Wake Up White America!

Racist Policies Lead to Death and Destruction

Heather Gray
December 1, 2014

As we entered the 21st century, I reflected upon the appalling reality of white supremacy in America and the western world generally and decided I wanted to write about it in ways I’d not before. I particularly wanted to challenge other white folks. This resulted in my article “A Message to White America: It’s Time We Woke Up ” in March 2000 that reverberated across the country. Within minutes of it being posted on the Black Radical Congress list serve and other websites, I started receiving messages from all over the country. This included some scathing remarks from whites, of course, but some 250 remarkably revealing and heartfelt comments from both blacks and whites. It was and remains on numerous websites presently. In 2005, however, given the overwhelming tragedy in New Orleans in the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina, I wanted to dust it off and re-issue it with a few edits and a forward.  Given the recent tragedies in Ferguson and elsewhere, I am doing this editing yet again  – the struggle is obviously on-going.

Regarding Katrina in 2005, and violence in Iraq as well, thanks to America, I watched, with anger, the images of death and destruction of the poor, the people of color, the children and the elders in New Orleans and juxtaposed the same scenes in Iraq. I then connected the dots.

Many of us in America are now responding regarding the tragedy in Ferguson and elsewhere around the country as we witness the on-going ugly expression of white supremacy resulting in death and destruction.

The problem is that white Americans in mass have not consistently attacked this disgusting and criminal entity known as “white supremacy” throughout its long and sinister history.

Heather Gray, John Lewis, King Center interns in Selma, 1985 — the 20th anniversary of the 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery

Invariably these past and current tragedies reveal the violent and greedy underbelly of western white supremacy that bolsters and informs U.S. policies both domestically and internationally. It is, categorically, a sad state of affairs as it remains as American as apple pie. Arrogant white supremacy coupled with government and corporate financial mismanagement and corruption is far more than an academic or economic issue or even greed for that matter, it is criminal behavior that leads to loss of life and livelihood for the masses in the U.S. and throughout the world, in fact. But we as whites rarely will allow ourselves to look critically at what we do. We constantly deny our past and present racist and white supremacist policies.

When the planes struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, I thought “all right ” here is some entity out there sending an amazingly tragic and profound message to America. Whatever their message was, the fact is that the planes struck at the heart of western capitalism and the military used to bolster it around the world. Maybe, just maybe Americans will begin to reflect on these targets and what this meant. Maybe they’ll reflect about the impact of American corporate abuse and arrogant racist policies throughout the world that I’ve witnessed in Asia and Africa and here in America. Maybe Americans will do this. My hopes were dashed. At virtually all levels of American political and economic society there was never a hint of self-reflection or questioning why 9/11 occurred on American soil. Americans instead acted like they were innocent victims of terrorists as if there is no blood on our hands. Unfortunately, this is a time honored typical response by us. We almost always refuse to look at ourselves and claim any responsibility. We tend to live in a dream world filled with lies and deception.

The world, and our own people here in America, can ill afford us keeping our heads in the sand any longer.

At an event in Atlanta, Jesse Jackson spoke at the 40th anniversary of the 1965 “Bloody Sunday ” in Selma, Alabama when marchers, including my Congressman John Lewis, walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to be met by George Wallace’s Alabama State Patrol armed with clubs and horses. They were planning a march to Montgomery to demand their voting rights but instead were beaten and clubbed by the Alabama patrol. John Lewis was particularly targeted and unconscious at the end of the debacle. Alabama Attorney J. L. Chestnut was there that day and described hearing bones crack as horses stepped on people’s bodies. Quite a few years ago I stood with John Lewis at the top of the bridge. He said that in 1965 as they looked across to the other side of the bridge all they could see was an ominous “sea of blue” — the uniforms of the Alabama State Patrol.

John Lewis and E. D. Nixon (center), leader in Montgomery NAACP in 1950s who encouraged activism of M. L. King and Rosa Parks; King Center interns Santa Iadevaia, Will Kennedy, Eddy Herndon (photo: Heather Gray)

Jackson said that later he had talked with George Wallace about that fateful event and asked why he ordered the patrol to the bridge that day. Wallace apparently responded that there was a white mob beyond the State Patrol that would have been far worse and that he was fearful of the consequences, so he placed the State Patrol between the marchers and the white mob. Jackson said that the issue here is that even if Wallace had genuinely felt he was protecting the marchers in this way, why didn’t he instead turn the State Patrol on the white mob, rather than the marchers who demanded justice based on their rights under the Constitution.

The question is sobering indeed, and much could be written about this. But for now it is important to realize at least that we as whites — George Wallace and all of us — rarely challenge ourselves or other whites about white supremacy and its dreadful consequences. Enough is enough!!!

