Why Racism is Everybody’s problem

Why Racism is Everybody’s problem

[This post has been updated June 6, 2020] [Say his name: GEORGE FLOYD]

It used to be that those who played no part in historical slavery, either directly or indirectly, by their ancestry or lineage, could wash their hands of this most egregious of all American sins.

Whereas, the German people collectively confronted Nazism – there are no statues to Nazi commanders, much less Herr Hilter, anywhere in the public sphere of Germany.  Indeed, it is even illegal to display the Swastika (a ‘symbol of unconstitutional organization’) per the Strafgesetzbuch 86.a (German Criminal Code). After World War II, the entire world was told, and taught about, EXACTLY what happened to the Jews in the concentration camps; thus the entire world was horrified. And the entire world knew the depths of the actions of hatred and racism. All Germans took responsibility for Nazism, even those who did not directly participate in it. Reparations were also paid to Holocaust survivors, both for lives taken of family members and for lost or stolen property including real estate and objects d’art.

The Anti-Defamation League, perhaps the premier organization showing ‘How to do it’ in terms of organizing and informing for the sake of social justice — was and is still crucial in stressing the importance of EDUCATION – so that no one will ever forget exactly what happened to the Jews at Auschwitz and other camps – all the gory and sickening details.

Thus, reconciliation could happen. Thus, the Jews in this country, and even those of only one generation past the Holocaust could essentially heal in terms of functioning within a diverse culture of Christian, Muslim, and non-faith-based neighbors and fellow citizens.

This has never happened in regard to Slavery. We have never had a unified, direct, explicit confrontation of EXACTLY what happened to slaves during the Middle Passage, their sale in slave markets, and their placement on plantations and in households from the early- mid 18th century to the mid –late 19th century, up and down the East Coast, in colonial and federal era America – the average white child in school does not know explicitly what slavery was like; whereas he/she might have been fortunate enough to hear from a Holocaust survivor at some assembly at his/her school  . . .

So, it begins with education, explicit and exact.

How will this education be accomplished? Here are some suggestions of readings and assignments that I have used recently with college-aged students, and previously, with Middle and High School aged students. First, every child with a 6th grade reading level or above should read both Octavian Nothing books by M.T. Anderson, The Pox Party and The Kingdom of the Waves:

The full and formal titles of the books are The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. I, The Pox Party (2006), and The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. II, The Kingdom of the Waves (2008).

The books are the fictional memoir of the 18th c. African slave Octavian, who lives in a gated estate in Boston with his mother, the ‘Queen,’ and members of the College of Lucidity – a collection of white, male, dilettante scientists and philosophers who experiment on Octavian and his mother for their own version of Enlightenment-era research. Octavian is both mistreated and privileged, until the inoculations at a literal pox party go awry, the ‘college’ is disbanded, and he loses his mother. At the same time, the first engagements of the Revolutionary War are affecting average Bostonians, including persons of color. Octavian is seduced by the politically cynical proclamation of Lord Dunmore who promised to free slaves if they joined the British side. These books provide a way in to talking about slavery during colonial and Revolutionary times – a time period much earlier than ‘Ante-bellum’ romanticization of Slavery.

Second, all high school aged students should ‘visit’ various websites, including the EJI.org (Equal Justice Initiative) and do a research project on LYNCHING. The EJI runs a database on lynchings from the end of the Civil War to the 1960’s – to date they have catalogued over 4,300 of these brutal, extra judicial murders in the South. https://eji.org/

Third, everybody should read Marlon James incredible controlled-anger essay, “Smaller and Smaller and Smaller” (2017) https://niotprinceton.org/2017/06/25/smaller-and-smaller-and-smaller-by-marlon-james/

Everybody should look at, and read the (brutally racist) comments after, Blaxit, by Dr. Ulysses Burley in the Salt Collective (2016) http://thesaltcollective.org/6936-2/

Everybody should read and/or listen to Mat Johnson’s essay, ‘The Vanishing Middle Class’ http://www.npr.org/2016/06/22/482135775/what-its-like-to-be-a-part-of-the-vanishing-middle-class

As well as his graphic novel, Incognegro (2009) (also about lynching). And maybe also his creative non-fiction, The Great Negro Plot (2007), and maybe also PYM (2012).

