White People Explain Racism to Me

White People Explain Racism to Me

I’ve lived my whole life as a Black man in America, but every day I have to contend with some white person schooling me on what is and isn’t racist.


Most days, I turn on my computer and ask the country if today is the day that white people will feel like holding a white man accountable for violence. Most days, the answer is “no.” We live in an age when the ubiquity of white violence is plain for all to see, thanks to the camera phone. When I’m not covering white domestic threats directed at people of color, I’m often covering state-sponsored terrorism against those same targets. When I’m not covering agents of the state behaving violently, I’m covering appellate and Supreme Court rulings, many of which will lead to more violence against people of color, women, or the LGBTQ community. And the whole time, I’m asking if anybody will be held accountable for the killings or beatings or the permissiveness that enables those killings and beatings.

Most days, the answer to my question is “not today.” Today will not be the day Kyle Rittenhouse is punished or Breonna Taylor’s killers are held accountable or George Zimmerman goes to hell. That’s tough to take. I ran out of patience in 2006 when the New York City Police Department shot Sean Bell 50 times the night before his wedding. It’s no fun chronicling the drumbeat of white courts and white juries being permissive of white violence while white media repeats the narrative of white cops. Remember, I’m not a war correspondent. I’m afraid of violence and don’t like to see human suffering up close. And I’m not a crime reporter. I’ve never been titillated by “true crime” whodunit mysteries or even been all that interested in wrongdoing. I don’t really care why Jimmy hit Billy with the baseball bat, in the abstract.

What I do care about is justice. I care about fairness. I ask for white people to be held accountable, because too often they are not. Nearly every statistic we have points to the manifest unfairness in our justice system. White people are less likely to be charged with crime, and more likely to receive lighter sentences when they are convicted. They receive more favorable media coverage. It is almost impossible to convict a cop for anything.

These are not controversial points. They are backed up with mountains of statistical evidence. And yet, when I try to explain why we see these statistical disparities, when I try to draw the line between the known white bias in the system and the applied bias in an individual case, when I point out that racism is the self-evident reason for these obvious and statistically provable racial disparities, that is when white people, the very beneficiaries of this systemic injustice, get all up in their feelings and into my mentions. It’s not enough that I have to write about these constant eruptions of white violence against people who look like me every day; I also have to contend with white people who loudly and proudly feign ignorance of the very cause of this violence.

And it’s always the same people, every day. Oh, they think they’re different: This white man thinks he’d be totally on your side, normally; that white woman thinks she’s tough and fair-minded but is just looking for more data; and that white guy totally loves The Lion King and agrees with you, usually. But not today. Today, this police killing or that legal ruling isn’t really “racist.” Today, I go too far. Today tough, fair, agreeable ally-person thinks that there is no shadowy force orchestrating evil from behind the scenes. Today, Mufasa just threw his own damn self off the cliff and should have been more careful. After all, if everything is “racist,” nothing is, amiright?

It’s the same people, and they always make the same damn arguments. They always put forward some “race neutral” reason for why the Black man ended up dead at the hands of a white cop. “The cop would have shot anybody who went for their gun,” they’ll say, ignoring the fact that the cop stopped and harassed a Black man walking down the street. “It looked like a gun,” they’ll say, concocting some good-faith reason for why a white man gunned down a 12-year-old with a toy. “He didn’t mean to kill him,” they’ll say, giving the benefit of the doubt to a man who choked another man to death on a sidewalk in broad daylight.

I wonder sometimes how these people stop themselves from walking into traffic, given their determination to walk around without seeing things. The shapes some white people will twist themselves into in order to justify white violence falls into the uncanny valley. Their justifications are grotesque.

And embarrassing. By Zeus, are their arguments embarrassing. This country was built on white supremacy—a Western slave empire that has never gone back and made restitution to the progeny of those it held in bondage. A war was fought in defense of American apartheid; amendments were written and then cast aside; untold thousands of humans have been lynched as a warning to those who would hold themselves out as equals; wealth has been bombed out of existence from the sky; drugs have been pushed; loans have been denied; and 400 years after people who look like me were first forcibly brought to these shores, I still can be executed on the street like a dog by a cop who mistakes my phone for a gun. But white people still walk this earth with the unmitigated gall to tell me what is and is not racist. How?

It’s the hubris that gets me most of the time. Do they realize how galactically out of touch they sound lecturing me about the good-faith intentions of white folks? I’ve been more knowledgeable about how racism works in this country than the average white person since I was 15. I’ve been more knowledgeable than the above-average white person since I was 20. At 43, there is not a “race neutral” argument that a white person can make to me that I haven’t heard, and defeated, a hundred times before. A white person trying to explain racism to me—or to pretty much any Black person who has lived here long enough—sounds like a parakeet trying to explain astrophysics to Stephen Hawking. Everything they’ve thought about, I’ve already thought about. Everything they’re saying is just the repetition of something I read in the original German. Or Confederate. Or Jeffersonian.

Yet still they come. No matter how many white folks I lay out on Twitter, more show up the next day. No matter how many cops show themselves to be the vicious bastards they are, white people will show up to defend the next one. No matter how many Black people are lynched, white people will show up to defend the next lynch mob. There’s no end; they never “get it.” Even if I convince one white person, one time, that one killing was probably racially motivated, that same person will use that one “concession” of theirs against me the next time. “Well, Elie, I agreed with you that the white cop shouldn’t have knelt on that man for almost 10 minutes, so we can see I’m reasonable. But that is why I can say with total confidence that this other cop did not shoot that man six times in the back because he was Black.”

