The Souls of White Folk

soulsofwhitefolokA little more than a hundred years ago, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote a book of essays that strove to examine “the strange meaning of being black here at the dawning of the Twentieth Century.” It strikes me, watching the violence and unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, that it is long past time for an equally great author to write a similar text about the souls of white folks.

I’m not that writer, but I think I can point to some of the questions that he or she might pose to the rest of us who live in an America where whites will soon become one minority among many, one racial tribe among a family of tribes.

First, I would ask how it is that so many of us who are white have been encouraged and trained to forget the agony and burden of our own history?

We are a nation that often describes itself as “Christian” and “European,” meaning that we are comfortable thinking of a man who lived 2,000 years ago as a present and inspirational figure in our moral lives. We talk about the long chain of ideas that stretch back through the Puritans of England, the Enlightenment philosophers of France and Italy, even as far back as the thinkers of ancient Rome and Greece.

Yet we rush eagerly to pretend that events that occurred on our own soil a century ago, or a decade ago, or last year are somehow old news–dead history. We stand proudly on the shoulders of giants when talking about our national greatness, yet we insist cravenly that the crimes of our forefathers have no bearing on present circumstances.

This kind of deliberate ignorance is not a sign of strength or courage, but a symptom of deep, abiding shame.

Racism grows from many seeds in America. But the most robust and the most poisonous, surely, is this kernel of sad and secret guilt, which we hide away behind euphemisms and sly bigotry and code words and unexamined privilege. This is the strange meaning of being white in 21st century America.

We know the facts–or at least anyone does who has not chosen to embrace the intoxicating bigotry of TV networks and websites that peddle deception and propaganda. We know that we have inherited the vast prosperity of a nation built on stolen labor and stolen soil, our foundations laid in the suffering and the evil malignancy of slavery and land-theft. Not just in the South, but across the United States, the seed corn of our present wealth was planted not with a fish to nurture its growth, but side-by-side with the ruined and used-up bodies of human beings.

The liberties that we cherished in our documents and in our bold words grew, unsound and untested, around the canker of peoples shackled and peoples thrown violently from their ancestral territories. In the 1860s we conducted a Civil War in an effort to purge this sickness, hoping to buy in fresh blood some redemption from the old stain. But the surgery was crude and primitive and from the damaged body of our nation grew new deformities, new diseases.

The last 150 years of American history have been a study in secret white rage, savage violence and race-hatred.

After the Civil War, America’s whites launched a war of oppression and slaughter against the Native tribes of the West, a siege that lasted at least until 1907, when the US Cavalry was still skirmishing with Navajo tribesmen.

We erected a government-sanctioned system of white privilege and opportunity known broadly as “Jim Crow,” that insured well into the 1960s that blacks would be denied the freedoms guaranteed under our Constitution.

Decade by decade, whites showered insults and brutalities on African Americans; and at every turn we pretended, in our sickly shame, that blacks were themselves at fault for our own shattering falseness. We allowed a system of terror and oppression to exist across the United States — not just in the South — that decorated our land with the “strange fruit” of black men and boys dangling dead from trees. They were tortured and murdered not by thugs and hooligans, but by the upstanding citizens and officers of the peace of our sacred small towns.

While the rest of America grew and prospered and saw its seed corn grow up into great cities and suburbs and 21st century industries, blacks were again and again denied the ability to buy homes in our best, safest neighborhoods.

They were deliberately excluded from the businesses and the clubs and the schools and the churches — often, from whole communities — where our growing bounty was nurtured and shared.

Meanwhile, along that terrible journey, whites kept telling themselves pernicious lies about blacks. Blacks were to blame for their own poverty. Blacks were to blame for their lack of wealth, for their lack of opportunity. We invented and nurtured the comfortable fiction that black men are criminals and drug addicts and “thugs.” We used them as bugbears in our political campaigns, as symbols of disorder and chaos.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when we saw black communities foundering in a wave of poverty, joblessness, addiction and lack of education we responded, not with a Marshall Plan to help raise up their communities, but instead we created a vast and growing network of militarized police, and public and private prisons. We reinvented our criminal justice system so that it began, almost overnight, to funnel tens of millions of black men into jail cells.

Whites committing the same crimes were, in the vast majority of cases, sent for drug rehabilitation, for job retraining, parole, or for military service. Blacks, by contrast, were made into an army of felons, and permanently denied many of the basic dignities and rights of citizenship.

Along the way, we watched as the growing army of overwhelmingly white police failed to perform the basic and fundamental public service of making black communities safe. Instead, blacks found themselves “stopped and frisked” without cause. They found themselves being watched and stopped and harassed with a frequency that no white American would tolerate. They found their young men, even those who were unarmed, guilty of no crime or only minor infractions, lying dead in police shootings.