Another reading approach to enter the deep mindset of the generational devastation of slavery might be the novel, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. Seriously. I have taught this book a few times as an exercise in writing creative non-fiction, suspended claim, and basic research into laws governing slave owner/slave relations, circa the early 1800’s antebellum South and later, during the run up to the Civil War, and the wartime years 1860-1865. Basically, it was legal for a slave owner to kill (rape, maim, assault, flog, torture, abuse, murder, sell, etc.) a slave. Thus, the fantastical premise of Abe Lincoln Vampire Hunter, that some slave owners were in fact vampires because they could hunt, feed, and kill with impunity — is not so hard to believe. The corollary, that slave owners might as well have been vampires because they could kill their ‘property’ without legal consequence — this also makes sense at the metaphorical or symbolic level. Slavery was that bad. And Lincoln was that committed to ending it.

Everybody should also watch the documentary, Slavery by Another Name by Mike Elcock (2012). When black slaves were emancipated, they had two ‘choices’ or fates: Sharecropping or Convict labor. This film tells the story of how black men and black boys were forced into labor camps under spurious charges — for example, that they owed a debt, then were arrested, then could be sold into convict labor to public and private entities to build roads, bridges, buildings. You’ve heard it said that this country was built on the backs of slaves (and former slaves) . . . it’s true. This documentary is hard to watch, but necessary.

Everybody should also read Between the World and Me (2015) by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It would be hard to over-exaggerate the stylistic achievement of this quasi-epistolary memoir, as it is so accomplished and nuanced and brave. In recalling his first experience with neighborhood violence, he writes: “I remember being amazed that death could so easily rise up from the nothing of a boyish afternoon, billow up like fog . . . . Somewhere out there beyond the firmament, past the asteroid belt, there were other worlds where children did not regularly fear for their bodies” (Coates 20). I love this book and feel so hopeful that its message will continue to resonate, start conversations, and perhaps change lives.

Ta-Nahesi Coates is also the author of the powerful essay, “The Case for Reparations”; this too is a must read. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/

tanehisi coates

Everyone should also, for fun, for a bit of relief, listen to the ‘comedy stylings’ of Roy Wood Jr. — who worked his way through stand-up in Alabama and other parts South, making his way to the Daily Show with Trevor Noah. This guy is funny, this guy is right. Check out his jokes about the Confederate flag; (he doesn’t want it banned because it’s how he can tell the difference between the ‘good white people’ and the ‘bad ones’).

Fourth, we all should go out of the way to visit important sites sacred to African-American history (either in person or at least on-line), such as the National Civil Rights Monument in Memphis, Tennessee, where Dr. King was assassinated in 1968 https://www.civilrightsmuseum.org/
And the MLK National Historic Site in Atlanta where he preached and was buried. https://www.nps.gov/malu/index.htm/index.htm
And the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Smithsonian, in Washington DC. https://nmaahc.si.edu/

And the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University, in Big Rapids, Michigan https://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/

Fifth, elder members of the African-American community should speak in elementary and upper level school assemblies and classrooms about their experiences of Segregation, Lynchings (survival of), and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Eras. Their memories bear important witness to the recent past. Like the Holocaust survivors, they beat important witness.

Slavery will never be gotten over if slavery is not taught, learned, and understood as the most significant, evil deed (but rival to Native American tribe-by-tribe genocide, treaty-breaking, removal of children to ‘Indian schools,’  and displacement to Reservations) perpetrated under the aegis of so-called legal American government actions, and American social norms. The great Richard Rodriguez, in Brown, The Last Discovery of America (2002), the third book in his memoir trilogy, reminds us of why we MUST pay attention to slavery FIRST, before all other historical or cultural issues, because even way back in the day, French writer and amateur anthropologist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1835) told us that this was/is America’s great sin: “The African, de Tocqueville writes, has experienced degradation to his very soul, has become a true slave” (3). And, “African Americans remain at the center of the moral imagination of America . . . . For it was there that Africans were enslaved. It was there African Americans hung by their throats from trees . . . . And what has emerged from the cocoon of African American suffering, cut down from the tree, buried for half a century?” (30).  For Rodriguez that answer is not clear, but it may involve “the boom” of rap music, and “the glamour of the dead-eyed man” — the lush violence of rap lyrics and gang-banger, hip-hop lifestyles. Indeed, white Americans would learn a lot from listening to the current slate of rap stars, for example Joey Bada$$ (“Devasted”; “Temptation”; “Land of the Free”), or Wale (“Shine”) or Childish Gambino  (“This is America”), or Lil Uzi Vert (“Is Rage 2”), or Big Sean (“Light”), or Meek Mill (“Trauma”), or Lizzo (“Truth Hurts”).

