Larry Yates: Whitefare: Breaking the Patterns of White Dependency on Racism

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Most conversations about reparations begin and end with the condition of African-Americans, and the benefits they have received or the harm they have suffered. As whites, we tend to imagine ourselves at the "normal" center of the world. That we live in a society where racism was never really renounced, just given better makeup, may matter to people of color -- and we may even feel sorry for them -- but we don't imagine it impacting us. We certainly don't imagine that it influences us deeply every day. We don't imagine ourselves as what we are -- Whitefare recipients. We don't imagine that our lives are just as much in the racial balance as anyone else's. I will try to briefly show, though, that it's quite true.

I will begin with Oregon Hill, in Richmond, Virginia, the only neighborhood I ever lived in where the neighborhood feeling was strong. It was the first place I bought a home, and the place where I began and defined my professional life. It is still home to people I love, and has been the home of people I despised and people I feared. Oregon Hill is a place where I could get the latest gossip while I got a haircut, where I saw children become teenagers, where I enjoyed and lost love, where I headed a civic group, where I saw spring announced by the flowers blooming in vacant lots and where winter found me once again under my century old house repairing frozen pipes. A place where I knew more faces than names of people on the street, but still knew a lot of names, and a lot of stories.

I begin there because I want to make it clear that I am not writing from the outside of the race issue. I am just as much caught in it as anyone else. I am a white American, the son of a man who grew up on a Georgia farm in Spalding County, not far from the area once represented by Newt Gingrich. I continue to struggle with every issue racism raises. And for me, a lot of those issues came together in Oregon Hill.

Oregon Hill has been a low-income or working-class neighborhood with mostly white residents since houses were built there for immigrant ironworkers from Wales and Cornwall before the Civil War. When it was built, it got its nickname because it was so far west of the main part of Richmond. Today, the city has moved west, and the automobile has changed how we think about distance. Oregon Hill is a few blocks from downtown. I walked from the Hill to jobs not far the State Capitol that Jefferson designed. Overlooking the urban white water of the James River, next to the decorous Hollywood Cemetery where three Presidents and thousands of Confederate soldiers are buried, Oregon Hill is becoming a choice spot for Richmond's yuppies.

When I moved there, in 1974, it was in some ways at its lowest point. I was warned by people who had lived in the Richmond area all their lives that the Hill was a dangerous place. Art students on the nearby campus of Virginia Commonwealth University told me of their fears of walking through Oregon Hill when they went to draw the Victorian tombs in Hollywood Cemetery. In reality, the neighborhood was a pretty safe place to live, like a lot of "tough" neighborhoods in the 1970s, as long as you didn't get entangled in the affairs of some of the more violent young men in the neighborhood. But it was an almost unrelievedly poor neighborhood. The majority of its long-time residents were either elderly people, many of them widows, and very low income families.

It is wrong, in a way, to begin a book about race in Oregon Hill. I spent most of my time in Oregon Hill on so many other things. I was involved in defending the neighborhood from the nearby University's encroachments, in starting and sustaining a natural foods cooperative, in making art, in learning to identify wild plants, and above all in deep friendships and relationships.

But it is also right, for just that reason, to begin with the Hill. Because most of us white Americans spend most of our time in a thousand other pursuits besides thinking about race. We raise families, go to work, entertain ourselves, worship, worry, love and hate. But, just as has been true of Oregon Hill, each of us operates within boundaries of possibility that are defined by race. And we almost never let ourselves really think about what that means.

In Virginia's past, white working class people like those in Oregon Hill could count on being privileged relative to African-Americans. Generally, they could count on being taken care of by paternalistic members of the white power structure. The system of "classical racism" -- of the old-fashioned form of what I call Whitefare -- worked pretty well for them. There were times when it broke down. During the last days of the Civil War, when Richmond suffered serious economic hardships, residents of Oregon Hill were among those who rioted and looted bakeries. In those hard days, Jeff Davis and General Lee weren’t able to take care of them in the manner they had come to expect.

