In response to the Black Lives Matter protests, we white people have answered with the truism, “All lives matter.” In fact, with a bow to the Green movement, all life matters, or should. But that’s the point. All life doesn’t and all lives don’t. Not at least to those of us who have lucked out to be born with cultural silver spoons in our mouths: money, two-parent families, a nice neighborhood, the best public schools, and—by a total quirk of fate—white skin. There’s not much room at the top, the thinking goes, and those of us, through no virtue of our own, who happened to be born in the upper reaches of the social hierarchy have little incentive to make room for those below us, let alone to give them a hand up. In a society based on social Darwinism, your win is paid for by my loss. We white Americans live in a gated community of the mind if not of heart and soul. Stay in your place so I can stay in mine seems our belief.
Social Darwinism and its economic offspring, capitalism, are based on survival of the fittest. What is left out of account is the fact that white skin and a middleclass birth or better are the true Operation Head Start. In a wonderful short video, a camp leader declares to a racially and socially mixed group of teenagers that he will give the winner of a footrace $100. But first the racers must answer a series of prompts like “If you were born in a two-parent family, take two steps forward,” “If you grew up in a single-family house, take two steps forward,” “If you were sent to a private versus public school, take two steps forward,” and so on. By the time the counselor shouts “Go!,” the white, middleclass kids have a sizable advantage. Guess who wins?
The term that comes to mind now is restorative justice. In the footrace of life in our ego-based society, we should do just the opposite: “If you came from a one-parent household, take two steps forward,” “If you grew up in a ghetto, take two more,” “If you attended a poorly equipped, poorly staffed school in the ‘hood, take another two,” etc. Affirmative Action, Operation Head Start, Food Stamps, and other programs are baby steps in this direction. But much more is needed. I think now of Black Americans whose ancestors were brought here against their will to work as slaves so that their white masters could become wealthy, whose families were sold apart, who today, though legally free, suffer from a kind of cultural PTSD among other inherent disadvantages. I think of Native Americans whose land, language, and religions were stolen, whose treaties, especially once gold was discovered in the West, our white male government repeatedly broke. Restorative justice means that because their lives mattered less, now they must matter more. That translates into payment in both money and land. Nice talk and beautiful apologies are an insult. It’s said that the longest journey is from the head to the heart. I think it’s actually from I to We. America’s greatness is a nice thought. Now it’s time to turn it into a reality.