Having taught in two predominately black high schools, having lived, worked, and been educated in South Carolina for over ten years when I was younger, and having purchased and rehabbed two houses in Detroit since 2014, and having worked for a prestigious university in Michigan that is attempting to subvert the still elitist/white-favored admissions policy by allowing a select two hundred or so students from diverse backgrounds with maybe not quite as much family support or know-how, to try out, to matriculate, to be accepted . . . having had all these experiences in the black community, I am sensitive to the real needs and continued inequalities that this community faces. (See my posting on ‘Privilege’). [We also need to BOYCOTT ASCHATZ PIES!]

Therefore, I believe that any white person who lives in this country, regardless of when their people arrived here (for example, I am only 2nd generation, daughter of Polish immigrants who arrived in the early 20th century), anyone who benefits from the great largess and openness of the American Dream, even if you are not yet middle class or rich, any white person shares in this collective guilt that stems for White Privilege, and that was reinforced by apartheid laws during Jim Crow and Segregation. If we are all to take credit for, and our share of, America’s bounty, then we all must share in her sins and mistakes.

Now you may argue, what about freewill and personal responsibility? Is it all white people’s fault? You may ask this sarcastically, as if you know the answer. The answer is yes, the systemic, structural, generational problems that slavery caused, and the unique set of persistent disadvantages (like in public education, housing, access to health care, and access to good jobs) in its aftermath – these did and do still affect this community. Children born into black families are still more at risk for lead poisoning, learning disabilities, childhood diseases, teenage pregnancy, and premature death by trauma, including gun violence. Is it the children’s fault? Is it the parent’s fault if he/she can’t find a job, didn’t finish high school, is at risk for substance abuse – how can you be a good parent when you are unemployed, under-educated, and possibly addicted?

You may say that I am dealing with stereotypes, but sadly, the statistics bear this out. For example, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, in its Kids Count database: the number of “children living in families where no parent has full-time, year-round employment (by race)” – Black or African American kids hover right below 50%; only Native American kids rates are comparable or higher, at 47% to 51%:

2011           2012             2013          2014          2015

Black or African American Number 5,209,000 5,115,000 4,988,000 4,919,000 4,685,000
Percent 49% 49% 48% 47% 45%


How else can we explain this phenomenon than to point to unequal opportunities in education and employment? It’s surely not that the parents do not want to work. In Detroit, for example, while things have gotten better over the last few years, things are still in no way livable for many black families – that is why they send their kids to charter and/or ‘schools of choice’ outside the city, and seek employment in the surrounding counties (yes, they have to leave their county, not just their city, to find work). Some families succeed by extremely hard work and even harder logistics, to get themselves and their kids out of Detroit for both school and work.

But it should not be this hard. And kids, who are innocent and who never asked to be here, kids should not be blamed for their parents’ struggles, and parents should not be blamed for the hopelessness of their situations. These were in fact brought on by direct and indirect racism, hatred, bigotry, and prejudice that still lingers in the Midwest. Indeed, white flight racism was openly and persistently practiced by Oakland County CEO L. Brooks Patterson (the county north of Wayne Co. where Detroit is); he basically invented ‘lock your doors’ and ‘never stop in Detroit for gas.’

The car killer in Charlottesville was from Maumee, Ohio, which is just south of the Michigan border, part of the greater Toledo area. Clearly this young person learned his racism in the upper Midwest, and he ironically drove an expensive ‘Detroit product’ – a ‘muscle car’ into that crowd of peaceful protesters in Virginia. He killed a white woman named Heather. It would be easy for me, a white, middle-aged college instructor, to distance myself from James Alex Fields Jr., or even from Dylann Roof, — but that distance, that denies ownership to the collective ‘White’ – that is exactly why racism won’t go away. We all are to blame for this problem, and even this violence. Our shame has to be shared – only then can our shot at redemption be realized.