In his biography of W. E. B. DuBois, David Levering Lewis notes that DuBois struggled with the attitude of those who contended that the “resolution of class struggle resolved the race problem. ” Lewis states that DuBois asserted that, “exploitation of black workers by white workers was preordained, inscribed, as it were, on the DNA of the white American proletariat. White Alabama and Arkansas workers would prevent black workers from rising out of the mudsill by mob and apartheid laws…just as their northern counterparts had historically done through urban riots exclusionary union rules…. ”

While we have seen some changes in America, much of DuBois’s concerns have simply not been addressed and the progress we’ve made is now threatened by conservative trends and the Supreme Court meddling. This is likely happening, for one, because we’ve not looked at and addressed the core problems in America that now scream at us in Ferguson as well as in U.S. violence in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere now and historically. Race and class? Absolutely! But injustice is never without some response and people invariably rise to challenge the injustice in some form – at least for a while – but it needs to be consistent and long-lasting. “A luta continua ” or “the struggle continues” is the great African saying during the anti-apartheid era that is all the more relevant in today’s America … and suffice it to say, it’s long past time that we as whites met the challenge of addressing white supremacy that undergirds so much of the world’s problems.

Below is the article I wrote in 2000 that I have subsequently edited for the second time – first in 2005 during the Katrina fiasco and now in 2014 with Ferguson and the abhorrent ongoing loss of so many of our young Black Americans.

It’s Time We As Whites Woke Up

I am of European descent and, while I prefer to be called European-American, given the American practice of classifying people by their color, I need to state unequivocally that I am “white”. And it is of this “whiteness” that I write that will include both the repercussions and responsibilities.

I have been a political activist all of my adult life. For more than 30 years, I have participated in virtually all the major movements for justice in this country encompassing pro-civil rights, pro-human rights, pro-environment, pro-women’s rights and anti-imperialism, anti-war, anti-apartheid, anti-nuclear, anti-corporate, anti-death penalty, on and on. Throughout this vast experience, invariably racism and class oppression raise their ugly heads. Both are powerful independent variables. For me, however, the most compelling and disturbing of these are racism and its companion white supremacy.

Invariably, white supremacy is used to bolster financial gain and virtually every other gain. The brilliant and profound scholar W. E. B. DuBois warned us that the issue of race would define the 20th century, which indeed it has. And because America has been so lax in adequately addressing this disease of racism and all it’s augmented problems, race will likely define the 21rst century as well.  

It has been said that virtually every group can and does “discriminate ” on the basis of race or other issues. What makes it different for us whites, in the United States and the western world generally, is the “power ” financially and otherwise to enforce our discriminatory attitudes and we as whites have always done this with arrogance, and no apology.

p>White supremacy in America is of epidemic proportions and whoever denies this must be a fool or blind. It surrounds us in our economic strata, in our prison system, in our schools, in our food system, in our political infrastructures, in our foreign policy, in our health system, in our housing, in our banking to name only a few!

It is a problem not only in white conservative circles, where most activists would expect it to be lodged, but in the so-called liberal and progressive circles as well. Yet, all will attempt to state otherwise. Conservatives might claim some of their best friends are Black. Liberals might state that they are working for changes of some policies that will “make life better for Blacks ”. Progressives in various organizations might say that they are working under the leadership of Blacks so they must be doing something right. None of this is ever enough and it is literally and figuratively “white wash ”.

It is true that historically there have always been whites that have taken a stand against racism but the numbers have been far too limited given the enormity of the problem. This has frustrated me to the point that a few years ago I wrote a lengthy poem entitled “Being White and Angry” and about “Capitalism” in which I delineated what some have described as an epistle of “white ” ancestral and present day immoral, disgraceful and tragic exploits from slavery to the Gulf War in the early 1990s.

What has been built on the basis of racism and white supremacy have always teetered on the walls of decay because lies and deception are their foundation. No one has gained from racism, despite claims to the contrary. If anything, we as whites have diminished our souls through racist practices and any economic gains are tainted – I refer to such gains as blood money.

We, as whites, will rarely claim responsibility for our creation of racism and white supremacy (they are ours after all) in spite of the fact that we demand recognition for virtually all other inventions. When it suits us and when we can benefit from it we’ll claim it! It has been said that often the most important things in life are not discussed or written and whites are definitely selective on not speaking out on the above issues. Could this suggest the importance of the issue to whites? I think so because it requires us to look deep into our souls and admit we are and always have been wrong about our entrenched present and past racism. This is seemingly an impossible task for most whites. Most of us have a shell that’s almost impenetrable.

