A letter to a friend. Should I give up my seat?

In light of the recent EU Parliament’s motion for a resolution on the anti-racism protests following the death of George Floyd , if we ever hope to make a lasting systemic change via the avenue of policy, those with white privilege — including me — first need to acknowledge our role in systemic racism. As I reflect on the kind of person I want my soon-to-be-born child to become and the kind of world I want him to find his way in, I can’t help but ask what are we prepared to give up for the sake of a more equal and healthy society?

James Whiteman

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“That was mine. And I miss it.” Do you think the fields miss you? “Oh, I know they miss me because I used to talk to them all the time… It sounds silly to another person; like, why are you talking to a piece of dirt? But it’s just, like, the love you have for the land is just …, I mean…, it’s unreal.”

What would you say to it now? “That I want it back. That I want the land back.”

That is part of the opening sequence to ‘Land of our Fathers’, the two-part finale of Nikole Hannah-Jones’s New York Times podcast 1619.

My land should be your land

The introductory words come from June Provost, a black sugarcane farmer. His words have not been dug up from some dusty old transcript archives: the year is 2018. It’s happening now, right in front of our eyes. June’s father, his father’s father, his father’s father’s father, they were all sugarcane farmers. Cane was not just in the Provost family; it was the family. And June’s dad was the first in a long generational line to actually own a tract of land. 60 acres. He was understandably proud: “This is my land. Nobody can take this.”

June’s dad gave him 28 of those acres in 1994 and, unfortunately, he became sick. At 18 years’ old June becomes responsible for planting his father’s cane. He was so anxious to do a good job that he gets down on his hands and knees to make sure the cane is covered with just the right amount of soil. The result of his back-breaking hard work, care and attention is a huge success. June and his dad win state awards and June even beats his dad in some competitions. Business booms, leases extend and grow.

June’s dad’s health deteriorates though, and he can no longer take care of the sugar cane fields. Literally overnight, June goes from tilling 300 to 5,000 acres of land. But that’s when the problems start. It is 2008 now and he applies for a crop loan, something his father did every year. The upfront costs involved with farming make this standard practice. You borrow to cover crop seeds, fertiliser, equipment, and labour costs and the loan is repaid after harvest.

Having applied for the loan, June hears nothing from the bank. While his white neighbours are preparing their fields, readying themselves for planting, June is stuck. Fertilising early gives the cane a “jump start” in his words – “you want to be out there as early as possible.” And when the loan does finally come through, it is for half the amount requested – i.e. half the amount his dad would have received. It’s simply not enough to pay for farming equipment. He works all hours as he tries to do the job of three or four people. The small window to plant cane is evaporating. So far behind, his frail and retired dad comes up to help. That same night, having exhausted himself, June’s dad dies of a heart attack. From that point on, everything in June’s life poured into the family passion, to making his father proud and to continuing the family way of life.

The year ends up with a poor crop. Next year, it happens again. The same delays and paltry loan amount. June’s financial position worsens as he puts up the family home, his father’s home, and everything he can come up with as collateral to make it through the next season.

2010: the same. 2011: the same. 2012: the same. June was destitute and humiliated. The delays meant he started planting in May rather than the previous September. He was set up to fail and his white rivals literally laughed at him and called him lazy. By 2014 June’s crop yield had fallen by more than 50 per cent.

He was in the ultimate vicious cycle. No other banks would lend to him as he was in too deep. So, every year June complained to the Federal government to try and apply some pressure. When a farmer applies to a bank for a loan the bank turns to the US Department for Agriculture (USDA) because the US government will step in in the event that the farmer cannot pay back the loan meaning the local USDA office has to sign it off. Approaching them was like approaching a brick wall: same question, same answer – i.e. “we can’t help”.

Finally, June gets a call from a local USDA employee, William Husband, who is named as a whistle-blower in his lawsuit against First Guarantee Bank. That is the bank in question. Husband tells June that he is the only farmer in the local area in this situation, and that he is being blatantly discriminated against. June’s lawsuit claims that First Guarantee Bank were forging June’s signature and changing the loan amount requested.  

The year after, First Guarantee Bank deny him a loan altogether. It marks the end of the road. June lost all of his land and in 2018 the bank foreclosed on him.

Some might write this off as one person’s word against an institution’s. Yet June’s story, June’s voice, is not the only one out there. Quite the opposite. The largest civil rights settlement in American history (Pigford v Glickman) alleged that the USDA and lending institutions used crop loans to racially discriminate against black farmers. In 1999, the government settled the case for $1bn, with over 16,000 black farmers receiving $50,000.

“You have to see it as a giant web, and every time you move in one way, it pulls you back in another,” says Hank Sanders, an attorney for the Provosts’ legal team. “White supremacy is such a powerful thing … and it manifests itself in these various entities and institutions.”

