It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle—the disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic. And I can see nothing more urgent than for America to work passionately and unrelentingly—to get rid of the disease of racism.
Something positive must be done. Everyone must share in the guilt as individuals and as institutions. The government must certainly share the guilt; individuals must share the guilt; even the church must share the guilt...
The hour has come for everybody, for all institutions of the public sector and the private sector to work to get rid of racism...
There are those who still feel that if the Negro is to rise out of poverty, if the Negro is to rise out of the slum conditions, if he is to rise out of discrimination and segregation, he must do it all by himself. And so they say the Negro must lift himself by his own bootstraps.
They never stop to realize that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil. The people who say this never stop to realize that the nation made the black man’s color a stigma. But beyond this they never stop to realize the debt that they owe a people who were kept in slavery two hundred and forty-four years...
We must come to see that the roots of racism are very deep in our country, and there must be something positive and massive in order to get rid of all the effects of racism and the tragedies of racial injustice.
In contrast, the narratives of colorblindness go something like this:
"I'm not racist."
"There is equal opportunity in America."
"I treat everyone the same. What more can be asked of me?"
"I wasn't alive during slavery; I had nothing to do with it, so no claim can be made on me."
"My ancestors weren't even in the country during the time of slavery."
"Black people can work hard and find success in America just like other groups have."
To all of these evasions and denials, we hear Dr. King saying, "Something positive must be done. Everyone must share in the guilt as individuals and as institutions." The bit about having nothing to do with slavery is probably one of the most common and most stupid refrains we white people make. I've heard it too many times to count. I used to espouse it myself. But think about it for a minute. It's a claim that implies the 150 years after slavery are irrelevant, despite the fact that black people were denied the rights and privileges of citizenship for the next 100 years. It assumes, too, that the amply documented current discrimination ongoing during our lifetimes is irrelevant. It implies that we as individuals somehow have the power to be completely distinct from a discriminatory society without taking proactive and painful steps to go against the grain.
More than that, it is false to our own experience and basic demographic statistics. The fact that I was born into a family identified as "white" meant that before I ever did anything, before my character was formed or I ever did a day's hard work, I was statistically less likely to have to attend a poor school or face violent crime or be denied a job offer because of my color. I was statistically more likely to have greater wealth, more social connections with rich people, and better educational opportunities.
These statistical realities are all undeniably a product of slavery and discrimination. How thoughtless and inhumane it is for me, then, whose life has been so dramatically altered by our history, whose successes have been directly tied to evils I oppose, to pretend that I can cut myself off from it and bear no responsibility for taking positive action to tear down these privileges and turn them into opportunities all can enjoy. As foreign and perverse as this sounds to so many white people, until we start thinking this way I truly believe we're part of the problem.