This is what white people can do to end racism
Study what your forefathers did, then do the opposite
Four hundred years later, America’s congenital demon still bedevils it. A nation built for white people, though reliant upon Black sweat, remains unable to exorcise the paradoxical evil inherent in its birth. Time after time, this country reproduces its sins rather than atone for them. Yet, with protesters capturing the streets amid a global pandemic and coercing public opinion to swing in their favor, one hopes the day of reckoning has finally come.
The video-captured killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers jolted not just America, but the world. Black Lives Matter, a movement conceived in the blood of unarmed Black men, convinced the masses of its central thesis — America devalues Black life. Change of some sort appears imminent.
But to really complete the unfinished business of Reconstruction and the civil rights movement, white people must fight it out with each other over what being a respectable white person means. The victors need to allow only the anti-racist to be considered worthy of inclusion in the group. White folk must create an environment that compels other white folk to learn lest they incur the social wrath that accompanies not behaving like a respectable white person.
Many white folk continue to pose the question: “What can I do?” The answer is simple. Study what your forefathers did. Then do the opposite.
At about 3 a.m. on Sept. 6, 1875, a white married couple, William Haffa and his wife Alzina, woke up to the furious barking of their dog in their Hinds County, Mississippi, home.
“Who is there?” Alzina Haffa hollered out. No answer. She repeated herself. Again, silence.
When William, who had moved the family to Mississippi from Philadelphia in 1870, asked, someone outside responded, “We will let you know who is out here.”
“My God,” Alzina Haffa exclaimed, “they have a yard full of men,” referring to the 50 to 70 armed goons surrounding their place.
Immediately after the Civil War, the state’s majority-Black population, intensely Republican, had dominated Mississippi politics, ousting the Democratic Party that drove succession from the Union. The native white population vowed to reclaim the throne and install a new post-slavery racial caste system. To obtain power, they terrorized the Black population and their white allies like Haffa.
Three months after moving to Mississippi, the white men they rented their land from asked Haffa whether “he was a friend to the white people or to the n—–.” Haffa responded that “he was a friend to anyone, be he Black or white, that was deserving of his friendship.” The landowners threatened him.
A couple of years afterward, Black voters elected him as a justice of the peace. White men beat him and his wife in their home.
He later started teaching at a Black school. And the torment persisted. Living under ever-present menace, he never went anywhere alone.
Throughout American history, white people have defined, on matters of race, how a respectable white person behaves. In 1870s Mississippi, Haffa was not a respectable white person. He aligned against the local white population and the ambitions of white supremacy. The goons encircling his home that night behaved consistently with the norms and mandates of the broader white population. They were the respectable white people.
“Men, what have I ever done to you?” Haffa asked, though he knew the answer.
The goons shot him three times through an open window.
“I am going to die,” he told his wife while lying his head on her shoulder right before his last breath.
The respectable white people killed a traitor and other respectable white people covered it up. Northerners knew such atrocities occurred, but the respectable white people there condoned it.
Through this nefariousness, we see how white people disciplined each other, how a respectable member of the race treats Black people. This behavior is taught. This behavior is learned.
After the Civil War, if respectable white people had demanded of each other to treat Black folk as their social, civil and political equals, this country wouldn’t have a race problem today. Instead, white America relegated Black Americans to the bottom of the racial caste system that only endures because respectable white people have nursed it since its infancy.
Over the course of two days in June 1947, Judge Julius Waties Waring, in a federal courtroom in Columbia, South Carolina, heard oral arguments for a lawsuit brought by Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP that challenged the South Carolina Democratic Party’s all-white primary.
In 1944, the Supreme Court invalidated Texas’ all-white primary law that limited the state’s Democratic primary to white voters. South Carolina, like other Southern states, enforced a similar law. Winning a Democratic nomination in the South, a one-party region, guaranteed a general-election victory. South Carolina Gov. Olin Johnston called a special session of the state legislature, prodding lawmakers to create a new scheme to exclude Black voters from the only elections that mattered. “White supremacy will be maintained in our primaries,” Johnston said.
To defeat the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Texas case, the South Carolina Legislature treated the Democratic Party as a private club that could create any rules it wished. Waring, however, nixed this ploy, finding that it violated the Constitution. “It is time for South Carolina to rejoin the Union,” he wrote in his opinion.
