In the classic book, Faces At The Bottom Of The Well: The Permanence of Racism, legal scholar Derrick Bell put forth this proposition: “Black people will never gain full equality in this country. Even those herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than temporary ‘peaks of progress,’ short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance. This is a hard-to-accept fact that all history verifies. We must acknowledge it, not as a sign of submission, but as an act of ultimate defiance.”
I consider Derrick Bell a racial justice hero. To acknowledge the permanence of racism is indeed the ultimate act of defiance because this fact, once we acknowledged, leads necessarily to the conclusion that simple reform (what another great hero, the Rev. Mac Charles Jones, once told me leads only to re-formation of a broken system) will never lift us out of white supremacy. To end racism, we must look beyond reformation to transformation.
It’s a radical notion, but I’m a believer.
On the other hand, I’m also a practical sort. If we are to one day find ourselves at the threshold of radical transformation, we need a map to help us find our way, and then focus on getting there one step at a time.
On any map there are many paths to one’s chosen destination. For racial justice advocates, I think one path is the changing racial demography of the U.S.
By the year 2042, it is predicted that we will be a majority minority nation, with Latinos representing about a third of the population by no later than 2050. That means whites will soon no longer constitute the majority ethnic group. Even the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant group in the country and a bastion of whiteness and conservatism, is in decline.
What that means is that pretty soon, white supremacy may meet its greatest challenge. If we can get it together, people of color won’t have to ask whites for permission to create policies that address the destructive legacy of racism. But, the big question is, will we get it together and act as the majority, or will we remain divided and allow whites to remain in control as the largest minority?
To me, all of this hinges on something called privilege.
Racism endures in spite of generations of resistance because it is enforced by violence and intimidation, and empowered by privilege. It’s a carrot and stick situation. Without the carrot, the stick isn’t enough to keep us all doing our little bits to maintain white dominance.
Privilege, as I and and the Free Dictionary understand it, is special permission, special rights, or exclusive benefits granted as prerogatives of status that are exercised in order to exclude or harm others. Because privilege is given, it can also be taken away. And, because privilege always comes at someone’s expense, it keeps the majority of us who don’t have the power to grant privileges acting like a bunch of divided minorities.
Throughout history, white privilege has been granted to folks who didn’t used to be white. They Irish were labeled sub-whites to exploit them, and then were whitened to get their help in exploiting someone else even more. Around the middle of the last century, they decided Jews were white. And not too many years later, they began a process of whitening Asian Americans by granting us the status of “model minority” in order to promote the idea that if Asians can make it, the cause of poverty and lack of opportunity for Black and Brown people isn’t racism, it’s Black and Brown people.
And now they’re trying to do a job on Latinos by playing the good immigrant vs bad immigrant game. If you’re a “bad” immigrant, you’re “illegal.” That’s right, you’re illegal, you know, like crack cocaine or an unregistered gun or something. As an illegal person, you have hell to pay and more. Intimidation, violence, arrest, indefinite detention, deportation, and the list goes on.
But, if you’re a good immigrant, you get… Well, okay, I guess there’s not much of a carrot in this case. It’s mostly all about the stick. But at least you’re exempted from being treated like you’re illegal. So it pays to allow yourself to be cast as the good immigrant and allow the bigots to persecute the so-called bad guys and avoid the label “racist” by calling you “friend.”
You don’t get to have privilege without that nasty downside, whether you want it or not. And that downside is something we all pay for. It diminishes our humanity and it keeps us all vulnerable to being losers in the privilege game.