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Why White America Should Take a Knee

A call on White Americans to acknowledge being the recipients of over a century of Affirmative Action, and that racial disparities are engineered rather than imagined. 

October 5, 2017

Article and Photo By Brian T. Murphy

“…but I think that the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further, that the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.”


- James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

On August 14th 2016, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat down during the National Anthem to express his discontent with continued police use of excessive force against Black Americans. Soon after, he received advice from a former Green Beret and modified his peaceful protest to a more respectful gesture, kneeling. Several others have since followed this example.


Unfortunately, this statement has been wrongly repurposed in our national discourse into a discussion of when and how US citizens should respect the National Anthem. However, the ground upon which Kaepernick kneels is home to two different histories – one for Black Americans and one for White Americans. Finding common understanding on this ground is critical toward assuring a right that is not equally accessed in the US: the right to self-determination.


Though it is necessary to ask why so many unarmed black citizens are being killed by police in our streets, a deeper look into this pattern will reveal that biased policing is merely a symptom of a more insidious mechanism that infects American ideals. And this is a problem White Americans continue to ignore. To this end, two major factors have interfered with Black Americans’ right to self-determination:


  1. Black Americans have faced systemic obstacles to inter- and intra- generational economic upward mobility, as reflected in palpable policies embedded within our economic, judicial, and educational systems

  2. White America’s pretense to colorblindness is a dangerous ally to racism


Racial disparities that fuel discontent in our streets, and now on the field, are a product of engineering rather than of imagination. This discontent has manifested in movements such as Black Lives Matter, in an oppositional resurgence (or, rather, unveiling) of white nationalism, and in a renewed debate on the status of racial equality in the US today. Rather than dismissing this growing discontent as unpatriotic, it is White America’s responsibility to first acknowledge it, then collectively understand it.


Admitting that racial disparity exists in the US. The way that we view race as White Americans is quite out of date, and this has castrated efforts aimed at fighting racial inequality. Many of us continue to reduce racism to white hoods and robes, segregation in public spaces, burning crosses and lynchings, or abrasive use of the “n” word. However, much has changed since the Civil Rights movement. Racism now occupies far less obvious but equally destructive forms: mundane policy initiatives, unequal access to government programs and public services, and disproportionate penal practices. The absence of more explicit forms of racism creates space for seemingly innocent denial that racism exists. This denial and consequent misunderstanding precludes productive dialogue between those who proclaim Black Lives Matter as a liberation movement, and those who view them as anti-American.


A massive, interdisciplinary body of literature spanning the past century plainly supports systemic efforts to ransack Black America. These efforts were not born through a concerted century-long conspiracy orchestrated by a few, but by persisting lack of regard toward the welfare of Black America by the many who benefit from White America. This gross combination of greed and apathy enabled the implementation of policies that have decimated upward mobility in poor and middle class black communities to the current day. Detailed below are the major forces driving this inequity.


Black Americans were excluded from New Deal and Fair Deal policies that built America’s middle class (1930s-1950s). As Columbia University Professor Ira Katznelson writes, some of the major policies that built America’s middle class – minimum wage, union rights, social security, and the G. I. Bill – were designed to specifically exclude Black Americans. While implementing social security and New Deal policies, discrimination was mainly accomplished by excluding predominantly black occupations from benefits (maids, farmworkers, etc). This affected up to 66% of the black population (80% of the Southern black population) until the 1950s. Katznelson explains:


“New Deal and Fair Deal initiatives created a modern middle class by enabling more Americans to attend college, secure good jobs, buy houses and start businesses. But in the waning days of Jim Crow, as a result of public policy, many African-Americans were blocked from these opportunities and fell even further behind their white counterparts. The country missed the chance to build an inclusive middle class.”


“The median household wealth for white families, which consists primarily of equity in housing, stands today at $134,230, according to the Economic Policy Institute. But for African-American families, it is just $11,030. The unsettling history of this affirmative action for whites significantly widened racial gaps in income, wealth and opportunity that continue to scar American life.”


Denial of home ownership to Black America (1930s-1970s). After slavery ended, the terrorism of Jim Crow began. As Black Americans escaped this overt form of racism in the South, migrants were met with new and equally devastating challenges in the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast. One of the many obstacles faced by millions in this Great Migration, was finding a safe neighborhood to call home.  


