Editor’s Note: Opinions expressed in letters to the editor are those of the author, and publication in the Graphic in no way represents an endorsement of any opinions published. This space is provided to allow public response and commentary on articles and issues which are covered by the Graphic and important to its readership.
My name is Aaron Wilson and I am a former Seaver student and graduate of the class of 2013. I was also the editor of the Perspectives section of the Graphic during my senior year.
I came across a recent opinion piece in the Graphic entitled “SWAB and SGA Use Campus Life Fee to Push Racial Division,” and subsequently felt compelled to write a response in the hopes that we could potentially find some common ground upon which to proceed amicably as we all seek to navigate the tempestuous waters of the dialogue surrounding structural racism in the United States. A tall task, I know — but bear with me.
I’ve thought a lot about how I wanted to approach this conversation, and, truthfully, my visceral response to this article was that of both anger and contempt, but after giving it some thought, I eventually returned to my most basic understanding of a fact of life; which is, that anger is easy but grace is hard. So, I’ve chosen the latter approach. Let’s go point-by-point.
The article begins by making the following claim: “Among the wild claims found between the covers of ‘White Fragility’ is DiAngelo’s assertion that ‘we are socially penalized for challenging racism.’ DiAngelo’s own business model exposes the unmistakable absurdity of this idea.”
Now, generally speaking, I see what the author was attempting to accomplish by starting here. The argument, as I’ve understood it, is that institutional racism cannot possibly exist, at least in the ways in which Robin DiAngelo wants her readers to believe it does, since, if that were true, then by her own logic, the very business model that she has made use of to deliver this book would be unviable.
If I am being as charitable as possible, at best, this argument amounts to a claim without substantiation or the empirical verification that it would need to carry the argumentative weight of a substantive objection to institutional racism as a whole. At worst, this argument toes the line between some sort of ad hominem and an appeal to hypocrisy. But, let’s focus on the former.
The article claims that DiAngelo’s own business model is a counterexample to her claim that “we live in a ‘white supremacist culture,’ and that white bias is ‘backed by institutional power,’” to which I ask, does this one (perceived or actual) counterexample do the requisite intellectual legwork that would be needed in order to summarily undermine an assertion about institutional racism on a macro scale? I do not believe that it does. DiAngelo’s claim, on the other hand, is backed by mountains of empirical data to the contrary, which is seemingly unaccounted for, so I will provide some counterexamples of my own.
In the interest of brevity, I’ll give the SparkNotes version of U.S. history and leave readers to the task of investigating the claims herein as they see fit. Let’s start with everyone’s favorite topic: slavery. If you’ve ever taken a U.S. history class, then you probably learned that the institution of slavery in the United States started in 1619 in Jamestown. This is actually incorrect. The first known African slaves actually arrived nearly 100 years earlier by way of the Spaniards. But, for argument’s sake, let’s focus on 1619.
If slavery was institutionalized in 1619 with the arrival of the first British colonizers and then abolished in 1865 with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, then that means that slavery was an institution in the United States for at least 246 years. By contrast, the United States declared independence in 1776. 245 years ago. So, by all accounts, the institution of slavery in the United States existed for longer than the United States has officially been a country.
Then, from around 1870 to 1965, many Southern states adopted the doctrine of Jim Crow, which was a set of laws that maintained and enforced racial segregation. Many people may be familiar with the landmark Supreme Court case, Plessy v. Ferguson, which established the doctrine of “separate but equal.” But what they may not know about this doctrine, however, is that its expressed intent was to keep races separate, so long as the facilities and amenities provided to each were of equal value, but, as I am sure (or I hope) many of you are aware, this was far from the case. Not only were the economic resources available to Black people subpar, to say the least; at times, these resources were simply non-existent. And we’re talking about basic things like schools and hospitals.
So, if we’re keeping inventory here, we have around 246 years of chattel slavery where the Black population was viewed as human livestock, and then another 100 years of de jure segregation that denied entire Black communities access to the basic dignities of a functioning society, which, taken cumulatively, dwarf the United States’ own existence as a country. I believe this is what DiAngelo means when she says racism is “foundational” to its origins.
