Racism: A Tale of Debt for Confused White People

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It's May 31, 2020. Last night crowds gathered in cities around the country to protest the death of George Floyd, a black man who was publicly murdered in broad daylight by a small group of police officers. The instigating offense?: Mr. Floyd allegedly attempted to use counterfeit money to purchase items at a store. In my city of Durham, NC, protests went down peacefully. In other cities, property and places of business were vandalized and damaged. Across the country, people are angry and hurting that once again, another black live was snuffed out. People of color are tired, angry, and hurt. Some white people feel tired, angry, and hurt for their friends. Other white people are confused as to why people of color are so angry, and even if they kind of "get it," does looting help? does protesting help? does rioting help? 

This story I write for my fellow white people who want to wash their hands of racism -- who want to deny it exists -- who even admit it exists but insist it's not their problem or responsibility to fix it -- who want to stick their head in the sand and wish it away. From the time we are young, we are taught that racism is bad. Call a white person racist and prepare to lose a friend. I actually can't think of a worse thing you can call a white person. Sure, I'll admit to being lazy, consumerist, addicted to work, prideful, jealous, or lustful, but call me racist and I will come up with every excuse that I'm not. I will tell you about my "black friend" or the guy I dated once or how much I like Michael B. Jordan. 

A common refrain I heard voiced in my youth: "Slavery was wrong, but I never had slaves. It wasn't me. You can't blame me." Today, white people still think this way. "That was a long time ago, right? Society has evolved. Sure, there's racist people in the world, but I'm not one." We become like Pontius Pilate, washing our hands of any stain. Ready to pass the buck to someone else. While racism as a systemic issue can be hard to wrap the mind around, I thought of an analogy which white people understand very well: Debt. 

Debt is its own form of slavery. It seems like a good solution when you feel desperate, but often it becomes a trap you can't escape once you start. You borrow money for college. An average four years of college, and let's say you have accumulated $25,000 in debt. (These were my numbers from 2001, so they may be low for today). My college loans took me 13 years to pay off, and that was with extra payments each time. Even with what is considered a good job, it can be very difficult to make it on the average American salary. As time goes on, you need more money. Perhaps you get married, have children to support, and you need a home for your family. You need a vehicle to get to work. You need to borrow more money. Although we do these things to provide for our family and children, often when people leave this Earth, they do so with debt. 

What happens to that debt? Does it disappear into the air? No, sir. The money is still owed. A few things can happen. An estate executor settles up the debts with any assets, a lender can choose to wipe away the debt, or if there's no assets to cover the debt, the lenders will have to swallow the loss. That is how debt works. What's my point? The sin of slavery and racism is a debt that was passed on. 

Even though I have very mixed feelings about the book Twelve Years a Slave, I remember a quote from the book and movie. Solomon Northrop says, "There’s a sin, a fearful sin, resting on this nation, that will not go unpunished forever. There will be a reckoning yet—yes, Epps, there’s a day coming that will burn as an oven. It may be sooner or it may be later, but it’s a coming as sure as the Lord is just." Northrop's words warned Epps that although he was getting away with wrongdoing today, a day of accounting would come. 

Every time a person of color was kidnapped and put in chains -- every time a person of color was sold like livestock -- every time a person of color was beaten, chased, lynched, raped, starved, punished for showing intelligence, a debt was incurred. 

As time marches on and slavery became illegal, the injustices didn't stop. People of color were kept in slavery. They were still beaten, raped, lynched, kept in poverty, kept from voting, kept from getting an education. Some white people directly committed atrocities. Other white people stood on the side and did nothing. Again debt was incurred. There was debt up on debt. The men and women bought and sold as slaves had children and grandchildren. Each generation owed a debt. Each generation of white people denied they were doing anything wrong or claimed they weren't the problem and not the solution. Now today, the debt has reached epic proportions. There is debt on top of debt, and every time the debt is denied, it grows. 

Even if theoretically, you have never been guilty of any racist thoughts or actions, can't you see the debt is still there? People of color are owed a great deal and it's never been paid. Remember in the story there are three possible avenues for dealing with debt.

1. Pay the debt.
2. The lender forgives the debt.
3. The lender is forced to swallow the debt.

#3 is the default. In the world today, people of color are forced to just deal with the debt on their own. That's what they have been doing, the best they can. They learn to distrust white people and the society they live in. They don't get to feel safe. They find ways of operating that break "white rules" that we impose. They swallow it. They feel angry and have to deal with it on their own. If they show anger they are called out for being angry. Where are they supposed to put their anger? 

#2 White people might say, "Can't you just forgive and forget? What good does it do to get angry? Love is the answer." Hey, that route has been tried. And I'm not saying forgiveness isn't a possible route. But white people, WE DON'T GET TO DECIDE WHEN AND HOW WE SHOULD BE FORGIVEN. It's not up to us when others forgive. And the problem is deeper than a few acts. It's still going on. 

#1 Pay the debt. This is the hardest avenue. Looking back on my days in debt for college loans. It seemed like it would take forever. That no matter how much I sacrificed or did without, I would never get out of debt. It didn't seem fair. I watched other friends around me buy houses, take fancy vacations, buy a new car every two years. And I felt like everyone was doing better than me (Newsflash: often they are also in debt; you just don't know it.) And honestly, with the amount of debt we owe people of color, this may not happen in my lifetime. 

How do you start if you want to pay the debt? We start by stopping and listening. We stop complaining that we are tired of feeling wrong for being white. We start listening to our friends of color and stop talking. We listen and we learn. We read books, we attend workshops or talks, we ask questions and repress the need to defend ourselves. We look for stories about people who are not like us. We make friends outside our culture. As we learn, we stand up for other people. We call our racism, overt or subtle when we see it. 

This is not easy work. But it's time we started recognizing the debt instead of pretending it's not there.