The Richmond power structure has never encouraged much participation in decision-making by the lower classes, even if they were white. Virginia had one of the lowest voting rates -- among whites -- of any state, well before the massive decline in voting rates began in this country, and had a much less "populist" political scene than other Southern states. But, before and after "the War," the whites of Oregon Hill could count on municipal jobs, skilled craft work, and "overseer" type positions relative to black people. They could count on the really lousy jobs being done by African-Americans. Jobs like those of the railroad workers that were buried in the collapse of a tunnel they were digging a few miles from Oregon Hill. (Their bodies still lie there today. )

Oregon Hill benefitted substantially from this paternalistic system. St. Paul's Episcopal, the church that Robert E. Lee and other luminaries of the Old Dominion attended, made the improvement of Oregon Hill a special project. A Richmond tobacco heiress, Miss Grace Arents, focused her charity on Oregon Hill. Among the benefits of her attention, during the early decades of this century, were privately subsidized apartments for some neighborhood residents, a public bath, a free library, and a free private school. No African-American neighborhoods got the same benefits.

By the time I came to live in Oregon Hill, this system had broken down. After the Korean War, the Richmond power structure had decided, despite neighborhood protests, to let the neighborhood be eroded by the building of a war memorial, which pretty much destroyed several blocks of Oregon Hill. A highway had followed in the early 1970s, cutting a swath through the neighborhood so that commuters from the suburbs could get to downtown, taking another six blocks. When I moved to the Hill, the highway site was a vast valley of mud, and most of the houses in its path were gone.

In the late 1970s, Virginia Commonwealth University, whose campus borders Oregon Hill, began to let outsiders in on plans to expand its campus all the way to the James River, in the process wiping out Oregon Hill. In 1978, I attended a meeting where VCU administrators confirmed plans to replace most of what had been cut off by the highway with sports facilities. While my companion drew a picture of the VCU administrator with long teeth and wolf's ears, I took copious notes. My information and other research soon led to a serious battle between VCU and organized residents of Oregon Hill.

The battle against VCU is still being fought today, though the most grandiose plans were withdrawn fairly quickly. While I learned a great deal from that fight, and especially from a few remarkable leaders, I came to it with the anti-authoritarian assumptions of a former Sixties activist. So it surprised me to learn that many neighborhood residents, some of them very intelligent and militantly opposed to VCU, had a very different viewpoint. They genuinely believed that if they could only reach the familiar names from Richmond's power structure on the VCU Board, like the wife of the ex-Congressman, they would be protected. They believed in something I now see as old-fashioned Whitefare. They believed in not because they were naïve, but because that was the system they had grown up with. The members of the Board of Visitors of VCU were the heirs of Robert E. Lee and Miss Grace Arents. They were expected to act in the same protective and supportive way.

Some of Oregon Hill's residents responded to their situation by reviving the worst of the old racism. Klan leaflets have been distributed from time to time. Far worse, an African-American family that had moved into the neighborhood had their home set on fire while they slept, around the corner from where I lived in the late 1970s. (The family woke up in time to escape danger, but not in time to save the home they were renting.) On the other hand, the Vietnam vet who sat up all night and guarded the elderly African-American couple in the house neighboring the one that burned was also a lifelong product of the neighborhood. Still, the violence that has flared up, and that is always a presence among certain groups that live in or frequent the neighborhood, has been generally undirected and ineffective in stopping change. It has undoubtedly made African-Americans (and some whites, including eventually me) unwilling to live in or move to the neighborhood.

After enough organized pressure, the Board members of VCU were forced to take a stand. The VCU Board, though well-supplied with Old Richmond names and bloodlines, supported its President over the residents of Oregon Hill, despite his un-Richmondlike abrupt demeanor, his Northern accent, and his rudeness to Oregon Hill residents.

