Since the time of honest racial segregation in America—when whites wrote down race-based rules of exclusion—we have been formulating modes of dishonest segregation: denials of equality and inclusion in areas such as housing, criminal justice, employment, interpersonal relationships, and private organizations.
Once institutionalized, this dishonest segregation becomes subconscious for us whites: we do not create race-based rules, we just live by the status quo. We are not racist, after all, we just call balls and strikes. We're objective when pressing charges, citing criminal statistics, administering standardized tests, drawing political districts, or selecting the best candidate.
Many whites were born into this dishonest America: told that ours is a diverse country, only to be raised in all-white neighborhoods and sent to local property tax-supported, largely white schools, with few opportunities placed in our laps to have black friends.
By the time Rodney King made the news, we had to learn of the goings on of our own country from strangers on the screen—we had no loved ones who experienced institutionally tolerated racial prejudice or violence. We knew no faces on which to see pain. We had no connections.
Twenty years later, and what has changed? Inequality remains. Informal segregation remains. This is still a dishonest America. Whites only know more because there are more cameras, not because of an increase in interracial neighborhoods, places of worship, or other voluntary activities or organizations.
This reality does not create people without tolerance, it creates people without empathy. It is difficult, and perhaps unnatural, to feel empathy for a group excluded from your childhood, education, community, and workplace—especially when you are simultaneously told they are not actually being excluded.
Our crisis today is not that us whites are any more racist than anyone else, it is that we do not engage in empathy. We see a country that functions reasonably well for us and fail to ask how well it works for others. Whites need to view #BlackLivesMatter not as implying other lives do not matter, but as a plea for empathy, a plea to help create a country that works just as well for others as it does for us.
Our crisis tomorrow is that any unrest—any threat to change the status quo, any risk of this country continuing to work as well for us as it did in our childhood—will push white people to increasingly blame others. In accepting the Republican nomination for president in 1968, Richard Nixon stated, “When a nation that has been known for a century for equality of opportunity is torn by unprecedented racial violence … then it's time for new leadership for the United States of America.” Nixon could not have possibly been talking to black America, fresh off the heels of a century of Jim Crow and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was talking to white people—the same people presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump excites by the promise of making America great again.
As we did in 1968, we risk looking to a presidential candidate who promises to restore order and, implicitly, ensure that America continues to work well for us whites.
We do not need to make America great again for us white people. We do not need to tell ourselves that police officers are increasingly targets of violence. We do not need more excuses to dig our heels into the status quo. We need to begin a social evolution in which our influence is real: we must listen to how America works for all minorities—Black, Latino, Muslim, LGBTQIA, Disabled, women, etc. Real understanding will foster empathy between communities, allowing for the creation and promotion of more inclusive spaces, institutions, and policies. Through listening to the voices, pain, and strife of our fellow Americas with whom we may not live, work, or pray, we can begin to create the nation we were raised to believe we already had.