I’m forced to conclude that most white people just don’t get the core concept of systemic racism. It means that racism is part of the system, you see. It’s happening all the time. It doesn’t turn itself off just because you forgot to think about it that day. Hope that helps.

Explaining systemic racism to the people who benefit most from it frustrates many reporters, regardless of race, who cover the justice system in this country. But I’m one of the people who tries to cover it while Black. That means, invariably, some white person will accuse me of “injecting” race into the issue. Of projecting racism instead of merely noticing it. Of “playing the race card.” God, I can feel my nacho-clogged arteries ready to burst every time I hear that stupid phrase. The suggestion that my race, that any person’s race, the very color of our skin, is something nobody else would notice if they didn’t bring it up fills me with so much rage I can taste the bitter rush of adrenaline on my tongue. My color is the first thing people notice about me—when they see me. It’s the first thing white children notice about me (“You must be [my children’s] dad.”) It’s the first thing some of y’all’s racist pets notice about me (don’t think Black people can’t tell when your dog barks at us and not the white person who just walked past). Playing a card suggests I could “not” play it if I didn’t want to. But that’s not how it works. It’s not a “card”; it’s just my face.

But even if I could hide my face, even if I could make people think that I was white for a period of time, why would I? Why would I be embarrassed to be who I am? And why wouldn’t I rely on my lived experience to help me explain the world? Why wouldn’t I remember what has happened in the past to try to understand what’s going to happen in the future? Memory, especially of things white people would rather I forget, is one of my strongest analytical tools.

Memory is how I predicted that white people would try to let Kyle Rittenhouse get away with murder. It’s how I surmised that the judge in his case, Bruce Schroeder, would be biased toward the young white gunman. I didn’t need to know them; I needed only to remember everything I know about justice and white America, and then watch their individual actions. They told me everything I needed to know about them from their own mouths, in their own words.

Rittenhouse filmed himself two weeks before the protests in Kenosha ideating about buying a gun and shooting looters. He then acquired a gun (illegally), drove across state lines, lied about his qualifications as an EMT, and killed two people. I know him now. Schroeder made a series of pretrial decisions to help Rittenhouse’s case, then refused to make Rittenhouse comply with the terms of his bail. At trial, he’s continued to make decisions that favor Rittenhouse, in addition to yelling at the prosecution, refusing to let them put forward their best case, and literally making the courtroom clap for Rittenhouse’s expert witness, ostensibly because he was a veteran and it was Veterans Day. Schroeder told me everything I needed to know about him, even before his cell phone went off and played the Trump-rally theme song.

I don’t need to know what’s in a person’s heart. Frankly, I don’t give a damn about their heart. I only care about what a person is going to do. And I have been studying what white people will do for my whole life. I’ve had to in order to stay alive.

When I was 19, I was on the Red Line in Boston, heading back to school. The train was full, but I had a seat. A few people were standing. Everybody was white. At one stop, people in the row next to mine got up, and three new people got on and sat down. Skinheads. As soon as the train started moving, they started berating me. “Get up, [n-word]… I said get up… Can’t you see all these nice white people standing… Look at me when I’m talking to you [n-word].”

I was a teenager, and the only Black kid in the car. Nobody helped me. Nobody even went and got help. (Literally nobody familiar with Boston is surprised right now.) I got up at my stop and they got up with me, so I sat back down, I didn’t want them to know where I lived. They sat back down too. I knew the next station had this crazy-steep escalator, and I didn’t want to get off there because I was afraid they’d throw me off it and claim I’d “slipped.” The station after that I knew to be well-populated. I got off there, and so did they. But once they figured out I was making a bee-line for the ticket counter, they fell back. I never saw them again.

I’ve told that story before in mixed company. Black people just nod or say, “You were smart.” But invariably a white person says, “I would have helped you” or “I would have done something.”

No, most of you wouldn’t have. Most white people would have been the same cowardly do-nothings as the rest of the white people in my train car that night. And the white folks I know who really would have helped me, I already know who they are. It’s not even about politics: In fact, one of the people I’m sure would have had my back is a loud, obnoxious, conservative lawyer I fight with almost every day. See, I know white people. My survival depends on knowing white people, what they’re capable of, and what they’re not willing to do.

By now, somebody will already be grabbing screen shots of this column to use out of context and accuse me of being “the real racist.” But the good-faith reader will note that I’m talking about how I understand people based on their words and deeds. Assuming that all white people are “the same” would get me killed. If I am to survive, I have to be able to make judgments about each individual white person’s capabilities to kill me or harm me or help me, quickly and accurately, based on as much information as I can gather. I must be able to distinguish between the white guy who is coming at me because he hates something he heard me say on television from the white guy who is coming at me because he likes something he heard me say on television. I don’t hate white people—I don’t have the luxury of making a blanket, sweeping determination like that. I’m just a guy who can spot the white people who hate me coming a mile away. Two miles, if I’m paying attention.

I know what Kyle Rittenhouse is capable of. I know what Bruce Schroeder is capable of. I knew what those skinheads were capable of. I know what Thomas Jefferson was capable of. I know white people. And if more of them would shut up long enough to listen, they might one day know about themselves, too.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply-reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish everyday at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy