San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, asked the other day about the importance of marking Black History Month, noted that the National Basketball Association is “made up of a lot of black guys.” More importantly, he said, “we live in a racist country that hasn’t figured it out yet.”
This sort of candor has won Popovich deep respect among people of color while prompting consternation among some white folks. In another remark that went viral last fall, Popovich said, “We [white people] still have no clue of what being born white means.”
He’s right. Most of us white Americans have little understanding of whiteness. Where did it come from? Who invented the notion of being white, and why? How does whiteness function in the world?
In a seven-hour podcast series, “Seeing White”, I dove into those questions along with fellow journalist Chenjerai Kumanyika and with help from leading scholars of race.
Not only do we learn that race is man-made, we tell the story of its invention in Europe and we name names. We explore how notions of whiteness and blackness were further refined in Colonial America as our strikingly cruel brand of chattel slavery took shape. We show how racial science reinforced racist ideas well into the 20th century.
“Seeing White” struck a chord. It got our modest, independent podcast on some Best-of-2017 lists, and downloads are approaching a million. It seems there’s a hunger in these troubling times for a deeper understanding of how we got here.
America’s default narrative on race goes roughly like this: The United States was the first nation founded not on tribalism but on universalist ideals, and that makes us exceptional.
True, we’ll acknowledge, our Euro-American forebears got off on the wrong foot with slavery and the coercive extraction of Native land. But everybody was racist back then. Our inevitable redemption was written into our national DNA in those founding documents: “All men are created equal.” And sure enough, we fixed slavery in the 1860s and Jim Crow a century later, and even elected a black president. We’ve still got a few stray bigots out there – backward Southerners, mostly – but racism isn’t much of a thing anymore so people should get over the past.
That’s our story and we’re sticking to it, apparently. The problem? It’s wrong.
In fact, overt white supremacy is painfully recent. For about 350 of our 400 years of U.S. and colonial history, white dominance was codified in law. Some black children attacked while integrating Southern schools are just now reaching retirement age. People who screamed hate at those children are alive and voting. There are black Americans alive today whose grandparents were born in bondage.
As for those “few” stray bigots? Turns out there are more than a few. Those chanting Nazis and Klansmen in Charlottesville; the string of white supremacist terrorists, including Dylann Roof; the many Trump supporters who, studies show, voted more on resentment toward people of color and immigrants than on “economic anxiety.”
Nor is racism a distinctly Southern problem. It’s an all-over-America thing. Anti-black racism was the default attitude of white Americans, North and South, before, during and after the Civil War. Today, the most segregated cities are mostly in the North.
White supremacy today is not mainly about the guys with Tiki torches. It’s about power, and systemic patterns of racial advantage that were baked into our institutions – institutions that we’ve never fundamentally reformed.
The first Congress decreed in 1790 that only white people need apply for naturalized citizenship. Ever since, government largesse directed mostly to white people – the Homestead Act, federally-backed home loans, the GI Bill – dwarfs the more recent Affirmative Action programs granting access to people of color (and white women).
The results prove we’ve never really changed: The deep, racialized inequities in our schools and criminal justice system. The studies that show racial bias by employers depending on whether the applicant’s name is Connor or Darnell. The dramatic wealth gap between white and black Americans.
Whiteness, like blackness and the other “races,” is a fiction, invented to justify and explain exploitation. That fiction and its outgrowth, white supremacy, were central organizing principles in the building of the United States.
If white Americans don’t work to overturn the racist structures that our forebears built, then white supremacy will keep reproducing itself and we’re effectively in collusion with it.
These truths are difficult for many of us to accept, as Gregg Popovich said. But they’re not hard to see if we’ll only open our eyes.
John Biewen is audio program director at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and host of the CDS podcast Scene on Radio.