Racially engineered neighborhoods in cities across the nation resulted in significant economic disparity. The New Deal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation and  Federal Housing Administration policies complemented violent backlashes against migrating Black Americans. Racially drawn housing boundaries (“redlining”, or refusal to insure properties in or around predominantly black neighborhoods) placed specific restrictions on the freedom of Black Americans to move around, and severely disadvantaged these communities during periods of economic growth. The widespread effect can be seen in over 150 US cities in this interactive map. When black communities did settle on enviable land, significantly higher rental rates and limited available properties forced overcrowding. Government agencies often employed eminent domain to clear black inhabitants and repurpose the land for urban planning that largely benefited white residents.


White speculators preyed on desperate black migrants. They retained titles on properties, and one missed payment would result in the tenant’s eviction and forfeiting of their down payment and chance to be a homeowner, often robbing them of all they had. Rents were regularly between 15-50% higher for blacks compared to whites. These sales stripped black migrants of their savings during the very years when whites of similar class background were getting an immense economic boost through FHA-backed mortgages that enabled them to purchase new homes for little money down.


When the White American middle class was being built and financed by the government, blacks were selectively excluded, preventing their upward mobility. By 1940, an estimated 9% of blacks owned houses, compared with up to 50% home ownership in other immigrant communities. These policies continued into the 1970s. The creation of a dual housing market for blacks and whites prevented home ownership, caused severe neighborhood overcrowding, diminished access to educational resources, disrupted the family unit through economic exploitation and overworking, all resulting in a ransacking of both wealth and upward mobility based solely on race.


Black children were denied an equal access to education (1930s-current). The effect that socially engineered, overcrowded black neighborhoods had on schools was devastating, and its impact tragically lasting. As Beryl Satter describes in her documentation of this phenomenon in Family Properties:


“In 1960, when Chicago’s average population ratio was 17,000 people per square mile, the ratio in Lawndale [a Chicago neighborhood] was 29,000 people per square mile. Lawndale’s schools suffered especially. Between 1951 in 1965, school enrollment increased 286 percent. Bryant school…enrollment soared from 1,546 students in 1954 to 3,218 and 1957. In 1955, Lawndale was approximately a hundred classrooms short of what it’s youth population required. The city responded to the shortage of classrooms by placing students on “double shifts,” with half of the students attending an early shift and half a later one. Double shift schools denied Lawndale’s children more than a basic education; the truncated school day also meant that many went without adult supervision.”


This effect was not limited to Chicago. As previously discussed, redlining was a nationwide pattern. Youth were left to fend for themselves in overcrowded conditions and without an education, and as a result Lawndale’s black teenagers turned to gangs, which provided structure. An inevitable result of these social conditions was a gravitation toward violence, all while white children had access to a proper education. Over 50 years later, these effects still impact Chicago’s highly segregated South and West Side neighborhoods. These are the same places that are repeatedly criticized by White Americans for having high rates of black violent crime, a partial product of White America’s social engineering and denial of economic benefits based on race.  


Mass incarceration has decimated black families and communities (1970s-current). Race-based housing and educational discrimination were not the only factors that have assaulted Black America. Statistics that detail growing prison populations since the 1970s heavily indict our criminal justice system in the mass incarceration of Black Americans in the US.  


Black Americans comprise over 12% of the US population, but make up nearly 34% of our prison population. An estimated 1 in 15 black males are in prison compared to 1 in 106 white males. Between 1980 and 2017, our prison population increased from 300,000 to 2.2 million, with an additional 5 million people currently on probation or parole. Most of these were non-violent drug offenses prosecuted under the failed War on Drugs, arguably one of the most devastating programs to the Black America since Jim Crow.


As Michelle Alexander explains in The New Jim Crow, during the War on Drugs, the rate of incarceration rose independently from that of the rate at which crimes were committed. That is to say, citizens – the majority of whom were black – were being imprisoned as a result of policy changes, not necessarily as a response to increasing crime rates. Once released from prison, the “felon” label legalized discrimination through the denial of public benefits, in addition to the denial of employment, housing, voting, and educational opportunities.


Policing has also been discriminatory, as authorities target poor and minority communities at alarming rates. The infamous “Stop and Frisk” policy implemented by the NYPD is the quintessential example of this, and one should not understate the psychological effects this has on a community. Alexander summarizes:


“By 2008, the NYPD was stopping 545,000 in a single year, and 80% of the people stopped were African-Americans and Latinos. Whites comprised a mere 8% of people frisked by the NYPD, while African-Americans accounted for 85% of all frisks.”