In many ways, that left the neighborhood only two courses of action. One was to seek out the only reliable allies -- other low-income and working-class neighborhoods facing similar problems. All of these other neighborhoods in Richmond are predominantly African-American. The other course of action is to retreat to the old days, and the old ways, and try to regain the old identity. In the meantime, because of its prime downtown location, the slow but steady process of gentrification kept changing the neighborhood, making it more likely that either course of action would be irrelevant.

While I lived in Oregon Hill, I took an excellent class on the sociology of racism (ironically, at the university that was assaulting my neighborhood). The class gave me an opportunity to come to some conclusions about my experience in Oregon Hill. My conclusion was that for residents of Oregon Hill, the old system of "classical racism" provided real benefits. Today's "neo-racism", however, did much less for them. The power structure made its decisions on the basis of institutional needs and patterns of profit, not on the basis of paternalistic responsibilities. The bounty from Robert E. Lee and his fellow Virginia aristocrats is a thing of the past.

The children of most of Oregon Hill's remaining longtime residents have moved to the suburbs, where they benefit from segregated suburban comfort. The elderly residents are being pressured by their adult children to come out to the wonderful suburban world, where Whitefare still works. The modern system of racism finds it hard to give advantages to whites who do something as strange as stay in a run-down inner city neighborhood. (Though the university did succeed in taking several blocks where African-Americans lived before it succeeded in acquiring a single house lived in by whites.)

For many of the longtime residents in Oregon Hill, while the old Klan-style racism seems ugly and risky, and the new racism gives them almost nothing, going beyond racism to ally with African-Americans seems too difficult. Oregon Hill residents were part of a city-wide alliance of neighborhoods called Richmond United Neighborhoods; I became very active in this group. I found that very few Oregon Hill residents would accompany me to the neighborhoods they perceived as "black" to events like Board meetings and even fundraising carnivals.

I believe that the story of Oregon Hill is pretty much the story of all white Americans. As a people, we got a deal -- once upon a time. A deal I call Whitefare. It was one hell of a deal. For a while, we were undeniably the richest population the world has ever seen. A small power structure got most of the goodies, but there was plenty left over for the average white person. The average white American in most ways had it better than a lot of the kings of ancient times. The Whitefare gravy train kept on rolling, with the benefits growing, generation after generation. Only a few prophetic voices pointed out what we were trading for our benefits.

Then, sometime between the oil crisis of 1973 and the fall of Saigon in 1975, the élite that had been running the Whitefare system changed the deal nationally, just like it was changed for Oregon Hill. Basically, they designed the Reagan-Gingrich-Clinton-Bush2 program. Designed is the key word, because this is Designer Whitefare. It looks, smells, and even feels like the old system that worked for so long, but it actually delivers much less. It turns out it's cheaper to manipulate folks through television than it is to give them the world's highest standard of living.

Whitefare was always wrong, even though a lot of wonderful people, including several generations of my ancestors, lived and died as Whitefare recipients. But now it's really a lousy deal. Of course, we are told that the reason we are getting less benefits is because "those people" are taking them away. At best, this is a weak argument. At worst, it is delusionary, as when an elderly white relative told me that African-American women in his southern state were being given drivers’ licenses without having to pass the regular test, just because the government - of Alabama - was pro-Black.

In some ways, Whitefare was always a sucker's game for the average white person. It took away dignity and independence and eventually even faith and self-respect, and that is a very high cost. It undermined our families, our communities, the Bible, the Constitution, and every other traditional source of strength in our culture.

But now Whitefare is really a sucker's game. One percent of Americans now have more wealth than 90% of us put together. They are spending billions to line up think tanks, foundations, television networks, talk radio hosts, politicians, and authors to tell us white people that white billionaires are just like the rest of us white folks. That it’s those others who are different. That we all hunger for traditional values. That we white folks all want to go back to the good old days of old fashioned Whitefare.

