Allan Johnson: Our House Is On Fire

This presentation was given at an event hosted by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Michigan, on March 17, 2008. The occasion was the announcement of a major initiative to include issues of race and racism in the foundation’s long-term mission of aiding vulnerable children.

I want to thank the Kellogg Foundation for inviting me to be part of this event. I also want to express my admiration for your commitment to dealing with the issue of race. There is so much avoidance of difficult issues in this society, so little willingness to take moral leadership, that it’s inspiring whenever an organiza­tion shows this kind of vision and courage.

I want to begin with what happened in New Orleans several years ago as a result of hurricane Katrina – thousands of people left behind in deplorable conditions, and most of them people of color. It showed once again that the problem of race is alive and well in the United States, especially how difficult it is to talk about race in this society. In the aftermath, the question was raised as to whether what happened to people of color in New Orleans had anything to do with race, and the response from most of the white population, from President Bush on down, was a storm of defensiveness and denial. In national surveys, 70 percent of the white population responded that the outcome in New Orleans had absolutely nothing to do with race.

The silence that followed was evidence of the paralysis that has so far blocked our ability to deal with these issues, a paralysis caused in large part by how we think about the world and ourselves in relation to it.

The problem of race, for example, is commonly believed to result from what happens when people encounter those who don’t look like them. Supposedly, the strange and unfamiliar bring out some innate human tendency toward fear of the unknown and intolerance of difference. The solution, then, is to champion diversity, promote tolerance, celebrate difference.

Although I’m often invited to speak by people who have the word ‘diversity’ in their job descriptions, I don’t use that word in my work. I don’t use it because difference is not the problem and diversity is not the solution. We know from the long history of human contact across lines of so-called racial difference that human beings are fascinated, not repelled by people whose appearance differs from their own. When Europeans first came to North America, they were not greeted with fear and intolerance, and Europeans had extensive contact with Africans for hundreds of years before the concept of race was ever invented.

The problem with race is not a problem of difference. The problem is a society organized around differences that are significant only in relation to an oppressive system of privilege.

By privilege, I do not mean having some good thing that others do not. The concept of privilege refers to something more narrow and important than that. Privilege is a social advantage that is both unearned and comes to people simply because they happen to belong to a particular social category. As such, privilege differs from other kinds of advantage in being exclusive, unearned, and socially conferred.

When white schoolchildren, for example, are assumed to be competent until they show otherwise, while students of color are assumed to be incompetent until they prove themselves, then having the benefit of the doubt becomes a form of privilege. When whites are noticed in the checkout line while people of color are treated as if they were invisible, then being seen – one of the most important things to a human being – becomes a form of privilege. When whites are presumed innocent and law-abiding while people of color are assumed to be about to commit a crime if they haven’t already, then justice and freedom of movement become privileges rather than civil rights. When white applicants are more likely to receive home mortgage loans than equally well qualified people of color, then being able to choose where to live, including all the resources and opportunities that distinguish more and less desirable communities, becomes a form of privilege.

It’s important to emphasize that privilege is not a personal characteristic, like having brown eyes, but is attached to socially defined categories such as ‘white’ or ‘male’ or ‘heterosexual’ or ‘nondisabled’. To be eligible for it, you only have to appear to fit the prevailing definition of the dominant category. If I could have presented myself this evening as a man of color, for example, I would not have access to the unearned benefits of white privilege during this event, including cultural assumptions about the humanity and superior intelligence, credibility, and objectivity of white people.

Because categories of race are socially defined, they can and do change over time. And because they exist only to serve the interest of perpetuating privilege, they are not required to be logical. The Irish, for example, were once considered not to be white, as were Greeks and Italians. Not to mention Mexicans, Native Americans, Jews, Muslims, Arabs, and Asians. And, of course, there was the infamous one-drop rule according to which any black lineage was enough to classify someone as black regardless of their physical appearance. As our history clearly shows, race has never been about skin color or, for that matter, the logical description of reality.

Which makes this as good a place as any to say something about what I mean by the word ‘race’. Race is not the same as ethnicity, which is a matter of culture that anyone can learn. The concept of race is uniquely about the body. When a group is raced – and any group can be raced – it is assigned characteristics such as the degree of intelligence, creativity, goodness, honesty, trustworthiness, courage. Those traits are then fixed and made permanent by being viewed as located in the body itself, in the genes, the cells, turning them into something that is unavoidably passed from one generation to the next through biological reproduction.

From its beginning, the concept of race has served as a social device for creating the illusion of fundamentally different types of human beings, which is precisely how whites have been encouraged to view themselves and people of color in the United States for hundreds of years. In the 19th century, it was even argued that God created races separately and at different times, and that whites and people of color are nothing less than different species, as different from each other as dogs and cats. It doesn’t take much imagination to see what a powerful tool race is for making relations of dominance and subordination seem permanent and unchangeable.

