Like many white Americans, I have been pleasantly surprised by the Trump administration’s efforts to increase racial equality in the United States. After a lifetime of being denied opportunities based solely on the color of my skin, I now have a first, tentative sense of what racial justice must feel like.
To paraphrase the immortal words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty I am free at last.”
I realize my reaction may be difficult to understand for the dominant groups in the United States today, such as blacks, undocumented immigrants, gays, and Muslims. If you have never been discriminated against, it can be difficult to appreciate the ways that racial oppression distorts and limits a life.
Let me share a parable that captures my experience. It comes from the sociologist Arlie Hochschild, who spent years talking with the white victims of racial discrimination in the United States.
In this parable, you are a white person. You are patiently standing in a long line leading up to the American dream. You have been waiting a long time, and the dream never seems to come closer. Then you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Black people. Instead of following the rules, they are being given preferences by the federal government. Through affirmative action, they get the jobs and college admissions that should be yours. You are pushed further and further back in line, while they move further and further ahead. It is not fair.
For most white Americans, this story is all too familiar. Yet the forces of political correctness try to distract and divide us by focusing on injustices from the distant past, as though white Americans did not work hard to get where we are.
But when have white Americans ever cut in line?
Of course, radical historians may claim that for a few hundred years, white Americans chained black Americans to the back of the line, and sometimes beat, mutilated, and murdered those who tried to break out of the line, and used the unpaid labor of those in chains to move themselves further up in the line. But slavery ended a century and a half ago. When have white Americans cut in line since then?
Yes, of course, there were segregated lines during the Jim Crow era, and maybe, sometimes, the black line started at the back of the building, or bus, and ended just where the white line began. If a black American questioned whether the two lines were in fact equal, he or she might have been beaten or lynched. But that was half a century ago. How can it be argued that after fifty years of mostly having civil rights, blacks still enter the line to the American dream at a disadvantage?
It is true that the wealth of the average black household today is $11,000, while the average white household has over $140,000. But this can hardly be blamed on the legacy of discrimination. Nor can race be blamed for the fact that one in three black men are removed from the line and incarcerated at some point in their lives. Who can say whether race plays a role in the American criminal justice system? Is there any evidence?
Similarly, it is a puzzle why so many black Americans continue to live in segregated areas where there are few good jobs or good schools. Did someone draw a red line around these areas and encourage whites and their businesses to leave? Or was it coincidence?
Either way, the existence of such deserts of opportunity hardly proves that the American dream has been rigged by race. Today, many rural whites live in areas without many jobs as well. Today, in fact, it seems as though no one is moving up in the line to the American dream, except those who started at the front of it.
Since it would obviously be unfair to those at the front if we were to change the rules so that the rest of us can move forward, what are we to do?
There is only one fair solution. We must never again attempt to right the wrongs of the racial past. Only then, on a foundation of whites-first racial equality, will we be able to turn to the other grave challenges facing America today, such as the emancipation of billionaires from the quiet bigotry of high taxation. Only when all of our marginalized communities—whites, Christians, and tycoons alike—are freed from the sting of discrimination will we have achieved the dream of liberty and justice for all.