By Carla Stayboldt,
Founding Member, Continuing the Conversation
The pictures on the front page over the last two weeks have been polarizing to San Diego citizens and rightfully so. The first on June 25th was a group of almost all white people at a meeting of the Escondido Planning Commission that voted 7-0 against a request by the DHHS to open a 96 bed shelter that would serve unaccompanied undocumented children. A week later on July 2nd, another group of predominantly white people, carrying American flags and posters “RETURN TO SENDER”, “NO NEW ILLEGALS,” surrounded buses of 140 parent/child immigrants outside the Border Patrol Station in Murrieta, escorted by local law enforcement and the Border Patrol. That scene harkens back to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s when the Freedom Riders’ buses were surrounded, riders beaten and buses burned. While these mostly white protestors couch their criticism in terms of law and proper procedure, what explains the anger and implied violence of their protests? It is that insidious, seldom acknowledged, “white privilege” that is so pervasive in our culture that we don’t even realize we’re benefiting from it; for us, it’s like breathing.
My paternal grandparents emigrated to the U.S. from Sweden in the early 1900s for better paying jobs and opportunity, along with 1.3 million swedes in the preceding fifty years. My maternal great grandparents also emigrated to the U.S. from Sweden in the mid 1800’s in search of arable land due to crop failure in Sweden; they were allowed to enter the U.S. without a sponsor, without speaking English, and were given Native American land, as homesteaders in Nebraska. Why? Because they were white. My father, a WW2 vet, benefited from the GI Bill, which paid for his college education, allowing him to obtain an electronics engineering job, eventually designing radars for the military, including the radar on the Midway. Many African Americans and other minorities, also WW2 vets, were not even told of the GI Bill and its benefits; for those that were aware, gaining admission to universities was no easy task as most universities had segregationist principles underlying their admissions policies, utilizing either official or unofficial quotas. By 1946, only one fifth of the 100,000 blacks who had applied for educational benefits under the GI Bill had been registered in college. My father was also able to obtain a low interest VHA loan, with which he was able to purchase his first home in the early 1950’s. Proposition 13, passed in 1978, continued to benefit my parents by limiting their tax base to the 1975 assessed value with only a 1% annual increase, unless the property was sold or improved. Proposition 13 disproportionally benefited white people that already owned their homes in 1978.
White privilege continued to flourish in my generation. I went to public schools in Los Angeles and benefited from superior schools in a high socioeconomic area that were not open to the poor or minorities. I attended Inglewood High School, my class being the last all white class, prior to court mandated integration in the late 60’s, where I was able to take 4 years of foreign language, English, Math, Science electives and advanced placement courses. I went to UCLA and subsequently medical school, both of which were and are heavily subsidized by tax dollars via the state and federal governments. The poor and minorities, as tax payers, were subsidizing my education; yet, the poor and minorities were under-represented at the University of CA then and now.
My entire family for generations has benefited from “white privilege”. White privilege is a term for a set of societal privileges, existing in predominantly white societies, which benefit white people beyond what is commonly experienced by minorities in the same social, political, or economic circumstances. Whites can benefit either directly (through individual racism) or indirectly (through institutional racism) by intentionally or unintentionally using other ethnic groups and benefiting from them. Whites in California have benefited hugely from undocumented immigrants doing difficult or undesirable work such as cultivating and harvesting our produce as well as cooking and cleaning our homes, restaurants and hotels, but at the same time denying humanitarian aid to the 52,000 undocumented children that have crossed our borders in 2014. Why isn’t there outrage against companies that hire undocumented immigrants? Why isn’t there outrage against citizens hiring undocumented people to clean their homes and care for their children? These are illegal activities as well; white people only protest when it negatively affects them financially.
Few Americans know that the original United States Naturalization Law of 1790 limited naturalization to immigrants who were “free white persons of good character,” thereby excluding Native Americans, indentured servants, slaves, free blacks, and Asians. It took until 1952, via the Immigration and Nationality Act, to prohibit racial and gender discrimination in naturalization. The history that we’re taught in school has been literally white-washed. Columbus didn’t “discover America”; we took America from Native Americans and slaughtered millions of them, which today we would call genocide, including using small pox as biologic warfare when Delaware Indians were given smallpox-infected blankets (Fort Pitt 1763 Pittsburg, PA). The federal government from the 1870’s to the 1950’s operated >100 boarding schools, where tens of thousands of Native American children were forcibly taken from their parents to “get the Indian out of them”; so that within a generation, a tremendous amount of Native American culture and language was lost (NPR article by Charla Bear May 12, 2008). Between the years 1619 to 1863, the U.S. received 5% (~600,000) of the 12 million Africans kidnapped for the slave trade in the Americas, which translates into over 40 million slave descendants in the U.S. today. Affirmative action, put in place during the Civil Rights Era, was helping to “even the playing field” and right past wrongs for African Americans, but within a generation, that has been whittled down by the courts to only a limited existence for federal jobs & projects.