Probably most white folks who remember it would like to go back to classical Whitefare. But when the corporate powers that be talk nostalgically, it’s a lie. These guys aren't about to go back. In 1976, the top 1% had 19% of the wealth; now they have 37%. These guys are not yearning for the old days. They aren't even nostalgic for last week, because they get richer every week.

Instead, those in power in this country are betting that, no matter how bitterly angry we who have been designated as white are at the conditions of our lives, no matter how much we love our children and our communities, we who have been designated as white won't give up the Whitefare deal. That we won’t go through the difficult re-evaluations and transformations that that would involve. They are betting that we will accept even the most watered-down version of Designer Whitefare first. They are betting that we will resist the process of confronting ourselves as adult human beings -- the process of reparations.

And they may be right. It's not an easy deal to give up. Whitefare is almost down to our bones. It seems like it is who we are. We really believe, most of us, that "white" is who we are, not a mythical status conferred on us by society.

Whitefare is something we will have to take apart systematically - spiritually, politically, in our homes and families and congregations, in our language and in how we see everything around us.

I began with Oregon Hill because it is the one place where I found out for myself how strong Whitefare is. How it could distort the lives and the thoughts of good people.

But I also begin with Oregon Hill because it is also the place where I learned how good white folks could be. How brave in fighting for a community. How generous in taking care of their neighbors. How creative in getting through the day. How delightful to talk to and listen to. I learned that Whitefare is not all that any white person is. I learned that the population I was assigned to at birth -- white Americans -- deserves to break out of this sucker's game. We deserve to break out of our Whitefare dependency, and be something much more difficult -- citizens of a complex and diverse democracy that can face reality and come to terms with it.

WHITEFARE

What is Whitefare? I use the word to describe a system that permeates the daily lives of everyone living in the United States of America. It is an economic and political system, and it is a set of beliefs and a set of rules of behavior as well. It is most commonly known as institutional racism. But I think it deserves the name Whitefare.

This name takes the attention off of the sickness of a few bigots -- what most of us think of when we see the word "racism". Because that sickness is only one small facet of the problem. The real problem is the complacency and ignorance expected from the majority of so-called white people, and the distortion of our society that complacency and ignorance allow to continue.

We have been taught to resist the idea that we are racists, whatever we actually do in our lives, short of burning crosses and wearing hoods. Having talked to hundreds of white people about this issue, I know that. But the idea that we are dependent on a system of Whitefare might just be different enough to be thinkable.

The word "Whitefare" is intended to be a response to the myths around "welfare" being used to attack African-Americans and others. Welfare or relief programs, have, for about half a century, shifted a measly amount of our society's resources to some of the poorest among us. A majority of those recipients have always been, and still are, white.

Meanwhile, for several centuries, institutional racism, or Whitefare, has ensured the best jobs, housing, infrastructure, security from crime, medical care, tax breaks, and other benefits to one part of the society, and mostly to a small leadership group. It has led to incredible government and business waste, not through minuscule relief programs, but built into the major government programs and social expenditures of this nation -- for military weapons, highway and infrastructure construction, mortgage and business lending, and every other major economic area. A 1994 study found that $104 billion of the federal budget (including tax loopholes) consisted of corporate welfare, that is, fairly narrowly defined direct benefits to business. Welfare for the poor in the same year was $75 billion.

Yet this minimal welfare system, which never reached most African-American families, is being stigmatized as having undermined the work ethic and community morality, and created an African-American underclass. And nobody even thinks about the moral or social impact of Whitefare. Like gravity, it just exists.

Whitefare is invisible. It is most invisible to those who benefit from it, and who also suffer from it in ways that are hidden from them. This book seeks to change that.

Here, I define Whitefare primarily in terms of privileges over African-Americans. The fact is that the modern system of racism gives whites advantages over all people of color, though the privileges take different forms. I focus on black and white people because the system of Whitefare was formed in relation to, and still revolves around, the relations between European-Americans and African-Americans.

