I have a confession to make: I am a racist. That I am a racist is hard for me to admit to you. That I am a racist is hard for me to admit to myself. It would be easier to deny my racism. But I am a racist. I write this letter, because I want to discuss my form of racism, what has been called white privilege, in the hope that my confession will foster conversation.
No, I haven’t engaged in any hostile acts of aggression designed to degrade an individual or a group. My ancestors did not own slaves. I have never lynched or stomped anyone. I don’t ride around with a white hood on my head or flying a Confederate flag. I don’t take part in neo-Nazi skinhead meetings. I didn’t storm the Capitol on January 6, and I don’t condone the views of those who did. Although I have used the N word, I find it offensive.
No, my racism is not deliberate, intentional, premeditated, overt, conspicuous, readily explainable, or even always conscious.
I am certain that most lawyers embrace the American mythology of the self-made man. We believe that we have achieved success solely through our own talent and hard work. I know that “I worked my ass off in law school.” I still “work my ass off,” often seven days a week. I would contend that I have earned my success. We subscribe to the principle of meritocracy most recently espoused by Barack Obama, the view that talent and effort should determine one’s reward. We want to operate as if this meritocracy governs all of us.
Despite maintaining this belief for many years, I must now be more honest with myself…and with you. I did receive a “boost” in life. I am a third-generation lawyer on my father’s side. I am a fifth-generation lawyer on my mother’s. I am the grandson of two former bar presidents (Hugh McMaster Russ 1946-47 and Willard Marsh Pottle 1965-66). That I would attend college (and probably law school) was just assumed. And, I attended one of the best colleges in the country, if not the world. I started with an unquestionable advantage. I now understand and today publicly acknowledge that advantage — that boost– as white privilege.
White privilege masquerades as something else –something legitimate, accepted, and unremarkable. My skin color is white. It is assumed I can pay for my meals and that I belong in expensive places. I am included easily in what some call” the power elite.” I was educated at schools that value legacy. I am a lawyer, and the exams I took to become one were written by white people. I own my own house in a nice suburb, and it was easy to arrange a low-rate mortgage. I have means. I personally know leaders in business and industry and government. I can call a doctor when I am sick, and that doctor usually looks like me and listens to me. My children went to excellent schools, and their teachers cared about them as individuals. Now adults, they have good jobs, and they knew how to apply and interview for them. I am comfortable in places like the Buffalo Club, City Hall, and Federal Court. My original boost is now my children’s boost, more white privilege.
Here’s where the boost extends into something harmful. My racism operates at the structural level of society, for my benefit, because my place is assured. Over 25 years ago, UB Professor Henry Louis Taylor, Jr. defined structural racism:
Racism can also be covert and operate at the structural level. Structural Racism is usually subtle and refers to the operation of established institutions in such a way that African Americans are denied access to resources, and institutions are operated, so that Blacks are placed in a disadvantaged position vis-à-vis European Americans. This form of racism is systemic because it causes the very operation of societal institutions to erect barriers to Blacks’ securement of good jobs and opportunities, quality education, and healthcare and decent housing and neighborhoods. Structural racism is the most dangerous and insidious form of racism.
In structural racism, policies are formulated and implemented with little or no regard for the impact that they have on the Black community. And even when it is discovered that certain activities are detrimental to Blacks, they are not stopped. Simply put, structural racism exists when issues are defined, policies formulated, decisions made, agendas set, resources allocated, and beliefs, values and attitudes promulgated and enshrined in such a way that Blacks are held back and permanently tied to the bottom of the economic ladder.
Even 25 years after Taylor advised Buffalo of this phenomenon, we have not recognized its obvious impact. As Santayana warned, “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Although my racism is not intentional or conscious, unless I choose to act otherwise, my everyday decisions and activities serve to reinforce systems that operate in our society and community to the detriment of people of color, systems that benefit my family and me, while simultaneously harming people of color.
When I evaluate my extremely fortunate life position in this light, a position that I fail most often even to recognize, I find that my options and decisions afford me three luxuries not available to most people of color: (1) Access — I have access to virtually anything I need in life, either immediately or in a short period of time. There really is no meaningful problem that I could face which I could not solve myself or with available help. (2) Policy — I participate, consciously sometimes but mostly unconsciously, in the making of policy which adversely affects people of color in ways which I am not always aware. Basic life choices serve to reinforce this system of white privilege. (3) Perpetuation — my decisions and actions perpetuate the inequitable circumstances faced by people of color, perpetuate the discriminatory status quo. Just as I benefited, my children benefit.
My every day choices have an impact on the lives of others. As a person of privilege and power, what do I do — on a daily-basis — that serves to perpetuate the subtle system of structural racism? What can I — just one person who thinks he is doing the best he can to care and provide for his family — do to change the system of white privilege? If the problem is so invasive and pervasive, should I even try to help?
Any solution to the continuing problem of racism in our society necessarily requires a three-pronged attack: education, empathy, and action. The education cannot start soon enough. We must teach our children to celebrate diversity, to respect each individual, and to make decisions that do not serve to the detriment of others. The education has to begin with our children, but we all need it, maybe especially those of us who have been around for a while. Empathy is a cultural value that sadly too often seems lost. Be kind; listen; understand. Empathy, like education, requires a commitment and an open mind.
Finally, Action: I suppose that is the hardest question. What can we do? How should we act? How can we change our families, our intuitions, our governments — the BAEC — to begin the process of ending structural racism? That is the challenge I would propose. Many of us are racists. Where do we, who are structural racists, who benefit from white privilege, begin to address this problem, which is so sinister that our everyday, unconscious, almost reflexive actions perpetuate the problem? Wouldn’t it be easier for us to ignore the problem? Wouldn’t it be easier for me to go on living as I have always lived? But how can I disregard the reality of structural racism, especially when friends, family, partners, and colleagues do not acknowledge that it even exists? I expect that attempting to start this discussion will cost me, personally and professionally.
I know that this letter is provocative, and I recognize it will be controversial. I intend that it spurs discussion in our bar association and beyond. I welcome your responses. I envision creating a forum for a discussion of this painful issue, and I invite all to participate. We have to start somewhere.
Hugh M. Russ, III
President, Bar Association of Erie County