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Perspective | Magazine

What too many white people still don’t understand about racism

Seeing racism as a relic of the past is a problem — a deadly problem. And it is a part of why we protest.

Demonstrators at a June 2 rally in Boston face off with a police vehicle.
Demonstrators at a June 2 rally in Boston face off with a police vehicle.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Many white Americans looking at the news over the last few weeks think they are seeing the most inappropriate expressions of personal despair and outrage. They see protests, then riots, then looting, and even well-intentioned white people might think, That’s not the best way to be heard, as if there is one way to disobey civilly. Some might even feel fear for themselves, or more likely, for their property. After all, the destruction of property gets more time on the news than speakers voicing righteous anger at the violence enacted on Black bodies.

Still, here’s the truth: You have not seen outrage until you have seen the face of a white person being called a racist. You would think seeing the image of Emmett Till’s mutilated corpse in an open casket in 1955 or Michael Brown’s body lying dead in a Missouri street in 2014 would evoke extreme shock and horror. But, actually, white people get the most worked up when they or someone they know have been labeled a racist. Witness Laura Trott, a Conservative member of Parliament in the United Kingdom, finding it “extremely offensive” that a Black counterpart, Dawn Butler, called Boris Johnson a racist. Same goes for Donald Trump’s “I don’t have a racist bone in my body,” or liberal whites with what Martin Luther King Jr. called their “polite” racism. This kind of outrage comes because people see racism as a relic of the past. To them, racists are Klan members or old relatives to be tolerated over the holidays. How can anyone these days possibly be racist?

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Because you still don’t know.

And this is a problem — this is a deadly problem. And it is a part of why we protest.

What I’ve learned teaching a course at Harvard on African-American literature is that society at large considers Black history to be this, and only this: slavery – Abraham Lincoln – Martin Luther King Jr. – President Barack Obama.

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Those four topics are what’s collectively taught, discussed, and shared as the entirety of what took place and continues to take place in this country. By the time students reach me — and my course, like many of the same nature, is an elective — their knowledge about this country’s past and present terrorization of Black people is grossly insufficient.

They don’t know that the lowest point in Black history was not during slavery — deadly and violent and atrocious and horrific as that was — but at the turn of the 20th century. That’s when Black people experienced a lethal racist backlash to our gained independence, particularly to our presence in Congress. The Black Lives Matter movement did not occur in a vacuum, nor because there was a Black man holding the highest office in the land. It began in response to the rise in violence against Black people after a Black man was elected to hold the highest office in the land. Assaults against Blacks increased by both police and white civilians.

Are you beginning to see the thread?

Black people know intimately that America’s history on race is complex, but it doesn’t matter much when it is not a widely held belief but rather a point of contention. This national ignorance leads white people to take offense at being called a racist or, worse, to declare the election of Barack Obama as the cause of racial strife or, worse still, to see extrajudicial executions of Black people as outside the norm.

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It is absolutely the norm. Only now, lynching postcards, widely shared among white communities well into the 20th century, have been replaced by Twitter and YouTube.

It is why I love the writings of Harriet Jacobs, William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Gayl Jones, Claudia Rankine, and Kiese Laymon. If you don’t know the full, bloody history of this country, you can only have a superficial appreciation of their works. If you don’t understand how deeply the American Dream is built on white maleness and power, you’ll miss seeing that Donald Trump is a Faulknerian creation come to life, a descendant of Thomas Sutpen in Faulkner’s most complex work, Absalom, Absalom! (Sutpen, after being slighted by an enslaved Black man, spends the rest of his life proclaiming a greatness that cannot exist and using deception to pursue it because, well, that is the American way.)

Of course, we are currently seeing multiracial groups loudly protest the killings of Black Americans. In some ways, it’s a continuation of the Black Lives Matter movement. But the killing of George Floyd has gained what seems to be more attention, traction, and conversation than the murders of Michael Brown, Renisha McBride, Tamir Rice, and Trayvon Martin.

Why is that?

After all, we’re supposed to have moved beyond race — slavery-Lincoln-MLK-Obama is supposed to be a progression. But white Americans cannot deny the truth and reality of lethal violence toward Black people. They cannot say, “Oh, that doesn’t happen” or “That’s only a few bad apples” or “Let’s wait until we have all the facts.” We have literal bodies of evidence now in plain sight, a grim parade of them so large that to deny its occurrence becomes ridiculous.

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So now what?

Here is where I see some hope: When my students realize how little they actually know, they don’t take it lightly. They get angry, righteously so. I’ve had students write to me months and years after my course to express their continued outrage that they didn’t know and that, as they walk through life, most folks still don’t know. And they feel compelled to take the extra time and energy to make it known.

This is what I tell them: Keep going. And for the rest of you, start listening instead of arguing, and be ready to live with being uncomfortable.

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Linda Chavers is a writer and a lecturer in African and African-American studies at Harvard University. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.