And we still haven’t ventured into the fun stuff, like redlining, which was a discriminatory lending practice that existed from around the mid-1930s to the early 1970s that systematically denied Black communities access to loans that would enable them to buy and own property, as their white counterparts were doing in other neighborhoods, thereby placing them at a direct and prolonged economic disadvantage, compounded on top of the already problematic socioeconomic disadvantages that resulted from the previous 300 or so years (see: slavery/Jim Crow).
In the interest of character limit, I’ve also spared readers discussions about lynchings, voter suppression, the prison-industrial complex, torturous medical procedures performed on Black women that inform the obstetrics and gynecological medical fields we know today, and the mountains of research throughout the Justice Department that explicate and acknowledge the discriminatory policing practices and disproportionate sentencing that still plague Black and brown neighborhoods in 2021.
Now, circling back to the original claim, I ask, does the author of the original post genuinely believe that their objection, which amounts to “this author makes money off her book, so institutional racism can’t possibly exist,” carries the necessary empirical weight that it needs to demonstrate, as they put it, the “unmistakable absurdity” of this idea? Because when DiAngelo says “institutional racism,” I believe the above is what she means.
If the things I mentioned above are not white supremacy, then what are they?
Moving on, the author goes on to mention Jussie Smollett, which is quite bizarre to me, given that this opinion piece was posted on the day that a white cop began trial for publicly lynching a Black man in 2020 by kneeling on his neck for over 9 minutes. Furthermore, when they say Jussie Smollett, I say Tamir Rice. When they say Jussie Smollett, I say Ahmaud Arbery. When they say Jussie Smollett, I say Philando Castille. When they say Jussie Smollett, I say Breonna Taylor. I think it is clear where I am going with this. The author chooses one counterexample as the basis for their argument while neglecting to mention the countless other examples to the contrary. I do not believe Eric Garner was merely “virtue-signaling” when he uttered his last words, “I can’t breathe.” We needn’t defer to Jussie Smollett for “imaginary” examples of racism when there are so many other credible examples that we can source from.
Let’s continue. The author concludes their analysis of “White Fragility” by seemingly posturing as the “real victim” while centering themself and their own feelings in this conversation about structural racism against Black and brown people. In the article, they state, “Are people not denied their dignity when they’re told that they’re evil, simply by the circumstance of their birth? What dignity is afforded to those who are told that they are born with a sickness?” To which I reply, what dignity was afforded to an entire race of people who were counted as 3/5ths of a person in our own Constitution until the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified nearly 100 years later? The author being stripped of their dignity is based entirely on their own perception; Black people being stripped of basic dignities was legal precedent. These things are not equal.
Now, perhaps some may feel inclined to point out that these things were “a long time ago,” to which I would refer them back to my original point about the institution of slavery existing longer than the United States has been a country, then discriminatory practices like Jim Crow and red-lining informing public policy for another 100 or so years. Even if, for argument’s sake, we say that legally-backed anti-Black racism in the United States ended with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (it didn’t), that it is still only 57 years ago. Some of our parents, not our ancestors, our parents, are older than that. Does anyone believe that minorities should have overcome the sociopolitical and economic disadvantages of the previous 300 some odd years in just 57 years (which only covers about 23% of the time Black people spent in literal bondage if we started counting at 1619)? I’m sure one could hold this position, but it seems untenable.
Lastly, the author mentions irony throughout the article, so I figured I’d take a gander at that as well. I believe it’s ironic that the author read a book called “White Fragility” and then felt compelled to write this article in the first place — demonstrating exactly that. I believe this is why they wanted the author to read the book. Also, I feel compelled to add that the United States is not a Christian nation (see: separation of church and state). And, even if it was a Christian nation, the Bible was used throughout antiquity to endorse slavery (Ephesians 6:5) and even ethnic cleansing and land-grabbing (Joshua 6:21). So, it appears, to me at least, that we are still talking about racism on a fundamental level.
All in all, I hope that I’ve said something here that has resonated with readers of the Graphic, in hopes that we can continue a productive discourse on this topic from a healthy place, rather than one of avarice or demonization. While I sympathize with the author’s desire to not be needlessly chastised for something they are not directly responsible for, I also maintain, resolutely, that a conversation about “anti-white racism” in the pursuit of clarity on the topic of structural racism aimed at Black and brown communities is not only wholly misguided but also incredibly tone-deaf (and borderline racist).
I do hope that we have broken new ground in this conversation.
Aaron Wilson ‘13