I may be a progressive, but I’m still white
I have to admit that I loved Green Book. After watching it with my wife, I declared it by far the best picture of the year. I was moved by the story on many levels, and was thrilled when I saw it win the Oscar.
But I also loved Driving Miss Daisy. And Crash. Both other best picture winners that have come under criticism for their racial naivete.
On the other hand, I saw Do the Right Thing in theaters. I found it moving and powerful, but at the same time unpleasant to watch. Ever since then, I have been a fan of Spike Lee, but yet his films always made me feel a little uncomfortable, like they may be a little heavy-handed.
In fact, I saw Malcolm X in a theater in an African-American section of New Orleans. I can tell you that while I admired the film, I did feel uncomfortable at times.
So I read with interest criticism that was leveled at Green Book by Lee, Jordan Peele and others. They made the point that films like it, Driving Miss Daisy and Crash treat racism as if it is simply an attitude that can be done away with if we all just get along.
In fact, racism is institutional. It is something that has been perpetuated in government policy — and not just through Jim Crow laws. Federal housing policy during the period of suburbanization just after World War II favored whites over blacks. This is a critical problem since so much of middle class wealth is tied up in our homes.
Our public school system is set up in a way to ghetttoize African-Americans. Indeed, since the 1980s when busing came to an end, school segregation has been increasing to new heights.
Therefore when we say that racism is simply people’s attitudes, we are ignoring how the power of the state has been used to enforce oppression of minorities. It is akin to NRA members responding to mass shootings by offering the victims “thoughts and prayers” while opposing any substantive policy change.
I know all this intellectually. But my mind cannot overcome the world view I have been raised into.
I went to a wealthy suburban high school where the only African-Americans were bused in from Boston, most of them joining the basketball team. Even those who were not top athletes were truly exceptional individuals. To be selected to this program, you had to be acceptable to the host school. As a result, this population was hardly representative.
In college, I went to the University of Massachusetts, believing myself to be an open-minded liberal. I thought I was supportive of civil rights, and indeed I became close with a number of gay rights activists — this was in the 1980s when the gay rights movement was still young.
But I attended a number of very unpleasant meetings aimed at raising my awareness of my privilege and my place in a system that oppresses certain groups. These meetings made me uncomfortable. I thought the feeling was one of guilt over the color of my skin. In fact, it was the confrontation of realities against the perspective into which I had been raised.
I am still that white romantic who hopes we can all learn to love each other. That is why films like Green Book and Driving Miss Daisy so appeal to me. Unfortunately, this hope is naive, just one step away from saying that I am not racist because I have black friends.
Furthermore, my denial is only reinforced by the messages in Green Book. As a white northern liberal, I love to look down on those Southern racists. That is exactly the message Green Book sent.
There was a thrilling scene at the end of the movie when the characters were driving through New Jersey and were stopped by a police officer. After their experiences with police in the South, you expected an unpleasant confrontation. Instead, the police officer was friendly and helpful. The message was: welcome to the non-racist north.
In reality, racism is just as big a problem in the north as it was in the south. In some ways it was worse since it had to hide in the shadows. The chances that police officers were violent racists were just as bad in New Jersey as in the South. In fact, Sundown towns that banned blacks after dark were at least as common in the north as in the south. For people like me to look down our noses at the southern racists is nothing short of denial, and Green Book played right into that wishful thinking.
The reality is that the oppression that is racism will not go away simply if everyone is nice. What is needed instead is fundamental changes to our system, a process that makes even the most progressive whites feel uncomfortable. After all, the way the system is, we have done pretty well. Our only real hope is that we can overcome this inherent fear of losing our position to realize that expanding the pie to include historically oppressed groups will ultimately be something that benefits all of us.
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