Less than 1% of these resulted in guns being found, despite that it is a major justification for the program. Similar racial disparities exist for traffic stops, drug arrest rates, and sentencing rates across the nation. This race-based targeting of civilian populations by police is not a series of isolated incidents in one area. It is a nationwide trend, highlighted by Kaepernick’s point that Black Americans are nearly three times more likely to die at the hands of police than their white counterparts.


Why White America should take a knee. Nearly eight decades ago, James Baldwin shared with us a piercing insight into the human condition. He argued that the fight for the identity of Black America is inherently tied to the fight for identity in White America. As a consequence of the many persistent forms of subjugation of Black Americans since the founding of our country, White Americans have unknowingly become prisoners of our own history by ignoring a sobering reality – that we benefit from a system at the expense of others. Today this dualism manifests itself as two inherently different experiences for Black and White Americans, and as a result, has formed a significant divide in the way that we perceive the effects that race has on self-determination in America. As a White American, I urge White America to embrace our dark past and present, so that we can restore equality, the founding principle on which our nation rests. Baldwin writes that history:


“…must be admitted, very slowly, and very much against our will – that this vision of the world is dangerously inaccurate, and perfectly useless. For it protects our moral high-mindedness at the terrible expense of weakening our grasp of reality. People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in the state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”


This brilliantly vulnerable insight into human behavior exposes a brutal truth – that even hard working, well-intentioned White Americans play a critical part in assuring that the seeds of injustice remain sewn. We are the monster. Whether it be through historical ignorance, disengagement from local and national news, a general apathy toward the welfare of fellow citizens, or even misguided demands for respect during a National Anthem, White Americans are supporting a system that has failed to uphold its most basic promise of equal opportunity.


An unfortunate byproduct of the post-Civil Rights era was the supposed virtue of colorblindness, though with the utmost irony and by no coincidence, the victims of injustice since then have disproportionately been one color. These injustices are what the Black Lives Matter movement has been protesting, and why Colin Kaepernick was kneeling. This is the truth that we must confront. That White Americans have built wealth on, and continue to benefit from affirmative action that grants us unequal access to opportunity, while Black America is being unfairly educated, housed, policed, prosecuted, imprisoned, and murdered by our own government.


So I ask White Americans to take a knee in empathy, in solidarity, possibly even in apology, and fight in this generation’s great war. Recognize that ongoing racial disparity – which is only partly characterized by the accumulation of dead, unarmed black bodies at the hands of police – is an issue worth discussing. But to deny even the existence of racial inequality in the presence of millions of its victims and libraries of historical records, and to do so by labeling those who march in the streets or take a knee as unpatriotic, is to confront more than 250 years of Black Americans who built this nation with their labor, children, and blood through bondage, and whose descendants were terrorized by a cold and sometimes deadly bureaucratic status quo that White Americans have only experienced under the guise of “just doing their job.”


The struggle of Black America is intertwined with the struggle of White America. Admission of these realities is the first step in what I assume will be a long healing process and a challenging discussion on how our nation should address this engineered racial chasm. And although it is tempting and intellectually easy to be offended by a few athletes kneeling during a song, given the historical and cultural context, we should consider this gesture as an incredibly polite and markedly restrained plea for equality, when no such restraint is deserved.


This attempt to describe over a century of offenses against the black community in the US is by no means comprehensive, and is certainly not original. The above information is intended to be a conceptual summary rather than a barrage of statistics, which are too numerous to be included in this essay. Research and concepts were sourced partly from the hard work of many authors that are listed below, in addition to references cited in the text.


  • Baldwin, James. 1955. Notes of a Native Son.

  • Katznelson, Ira. 2005. When Affirmative Action was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America.

  • Wilkerson, Isabel. 2010. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.

  • Hirsh, Arnold. 1983, 1998. Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960.

  • Satter, Beryl. 2009. Family Properties: How the Struggle over Race and Real Estate Transformed Chicago and Urban America.

  • Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

  • Stevenson, Bryan. 2014. Just Mercy.

  • Coates, Ta-Nehisi. 2014. The Atlantic, The Case for Reparations.

  • Coates, Ta-Nehisi. 2015. The Atlantic. The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.

  • Baldwin, James. 1963. The Fire Next Time.

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