It is time and long past time for a great American scribe to take up the challenge of examining the strange souls of white folks who live in this great nation and who bear the great burden of this racial legacy. It is time to demand a new chapter in our history, one of remembrance, one of accountability, one of courage, and one of penance.

W.E.B. Du Bois talked in his book about the halls of Jubilee, with its bricks “red with the blood and dust of toil.” That is undeniably the foundation of our great America. We are a remarkable nation, but we sank a great part of our taproot into shame and villainy and hatred.

But it is in our spirit, as white Americans and black Americans and Americans generally, to be courageous and to speak plain truths and to pay our debts. The rage in Ferguson, Missouri, gives us one more chance to begin writing this new chapter, one more day on which to wake up and rise up and make ourselves accountable to the vision and idealism and, yes, the higher moral burden laid upon us by citizenship in our Republic.

This great book about the souls of white folks, laying out the steps required for redemption, has yet to be written. In the meantime, there is something that we can all do to begin the healing. Tonight when you see African American men raging on your television screen, don’t waste your time thinking about what those images say about blackness. If you are a white man or woman, that is not your burden, not now, not at this juncture in our history.

Your burden–and it is a grave burden–is to think about what those images say about you and us and whiteness and the long, terrible road that brought us all to Ferguson, Missouri.


76 Comments on “The Souls of White Folk”

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  1. Terence says:

    Could we examine your assumption that all white people in America are filled with ‘sickly shame’ at the ‘craven actions’ of their forefathers, etc? Many white people in this region are the direct descendants of late 19th-century Irish immigrants who worked like beasts and faced discrimination of their own, and who managed to adapt and prosper.

    I take many of your points and am sure they come from good intentions to start a healthy dialogue, but I resent the way you assume that all white people are direct beneficiaries of historical racial injustice against blacks. A healthy dialogue goes both ways, and you’re not going to win over your target listeners by expecting them to demonstrate remorse for actions their ancestors had no part in.

  2. Brian Mann says:

    Terence –

    The Irish came to the United States and suffered real prejudice and serious oppression. They were not brought to the US in chains aboard slaveships.

    They were not kept as property for the first 350 years of European history in North America.

    They were not the target of systemic institutional racial prejudice that lasted until the 1960s.

    They were not the target of a system of criminal justice that incarcerated tens of millions of black men between the 1970s and today for crimes that white people were also committing but not facing jail time for.

    So there’s that. But there’s also the fact that the Irish have now benefited from three quarters of a century of government programs — the GI Bill, the Farm Bill, affordable housing programs, etc. — that were systemically denied to African Americans.

    Irish soldiers didn’t return from World War 2 to find themselves denied access to things like healthcare, toilets, drinking fountains, and basic human dignity.

    On the contrary. During the greatest period of wealth building in America, the Irish were able to participate in the American dream.

    And finally there’s the fact that many Irish in fact owned black slaves. The reverse is not true. There were not blacks in America who indentured or owned Irish human beings.

    But many Irish did benefit economically either directly or indirectly from the ownership of other human beings on these shores.

    The great wealth of the East Coast, where many Irish settled, was built in large measure on investments and industries in the South that relied upon slave labor.

    Ironically, one of Michelle Obama’s ancestors was an Irish immigrant to America who owned slaves.

    Now let me ask you a question. You say that you don’t want to feel remorse or ownership for actions your ancestors may or may not have played any direct part in.

    Is that your standard for things in America you are proud of? Do you also divorce yourself from the accomplishments of this nation that your direct ancestors didn’t create or build?

    Do you say, “Yeah, America is a wonderful country, but my family didn’t really have any part in that?”

    I’m guessing not. And I think it’s reasonable to ask that if we all take pride in the greatness of America, we also assess our ‘ownership’ of the parts of America’s history that are painful.

    –Brian, NCPR

  3. Terence says:

    Brian – thank you for your response. I do feel a bit scolded by your tone (“Is that your standard for things in America you are proud of?” etc.) and am worried that you’re picturing me as someone who starts waving the flag frantically at the first sign of criticism.

    In your post, you ask white people to perform soul-searching and to feel a certain way — primarily guilty. My argument is that your expectation that we should feel guilt will alienate the very audience you are trying to reach: white people who follow NCPR.

    I suggest that you can achieve your aim more effectively in several ways. Show us those unexpected links between the slave economy of the deep south and the industrial economy of the northeast. Follow some local stories that shed light on the larger national situation. Examine the militarization of the police force here in the North Country (Humvees in Massena, etc.) as part of the national trend. Ask people what they think, rather than just telling us that someone should be writing a great big book about the soul of white folks. It seems safe to assume that anyone who follows NCPR is probably committed to dialogue and used to examinign conflicting points of view. Give us some credit.

