I am a racist. Not because of racist jokes I do not say or acts of discrimination I do not commit. The reason: I am White.
That was the message preached loud and clear at a forum I attended recently at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Titled Unveiling White Privilege, the forum's purpose was to examine "the impact of our racism and colorism on the quality of our relationships," while also addressing "the barriers created by unacknowledged privilege."
According to the moderators, all Whites are racist even if we don't know we are. We have benefited from a system stacked against individuals of other races. We hold prejudices we may not even know exist. We have thrived in a nation built on the backs of hard-working and repressed "people of color." Never mind the millions of Irish, Italian, Russian, or Eastern European immigrants -- all Whites who suffered intense bigotry while working in the sweatshops and coal mines of this country to make a better life for their families.
After this was all made clear, we worked to define a variety of terms. Racism, according to the moderators, was "prejudice plus power." Confused? See, a black man can never be racist. He may hold prejudices against people of other races or his own race for that matter, but he has never held the power in society necessary to act upon that prejudice.
One of the moderators, herself white, acknowledged and embraced her self-identification as a racist. Interestingly, the other moderator, the daughter of an Irish mother and Mexican father, did not identify as half-racist. "I'm either Chicana or Latina and how I identify changes by the day. It just depends on how I'm feeling," she said. There was no mention of her Irish roots in this identification.
We then went around the room, saying what came to mind when the word "racism" was spoken. The first few responses were probably typical of what would be uttered on most college campuses: "Attorney General John Ashcroft ... the KKK ..."
And then I decided to speak up. "Jesse Jackson," I said politely. The moderators turned. The room fell silent. "Why do you think that?" I was asked.
"Well," I responded. "He holds prejudices against other blacks, as well as whites and other ethnic groups." I gave the example of when Jackson called Conservative black activist Ward Connerly "Strange Fruit," the same term used by Whites in the Old South to describe blacks who had been lynched.
"Yes, but you see," the moderator informed me, "he can't be racist because he holds no power."
"No power?" I asked. "He had the power to swindle millions of dollars out of American corporations by threatening them with consumer boycotts based on shoddy accusations of civil rights violations."
The moderator leading the exercise was clearly getting upset. "But he holds no governmental power," she corrected.
As proof of this type of power, she did not accept my argument that the IRS has continually looked the other way regarding Jackson's creative accounting practices for his Rainbow Push Coalition.
It was not the factual basis of my claim she was disputing. It was the title I had assigned to Jackson she had a problem with. He is not a racist. Blacks cannot be racist. Even against other blacks. And especially not against Whites.
Furthermore, this wasn't about Jesse Jackson, I was informed. This was about me and my own racism. "As a white person, it's not your place to determine whether Jesse Jackson is a racist," the other moderator added. "This is a discussion that needs to take place within the communities of color."
I came away from the forum agreeing with the moderators on one key issue. Racism is alive and well in America. It infects our college campuses, our hiring decisions, even the communities we live in. This forum was proof of that.
We did not find consensus on just who is racist, however. I am not a racist. Yes, this nation has its past sins to grapple with, including slavery, which we may never recover from. But I will not nor should I take responsibility or feel guilt for the color of my skin or my ethnic heritage. To do so would dishonor all of those who have gone before me who fought endlessly to put an end to racism in all of its forms.
Copyright © 2003 The Independence Institute
INDEPENDENCE INSTITUTE is a non-profit, non-partisan Colorado think tank. It is governed by a statewide board of trustees and holds a 501(c)(3) tax exemption from the IRS. Its public policy research focuses on economic growth, education reform, local government effectiveness, and Constitutional rights.
JON CALDARA is President of the Institute.
JESSICA PECK is a researcher for the Independence Institute.
Additional resources on this subject can be found at: http://www.i2i.org
Permission to reprint this paper in whole or in part is hereby granted provided full credit is given to the Independence Institute.
I'm giving the I.I. full credit, and noting that this editorial column was released by the Institute on March 13, 2003. -- dcb