The idea of race – whiteness in particular – is not only arbitrary and illogical and based on a fantastical view of human biology, but is also only several centuries old. Europeans did not develop the concept of race to distinguish themselves from Africans until the beginning of the African slave trade. It was only when Europeans engaged in the wholesale kidnapping of African women, men, and children to sell them into slavery that Europeans began to think of themselves and their victims as different types of human beings and to assign presumptions of inferiority and superiority to those differences.

At the core of the problem of race is a system of privilege organized around the idea of whiteness, a legacy that everyone inherited the day they were born. No one asked us if we wanted it. It’s existence is not our fault. The problem of race is not about bad white people who need to try harder to be good, because it’s not necessary to be a bad person in order to participate in the social production of bad consequences. Every day, decent, moral, well-intentioned people participate in economic and political systems organized in ways that produce mountains of injustice and unnecessary suffering. When you go home tonight, examine your clothing and ask yourself where it came from and who made it and under what conditions. Ask where the fruit and vegetables in your refrigerator came from, who spent their days bent low over hot fields to bring you produce at the lowest possible price. And ask yourself about the lives of children in those families, the age at which they are put to work and how likely they are to fulfill their promise as human beings.

Good people participate in producing horrible consequences all the time, because what happens in the world is not a simple function of the character, personality, and conscious intentions of individuals. We are always participating in something larger than ourselves – what sociologists call social systems – and it is through the relationship between people and systems that social life happens. When people go to work, for example, what happens there comes out of a dynamic interplay between individuals and the way the workplace is organized as a system to produce certain outcomes. It’s like a game, in which people play according to the rules but are not themselves the game. Consider, for example, the game of Monopoly, a kind of social system that always produces what can only be described as a greedy outcome in which one player has everything and everyone else has nothing. The people who play the game don’t have to be greedy or ruthless in their hearts in order to produce a greedy and ruthless outcome over and over again. All they have to do is what they think is expected of them, as set down by the rules of the game. Unless, of course, they step back long enough to consider where such a game inevitably leads and how they might alter their participation and eventually the game itself so as to produce a different result.

It is the same with systems of privilege. As participants, we usually find that the easiest path is to do what’s expected of us, and so long as most people do what they’re expected to do most of the time, the dynamic relationship between people and social systems will produce the consequences that make up the history and everyday details of racial privilege and oppression. In the United States today:

Whites dominate every major organization from universities to government, corporations, and the professions.

Most people of color are confined to a narrow range of relatively low-status, low-paid occupations.

The white income advantage among people working year-round and full-time, is 44% compared with African-Americans and 60% compared with the Latino/Latina population. The effect of higher education is to increase the white advantage – the white income advantage among people with college degrees, for example, is much larger than among those who never went past high school.

The gap in wealth is far greater because wealth accumulates across generations – the average white household has 11 times the net wealth of Latino/Latina households and 14 times the net wealth of African-American households. This makes for tremendous vulnerability: roughly 90 percent of African-American and Latino-Latina families do not have enough assets to last just three months without income.

With differences in wealth and income go differences in health and longevity. Life expectancy for whites, for example, is 6 years longer than for African-Americans and almost 30 years longer than for Native Americans; infant mortality among whites is only half as high as among African-Americans. Whites are also far less likely to live in areas where garbage and toxic wastes are dumped – in Houston, for example, 75% of trash incinerators and 100% of municipal garbage dumps are located in neighborhoods inhabited primarily by people of color. This is not simply a function of income. Race is the best single predictor of having to live in such conditions across the United States. And, of course, people of color around the world will bear the brunt of the coming devastation of global warming.

Residential segregation is still the rule in the U.S. In order to bring about racial integration, more than 70% of the entire population – roughly 210 million people – would have to move. The implications of segregation are huge, because where we live makes an enormous difference in the quality of our lives, from education, public safety, and all kinds of social services to job opportunities and access to political power. Segregation also makes us profoundly ignorant of one another. Most people in the United States grow up in what are essentially monoracial environments.

In the criminal justice system, prisons have become a major growth industry, with some states building them faster than schools and with budgets that compete with and even exceed total expenditures for higher education. The U.S. currently leads the entire world – including China – in both the absolute number and the percentage of its population behind bars, and a hugely disproportionate number of those are people of color. The incarceration rate of African-American men is currently four times higher than the comparable rate was in South Africa under the apartheid regime. One of every eight African-American men between the ages of 20 and 34 is currently in jail or prison, and an estimated 28 percent will spend some portion of their lives behind bars. This is not because people of color more likely to break the law. The use of illegal drugs, for example, is the number one cause of the growing prison population in the United States. Although 85 percent of all illegal drug users are white, a large majority of those in prison for that crime are people of color The same is true of sexual assault, where more than 90 percent of offenders are white, but a majority of those in prison are men of color.