While everyone else rails against us whites for our racist attitudes and policies, we are largely and despicably silent on the issue. Why are we like this? Do many of us who are white want to maintain the present white supremacist system? Yes, beyond doubt! While rarely are we now wearing sheets over our heads, we are instead sitting in boardrooms where we implement racist policies. But in today’s climate it is not appropriate to state, without reserve, that we are racist. Instead everyone skirts around the issue. This false impression by other whites drives me nuts.

Are some of us nervous about reactions from other whites if we take up the call against white supremacy? For some, this is likely true. Are we ignorant of white supremacy? No, but nevertheless it seems the majority of whites claim ignorance. Are we apathetic? Yes. Do some of us feel guilt? Probably. Would we prefer to pass the buck? Always. Strangely, we prefer to blame those who are the victims of our prevailing racism as if they were architects of their own victimization and not us. The insanity and hypocrisy of this is mind-boggling.

Throughout the years, whenever I’ve attended panels or conferences on racism organized by whites, invariably Blacks will be invited to participate. This is important because we as whites always need to be educated about the devastating impact of our actions and attitudes. But where, I’ve always asked, are the masses of whites that need to take up the mantle with other whites on this issue. Why are we, in vast numbers, not also on those panels and in the streets demanding change? Indeed, it is this lack of attention to racism on the part of whites with other whites that, in my opinion, has always been the missing equation in addressing the morass of the tragic effects of racism and white supremacy. The problem of racism rests with those of us who are white – we are the racists, we are the architects of this dreadful disease, we are the supremacists, and, guided by our Black sisters and brothers, we need to begin being accountable, speaking out and taking action. We need to plant the seed and let it grow deliberately and exponentially…. from individual to individual, from community to community, from city to city, from nation to nation.

Some time ago, while having dinner with a Black friend, the discussion veered toward an update of racism in America. Citing the diminishing of affirmative action programs across the country and other telling signs, he said, “I think white America is getting tired of everything being blamed on racism. ” I said “So what! White America needs to be badgered every minute of every day about our racist attitudes and actions. ” In fact, I still rankle over the “angry white male ” contention in the early 90s stating that because of policies to reverse the preeminent white access to virtually all privileges in this country, at the expense of everyone else, they felt they were being discriminated against. The gall of white males expressing anger over anything after hundreds of years of ancestral privilege astounds me…leaves me breathless. To be perfectly frank, I remain an “angry white female ” expressing indignation at “angry white males ” for this insult.

Upon reflection, I realized that my friend’s comment was but an ancient response from Blacks who try to appease whites to prevent repercussions – a tragic defensive legacy of America’s racist paternalistic society. Upon further reflection, however, I realized that whites react similarly with other whites. Invariably, whites will attempt to make other whites feel comfortable with their racism or will be deplorably apathetic. We as whites need to stop this nonsense.

It is my hope that in the 21st century, America’s white community will finally come to its senses.

In communities throughout the country we white Americans can take a stand now, this very minute, and always should have been acting on or own and with other whites and Blacks. We can first educate ourselves about racism and address our own racist attitudes that should start with the basic premise that if you are white and born in America you are a racist. Don’t think otherwise because it will not be true. We can learn from Blacks and other whites how to get beyond our racist background, how to be watchful of our own actions and attitudes and change them. Secondly, never let other whites get away with their racist attitudes and actions. Stop them immediately. Don’t excuse them or attempt to make them feel comfortable. Thirdly, study the history of white and Black resistance to racism and injustice. This is not something you will learn in public schools, which would view white resistance, in particular, as traitorous to the racist American system. After all, it is traitorous to the status quo in America, as well it should be given the status quo is exceptionally racist. Fourthly, and most importantly, seek advice from Blacks on what we as whites should do to adequately and aggressively address racist problems in our communities, in the nation, in the world. Don’t ever think for one minute that we as whites have the answers because we don’t.

Finally, after centuries of “white ” deceit, be mindful that, pathetically, we as whites still want to control everything and usually think we know everything. We need to recognize that we should never pursue any struggle against racism or for justice alone – or for any other struggle for that matter. With whites leading the way we have experienced untold disasters for centuries. Forbid we should revisit such devastating consequences and pain. Actually, this is rather a non-issue. Our deceit and lies are now out there for everyone to see; we could never get away with leading the way even if we tried. Let’s admit our ignorance and false vacuous, hopeless pride. It’s time we started to learn and do something worthwhile. We are centuries too late, but now is as good a time as any to start!

HEATHER GRAY produces “Just Peace ” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at hmcgray@earthlink.net. She directed the Non-Violent program at the King Center in Atlanta in the mid-1980s.