    And if you’re going to launch a guilt balloon at us, you should also expect a vigorous response. Where is the follow-up story on the store owner whose livelihood has been destroyed by the looting crowd? How quickly would you have reached for the phone if you worked at the local Stewarts and found yourself being shoved and intimidated by this same shoplifter?

    There are many hard questions here, and please don’t assume that ‘white folks’ aren’t thinking carefully about them, examining their own consciences, tracing the ways their whiteness has helped them at points in their life where a black person might have landed in trouble, etc.

  4. Brian Mann says:

    Hi Terence –

    I think you’re reading my tone correctly. I think we all need scolding. We’ve walked around our fragile sensibilities on this issue for far too long.

    There are times when a proud, strong, thoughtful person (and people) should feel guilt…and should work to remedy a deep wrong that is still present and manifest.

    Of course I do want a vigorous response. I expect that many whites will firmly reject the idea of moral responsibility for four centuries of racism and oppression, not because they’re wrong or racist but because they disagree with me.

    Which is great.

    I’m eager to hear those views. But I also feel absolutely no calling to be gentle or to woo readers into some gentle embrace of a dialogue about our own history. You call it a “guilt balloon.” I call it asking people to be honest and factual about being American and white.

    Thanks for for your thoughts,

    –Brian, NCPR

  5. Terence says:

    If we’re going to be ‘honest and factual about being American and white’, then let’s also be bluntly honest about being any color American and displaying anti-social behavior such as looting.

    Your audience here is the North Country, where people work hard and count on their neighbors, and generally refrain from displaying strong emotions in public. When I look at images of young black people looting and burning stores in Ferguson, I do not feel guilty for being white. Nor have you established why I should.

  6. Brian Mann says:

    Let’s say that we live here in the North Country in a poor but mostly peaceful community. We’re mostly white, but our politicians are mostly black. We’re mostly white, but our police force is overwhelmingly black.

    Let’s say that over a long period of years — decades, centuries — our community has had laws that prevent us whites from owning homes in the nice neighborhoods, going to the best schools, or getting the good jobs.

    Let’s say that for decades we whites have had an unemployment rate that’s twice that of the blacks who govern us, police us and do the job hiring and run our economy and our schools. And now let’s say that an unarmed white teenager is shot dead by a black police officer.

    Would you want our community’s violent reaction to that death to be judged as “anti-social”? Would you want the unrest to be seen as “thuggery”? Or would you think that the reaction should be viewed in a more complex, historical context?

    There’s actually precedent for this. You mentioned Irish history earlier. During periods of history when the Irish (and other oppressed white minorities) have faced persecution, they’ve reacted exactly like the people in Ferguson.

    In 1969, Irish rioters caused widespread damage in northern Ireland. We don’t condone that kind of violence, of course. But we don’t think of it as simply “anti-social” either.

    –Brian, NCPR

  7. Terence says:

    Mm, you lost me with the reverse hypotheticals. You’ve described precisely what the North Country ISN’T. And since your target audience is the North Country, I suggest that this is a poor choice of argument. As a thought experiment, maybe.

    But until you can establish why your local white listeners should feel guilt and shame for being white, your position is a non-starter. I’m going to refrain from any more comments, because this seems more like a conversation we should be having over Toboggan Ale at the new brewery in Gouverneur, not holding everyone else hostage at the party as we argue back and forth.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking piece, though! Love NCPR, guilty white liberals and all.

  8. Pete Klein says:

    The shooting in Ferguson is one thing. What has been going on since then is another thing.
    What has been going on since then will probably be counterproductive.

  9. Judith says:

    Brian, thank you for a very thoughtful essay. It is discomfiting to many to be asked to recognize one’s complicity in perpetuating an unequal and unjust society. But if we are going to move forward, ‘we’ (those with the privilege that comes from values defined by our society as a whole) have to be as willing to take responsibility as to cast blame. Your reflections are a great contribution to that process.

  10. PictADK says:

    Please STOP labeling us as colors. We are NOT colors – white, black, brown, yellow, etc. We are people. Most Americans are mixed race / ethnicity / religion, etc. The Global Immigrant Nation. What happened to African Americans, Jewish Americans, Irish / Scots Americans, Italian Americans, Latino Americans, Chinese Americans, Muslim Americans, Russian Americans, etc.? Or maybe American…..something?

    Rich and poor, educated and uneducated, skilled and unskilled, religious and secular, etc. are more blunt – possibly accurate or helpful labels – if you must. I wish you would NOT frame your reporting by colors, so please be more sensitive and accurate. Sincerely, Father of a hybrid child. What color is she?

  11. Brian Mann says:

    PictADK –

    I don’t think your framing works. When the vast majority of blacks experience a totally different America that whites, one has to ask about difference, about causation, about policy and history.

