“Why We Are Failing at Racial Equity and Justice”: A Lecture by Dr. Allan G. Johnson

Photo courtesy of agjohnson.us

Last spring, President Tuajuanda Jordan initiated the IDE Education and Training Work Group to help make the campus more inclusive, diverse, and equitable. Under the leadership of Professor Ugues, the group has been tasked with identifying “individuals or groups who can assist us in our efforts to organize diversity education and training opportunities for various constituencies on campus.”

In conjunction with this mandate, the IDE Education and Training Work Group created the Signature Speaker Series. On October 24, the group sponsored an event called, “Why We are Failing at Racial Equity and Justice” and it featured Dr. Allan Johnson, author of Privilege, Power, and Difference. In light of recent events on campus, the event could not have come at a more important time to help address some of the problems still facing our family.

The event was broken into two parts; first Dr. Johnson began with an in-depth historical analysis of racism in the United States. He began by describing how the country was founded on racism, whether it be “centuries of trying to make native people disappear” or enslaving millions of people for free labor. He described how the American capitalist industrial revolution was financed by the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Fast-forward to modern times, Dr. Johnson connected the gap by illuminating how currently, racism and inequality is still prevalent in our society. He stated facts such as, “White people are twice as likely to get jobs after college and there is still a large income gap,” “our legal system is engaged in mass incarceration of people of color,” and “the average white household is 20 times wealthier than the average black household and 12 times more than the average Hispanic household.” He provided this context before engaging in a conversation about privilege and how we as a society have not taken accountability for our racist history.

Dr. Johnson continued to explain that this led to a seemingly natural phenomenon in the U.S. where benefits, exclusive to white people, accumulate across generations. The systematic racism in the U.S. has associated whiteness with wealth, intelligence, and goodness, while excluding the rest.

Dr. Johnson explained that historically in America, “white is code” meaning that you’re “in.” This practice has rendered people of color as inferior, and he further explains, “White people get to be just human beings, while people of color do not get to be just humans.”

In order to be eligible for privilege in the US, he clarified, you must appear to belong in the dominant category. Dr. Johnson describes privilege as socially constructed, having nothing to do with what a person has.  He explains that the concept of whiteness was created by people in power and was not based on logic or science. This has created “white privilege,” which he defines as unearned advantages to the exclusion of a group of people that is confirmed in society.

He characterizes white privilege as (1) white dominated (being on top of the social hierarchy) which means the default in power is to be held by white people, (2) organized around concession and control as members maintain loyalty within the group, and (3) white identified: gauge white people as the standard of human beings.

The talk concluded with an open conversation with the audience. People talked about what it means to give up privilege and how it is not up to people of color to teach white people about their privilege or help them find ways to relinquish it.

One student commented, “it is not up to the oppressed to teach their oppressor.”

The conversation ended with a consensus that enacting or perpetuating white privilege is a form of racism. Dr. Johnson clearly reiterated that “white privilege is the problem that the country has not taken responsibility for,” going on to say “the past is where we are and who we are.”