I am the grandson of a rural, Southern sharecropper. I am white. I am male. And I am a conservative.
And, while I am not a skinhead, member of the Klan or a White Citizens Council, I may have been equally dangerous. I was an accidental racist, and it was within my power to support structural racism, albeit unintentionally.
You might be, too. Let me explain.
One of the good books says that faith without works is dead. I believed up until recently that I was in no way racist, but recent reflection on my professional record has led me to a fresh conclusion. The fact is, I believe I might have helped deny many black and brown men and women an education. And, if you believe, as I do, that education leads to human emancipation, my actions, looking back, seem as destructive as making it more difficult for people of color to vote.
Consider two points
During the late 90s, I was the education policy director for the House Republican Caucus in Michigan. One of the big education reform packages focused on school safety. Basically, we passed a set of laws that required the mandatory expulsion of any student bringing a weapon to school or fighting at school. No exceptions.
What I learned later: Black children are more likely to get in greater trouble for lighter infractions than whites — and a higher percentage of black students who get in trouble in school are expelled. At the time, I worked diligently to negotiate, pass and implement legislation I now believe led to thousands of black and brown students being suspended or expelled, and possibly caused them to spiral into circumstances such as crime, drug dealing, jail or prison. Of course, that was not what we had intended. It was not what I had intended — yet the results might have made Bull Connor proud.
Almost a decade later, I was a state policy consultant for Achieving the Dream. (Doesn’t that sound wholesome and ambitious?) As part of that community college initiative, we argued for standardized tests to be administered with inflexible cut scores, established at the state level.
What I know now: Students of color are more likely to test into remedial education, which dooms most to a future of defaulted loans and no college degree. The intent behind this policy, and related research, appeared sound. However, in practice this approach subjected thousands of black and brown students to failure. It was the unintended result of good intentions — but George Wallace couldn’t have devised a better plan.
Far too recently, I finally recognized that my white perspective had blinded me to the damage I had caused by helping to create policies that exacerbated disparities in educational achievement among people of color. I realized policies and programs lacking a commitment to racial equity, without fail, lead to unjust results for black and brown Americans. The data reveal this time and again. Nationally, outcomes across healthcare, criminal justice and education are all indelibly unjust.
Here’s another way to think about it: I quit smoking about 20 years ago. I loved smoking. LOVED IT. Once I realized it was killing me and, embarrassing me in front of my kids, I quit. But I can still smell it on a smoker; I’m like a bloodhound. I smell it on their hands when they step in an elevator after grabbing a quick smoke after lunch. The smoke smells delicious and nauseating. Similarly, now that my eyes have been opened to my own unintentional acts of racism, I can see it in policy and budgets and practice. I can smell it on the people who create, implement and defend policies that lead to negative outcomes for people of color. Like a bloodhound, I can smell the stench of structural racism and, in the extreme, white supremacy — and once that occurs, I can’t unsee it or unsmell it.
So — here’s a splash of cold water. You might be an accidental racist, too. Let’s take the Jim Crow poll taxes and poll tests: Maybe most people who stopped a black person from voting in Alabama or Mississippi in the ’60s did not believe they were racist. They probably believed that you needed to meet some fair standard of intelligence and education to vote. How hard is that? But we know the result of that policy was a systematic, state-sponsored and -supported disenfranchisement of black votes. So, while poll workers or county clerks might not have thought they were racist, they were absolutely committing racist acts and perpetuating racist structures.
Now, let’s bring that example forward to modern times. Leaders in academia today who stop a black or brown student’s course transfer from a community college to the university probably don’t believe they are racist. They might think they are ensuring the academic integrity of their institution because they don’t believe the course taught at a community college by a peer (who is more than likely a person of color) can meet the rigorous standards of their institution (which is more than likely predominantly white). Can you see how unfair that is? Can you smell that?
So, here is the question we must ask: How are we using our privilege, power, and unexamined whiteness to stop the progress of Americans who happen to be black or brown? Can we make a commitment to living our lives in ways that advance racial equity and justice? Can we examine and acknowledge that our implicit biases — our white identity — influences our judgments and actions?
The fact that I am here today, sharing my truth, means there is hope. Today, I recognize that we must build policies, programs and organizations with equity as the binding mortar (as Lumina Foundation tries to do every day). Only in this way can we truly aim toward outcomes that are anti-racist and, thus, serve all Americans, regardless of skin color or ethnicity.
And, while I continue to smell a whiff of racism on myself, through increased awareness of my own biases and a firm commitment to the emancipating power of education, the smell is fading to memory. My faith is alive.
Scott Jenkins serves as Lumina Foundation’s strategy director for state policy. He shared this story as part of the Lumina Foundation’s equity narratives — personal journeys around race in America. These are part of a collective effort to explore the country’s long history of structural racism and how these barriers affect the people Lumina is trying to help — and influence how and why foundation staff chose this work. See more about the project here.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the American Journalism Project, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, and Community Change.