    When black men are hung from trees or incarcerated or shot dead by police or sentenced to die by our legal system at rates far far higher than whites convicted of identical crimes, one has to ask — why?

    When African Americans don’t experience unemployment at twice the rate of whites

  12. Brian Mann says:

    …then we can stop talking about blackness and whiteness.

    We have inherited a real history, real facts, a real legacy. I don’t think we can wish that away.

    –Brian, NCPR

  13. George S. Baker says:

    Excellent, Brian. You are not responsible for those who are ignorant of that which you have expressed.

    Speaking as a white person who risked his life and shed his blood in Selma (actually in Marion, AL), I am sorrowful at how little has changed in what we see in Ferguson.

    Thank you for having the courage to say what is long overdue.

  14. Two Cents says:

    everything you say is true. but look up. we have moved past this focused bigotry. we have grown to embrace everyone as equal. equal enough to all be poor, ” the new black” is poverty, an equal opportunity for everyone to be poor and powerless. it may have started as a black thing, but it’s broadened it’s loving embrace for all of us, any of us to be included, equal.
    you can say this is about race, but it’s only every been about ONE thing. poverty.
    and in that case I am one of the blackest white man you will ever meet.

  15. Two Cents says:


    ps- I’m not worried about the color of my soul. I’m pretty sure souls are transparent

  16. Brian Mann says:

    Hi Two cents –

    The facts simply don’t bear out what you’re saying.

    Widespread poverty remains a fundamentally different factor in the lives of African Americans. Yes, 13% of white Americans are poor. But 35% of blacks are poor.

    When you reach that “critical mass,” where so many people lack economic opportunity at the same time, it creates new and different and more troubling dynamics. That’s why America as a whole behaved differently during the great Depression and during the opening years of the Great Recession.

    There was an awareness — based on a lot of data — that that kind of large-scale poverty can create a permanent down cycle.

    I think the disparity is also worth facing head-on. If poverty is an equal opportunity destroyer, why are blacks three times more vulnerable than whites? Why has that persisted for so many years?

    –Brian, NCPR

  17. Michael Greer says:

    I think Two-Cents is right. Our system, be it “democracy” or “capitalism”, has worked to keep us focused on the great American myth…”peace and prosperity for all”, “a chicken in every pot”, “the great melting pot”, and more recently, the “rising tide that lifts all boats”. As with a skilled magician, our attention has been directed elsewhere, while the real agenda has played with the other hand. Real equality will be reached between the races when we all find ourselves at the bottom. Those at the top will pretend to have transcended race, gender, and nationality, but they will mostly be white men…and they won’t feel any guilt.

  18. John Spear says:

    Thank you, Brian, for this thoughtful and provocative essay. I think it’s important for those of us who are white to understand the privileges we have but are usually completely unaware of. Peggy McIntosh wrote about this in her essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack ( I’m the dad of a black child, and I look at him now, as he plays with his bey blades on the living room floor, so sweet and innocent, with the six year old’s sense of fairness and justice, and my heart breaks knowing that, just as Pres. Obama said, “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” my little guy is going to be profiled – and probably much worse – because of his race. Breaks my heart.

    And Brian, we missed you at the Diversity Symposium in Newcomb last weekend. Your excellent reporting on North Country prisons came up numerous times. This essay would have been well received there.

  19. K.Y. says:

    “The United States of America was established as a white nation, founded upon the near-genocide of one race and the enslavement of yet another.” – Jim Wallis

  20. dave says:

    Violence in a democracy should always be considered anti-social thuggery.

    No matter who is participating in it, or inciting it.

    Be they black, Irish, or some crazy rancher in Nevada with his militia friends.

  21. Pete Klein says:

    If anyone cares to dig and has the time and the resources to dig, it might be beneficial to know the reasons why 47% of the blacks, ages 18 -25, are unemployed in Ferguson and why 53% of the blacks, ages 18 – 25, are employed?
    Reasons probably have something to do with level of education, criminal record or not, and whether or not a person shows up at a job interview properly dressed and displaying by actions and language a desire to work and show up on time.

  22. Mervel says:

    Historical guilt has never worked as a true motivator of real change, I think frankly its kind of a cop out, you don’t have to look at the real injustice right in front of us, you can intellectualize about “white oppression and colonialism”. There are always winners and losers in any society, there has always been tribalism and racism among all nations, we are not uniquely worse in the US or importantly uniquely better.

    Obsessing about whiteness or white sickness is an ok exercise, but it won’t change anything, feeling guilty about our countries past sins won’t change anything. The fact is no white people really feel that personally guilty. I feel guilty about many things in my life, but not about some broad based racial sins of my society. It too easy to point to someone else on that count, those dirty rednecks, cops, the past generations, Republicans, Reagan, Wallace, FOX news, it just devolves into blaming someone else as usual its just political.

