One of the major roadblocks in the ability of White folks, particularly, White males, to accept the notion of social justice for all is the inability to recognize that many of us were born on third base, thinking we hit a triple.
It begins with the American ideal that anyone who works hard enough can “make it.” Yes, working hard increases chances of success, financial or otherwise. And I understand the tendency to take pride in having earned everything you’ve achieved without “handouts.” We all like to think we have overcome adversity and achieved success because of effort and virtue rather than privilege and luck. The flip side is that someone who is struggling or poor or perhaps gets in trouble with the law “deserves” it because he or she is lazy, not smart, or flawed in some way.
I “made it,” why can’t “they”? If I can do it, why can’t “they”?
An essential first step in becoming a positive force for social justice is to recognize that for Black folk, systemic racism has littered the path to “success” and “making it” with obstacle upon obstacle. That’s why virtually every Black parent must tell their children they will have to perform twice as good as White folk to get or keep a job. This should not be surprising. After all, we’re talking about a country that had written into its founding document that Blacks were counted as 3/5 of a person.
In response, it is common to invoke false comparisons between Blacks and other immigrant groups such as Italians, Jews, and the Irish. The claim that these groups had similar challenges but made it nonetheless only tells part of the story. Once again, let’s leave it to Martin Luther King to set the record straight. He wrote in “Where Do We Go From Here: Community or Chaos:
“Why haven’t the Negroes done the same? These questioners refuse to see that the situation of other immigrant groups a hundred years ago and the situation of the Negro today cannot be usefully compared. Negroes were brought here in chains long before the Irish decided voluntarily to leave Ireland or the Italians thought of leaving Italy. Some Jews may have involuntarily left their homes in Europe, but they were not in chains when they arrived on these shores. Other immigrant groups came to America with language and economic handicap but not with the stigma of color. Above all, no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil, and no other group has had its family structure deliberately torn apart. That is the rub.” (King 1968, 110)
My typical response when I hear an Old White Dude suggest he is a success due to his hard work and that everyone else can achieve such success if they only worked as hard goes something like this. “So, the fact that you grew up in a stable household without having to worry about having adequate food or healthcare didn’t give you an advantage? Or did you attend a well-funded, often private, school and have parents who could pay for you to go to a good college? Or that when you began your career, you could get your foot in the door because your parents or their friends had contacts to open those doors of opportunity. Or maybe you were able to take an entry-level, unpaid internship because your parents were able to support you, while others couldn’t take advantage of such an opportunity because they had to work to help the family pay the rent.”
Their response often goes something like this. “Today, everyone has the same rights by law. Everyone is equal. In fact, with today’s affirmative action measures, the White man is being denied equal opportunity. How can you say systemic racism is a problem today? We elected a Black president twice and now have vice president of Jamaican and Indian descent.”
Yes, we have made progress in becoming a more just society. But over 400 years of discrimination against Black folk throughout virtually every facet of American life cannot be erased with the passage of a few laws and election results brought into line within a generation. From health care to housing, from the education system to the legal system, from policing to the prison system, from voting rights to access to capital, the myriad of hurdles to advancement for Black Americans are formidable and, in many cases, overwhelming. Such a deeply ingrained system will take tens of decades to transform fully. It will be a long and difficult path. But it’s a path that we all must pursue in doing the tough work to undo systemic racism at its core.
The All-American notion of the rugged individualist who “makes it” due to superior talent, intellect, and work ethic is an enduring mythology of the American experience. It’s an easy narrative to embrace when it comes to social justice because it essentially provides an excuse to justify White privilege. It lets us off the hook for taking responsibility to understand the root causes of injustice and inequity. It also tends to cloud our judgment regarding exactly how much we benefit from White privilege. We’ve got to acknowledge reality as it is, not how we imagine it to be.
In other words, you may be standing on third base, but you definitely did not hit a triple. And there is absolutely no shame in admitting that.