The White Man's Burden

NOTE: This post was published in the online magazine Multicultural Familia. There are numerous thought-provoking and game changing articles there, in addition to a number of pieces on the Trayvon Martin case. 

In late January, I was on a business trip to east Texas. If you have never been there, let me say that east Texas is not, in general, an area of great economic diversity and wealth. Far from it, in fact; in many ways, that part of the country is one of the poorest I have ever encountered. As I was driving along a lonely stretch of road between Dallas and my destination, I passed a sight that I will never forget. There was a trailer park by the side of the road. There were several sheriff's cars and a large tow truck with a flatbed, and it was clear that they were there to repossess a dilapidated mobile home. The family was crying, wailing really, as they sat on the dirt next to a small pile of their remaining possessions. There were many other families gathered around, all Black, trying to console their neighbors, trying to reason with the repo man, and, I can assume, trying to figure out where they fit in to this heartbreaking situation. I was struck by this scene for many weeks afterward, trying to make some sense of what I had seen.

It's a hard thing to talk about sometimes. I see the hopelessness of poverty, but I am not impoverished. I see the inequality on educational opportunity, but I am well educated. I see the inherent travesties of judgment and racism, but I am as white as white gets. I see the pervasive misogyny in the media and among our politicians, but I am a male. In the end, no matter what I think or how I feel, I am a middle-class well-educated White male. It is easy to say that because of this, I do not suffer, I do not feel, I do not grieve. But to say that would be wrong, because we are not speaking about injustices against me, we are speaking about injustices against humanity. I have a right, a calling - perhaps even a responsibility - to feel saddened and enraged and motivated to do something to affect some degree of change.

The horrifying - and blatantly racist - case of Trayvon Martin has brought this to the forefront for me recently. If you are unfamiliar with the case, please read about it before continuing. The basic gist is this: Travyon was a 17 year old black male who went to the store for some Skittles, and was followed - perhaps hunted - and gunned down by a Hispanic neighbor (initially thought to be White) who deemed him "suspicious." The mostly White police have thus far failed to charge the murderer. This is not the first such case ,and will not be the last. In some ways, I have become immune to the headlines; like an addict, I have built up such a tolerance for injustice that it takes a mountain to even prompt a major reaction. It's easy for me to simply scan the headlines and say "hmm, another Black kid was gunned down, no big shock, crazy world" and move on to my comfortable life. Like most people.

But for some reason, this case hit me harder and caused me to examine my thoughts and ideas about injustice, particularly racial injustice. In many ways, we have come so far when it comes to race. In other ways, we have not even come close to resolving some of the issues - driven underground into subtle racism by the intent of our legal system to legislate racism out of our society - which currently threaten once again to divide us. Let me show you what I mean.

Let's imagine that we all live together in a small town of 10,000 people. Like most towns, we have our good parts and bad parts, our triumphs and tragedies. But if we extrapolate some real numbers and apply them to our population of 10,000, some interesting and uncomfortable truths begin to come into focus. In a town of 10,000 people:
  • 7,240 will be White
  • 1,630 will be Hispanic (can include Whites)
  • 1,260 will be Black
Now, my real town doesn't look anything like this at all; I would say that we are 95% White, give or take, with a small Hispanic population confined to one or two parts of town. But I digress. In our town of 10,000 people:
  • 29 of our 7,240 Whites will be in jail (.4%)
  • 11 of our 1,630 Hispanics will be in jail (.7%, or 1.8x the rate of Whites)
  • 29 of our 1,260 Blacks will be in jail (2.3%, or 5.6x the rate of Whites)
Think about that for a second. There will be the exact same number of Whites and Blacks in our jail, despite the fact that the population of Whites is 5.6 times the population of Blacks; in other words, the number of inmates is the same despite the fact that the Black population is only 17% of the White population. Seventeen percent.

