“I am told by my President, and by every black leader in America that all whites are guilty of systemic racism! Even if they are not aware of what the term means! And it begins at birth just like original sin. No way out of it.
“So as long as blacks believe that every white American is born a racist there will never be racial healing. I now know that even my black friends secretly look at me as a racist and there is no way to change their opinion.
“I will never be accepted as a good person simply because I was born white.”
I received this email from a reader in Ohio, someone who is obviously distressed by the current state of race relations in our country shown in the media. His message was a response to my column last week, in which I called for racial healing and forgiveness after the guilty verdict in the Derek Chauvin case. I have a feeling this reader is burned out from a news overload, as he does not have hope that we’ll reach a point of reconciliation.
In my reply, I assured him that I did not believe he is a racist and that not all African Americans believe every white person is prejudiced. I could tell that he was sincerely frustrated, because he mentioned his black friends and obviously cares about how they view him. His message to me shows that many people need a better understanding of what systemic racism is.
Systemic racism, also termed as institutional racism, is defined as structures entrenched within our society that result in discrimination and disparities in our systems of education, politics, health care, criminal justice, housing and employment. If we look at housing, for example, the history of redlining is well known, in which mortgagers invested in suburban neighborhoods and refused to give loans to blacks.
This discriminatory dealing is traced back to the early 1930s when the Federal Housing Administration was funding builders who were constructing homes for whites in subdivisions. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 outlawed redlining, but there are still cases of biased lending practices, such as the Hunt Mortgage Corp. in Buffalo, New York, being cited by the state’s financial regulators for “a weakness in lending to minorities.” Redlining, in the past and present, has been a huge obstacle for many African American families in building generational wealth.
Now, as far as my reader is concerned, it’s not his fault that our nation has a painful history of redlining and other forms of discrimination that are still ingrained in our institutional systems. Just because some whites who are racist have engaged in these bigoted practices does not make all white people racist. And when looking back in history, we can always find white people who were on the right side. For instance, Anne McCarty Braden, a white journalist and civil rights activist, challenged racism in homeownership in Louisville, Kentucky, during the 1950s. Braden and her husband helped a black couple buy a house in 1954 in an all-white neighborhood. They paid a steep price in being shunned and ridiculed by those who deemed them race traitors, but Braden remained a dedicated activist for 60 years.
I plan on sending my reader another response, as, in my first email, I did not have time to review the history I just mentioned. I think this quote from Braden would resonate with him: “(It’s) like you’re part of a long chain of struggle that was here long before you were here, and it’s gonna be here long after you’re gone.”
I believe that many white Americans feel like my reader does, struggling with the sins of our nation’s past as racial unrest continues to be at the forefront of the news. I want to encourage him and others to be part of the change for progress. Braden felt motivated to get involved in the civil rights movement when she attended a church youth session as a young girl. I’ve always believed that God has a special way of touching people’s hearts in the fight for social justice, as He does not view us through a lens of color. When I reach out to my reader again, I pray that he will know that he can be “accepted as a good person,” which is not predicated on race.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at Ohio State University’s Lima campus.