In addition: A History Lesson on White Privilege Starting in 1900
During this time of COVID-19, as we argue about wearing masks and how to respond and whose fault it is, we are also being reminded to keep our experience in perspective. This is not the first pandemic. This is not the first economic downturn. We are not suffering more than our forebears. In fact, some have pointed out that generations before us experienced much more hardship and much more often.
There is a Facebook meme going around these days asking us to imagine what it would be like to be born in the year 1900. It is a helpful perspective. But, since we are also talking more of racial injustice and inequality, I couldn’t help but notice how the meme is written about White people. I couldn’t help but notice that there is much more to write from the perspective of Black people. In addition to all of the bold print below, which everyone born in 1900 experienced, there is the consistent and persistent trial and torture of racism.
I’m not sure that I’m the one to write this post, but I felt compelled to do so. In bold, is the original meme. Each statement is followed by my (limited) understanding of what would be happening to a Black family IN ADDITION TO what everyone is experiencing. This is what is meant by White Privilege. It is the privilege of experiencing history without the additional obstacles, resistance, and sabotage that Black people have faced. I hope this post, as the original meme hoped, that a small change in perspective will generate miracles and that it might inspire more people to do everything we can to protect and help each other.
Imagine if you were born in 1900. In addition, your parents were married shortly after they were freed from slavery. You met people who fought bravely in the Civil War to make it possible. 40 acres had been LEASED to your parents on which to begin a free life, but it was taken as quickly as it was given. Your state’s Black Codes prevent your parents from getting any jobs other than on a farm or serving white people. Your relatives who resist are charged with vagrancy and are forced back into unpaid labor. Slavery by another name. You wonder why white families were GIVEN 160 acres through the Homestead Act and why your family couldn’t have the same opportunity. Your famliy’s right to vote is not honored.
When you’re 14, World War I begins and ends when you’re 18 with 22 million dead. In addition, your older brothers fight for a country that continues to be cruel to them. When your uncles try to leave in order to work for the war effort in factories, the trains are stopped because the southern economy begins to collapse as Black folks hear about opportunities for a freer and more prosperous life in the North. Labor agents who come to recruit black folks for work are criminalized and Black people who try to leave are charged with vagrancy and forced into unpaid labor. The world was safe for democracy, but it wasn’t for you.
Soon after a global pandemic, the Spanish Flu, appears, killing 50 million people. And you’re alive and 20 years old. In addition, your brothers return from war only to be greeted by a rash of lynching and mob violence. 1919 becomes known as Red Summer because in three dozen cities white people attack black people: taking lives, bombing homes, and terrorizing families who tried to move into nicer neighborhoods for a better life. In 1921, a whole town is burned to the ground and people are murdered and bombs are dropped from the air. No one knows where the bodies are buried. You wonder why people who are trying to build a life of their own work so hard to destroy yours. The Ku Klux Klan grows.
When you’re 29 you survive the global economic crisis that started with the collapse of the New York Stock Exchange, causing inflation, unemployment and famine. In addition, your country creates a massive social safety net that is meant to lift people out of poverty and care for seniors into their old age. The country is promised a New Deal. But, you quickly find out that agricultural and domestic workers were excluded from the benefits, the same occupations that the Black Codes above forced you into by law. You wonder why white people continue to receive the privileges of social support and you don’t.
When you’re 33 years old the Nazis come to power. In addition, you recognize that the language they use sounds awfully familiar to white people in your own country as the Nazis use the “science” of eugenics to justify their genocide. You wonder why it’s such an evil overseas but not at home.
When you’re 39, World War II begins and ends when you’re 45 years old with a 60 million dead. In the Holocaust 6 million Jews die. In addition, your cousins are welcomed home as heroes and yet are denied all the benefits of the GI Bill. Huge new housing developments are built across the suburbs. Huge new loans are created so that these houses are affordable to the greatest generation. But, you are denied these loans and not allowed to live in those suburbs. You know that a generation of wealth has been handed to white families and withheld from yours.
When you’re 52, the Korean War begins. In addition, your country finally decides that “separate” has never been “equal” and calls for integration in Brown v. Board of Education. You have hope for your grandkid’s education. Unfortunately, white people don’t want your grandkids to attend “their” schools. Rather than comply with the law, states and counties close down whole public school systems and publicly fund private ones. White politicians legislate and undermine the law. White neighbors shout at and spit on and threaten your friends for wanting a good education for their children. The Klan resurfaces.
When you’re 64, the Vietnam War begins and ends when you’re 75. Your country enters into its fourth war in 50 years and despite the hardship that you and your family have faced, your son goes to fight for his country. While he’s away your country passes a Civil Rights Bill and a Voting Rights Act and you think that your son will return to a more welcoming home where his voice matters. But, when the war is over a “law and order” President takes the helm. Brown, the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act begin to be dismantled. Legal efforts that pledged “liberty and justice for all" are demeaned as “bleeding-heart liberalism.” This same president resigns for breaking the law and his advisor is quoted as saying, “by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news…Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did”
A child born in 1985 thinks his grandparents have no idea how difficult life is, but they have survived several wars and catastrophes. In addition, a black child born into this decade would hear a Presidential advisor say, they were “talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites.” Despite all of the benefits that this child’s family was denied, they made great strides. But, as she opens her eyes to this new world, she watches her family’s income decline while white family’s income increases. She would see the prison population explode with men who looked her father, uncles, and grandfathers. As the government programs were slashed, Black college attendance dropped by nearly 10% even though more Black people were graduating from high school than ever before. It wouldn’t be long before Affirmative Action was also outlawed, having not even served one generation.
Today we have all the comforts in a new world, amid a new pandemic. But we complain because we need to wear masks. We complain because we must stay confined to our homes where we have food, electricity, running water, wifi, even Netflix! None of that existed back in the day. But humanity survived those circumstances and never lost their joy of living. In addition, the average white family has 10 times the wealth of the average Black family. A white man who doesn’t finish high school will have more wealth than a Black man who graduates from college. A person with a Black sounding name is significantly less likely to receive a job interview than a person with a white sounding name even though they have the exact same resume. Black people are convicted more often and with harsher sentences compared to white people who commit the exact same crime. This timeline shows how these disparities is not the result of immoral culture or poor choices, but a systemic and systematic effort by White people to prevent Black people from advancing. Still, Black people never lost their commitment to coexist and strive for a better life.
A small change in our perspective can generate miracles. We should be thankful that we are alive. We should do everything we need to do to protect and help each other. In addition, we can recognize that the history of our country offered a great gift of freedom to some people but not to others. This history makes plain that intentional efforts have been made over the last 150 years to prevent Black people from advancing. And, when movements for Black lives arise they are dismissed as radical, entitled, and selfish. But, this history shows how the promise of our country, “liberty and justice for all,” has not been kept for Black people. Generation after generation, white people have been able to hand something better on to their children while at the same time pushing back on the ability for Black people to do the same. Black lives will matter, not when they get more than the deserve, but when they get what white people have always received.
This message should reach everyone. Please help me spread it. In addition, it is far from complete. Much of the information included here came from the book White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson. It is a detailed look at how White people have stood in the way of Black advancement in our country while giving themselves every legal and economic advantage available. I know that many people will read this and be angry. I know that others will think that the timing of this post is poor. But, if you wonder why Black people (and a growing group of White) people are not celebrating this 4th of July holiday, I hope this overview shows you that things just don’t add up.