Many White folks, especially northern white liberals who voted for Obama, would argue they are not racist, even while they actively cause harm to Black folks by their racist actions.
Since so many people don’t know what racism is or how they are racist, here are three racist things that northern White liberals do:
- Engage in “White flight”—when poor Black folks move close to White folks, they flee and move to racially segregated, high-income communities. Today, White flight can also take on subtler forms, especially involving schooling—it can be the decision to apply for a magnet school with more white students than a family’s neighborhood school.
- Live in high-income, racially-segregated communities that are not accessible to poor Black folks.
- Enroll their children in racially-segregated, high-income schools that are not accessible to poor Black folks.
My friends don’t understand this because, generally speaking in the United States of America, we don’t accurately define racism. Many White people, especially northern liberal White folks, define racism as “the belief that White people are superior to other races.” To them, racism is a personal belief. Racism is an attitude, not an action—a noun rather than a verb.
This belief allows northern White liberals to believe they are not racist, even anti-racist, and compare themselves favorably to “ignorant, rural White conservatives.” I wish I had a dollar bill for every time one of my White friends has asked, smugly, “Can you believe how racist they are?”
Meanwhile, many of my White, Northern, liberal, Obama-voting friends are actively participating in and benefiting from racism in ways that most folks wearing MAGA hats can only dream of!
Racism Is About Actions, Not Attitudes
This happens because, in reality, racism is not about beliefs, it is about actions and practices that perpetuate inequality. Racism is the systemic set of policies and actions that perpetuate inequality, especially economic inequality, between White and Black people. Ending racism demands deliberate action toward increasing equality, particularly in the areas of housing and schools.
My White, Northern liberal friends who like to compare themselves favorably to White conservatives may be surprised by a new report from brightbeam (the parent organization that sponsors Chicago Unheard), which shows that the 12 most politically progressive cities in the U.S. have significantly larger achievement gaps in reading, math and high school graduation than the 12 most politically conservative cities. Many of those conservative, gap-closing cities are located in the southern part of the U.S., while the high-gap cities are concentrated in the North.
While the report draws no conclusions about why this difference is happening, I’m here to draw a conclusion about what White people can do to level the economic playing field between White and Black Americans. They can stop buying their way into exclusive schools by purchasing pricey homes that few Black families can afford.
High-income, racially segregated communities and schools are racist. When my White, Northern liberal friends stop buying into them, I’ll know they are truly anti-racist.
Where You Live Reflects Your Commitment to Racial Justice
One of the main ways that racism is enacted, personally and systemically, is through housing. We are all familiar with the “Whites Only” signs from the chapter in the social studies book that talks about civil rights. But today, just because a community no longer has a “Whites Only” sign out front, doesn’t mean that community allows Black people to live there.
I can hear my friends asking me, “ShaRhonda, are you really saying that me moving to a ‘good neighborhood’ with ‘good schools’ is more racist than being a member of the KKK?” Well…yeah, that is what I am saying.
Just because your community doesn’t have a “No Blacks Allowed” sign, doesn’t mean that you aren’t living in a “No Blacks Allowed” community. Racism is about the actions, or inactions, that you take that hurt Black folks and unfairly benefit White people. When it comes to economic inequality between Black and White people, there are no bigger obstacles than housing and schools.
In America, the housing you live in largely determines your access to schools. The history of racist redlining in housing continues to determine opportunity for children today, whether it be in health effects due to higher temperatures and fewer trees in once-redlined neighborhoods or lower test scores and fewer academic opportunities in low-income schools.
Black children who are born to parents in a “bad neighborhood” and attend a “bad school” have almost a zero chance of upward mobility. You can see how this works for yourself by checking out The Opportunity Atlas. But here’s the bottom line: being born and living in certain communities today limits opportunity just as much as the “Colored Section” signs did in the Jim Crow South.
The flip side of this is, if you live in a neighborhood that isn’t financially accessible to Black people or you enroll your child in a school zoned for such a neighborhood so that poor Black folks can’t attend, you are living in a “Whites Only” community. There doesn’t need to be a “No Blacks Allowed” sign on your town or school for there to be a “No Blacks Allowed” policy.
When privileged White people self-segregate into concentrated opportunity, less-privileged people are segregated into concentrated poverty and lack of opportunity. Even now, in the U.S.A. of 2020, where you live largely determines what school you attend, what resources you can access, and what your chances are of growing up to go on to college or prison.
Here’s How to Be Anti-Racist, No Matter Where You Live
So, if you really want to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., instead of being nice to a Black person, work in your community and school to remove the “No Blacks Allowed” barriers.
What does that look like? It means ending the practice of residency checks in suburban districts, which are used more often against low-income people of color. It’s time to stop criminalizing people, often Black mothers, who are seeking better opportunities for their children.
It means supporting cross-district enrollment so that students who want to attend schools outside their neighborhood can do so. Take METCO, which allows Boston students to voluntarily transfer to surrounding, predominantly White school districts. Research shows METCO has boosted high school graduation and college enrollment for participating Boston students of color 30% higher than the rates achieved by Boston students in traditional public and charter schools.
It means supporting parents of color who are pushing for new school options for their children, where admission is not granted by address, like the just-launched National Parents Union.
This is the time of year White people like to quote Dr. King. But not many of them quote from the 1967 speech in which he observed: “The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.” One of the ways that redistribution must take place is by breaking the racist link between expensive housing and access to quality schools.