Following Black History Month, I urge us to reflect on where we are with respect to racism today.

One of the interesting issues African Americans often face is white people calling themselves colorblind, meaning it as a compliment to black people. But most resent it, because, by not admitting that we can see color, whites are essentially denying them their history.

It is a history that includes ancestors who suffered through the trans-Atlantic slave trade; ancestors who were stripped, inspected, and sold on an auction block; and ancestors who suffered under masters who beat, whipped, and worked their enslaved people so hard that they sometimes died. It is not that you have to bring this up in conversation if you are white, but that you understand what that color means to an African American. Being Black has a racist history. Still, many Blacks are proud of their color and that their ancestors survived because they wouldn’t be here otherwise. If you are white, I suggest that you silently acknowledge this to yourself as well.

I want to move on to the term systemic or institutional racism. This kind of racism is more serious than personal racism. Systemic racism is reflected in the unequal policies, practices, traditions and rules — not always on the level of awareness — that oppress Blacks within all kinds of organizations. During President Woodrow Wilson’s tenure, everything in the government agencies was resegregated: washrooms, drinking fountains, lunchrooms, desks, etc. Even during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, Social Security brought huge benefits, but mostly to whites, because domestic workers and farmers — mostly Black — didn’t get it for nearly 20 years. There was also an official book on redlining, restricting African American home buying.

These kinds of systemic racism are very hard to rout out of an organization. It takes knowledge, dedication and effort to do so. But if you are white and working, have a look at those guidelines that affect hiring, and working relationships within your company or government office. Then, try to make changes by educating everyone about those practices that are racist. If you are retired but on a board of directors, make a point of looking at company practices. Also, check in with your adult children who are working. As a future contribution toward ending systemic racism, share age-appropriate books about racism with younger children and grandchildren, then talk with them.

There are always more terms to write about that reflect racism, but I want to end with reparations. Reparations refers to repair, or making things right, for the descendants of enslaved African Americans. There is something called the HR40 bill in Congress created by the late Rep. John Conyers nearly three decades ago. He wanted to create a commission to study and make proposals for reparations. But it hasn’t happened yet.

Why is it taking so long? First, reparations are very complicated and there are also many white Americans – and some black Americans – who are totally against them. How can payback be made to those enslaved persons who are now gone? What about the white Americans who say they had nothing to do with slavery and neither did their ancestors? How would reparations be accomplished? And how would we figure out who qualifies?

These are all good questions. But regardless, maybe the question should be: why not try? All white people, whether their ancestors were involved in slavery or not, have benefitted from the enormous contributions enslaved persons made to our country, for free. One of the significant take-aways whites have, but didn’t earn, is the privilege of just being white, with all the benefits arising from that designation. Think about it.

Susan Bowditch is on the faculty of Midcoast Senior College in Brunswick where she teaches about the issues around racism in the context of African American history.

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