetuated (and some still perpetuate) as a matter of law. The fact that even into the 1960s, black citizens were systemically blocked from basic home ownership has yet to be fully rectified or even acknowledged by most. It would be unfathomable for a German-born citizen to cry on television for being called “that German boy” by a Jewish person. Yet America’s maniac genocidal history of everything from not only slavery but the Jim Crow South, where lynchings happened for sport, to the racialized targeting of black women by the police officer Daniel Holtzclaw in 2015, remain unchecked and unevaluated.
On Tuesday, a harrowing Facebook Live video featuring four black teens kidnapping and assaulting a mentally ill white man, while hurling anti-Trump remarks at him, surfaced online. The teens would later be arrested and charged with a hate crime on account of the man’s disability, but not before the incident could be used to rile up the conservative internet. Right-wing sites parroted the broken, false equivalency that plagues America’s consciousness claiming that because the teens yelled “fuck white people,” the hate crime should be focused on the man’s race. Officials eventually had to actually clarify that the protest movement Black Lives Matter had nothing to do with the attack. It’s worth remembering that in Chicago, police didn’t acknowledge torturing black people into giving false confessions for 25 years.
The attack perpetrated by these teens is horrific, to be sure. What they did is a clear example of the kind of culture in America that's led to it becoming one of the most violent countries in the world. But there needs to be a more nuanced conversation about the intricacies of race in America.
The burden of proof for racism cannot fall on a disenfranchised group.
There is no one-to-one comparison to be made with incidents of random violence and systemic racism. The burden of proof for racism cannot fall on a disenfranchised group. White people historically have been — and continue to be — an oppressive force in America (you can quite easily argue that this is true around the world), and the victims of that oppression have no responsibility to be quiet about it. Before we declare the phrase “fuck white people” a hate crime, we should focus on addressing the millions of people still disenfranchised by policies created by white people with the literal intent of targeting blacks.
In Germany, children learn a unique word, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, that describes the guilt that only German people can feel as a result of the Holocaust. In America, the idea that white people have any special responsibility for the psychopathic destruction of communities of color here and abroad is seen as heresy. Textbooks have been written that gloss over the effects of slavery, and today’s students learn next to nothing about the rampant housing and employment discrimination against black people that went on well into the ’70s. Hell, we just elected a repeat offender of systematic discrimination to the highest office in the land.
On Facebook, people I went to school with feverishly shared the Bo Bice story. “This is bullshit, why can’t I say the n-word if it’s fine to make fun of white people?” one post read. That our educational system, as well as our society, has failed to categorically answer this question, and in fact encourages its absurd premise, might explain why I have such little hope for the future.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece stated that black Americans were barred legally from home ownership until 1968. Home ownership was not illegal during this period, but major race-focused initiatives to prevent ownership in the form of prohibitive mortgage arrangements made it nearly impossible.