Published in the Holland Sentinel on June 28, 2020
In a letter to the editor published Friday, J. Samuel Hofman proclaims that the reason Black people are disproportionately impoverished in America is, in fact, Black people. “Until more African-American men become faithful providers,” writes J. Samuel Hofman, “their sad history of poverty and tragedy will continue.”
If there were any doubt whether racist beliefs endure in our own community, it can now be considered dispelled.
Those who share Hofman’s views may be unaware of the many ways in which generations of Black lives have been decimated. Very briefly, the enslavement of Black people was used to build America’s white wealth, setting up a race disparity which persists to this day. America’s first southern law enforcement institutions were founded largely to enforce slavery.
Then, when slaves were “freed,” they were not allowed to own land. Major economic aid measures have explicitly or practically excluded Black people (Homestead Act; New Deal Federal Housing Administration; World War II G.I. Bill). Fledgling centers of Black wealth have been, not coincidentally, destroyed by whites (Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921; Rosewood, Florida, in 1923). Presidents Nixon (“law and order”) and Reagan executed a “war on drugs,” and Clinton implemented “zero tolerance policing” for minor crimes in the 1990s, all targeted at communities of color. Then “stop and frisk” allowed random police searches in the 2000s, again disproportionately afflicting Black individuals.
Having ignored history, Hofman’s reasoning amounts to a classic case of victim shaming in which the Black community is blamed for its incarcerated fathers, just as rape victims are blamed for their short skirts. Ironically, at the same time, whites are consistently seen as the unfortunate victim of circumstance. Blacks have a virtue problem; whites have suffered job loss. Blacks have a drug problem; whites have been corrupted by opioid companies. This faulty logic persists because it is safe and easy — for whites. There is, after all, in the words of Thomas Edison, “no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the labor of thinking.”
Now consider the present day. In the words of Will Smith, “Racism is not getting worse, it’s getting filmed.” About 1 in every 1,000 Black men can expect to be killed by police. In Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered by “law enforcement,” police use force against Black people at seven times the rate of whites. It is troubling to realize that the extent of Black persecution is only now being exposed — and that what we’re seeing has likely been much worse throughout our history.
White people alive today have a responsibility to recognize our privilege. We did not invent racial oppression; but we do benefit from its history tremendously. This is not cause for defensiveness or shame; but it is great cause for the righting of wrongs. Black people walk around with a target on their back, causing trauma many of us could only imagine. They do not have the luxury of being “color blind” — the world has not allowed it. I therefore beg you to join me in recognizing reality, and using the life you’ve been given to actively oppose oppression — including the suggestion that the oppressed are to blame for their predicament.
Fair warning for us all: Practicing the Golden Rule may require the labor of thinking. In so doing, we may come to find that Kimberly Jones is right: We are lucky that Black people only want equality and not revenge.
— Chase W. Nelson is a Holland native and biologist working at Academia Sinica (Taipei, Taiwan) and the American Museum of Natural History (New York City). His current research focuses on human mutation and the genetics of SARS-CoV-2.