In our attempt to overcome the racism we’ve been taught, many of us older white liberals try to “understand” black people. I know I did. I went to teach at Trenton High believing that all the black teachers and administrators would be like Martin Luther King, Jr. They’d be devoted to improving the lives of their students. Eager to think the best of—but totally unfamiliar with—black people, I chose a stellar example to define my “they.” And whenever my colleagues turned out not to be clones of Dr. King, I was confused and disappointed.
White people who remain racist have often chosen a negative stereotype to describe black people. A childhood acquaintance who still lives in Greenwich, where I grew up, employed a black woman to look after her own children. Yet, when I visited and told her that I worked with black people, she said, “Isn’t it awful the way they raise their kids!” I was shocked by this racist comment. She certainly didn’t know enough black people to generalize about how “they” raised their kids. I also wondered why she hadn’t chosen the nanny she’d trusted for years as her definition of “they.”
My acquaintance and I were both misguided. We wouldn’t have tried to understand or describe white people. Why try with black people? What I didn’t recognize at the time was that, although my acquaintance was certainly racist, I exercised a more subtle form of racism myself. I wished that those black mothers who didn’t raise their children well would realize they were giving black people a bad name. “Don’t you know what white people are thinking?” was my silent plea. “Don’t you know how many of us generalize from individuals to groups, from ‘you’ to ‘they’?”
Liberal white folk don’t want to think badly of black people and so don’t like to be reminded that some black individuals actually do bad things. After Ferguson, I heard white friends complain that Michael Brown should have gotten out of the street, shouldn’t have used the “f” word, shouldn’t have taken those cigarettes, should have backed off. I think they complain partly because better behavior might have saved Michael Brown’s life but perhaps partly because, even though they side with Michael Brown, they would have preferred to support a model black teenager. Michael Brown’s aggressiveness makes them uncomfortable. Yet, if Michael Brown were their son’s troubled white friend (their own son, of course, would never lock horns with a cop), wouldn’t they overlook his behavior and concentrate only on the outrageous over-reaction of the police?
Black professionals know that, because of America’s history of racism, they must be better than their white counterparts to achieve the same success. We white liberals acknowledge that this pressure is unfair. Yet we pressure a Michael Brown or a black welfare mother because we fear that their behavior will feed the racism of other white people—and perhaps our own. That pressure is racist because we don’t ask the same of the in-your-face white teenager or white welfare mother. Their behavior is no reflection on us—unless, of course, black people generalize from the individual to the race, as many white people do. Yet if I don’t want to be held responsible for the actions of the Ku Klux Klan, I can’t expect a black person to be responsible for the behavior of other black people.
White people are good, bad, smart, dumb, beautiful and ugly, and so are black people. White people who’ve grown up in integrated communities know this from childhood. I didn’t. But, I was fortunate to work with a cross-section of black people. I learned it then.