  23. Brian Mann says:

    Mervel –

    So…what’s your alternative to addressing real, systemic racism in America? Accepting that there are ‘winners and losers’ and they just happen to be mostly white winners and mostly black losers? Is that a moral path forward?

    Or might we try an experiment comparable to what the Germans did after World War 2, or the South Africans after Apartheid, or the Catholic church after centuries of anti-Semitism, where people convened a real discussion about wrongs and remedies?

    I guess when I think about the abolition movement, or the effort to extend rights to women, or the effort to end Jim Crow, I think awareness — call it ‘guilt’ if you like — did help. Certainly it did more than complacency and silence. Right?

    –Brian, NCPR

  24. hermit thrush says:

    It strikes me, watching the violence and unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, that it is long past time for an equally great author to write a similar text about the souls of white folks.

    I’m not that writer….

    i’m not so sure about that last point. thanks for a great piece, brian.

  25. Terence says:

    Now that other listeners have had a chance to get a word in edgewise, I’d like to jump back in and pose a few questions on the original post.

    1. If we acknowledge that white privilege is built into the American system, can we ALSO acknowledge that internal forces are working against the black community? And by this I mean antisocial, aggressive young men. White liberals can feel guilty till the cows come home, but that particular problem won’t be solved by feeling a certain way.

    2. People in the North Country are intimately familiar with the concept of ‘working poor’. How exactly do you expect us to feel when we see young people trashing the few remaining businesses in Ferguson and destroying the livelihood of others?

    3. Ferguson is mostly black and has a mostly white police force. Definitely a recipe for misunderstandings and friction, especially when the cops are geared up like army units. But are black people applying to become police officers? Is there something in the local culture that stigmatizes young men and women who want to join the police? We can feel guilty all day long about the number of white police officers, but it won’t do a bit of good until large numbers of black candidates step up.

    4. Finally, isn’t your call to feel guilty for being white just another way of keeping white people in the starring role in this story? The answer has to come from BOTH communities, not just from well-meaning white folk who swoop in and save the day. I agree with many of your calls to reflection, but I detect a total lack of calls to responsibility from the other side. Victim-narratives are incredibly seductive because they absolve us from responsibility to act.

    Anyhow, thanks again for the thought-provoking piece! This is what I expect and appreciate from you guys. Terence


  26. Brian Mann says:

    Terence –

    Talk for a moment about what you think is happening in the black community. Is there a racial reason, in your view, that black men are acting ‘antisocial” and “aggressive”?

    I’d like you to be as blunt and direct as you can. When you describe ‘internal forces’ what do you mean?

    –Brian, NCPR

  27. dave says:

    There are indeed a lot of really depressing statistics coming out of Ferguson. In addition to the two that Pete pointed out (poverty and unemployment) there are also disturbing stats about Black/White household incomes (90k vs 6k), and home ownership (72% vs 43%).

    None of that is good. None of it seems right.

    But here are the stats I keep coming back to this morning as I think about all of this.

    Ferguson is 67% black. It has 15,000 voting age adults.

    Yet in the last mayoral election only 1,300 votes were cast, and the winner was a white guy who ran unopposed.

    The city council – overwhelmingly white – only saw 1,500 votes cast in their last election. One guy won with a total of 73 votes!

    These are the elected officials in Ferguson who appoint the Chief of Police. Who oversee and influence policing policy. Who implement community programs. Who work to improve the local economy.

    It is very hard for me to understand those election numbers in light of the statistics about poverty and unemployment and the commentary about repression. We can study and understand the history of race in this country, we can recognize the impact that the past has had on present generations, but if a community is not participating in our democracy and using the tools of democracy to take control of and improve their situation, I am not sure what we here in Upstate NY, or anyone outside of that community, can do about it.

    Brian wrote another interesting piece today about empty seats in the Albany legislature. He asks the question, “Does Democracy work if your politician is a no-show?” To me the obvious answer to that is no, it doesn’t. Likewise, I think we can also ask, “Does Democracy work for voters who no-show?” And again, I think the answer there is obviously no.

  28. Terence says:

    No, not a ‘racial’ reason for aggression. Please don’t twist my words and make them seem racist. This type of debate is a minefield for that very reason, and I didn’t expect that gambit from you.

    If you want me to blunt, here it is: multi-generational poverty of any color reinforces behaviors that the middle class categorizes as dysfunctional. Regardless of the historical origins of that poverty, the solution requires action and effort from both sides. The young people who trashed the shops along Florissant Avenue have damaged their own community and alienated middle class whites who will remember those images more than others.

    This is a complex problem that can’t be solved just by wallowing in white guilt. If we’re being direct about inherited responsibility for the problem, we also need to be honest and say that certain behaviors are unacceptable to hardworking middle class people of any color.