So, I might naturally draw the conclusion that we have a problem with our legal system. Of course, I may also simply dismiss that and conclude that Blacks are 5.6 times more likely to commit a crime as Whites. Statistically, that is ludicrous. But before we get stuck on that, we have a few other things to look at. In our town of 10,000 people:
  • 716 of our 7,240 White people will be living in poverty (9.9%)
  • 433 of our 1,630 Hispanic people will be living in poverty (26.6%)
  • 345 of our 1,260 Black people will be living n poverty (27.4%)
Interesting. Even though Blacks and Hispanics make up only 40% of our population, they make up 52% of our total poverty numbers, and are roughly three times as likely to be impoverished as Whites. The poverty rate is actually 31.6% for families with a single female parent. "Something must be done," we clamor. "People need to educate themselves out of poverty so that they can lift themselves up by their bootstraps." Sounds good. But again, it's not that simple.

Across the United States, there are stark differences between school districts in terms of equal access. Some districts spend upwards of $10,000 or more per pupil each year, while some spend as little as $3,000 or less. Some schools have an average of one computer per every three students, while other have an average of one for every 100. Some schools have student:teacher ratios of 15:1, while others have ratios of 35:1. Take any measure you want - spending, computers, student:teacher ratios, guidance counselors, textbook and libraries, athletics, after-school programs - and you will see amazing differences between regions, states, districts, and sometimes schools within the same town. While there are many reasons why this situation exists, they all ultimately fail to excuse the simple fact that not all of our children have equal opportunity to the same level of educational experience in this country - not by a long shot. If you don't believe me, take a half day and volunteer at an inner city school, or a rural one, or one that serves an immigrant or Native American population. Then volunteer at your local suburban school. No contest. Other than our judicial system, education may be the most inherently discriminatory system that we have, starting the wheels in motion for a nation of haves and have nots.

So what does all of this mean? In the midst of all of this, my dear friend Erika wrote the following plea/question:

I just spent most of the night thinking about this case and wondering what I could do to help raise awareness of what I see as a serious problem across the nation, the assumed criminality of black males. Granted, it doesn't always end in physical death or physical incarceration but it does leave many of us in the black community in a psychological prison of self doubt, anxiety and I feel that it leads to a kind of spiritual death of personal freedom. So you will have to forgive my impatience with my continual need to explain to folks who don't have to think about this situation often, of how it feels to be Black in America. It may not be as bad as it was 60 years ago but it is still bad. Bad enough for a teenaged boy to wind up shot to death because he looked like a "criminal" and because it appears that he did what I taught my own children to do if they were confronted by a stranger that was following them: run, scream and fight like hell! And to those of you that question the racial aspect of this story, I have a couple of questions for you: What have you taught your own kids to do if they are being followed by a stranger? What would have to happen for you to believe that this incident happened because Trayvon Martin was a black teenager at the "wrong" place at the "wrong" time?
What would acknowledging this as a racist incident do? Why the denial of that? I really want to understand this.
I want to understand it, too. But I don't. 

Almost half a century ago, The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in which he expressed his hope - his "dream" - that one day, America would become a country in which we judged each other by who were were on the inside, not on what we looked like, how we talked, what we wore, or what Gods we worshiped. The location for this speech was well chosen, as Lincoln himself, 100 years prior, delivered a similar call to action on the battlefield at Gettysburg:

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal . . . now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
I cannot help wondering now if somehow the case of Trayvon Martin does not serve as a terrible reminder both of what we aspire to become, and how very far we fall short of that ideal. We want to think of ourselves as a land of equality, a land of justice, a land of freedom, but in reality we have a long way to go. In a country and an era - 234 years after we expressed our desire for equality in our Declaration of Independence, 150 years after a Civil War fought over the same issue, and 50 years since Dr. King implored us to do better - in which we have accomplished so much, we have failed greatly at perhaps our most important and fundamental task - to ensure that we looked out for each other, respected each other, provided for each other, treated each other with dignity, and helped each other to equally and actively participate in planning our collective and individual futures. I do not care how far we think we have come, we have not come far enough. In a world in which one of every six Black men has been in jail, where one of every four Black people live in poverty, and where a man of any race, creed or color is so filled with misunderstanding and fear and hatred that he can gun down a Black teen in cold blood and get away with it, trying simply is not good enough.