Elizabeth Ferszt, Tempe, AZ, August 19, 2017 (Banner image: Kehinde Wiley, detail) (updated 8/8/19)

(Updated 6/1/20) In the world of the murder of George Floyd, it’s sadly astonishing that we still need to post this: Jackson, MICHIGAN today peaceful protest with many local leaders who spoke to the community; we marched orderly down MLK/Francis street, the Mayor (Derek Dobies) was in tow. This town was a site on the Underground Railroad.

Finally, my department at the University of Michigan has been having this discussion about ‘what we should do’ and ‘how we should feel’ about all of this; thankfully, we have excellent, diverse leadership so we were encouraged to discourse. I posted this:

“In this last piece [i.e. this piece, “Why Racism is Everybody’s Problem’], I argue that the historical origins of racism (i.e. chattel slavery and terror lynching) have obviously created the structural and generational system of contemporary racism. But that white people don’t want to acknowledge this. And until we have THAT conversation, that ALL white people are the beneficiaries of structural racism (in jobs, education, housing, health care, banking, food access, recreation, the arts, etc.), and ALL white people, whether they know it or not, have participated in an inherently race-based, race-selective system if they have ever: 1) gone to school; 2) gone to a hospital; 3) gone to a grocery store; 4) gone to a public park; 5) gone on public transportation — in other words, ALL white people (including myself) are part of the problem of racism. And maybe this time it’s up to white people to finally, once and for all, apologize, and then work hard as hell to fix it.


  1. Hi Ms. Ferszt,

    Thank you for caring and writing Why Racism is Everybody’s Problem https://elizabethferszt.wordpress.com/2017/08/20/why-racism-is-everybodys-problem/

    I am doing a study of Afrocentric art and discovered an exceptional portrait of Francis Barber. I was interested to find it is the same painting featured on The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. II, The Kingdom of the Waves (2008). I thought you would find the real life of Francis Barber fascinating, too!

    Portrait of a Man, probably Francis Barber (ca. 1770)
    by Sir Joshua Reynolds
    Oil on canvas
    31 × 25 1/8 in.
    Menil Foundation, UK

    The black man in Sir Joshua Reynolds’ painting, a noble, almost epic figure silhouetted against a dramatic sky, is widely considered to be Francis Barber, Samuel Johnson’s servant and friend. Barber was born enslaved on Jamaica, sometime around 1745, and brought to England by his master, Colonel Richard Bathurst. When Bathurst died in 1754, Barber was given his freedom and left a sum of £12.

    Some time in the early 1750s, Barber joined Dr Johnson’s household. Apart from four years working variously for a London apothecary and in the Royal Navy, he remained in Johnson’s service until the lexicographer’s death in 1784.

    Johnson, who was passionately opposed to slavery, developed a deep affection for Barber, treating him more like a son than a servant. He paid for Barber’s education – five years at the grammar school in Bishop’s Stortford from 1767. Johnson wrote tenderly to Barber, encouraging him to read and reassuring him of his abiding affection. One such letter to Barber ends: ‘Do not imagine that I shall forget or forsake you…’

    Johnson would not allow Barber to perform demeaning tasks, stopping him, for example, from buckling Johnson’s shoes. He even went to market himself to buy oysters for his cat so that Barber’s ‘delicacy be not hurt, at seeing himself employed for the convenience of a quadruped’. Such actions reveal that Johnson saw the relationship between them as that of equals rather than master and servant.

    Johnson left Barber funds in his will, along with the residue of his estate.

    All the best in your endeavors!

  2. PS. I did a bit more research on Francis Barber. His Wikipedia article says later in life he married a local English girl and opened up a small village school in nearby Burntwood. After his death in 1801 he was survived by his wife, Elizabeth, their son, Samuel Barber and daughter, Ann. Samuel became a Methodist lay preacher, while Elizabeth and Ann set up a small school. Both Samuel and Ann married white partners. His descendants still farm near Lichfield.

    Also, here is the link for the painting information I sent earlier: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/abolition/africans_in_art_gallery_07.shtml

    – Mary Stewart

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