White privilege is most sharply defined against African-Americans, in most parts of the United States. This is not to say that African-Americans suffer more than any other group. Oppression is not an Olympic event. No group needs to take a gold medal as the one that suffered the most. Certainly the native nations that were here when Columbus arrived have gone through, and continue to go through, devastation at the hands of whites.

But the specific system that we live in today was made possible by the exclusion -- often the destruction -- of Native Americans. Just as central to it has been the inclusion -- and the subordination -- of African-Americans. Though people of Asian and Latin descent are a major part of our social fabric now, this is a recent development in most of the country. Whitefare has an impact on everybody in the United States, but its essential structure comes from a relationship between people descended from Europeans and people descended from Africans that emerged on the eastern seaboard.

Every social system in the past has changed radically over time. Human beings lived in a radically different world a few centuries ago, and they will live in a different world in the centuries to come. Whitefare is a powerful system, but it is not invulnerable or immortal.

But change will be slow. We will be living with this system in some form for our lifetimes. The entire world economy is still deeply warped by it for the benefit of a few. The beliefs that support Whitefare are still deeply embedded in our media, educational systems, and even our unconscious minds. Still, as individuals, we can change our beliefs and our behavior. Freeing ourselves, we can join others to dismantle the system. We can face the changes that are coming to the world around us consciously and in community with others, rather than defensively and alone. The formula from the Sixties still works -- we can part of the problem, or we can be part of the solution.

Those of who are socially identified as white obviously did not do anything wrong by being born to "white" parents. Nor are we, of course, morally responsible for anything that happened before we were born. But when, as children, we began accepting the benefits and the conditions of Whitefare, we also accepted the costs and the ugly reality behind the illusions. This bargain was not only not explained to us, it was hidden from us. But the bargain is still real. Whitefare is a fact of the world around us, and of our relations with other people who do not participate in its benefits.

An example. In 1968, as black communities erupted in outraged response to the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a white friend of mine, a fellow college student, was waiting for a phone call. His family owned a liquor store in a city where the fires were burning, and he assumed that his father was sitting in the store, probably armed, and would call on him to come and join the defense. My friend had not ever agreed to sit waiting with a shotgun for angry young black men. In fact, their anger made perfect sense to him. But growing up in his family, supported by the profits of the liquor store, loving his parents who had sacrificed to create that business, he found himself caught in an implicit contract that might put him in exactly that position. I don't think that his father ever called; but I still remember his pain, and his dilemma. The dilemma of our debt to Whitefare is not usually that explicit; but it is typical for Whitefare to creep up on, over the years, starting when we are too young to even imagine what we are getting into.

Human beings who have been raised to think of themselves as white Americans are, above all, human beings. Just as much as anyone else, we need to live in a world that does not waste most of its wealth on weapons to defend privilege, and that does not concentrate its wealth on an urban, top-heavy lifestyle that is destroying our planet. Just as much as anyone else, we need to be connected to the deep roots of humanity's experience. We need to live in the real world just like everyone else, taking our chances with its risks and rewards, rather than re-fighting battles lost or won long ago. We need full spiritual and intellectual lives, and community and a sense of the past, just like anyone else.

Whitefare stands in the way of all these parts of our humanity. Everything around us, from the state of our planet to the state of our souls, requires that we kick our Whitefare dependency.

Many of Whitefare's operations are deeply hidden, and come into our lives in ways we hardly can even understand. But it is possible to move away from it, in your heart, in your mind, in your political and economic life, and in your daily activities. It is possible to challenge and change the system around us, and to begin to close the gigantic gap of fear and resentment between white Americans and everyone else, especially African-Americans. It is possible for you, as an individual and as part of a long history of whites who have opposed the Whitefare system, to take responsibility for yourself. Let us be about our business as decent and caring people. Let us move beyond Whitefare. Let us open our hearts and our minds to the call for reparations.