Beneath these macro patterns are the fine details of everyday discrimination. The vast majority of people of color report being treated badly in ways that clearly signal it’s because of race. Being told over the phone that an advertised apartment is available but then told it’s been rented when they show up in person; not being taken seriously by whites, not being heard in meetings and conversations; asked to speak for their people; having whites express surprise at ability and accomplishments (“Wow, you’re really articulate!” or “You speak English really well!”); given poor service in stores and restaurants; encountering white clerks who avoid touching their skin when returning change; being openly insulted; being treated with suspicion or fear. All the ways there are to make people feel avoided, ignored, unwanted, and excluded, every day, in countless ways, receiving the message, you are not white.

When confronted with such a reality, many whites are quick to dismiss, deny, and defend against it. It isn’t true, they say, or it’s not that bad, not anymore, or it isn’t my fault, or I’m so sick and tired of hearing about this. But in fact, it is true, and it is that bad, and it doesn’t matter whose fault it is. And being sick and tired of hearing about white privilege is itself an expression of it, the luxury of being able to choose when and when not to think about it, to decide how much is too much and then have the freedom to forget about it and walk away, something people of color are not free to do. But walking away is not an option if we are to call ourselves moral actors in the face of a crossroads that will decide the future of our society if not the world.

For there is nothing that so profoundly threatens our survival than do systems of privilege and the injustice, suffering, and destruction they produce as part of their normal everyday functioning. We are a nation embroiled in what threatens to be a state of perpetual war in a world that increasingly regards us with suspicion, fear, distrust, and hostility, a world populated mostly by people of color. At home, there is the disappearance of jobs that pay a living wage, and the ongoing disintegration of the middle class, both of which are inextricably bound up with race and class and the rapidly escalating concentration of income and wealth in a tiny portion of the white population. There is the intractability of racial bias, discrimination, and segregation; the persistence of poverty and all the harm that it does, especially to children of color. There is a crisis of fear and militant anger around illegal immigration and the definition of what and who this nation is all about and what it means to be a citizen, none of which can be separated from the long history of race and class in America. And there is an epidemic of psychological and physical violence, from individual acts of racial hatred and intimidation to the grueling institutional humiliation inflicted by the welfare system and racial profiling, and what increasingly resembles the wholesale use of jails and prisons as instruments of control over the growing population of people of color – what psychologist Na’im Akbar and others have likened to the plantation system before the Civil War.

I could say our country is approaching a critical juncture in its history. But that would be putting it too mildly. Because the truth is that our house is on fire.

Our house is on fire, and for white people, especially those who are financially secure, being on the receiving end of white privilege makes it tempting to indulge in the luxury of obliviousness, to be far enough removed to not smell the smoke or to pretend it is someone else’s house, somewhere else. But as Abraham Lincoln pointed out so may years ago, there is only one house. And for hundreds of years, that house has been organized in part around an oppressive system of white privilege that is about to be pushed to the wall by, on top of everything else, the inexorable demographics of population change. The Census Bureau estimates that just over forty years from now, less than a single lifetime, non-Hispanic whites will be a minority of the U.S. population, as they already are in California and New Mexico, with Texas not far behind.

I do not have a crystal ball, but you don’t need one to know that sooner or later the system of white privilege is going to end. The only question is when and how and at what cost in human suffering. You and I may not be around to see it, to bear the cost, but without a doubt, our children and grandchildren will. If for no other reason, as a nation we owe it to all our children to begin now to bring about a society that includes everyone and that at long last truly embodies the ideals this country claims to live by.

But that will require us as communities and a nation to find the courage and vision and faith to do something we have yet to do. We must wake ourselves to the reality of race in the United States as it was and continues to be. In the aftermath of the New Orleans disaster, many whites were stunned by what happened to the people of color who were left behind. Embarrassed before the rest of the world, they were amazed and appalled that such a thing could happen in the United States. And, I imagine, millions of people of color, witnessing this level of amazement, could only shake their heads and wonder, Where have you been?

And then, as it has so many times before, the question of race disappeared from the national conversation and, with it, yet another opportunity to do what must be done while there is still time. And the people of New Orleans? The estimated 80 percent of residents of color who will never be able to return? They, too, have disappeared from the national conversation, lost in a national sinkhole of denial.

Lately, when I imagine how we might free our minds from the state of paralysis we’re in, I often think of the looming catastrophe of global warming. For all its horrible consequences, it may be what finally forces us to confront the reality of large systemic problems that come about over long periods of time, to grasp the enormity of doing nothing for too long in spite of all the warning signs, to realize that the future is not guaranteed, and that there is indeed such a thing as too late. The rest, of course, will be up to us.

It’s important to remember that we are not the system of white privilege or any other system, just as people who play Monopoly are not the game. There is no reason for anyone alive today to feel personally guilty because the system of white privilege exists. But we are, all of us, responsible for its future, for what happens now, because it is human beings whose choices will shape how that system happens from one moment to the next and the consequences that result. If the legacy we pass to succeeding generations is to be different from the one that was passed to us, it will be only because we have dared to do something about it, to make ourselves part of the solution and not just part of the problem. To do that, however, we have to begin by changing how we think about the world we are participating in and who we are and how we live our lives in relation to it. And we must do it now. Our house is on fire.