To be sure, being robbed of your freedom is horrible. Being robbed of your possessions and livelihood is unconscionable. And being robbed of your life is beyond my limited ability to put into words. These things happen to Blacks, and Hispanics, and Asians, and Women at far higher rates than they happen to White Males, and that is a travesty.

But the harm is deeper than that. The fact that these things happen, that they adversely impact minorities and women, leads to a psychological depression that manifests itself in all kinds of ways. Imagine how your life would change, how you would change, how your routines would change, if you were six times as likely to be pulled over for speeding, eight times as likely to be the victim of a violent crime, or three times as likely to be impoverished. Then add the fact that the education system was set up to fail you, and that you were faced with hostility - or, at the best, apathy - from the White majority. How would you respond? Would you live your life the same way you do now, or would you keep to your own kind? Would you buy a big house in the suburbs, or would you stay where you lived and were relatively safe from wonder and scorn? Would you drive the same, dress the same, say the same things? Likely not.

And that's where the real damage of racism lies, whether overt or subtle. You may be robbed of your freedom, your livelihood, your education. But in being so robbed, you are also robbed of your hope. You are also robbed of your self-confidence. You are also robbed of your ability and desire to dream of a better future. And with being so robbed, you struggle to accept your own worthiness to accomplish what so many of us take for granted. Ultimately, you are robbed of your humanity.

The title of this post is "The White Man's Burden." The phrase was originally coined by Rudyard Kipling in response to America's intervention and colonization of the Philippines; you can read some of the varying interpretations on the internet. But to me, the burden is one of guilt, one of shame, one of fear, one of not doing nearly enough to engender a basic degree of love and respect for all human beings. As long as we remain comfortable in our little suburban homes with our computers and iPads and color TVs, while ignoring the racial inequalities and injustices so prevalent today, we will bear the burden of failing to act in accordance with our own consciences, or failure to even recognize the problem at all. I'm not saying that Blacks, Women, or anyone else need the help of the White Male to succeed; but a little compassion, a little understanding, a little equality, and a bunch of self-reflection can go along way toward creating an environment in which those with little hope can begin to believe again in the power of hopes and dreams. If we can do that, maybe we can work together to fulfill the aspirations of Jefferson, Lincoln, King, and countless others and finally find a way to judge each other by the content of our characters. For now, for me, our characters are falling way short.


  1. Brilliant Jeff! Thank you for posting this!

  2. Wow! Wow! Wow! I am without words...which is rare. This is quite possibly the best post I have ever read.

  3. That's fantastic, Jeff. Really well-written.

    One small thing - the man who killed Trayvon was Hispanic, not white. I see people writing off amazing articles on this travesty because the author erroneously lists the murderer as 'white'.

  4. Sarah, thanks for that clarification. I should have checked that, although I don't think it alters the basic points. I made the correction in the piece.

  5. What a superb post! Thank you for your message Jeff!

  6. Great post Jeff, but Zimmerman is both hispanic and white, they aren't mutually exclusive. It's frustrating that such a big deal is being made over a difference that doesn't exist, and it's a BS dodge by the Zimmermans to try to confuse people and deflect George's racial stereotyping of Trayvon. "Hispanic" refers to people with ties to the shared language and culture of countries in the Western Hemisphere formerly controlled by Spain. White people can be hispanic, black people can be hispanic, and many hispanics have Native American ancestry. They are the typical image most people think of when they think "hispanic" and it's the brown skin and black hair from their Native American heritage that's getting profiled in places like Arizona. But if you saw Marco Rubio or Ricky Martin walking down the street, you'd think "white dude." On the census, there's a choice of hispanic or not hispanic, then a different section for all the other labels. And of course, belonging to an ethnic minority doesn't mean someone can't hold stereotypes against other minority groups, or even one's own, which is why you're right that it wouldn't alter your basic points of what happened to Trayvon, both before and after he was killed, and the context of what it reveals about our country.