We, as a multi-ethnic community need to acknowledge the mistakes that our institutions have made in the past, proceed with haste to even the playing field, give minorities a hand up and share the power that we white people have wielded so effectively in our favor over the past centuries. We will not be truly free until we have freedom and justice for all. There are some difficult issues that keep San Diego from truly being America’s Finest City. The first step is for white people to acknowledge that there is a problem. The second step is to identify specific issues that are holding some of San Diego’s citizens back. The third step, and the most difficult one, is to try to fix those issues. Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s vision for “One San Diego” includes revitalizing neighborhoods with economic opportunity districts, infrastructure to improve quality of life, enhancing access to quality education and creating safe communities. Let’s hope the vision is more than just words and leads to real action beginning in the communities and the institutions that need it the most.
Many institutions in our society have racist effects, even when individuals within them are not overtly racist. A typical example is our justice system. Nationally, the Department of Education found that African American elementary students are over 3 ½ times more likely to be expelled or suspended than their white peers. Although African Americans were 18% and Latinos 24% of this national sample, together they comprised over 70% of school referrals to law enforcement. This differential treatment filters all the way up to the adult criminal justice system, where 1 in 15 African American men, 1 in 36 Hispanic men are incarcerated compared to 1 in 106 white men. 50% of all African-American men in some major cities are in prison, have been incarcerated or are on probation. While some of this discrepancy is explained by increased crime in the inner city, much also results from discriminatory effects of justice institutions and racial profiling. For example, the national campaign on the war on drugs, begun in the 1980’s unfairly targets high density poorer inner cities even though studies have shown that whites are more likely to use drugs during their lifetimes than their African American or Hispanic counterparts; they just don’t get caught in the low density suburbs. Another example of inequality in the justice system is the mandatory penalties for crack, characterized by politicians as a “black” drug, 18 times harsher than for cocaine, portrayed as a “white” drug. African Americans and Hispanics are also 3X more likely to be searched during a routine traffic stop and twice as likely to be arrested and almost 4X as likely to experience the use of force with encounters with police. We need our African American and Hispanic men to be treated fairly by the justice system so that they can be productive citizens doing purposeful work, as well as to be husbands and fathers in stable families and to be role models for their boys and young men, instead of getting caught in the endless cycle of jail and unemployment.
Besides our justice system, there is also inequality in our educational system because San Diego is segregated into rich and poor communities and the education and resources in these communities are not equal. Our own San Diego Unified School District in 2012 paid $8,310 less annually to teachers serving in predominantly black and Latino high schools, compared to teachers in predominantly white schools. This differential, attracting the best teachers to the whitest schools, is the second most discriminatory policy (after Philadelphia) among the largest 20 school districts in the US, according to federal Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) statistics. Differences in access to the most skilled teachers, learning resources and the best schools multiply the opportunities for white students and leave many African American and Latino students behind.
There is a misconception out there that racism is behind us and that it only exists in isolated circumstances. Through education and open dialog, organizations throughout our nation are unveiling the presence of “institutional racism” and America’s part in perpetuating its existence. “Continuing the Conversation,” a multiracial group of San Diego citizens, was formed last year with the intent to help open up San Diego society fully so that all citizens, regardless of ethnic origin, have an equal start, and an equal opportunity to develop their talents and skills to become productive members of society. Last weekend we sponsored the “People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond” of New Orleans to work with us on planning an “Undoing Racism® Community Organizing Workshop” in San Diego. We hope to engage civic leaders in business, government, civil justice, education, health care, as well as religious and cultural organizations in open dialogue on the unintended consequences of institutional racism and how to start the process of undoing it. We are convinced this dialogue will maximize our economic development by enhancing human opportunity. If you are interested in continuing this conversation with us or participating in a future seminar, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.