Since then, more and more black farmers have come forward and they understandably see the USDA as “the last plantation”. What is the use of giving people land if you then stack the odds against them?

40 acres and taken for a fool

Here is some context to the broken promises and continued discrimination.

“The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have … land. And turn it, and till it by our own labour. That is, by the labour of the women, and children and old men. We can soon maintain ourselves, and have something to spare.” – These are minutes of an interview between the Coloured Ministers and Church Officers at Savannah with the Secretary of War and Major-Gen. Sherman.

This request, from 20 black leaders, to General Sherman and Edward Stanton was turned into a government order (Special Field Order No 15) during the American Civil War. It stated that the government would take 400,000 that it had seized from the Confederacy and would split it up among the thousands of newly emancipated black people.

We all know this as ‘40 acres and a mule’. However, after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, in-coming president Andrew Johnson overturned the promise. And yet despite this reversal, by the 1920s, black people had toiled their way to acquiring approximately one million farms, roughly proportionate with their population size (14 per cent). Since then though, the figure has dropped to just two per cent; discrimination sharpened its ugly claws once again.

Like most promises to ethnic minorities, the scraps thrown to black Americans turned out to be little more than tokenism. Surface gestures and headlines that hid the problem from view – swept suffering under the carpet. Out of sight, out of mind. Another false start. Another false cause for hope.

The examples in other industries, and in other countries, may not be as clear cut, as vivid and as neatly explained as June’s, but that does not make them any less real. From the oppression and gross mistreatment of muslims in China, India and Burma, to the rise of far right nationalism across Europe, closer to home, and our inability to fully acknowledge our colonial past for what it really was, it is fair to say that the US does not have a monopoly on racism and inequality. 

My hand really isn’t your hand

Show me two hands, stretch them out. Not real; they can be pictures, but they are two different colours. Hit each one in turn with a hammer and watch me instinctively flinch. Which flinch is greater? Studies clearly show which one: the one that corresponds with my skin colour. Racism runs deep. I often wonder if marrying a person of different colour counterbalances any of this? And what about having mixed-race children?

The now infamous Milgram experiments conducted in the 1960s highlight our susceptibility and deference to hierarchy and authority.* These instincts compound everything, making us more obedient, more conformist and less likely to speak up against injustice. And while they apply to all creeds, the entrenched white privilege will not be corrected unless we tackle them head on.

Being lower down a socioeconomic pecking order also creates stress, which has slow but deadly health effects. The obvious example is that more money eases life’s burdens. But studies into primates also show that status has a huge impact on mental and psychological wellbeing – the feeling of being at the bottom of the pile continually gnaws away at self-esteem.

Just as with Milgram’s experiment, those of us with white privilege have either been pulling the trigger, or standing by in complicit silence, as incessant stress shocks are administered on a group of fellow human beings. Only by overcoming these cultural and biological tendencies can we start to rectify the damage done.

On their knees

Let’s turn from hands to knees. However repulsive and repugnant, it is not the overt public racism we should be most afraid of. It’s the sly, subtle and insidious racism, to which none of us are immune to and happens behind closed doors, that is so ugly and dangerous… 

The committee decision that, either consciously or unconsciously, clamps its knee on the neck of a whole community; the hiring decision that, either consciously or unconsciously, keeps that knee firmly rooted; the withheld loan that, either algorithmically or manually, refuses to let go. 

Another minute goes by without breath, without access to life-giving air.

It’s the nepotistic network that, either consciously or unconsciously, pulls in a small favour and reasserts the pressure; the stop and search mandate that, surely not unconsciously, seems always to land on ebony and never ivory; the culturally-skewed intelligence test that, surely not unconsciously, judges one form of knowledge over another and creates a cultural and linguistic clique that barricades out people who don’t fit the mould.

Another minute, still no air.

It’s the access to suburban fresh air and stillness set against a claustrophobic and stultifying urban jungle; the pre-judgement that precedes a racial slur or a quickened step and heartbeat – perpetuating the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ in-out group with exclusive access rights; worst of all, it’s the unbearable silence of not speaking up to defend someone else’s plight.

That’s just nine examples; one for every minute George Floyd had to endure. Eventually the air ran out.1Countless other examples could be conjured to represent Ahmaud Avery, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Rekia Boyd, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and Adama Traoré. It is impossible to list all the multiple victims across multiple generations here. 

How do we make amends, not amendments?

Making amendments, like numbers 13, 14 and 15 to the US Constitution, is not the same as making amends – particularly when our everyday actions fail to follow through on promises and instead serve to undermine. Such headline progress all-too-often merely distracts, providing air cover for the status quo to survive.

There are individual instincts within all of us that we care not to admit or acknowledge. Many are unconscious. They lurk in areas of our brain that we are not even aware of. How do we amend those?