For turning against the caste system and seeing the humanity of Black people, the respectable white folk of South Carolina vilified him. “Waring and his wife have been ostracized by white Charleston society,” the Associated Press wrote, “because of their championship of equal rights for Negroes.” Respectable white people burned crosses on his lawn and fired shots into his home. The federal government paid marshals to guard his property, protection from respectable white people.
Waring was the deviant. His antagonists were the valued members of the group.
In 1951, Waring pushed Marshall to directly attack separate but equal education for children. Part of a three-judge panel that heard Briggs v. Elliott, Waring dissented from the majority opinion that upheld Jim Crow schools. “Segregation is per se inequality,” Waring wrote. Three years later, in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court agreed. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 followed, ridding the caste system of valuable underpinnings that kept it functioning.
After retirement, Waring, persona non grata in his home state, moved to New York. Only 12 white people attended his funeral in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1968, though about 200 Black folk did.
After the civil rights movement, respectable white people preserved the caste system. From statehouses, respectable white people stole Black voting power through gerrymandering. Respectable white people gorged on tough-on-crime rhetoric, leading to an incarceration explosion. For decades, respectable white people defied judicial desegregation mandates, banishing Black students to inferior schools. Respectable white people fled cities en masse in favor of suburban white enclaves, leaving Black folk in cash-strapped and resource-deprived cities. Spurred by respectable white people, state budgets were slimmed down, preventing mayors in those suddenly Black-majority cities from using the power of the purse to improve Black lives. Black folk gained some measure of upward mobility, despite employment discrimination by respectable white people.
The legal underpinnings of the racial caste system sank, but from the northern border to southern border, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, respectable white people kept it afloat.
On April 22, 1870, Frederick Douglass spoke at Tweddle Hall in Albany, New York, to celebrate a wondrous occasion, the ratification of the 15th Amendment. The slog for racial equality, Douglass believed, reached the finish line.
“But what does this 15th Amendment mean to us?” Douglass asked. “It means that color is no longer to be a calamity,” he answered. “That race is to be no longer a crime; and that liberty is to be the right of all.”
Across the nation, Black people commemorated the ratification. In Detroit, Black folk conducted “one of the most interesting and important celebrations that ever took place in that city” where “the sidewalks, roofs of buildings, balconies and windows along the line of the procession,” according to the New Era, “were thronged with spectators.”
One hundred and fifty years later, however, American streets are now crammed with Black folk and their allies protesting police brutality and all manner of racial trauma heaped upon Black existence.
Since the close of the civil rights movement, America has improved on race. The ranks of respectable white people who oppose anti-Black bigotry have swelled. The chants of “Black Lives Matter” echo on the roads of Utah. When a white woman attempted to sic the police on a Black bird-watcher in Central Park, New York, she was not the respectable white person in the tale — the respectable white people criticized her. Practicing explicit racism, unlike the times of the Haffas and Waring, generally conflicts with respectable white personhood.
But respectable white people who act to further the caste system as long as their racial animus remains hidden are a sizable contingent within the white population.
Prosecutors still try Black defendants for alleged crimes more often and seek harsher penalties than comparable white defendants. Real estate agents still discriminate against Black buyers seeking to move into white neighborhoods. Secretaries of state still close Black polling places to prevent Black voting. Respectable white people dominate these vocations, proof that the opponents of Black progress remain in their labs, concocting anti-Black schemes. But when they are charged with racism, respectable white people exonerate them.
Some white folk face censure for thinly veiled racist acts, but they still retain their powerful perches. When NBA superstars LeBron James and Kevin Durant maligned President Donald Trump, Fox News’ Laura Ingraham told them to “shut up and dribble.” When New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees reiterated his antagonism toward kneeling during the national anthem, however, she declared, “He’s allowed to have his view about what kneeling and the flag means to him.”
Some respectable white people denounced her. Yet, Ingraham continues as a respectable white person making millions of dollars a year for a cable news show with millions of viewers per day. The racial caste system survives because of people like her.
White folk once functioned like a syndicate to maintain the racial caste system, policing each other to preserve a world of privileged whiteness. They must now reverse course, become a syndicate that furthers the cause of true equality. All of the tools that white folk brought to bear in furtherance of the caste system must be harnessed to create its antithesis, an anti-racist world.
“We are a great nation,” Douglass said as he neared the conclusion of his speech in 1870. “Not we colored people particularly, but all of us. We are all together now. We are fellow citizens of a common country.”
For this country to live up to its founding conceit as articulated in the Declaration of Independence — that all men are created equal — America needs respectable anti-racist white people to wage war for the soul of their race. And win.
That is what white people can do.