  29. Brian Mann says:

    Terence –

    I’m not trying to entrap you, I’m trying to get you to speak plainly. Too often, white people who want to focus the conversation on the behavior of black people in situations like the one in Ferguson are uncomfortable saying plainly what they think the causes of that behavior are. You used a vague term – internal causes – and asked us to turn the lens on the black community. I wanted you to be explicit about what you mean.

    You did that. So now let me follow up. I think where you lose me is with the casual drop of the “regardless of the historical origins of that poverty” line. This is my line in the sand. I don’t want us in the white community to go on talking about this without distinctly and honestly and courageously regarding the historical origins of what’s happening.

    That kind of memory and responsibility and accountability is not ‘white guilt.’ It reflects, rather, the conservative, decent, and traditional values of a strong people who think about their actions and their history, take stock of the moral implications of that legacy, and act to remedy any wrongs they or their communities have done.

    If you believe that the black people in Ferguson wound up in “multigenerational poverty” because of their own “internal” shortcomings, then fine. You have no more moral role to play here. On the other hand, if you think that white America’s long embrace of slavery, Jim Crow, institutional segregation and prejudice may have played some role, then we’re not talking about ‘white guilt’ here. We’re talking about justice and decency and a debt of care to our fellow Americans.

    –Brian, NCPR

  30. Terence says:

    So then, what are your actual suggestions for dealing with this problem? Because your original post is a call to FEEL a certain way. I don’t see a tangible proposal. And that was my original objection: your listeners here are likely to be well-intentioned and ready to help in concrete ways, but are also likely to be put off by the scolding tone and insistence on feeling guilt for the past. You seem to be enacting a very common white liberal performance of self-flagellation which even black people often lampoon. And it strikes me that there is more than a dollop of white privilege in that feeling of being a savior.

    What concrete actions have actual members of the black community told you they expect you to take? Or is this just a dialogue among white people?

  31. Brian Mann says:

    I think there does need to be a conversation about this among white people. Where that moral and legal and ethical and policy conversation takes us is not for me to say or prescribe.

    What we do know is that in the past we have seen America use specific policies to help communities struggling with poverty — and in many instances those policies were denied to black people.

    I think it’s worth pondering whether we’ve seen strategies used to help poor white communities in the past (job training instead of prisons, say) that might be of help in beginning to ease these disparities.

    I think it’s worth having a conversation about the kinds of measures we used to rebuild Europe after World War 2. Could those policies be used to help rebuild black, inner-city America?

    America funnels billions of dollars a year into the Farm Bill. The parts that go to white America are ‘investments’ and ‘subsidies,’ while the parts that go to black America are ‘welfare’ and ‘food stamps.’

    Can we somehow tweak that formula so that black America gets investment and dignity rather than poverty aid?

    While those policy debates happen, I also think it’s a good idea for all of us also to challenge our own internal compasses.

    Have we allowed ourselves to become trained to see black men as ‘thugs’ and ‘anti-social’ and ‘criminals’? if so, is that fair? Are our preconceptions contributing to the problem?

    –Brian, NCPr

  32. Mervel says:

    Brian, my suggestion was that trying to get movement or change, based on historical sins and collective guilt based only in history actually is counter productive. It’s easy to shrug off and it is not always correct anyway. What I meant by winners and losers was probably badly stated, but the fact is there has always been oppression, the strong have often taken what they can take, the US is not uniquely bad in that regard not that we should not try to work toward justice. But justice does not mean that all groups of people will be equal in all societal outcomes in the world.

    We don’t have to go to history. If we simply look as you say at what is happening now I think that is far more productive. The best policing in the world will do nothing to really change a community that is intrinsically racially segregated, uneducated, and very poor. I don’t think talking about race and having national conversations make any difference, people need opportunity, education and jobs, not more conferences and research.

  33. Terence says:

    Interesting proposals. Again, though, your focus is all on white people helping black people: from above to below, reinforcing a paternalistic view. If the black voters of Ferguson don’t vote, if the black men and women of Ferguson don’t become police officers for their own community, if young black men don’t respect the private property of businesses in their own community, how will any of your proposals ever work?

    The uncomfortable truths we need to speak in this case go in both directions.

    OK, that’s more than enough from me on this topic! Very interesting overall.

  34. I and I says:

    I am a black man, and I think this is a great conversation.
    Malcolm X (Whose favorite American was John Brown) always said “The race problem in America will not be solved until the Black man can speak to the White man frankly without him feeling offended, and vice versa”.

    We are all people and we all want one thing at our core “A better life for our children”.

  35. Mervel says:

    The problem with racial conversations Terence is that in general what you just said above is not allowed, the uncomfortable truths, even if they are not true; are not really allowed into the conversation.