We say we like diversity, but most of us don’t really. Embracing diversity is hard work. That is the truth. It means you have to listen, and it means not everyone will agree with you; far easier to surround yourself with nodding dogs. Why rock the boat? 

In teams and organisations, it can lead to differences of opinions. In communities and countries, it can lead to polarised and, in extreme cases, violent fighting. No matter that it reduces groupthink and adds to the rich tapestry of life.

Given the choice, we default to the easy option. This shows up in our hiring, our housing and our history. At our best we choose to tolerate, not embrace difference. We like to travel and sample diverse cultures, but are reluctant to embrace them in our homes and communities – walling them off as separate units of thought. Things not to be mixed, like oil and water.

However, our biggest challenge does not come from our immediate day of reckoning, sparked by George Floyd’s terrible fate and the BlackLivesMatter movement. Yes, we are all ‘sad’, ‘angry’, ‘listening’, ‘allies’ ‘ready to stand up and help’. I have stood up and grimly said all of those things and posted my solidarity on social media.

These feelings and sentiments, for anyone with an ounce of compassion, should be taken as a given. They are important, and mark an improvement over previous progressive flashpoints where the black community was left alone to fight its cause. The allies they have this time around are hugely valuable and powerful – as are the social media tools used to amplify their message as we are all guilty of being hostage to the attention merchants.

But these feelings are not enough. The first step, in many ways, is the easy one. And as is so often the case, someone else has said things better. In this case, essayist Leslie Jamison:

“Empathy can also offer a dangerous sense of completion: that something has been done because something has been felt. It is tempting to think that feeling someone’s pain is necessarily virtuous in its own right. The peril of empathy isn’t simply that it can make us feel bad, but that it can make us feel good, which can in turn encourage us to think of empathy as an end in itself rather than part of a process, a catalyst.”

I worry that toppling statues will merely equate to the deceptive dopamine surge Jamison implies. Of course, I am not for celebrating racists, but will erasing history, replete with its generational context, achieve the lasting and desired effect that so many white liberals seek? And while some should be thoughtfully removed, perhaps the energy dedicated to tearing them down should be directed towards the harder, more reflective and sustained, effort required – i.e. ensuring the next wave of statues represent black leaders of the future, those yet to make their mark if we allow them to.

Perhaps the EU Parliament’s recent motion for resolution and any future policy developments can serve as an important lever here. But any policy without will or embodiment is just a pipe dream. 

Our real test though will come when our children start to make their way in the world. The primal instinct to want what is best for them will be the hardest barrier to overcome. We are literally hard-wired to look after our ‘own’. They will listen to how we teach them to ‘see’ and treat others. We can help them counter their innate and learned biases. But will they see how many favours (whether consciously or unconsciously) we tug on along the way to get them ahead? Will they ever understand the implicit advantages their white privilege carries? 

Intergenerational handouts and extra-curricular tuition from the houses of mum and dad will perpetuate the status quo. When a white door opens, typically another black (or ethnic minority) door closes.

Take my seat?

Here’s a parting thought. I am white. I am privileged. And I am still trying to figure out what the hell to do about this systemic and global problem. All I know is that we need to find a way of giving under-represented groups of people a more proportionate opportunity and voice in the workplace, in education, and in society in general. 

They deserve a seat at the table. All ethnic minorities should feel welcome to pull up a chair, but what if there aren’t enough? If our dreams of living, working and playing together as equals are to ever be fully realised, some of us privileged white people might just have to give up our seats to make way. Are we really prepared to? I bloody hope so because the status quo is frankly not good enough.

 


NOTES

*For those of you wondering who the letter is addressed to, it is no one person. It is a hat tip to Albert Camus’s Letters to a German Friend where he tried to reach across the debate and empathise during the Second World War. In my case, the primary recipient is me – a note from one shoulder spirit to another urging me to be a better person. Secondarily, it is to all my black and ethnic minority friends: while I can never know what it is like to walk even a day in your shoes, this is a modest attempt at trying to understand what you have had to go through. Finally, to all my white friends it should be seen as an attempt to educate, a plea for action and an exposure of our hypocrisy.

*This could be seen as a review of three pieces of content as it draws on all of them: 1619 – the New York Times podcast; Behave: The biology of humans at our best and worst – Robert Sapolsky; and the play Admissions by Joshua Harmon.

*Stanley Milgram experiments in the 1960s are controversial for several reasons. Many people have questioned Milgram’s ethics, others have questioned his work’s validity. However, while some people will always be exceptions to the rule, the weight of evidence since does lean toward their replicability. The work of Solomon Asch and Phillip Zimbardo also back up our conformist nature.

*This letter also pays homage to the other victims of racial discrimination: Ahmaud Avery, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Rekia Boyd, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Adama Traoré… the list goes on.  

 

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