    So a conversation turns into a sermon.

  36. Brian Mann says:

    Mervel – Be a little clearer. What part of the conversation do you think aren’t generally allowed? What do you think is an uncomfortable truth that people are afraid to voice?

    –Brian, NCPR

  37. Two Cents says:

    brian I guess my response is tongue in cheek and factless, but racism is a diversion that has taken on its own momentum and “perpetuality”, long way past who started it. it lives and breathes on its own mitochondria now.

    meanwhile. I’m not reaping tremendous benefits from being white. in fact I have been burdened because I am in the trenches along side of my black brothers, and a object of their hatred because of my proximity.

    I feel I have experienced my share of “racism” by that proximity, which I’m pretty sure you have none of (proximity).
    you are the privileged white you speak of, and using your successful life and career, merely point out the flaws in an attempt to atone. go live in the ghetto and then check back.
    these feelings (mine) are what I think generate the perpetuation of it all, and I’m white, and a cry baby, and statistically have no leg to stand on.
    imagine the rage a black man feels, who has good reason according to your own words.
    I feel unaffiliated to any group but the poor. again, poor is not one particular color, but shades us all to some extent.

    can’t account for the “odds” or “percentages” you speak of other than to say- it wasn’t me. don’t tell me it was.

  38. Mark Berninghausen says:

    If I live my life respecting all persons, what do I have to feel guilty for? Are we not all responsible for making our own decisions, choosing our own actions, making our own choices everyday? I must have missed your point. I’ll read it over again.

    Is it the responsibility of White Americans to make Black Americans lives better? Is it my responsibility to make someone else feel good or better about themselves or life in America? I can’t do that. I can’t make someone else feel anything unless they want to.

  39. Mark Berninghausen says:

    White Americans have been having a conversation about race for ages. So long that many, if not most, are simply tired of the subject. And who are White Americans to have this conversation w/out having that conversation w/ Black Americans?

    How do you, Brian Mann, see that conversation happening? And to what end? With what result? Conversation w/out resulting action is just so much blowing in the wind.

  40. Two Cents says:

    “I think the disparity is also worth facing head-on. If poverty is an equal opportunity destroyer, why are blacks three times more vulnerable than whites? Why has that persisted for so many years?”

    bluntly – I think it’s because they are so easy to spot.
    remember, the bible marks the first black man.
    Cain was destined to walk the earth a marked man for his sin.

    and in the next breath I can say I believe jesus was not the blue-eyed handsome jesus framed on many of our parent’s walls in the 50’s, but was as dreadlocked as bunny wailer.

    I think racism (hatred) is a persons own inner hatred of themselves turned outward to another, for the easiest expression, outlet.

    I don’t have a clue, I’m a carpenter, I have a hammer and all my problems look like nails.

    which reminds me of my worst blasphemous joke :
    what were the last words the roman soldier said to jesus?
    “cross your feet, I only have one nail left”

    another reason to

  41. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Uncomfortable truth? How about the fact that the North Country is something like 96% white and we are here talking about the black experience as if we know anything about it?

    How about this one…everybody is always talking about how we need to deal with things constructively, without violence, using civil disobedience at worst; but if it weren’t for the violence in Ferguson nobody, nobody here would have heard of the death of Michael Brown. Violence is the only way that the underclass gets taken seriously; they (communities of color or economically distressed communities) are actively discriminated against politically, economically, and educationally.

    Let’s be honest with ourselves for a second or two. What is the souls of white America today? It is the soul of ignorance, denial, self-deception and fear – at least when it comes to anything beyond our lily-white isolated communities.

    It is time to take some responsibility. Why did Michael Brown die? Because we all failed to make our country better. Because we fear other people so much that many of us hoard guns and we still don’t feel safe. And it isn’t that we fear violence against ourselves and our family so much (though we do) but we fear being poor, we fear poverty. Nor can we trust. We cant trust that our neighbors will help us out when we are old; no, we must save and invest and compound our interest so that we can own the maximum amount of crap as we lie on our deathbed.

    My family never owned slaves – at least not in this country – but i admit it! I benefit from Blacks being kept as second class citizens. I get better treatment from the power structure of society too. And I can tell you with certainty that in interactions with police over the years I have benefitted by not having black skin. Sure, I have been pulled over because I was poor – like when I didn’t have enough money to fix my muffler and I got a ticket for loud exhaust, but I’ve never been asked to step outside of the car. I’ve never had my car searched just to see if they could find some drugs. And there were times when police have given me a pass, when they said “get your ass home and I’m going to have a talk with your old man.” If I was black I am certain situations like that would have gone very differently.

    Deny all you want, white people, you are part of the problem.

  42. The Original Larry says:

    Ferguson, MO is a majority black community. The power structure is overwhelmingly white. Voter turnout (of all races) is abysmal, more people are out protesting and rioting nightly than voted in the last several elections. How does that become the responsibility of white America? White America’s responsibility was to ensure all citizens had the right to vote and that started getting done in the early 60s and has continued. Is it also our responsibility to drag people to the polls so they can have representation in the power structure of the communities they live in? Nearly 50 years after the Voting Rights Act was first signed and nobody shows up to vote?

  43. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    First mid-westerners complain they are just fly-over country that nobody cares about; then they complain that people from New York and California are showing up in Ferguson to protest. Which way do they want it?

  44. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Interesting, isn’t it, that Americans who profess to love freedom and democracy so much invent so many ways to keep people from voting, or to keep their vote from counting through gerrymandering, complicated election schedules, ID rules, elimination of voting rights for former felons and many other schemes? Where do we find the greatest number of those type of shenanigans? In communities of color.

  45. Brian Mann says:

    Mark Berninghausen –

    I think what I’m asking you to do in this essay is think about the moral and ethical burdens of being “American” as well as the blessings.

    What are the privileges that you and your family have received from this country, which have been systematically denied to some of your neighbors?

    When we have inherited wealth, opportunities, privileges, rights that black Americans were never allowed to accumulate, do we ‘own’ any of that injustice?

    Or is it enough, from our place of privilege and advantage, to look at the multi-generational poverty and lack of opportunity in black communities and say, “I bear you no ill will.”

    And if we don’t ask these questions and accept these debts, what part of Americanness can we own?

    –Brian, NCPR

  46. The Original Larry says:

    KHL, the articles are mostly nonsensical excuses that obscure the basic truth: Ferguson’s residents don’t care enough about their community’s problems to do anything constructive about them. Over 50% of voters managed to overcome the evil machinations of “white folk” in order to vote in the Presidential election, but they don’t vote in municipal elections because they are held in odd numbered years? Please! Ferguson’s residents are free to do as they please, and it seems that they do, but it isn’t my fault or responsibility.

  47. Brian Mann says:

    Larry –

    Here’s what I don’t understand about your argument.

    I’ve seen you here on this site arguing over and over again for years that policies, ideas and actions carried out by people far away in Albany or Washington DC have hurt America or hurt your community.

    You’ve demanded changes in policies and approaches so that those impacts can be alleviated, and the lives of people you care about improved.

    Why isn’t it reasonable to ask those same questions — and make those same demands – on behalf of the people of Ferguson, and black people generally?

    If bad policies in Washington can be to blame for bad things happening in your world, why can’t the same be true in this terrible situation? Why is it suddenly their fault entirely for ‘not caring enough’?

    Why is it there fault entirely that another young black man was shot dead?

    It seems to me that you’re a guy who understands that government policies and laws and decisions can make it much, much harder for a community to function in a healthy way.

    In Missouri, for example, where blacks were banned from owning homes in the nice neighborhoods, where whites carried out deadly pogroms against blacks, where blacks were denied good government jobs or programs that lifted up their white neighbors.

    Isn’t it fair to say that while black leaders and citizens have responsibilities, we should also look at the actions whites have made that have made their lives unimaginably more difficult?

    –Brian, NCPR

  48. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Larry, I understand your point, but I think you fail to admit basic facts of human nature. People who are poor and have been systematically discriminated against will react differently to a situation than people of privilege.

    Yes, if everyone voted things would be very different in this country. That is exactly the reason whites came up with all those ways of keeping blacks from voting after the 15th Amendment was passed – poll taxes, grandfather clause, literacy tests. Yes, the Voting Rights Act was supposed to fix all that but, come on, the reality is that voter suppression is happening all over the country.

    I thought it was a good conservative idea that if you see a problem you should take responsibility and help to fix it, whether the problem affects you or not. Seems like that is the sort of thing they used to teach in churches – white churches and black churches. Things like the Golden Rule, and the story of the Good Samaritan, and pretty much everything Jesus said.

    If we are a Christian Nation, as so many people like to say, why don’t we act like better Christians?

  49. Pete Klein says:

    This whole line of thought is getting a bit confusing. The only way the problems of Ferguson will be solved will be if the people of Ferguson solve them. This is true world wind. We can not solve the problems in the Middle East, the Ukraine or any place else.
    Each of us, no matter our race, color or religion, can only hope to solve our own problems. None of our problems will ever be solved using violence or blaming someone else for our problems.
    Bigotry is stupid. You can not elevate yourself by trying to tear someone else down. You only end up making yourself smaller.
    The conversation here has been interesting but I don’t believe it has accomplished much of anything.
    Last thought. I like the variety of life. It would be horrible if we all looked and thought the same. Why, we wouldn’t have anything to argue about.

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