An Open Letter: We are in Denial

Dear White America,

As you fill my Facebook feed with videos of ice buckets being dumped on your heads, I cannot help but notice your silence (with a few exceptions) regarding the events taking place in Ferguson, Missouri.

While raising money for ALS research is undoubtedly a noble pursuit, there are some slightly more pressing issues confronting our society.

And if we are being honest, most of us white people are pretty uncomfortable talking about race.

Actually, uncomfortable is the wrong word.

A more accurate word is denial.

The shame we feel when we learn of the Atlantic slave trade, chattel slavery, plantation cotton fields, “forty acres and a mule,” lynchings, poll taxes, “separate but equal,” segregation, redlining and endemic discrimination across America’s institutional landscape, is viewed as a morally reprehensible part of our past.

But what we do not understand, including those of us who identify as socially conscious liberal democrats, is that structural racism still exists in ourpresent.

It just looks different.

The thing about racism today is that it is usually camouflaged under the rhetoric of criminal justice and the “war on drugs.” Code words such as “law and order,” “thug” and “inner city” serve are politically correct substitutes for old fashioned bigotry.

There is plenty of information and data. Just “google” terms such as: Mass incarceration, school-to-prison pipeline, stop and frisk, segregation, sentencing and nonviolent drug offenses, felon disenfranchisement, racial profiling and, of course, police brutality and murder.

In a way, we are far from the days of slavery and Jim Crow: in 2008, some of us voted a black man into the most powerful office in the world and in 2012 we reelected him.

We like to focus on progress.

But if we wish to remain willfully ignorant or are unwilling to look closer at how black people are treated in America today, racism can appear invisible.

But sometimes it becomes impossible to ignore.

And sometimes, the rage bubbling below the surface becomes too much and boils over.

On August 9, 2014, an 18 year old black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri was shot six times in broad daylight while, according to witnesses, he was compliantly responding to a police officer by holding his hands up in the air.

His body lay in the hot sun for four hours.

His name was Michael Brown.

For over a week the police refused to release the name of the officer who shot Brown. When Darren Wilson was finally named, Ferguson authorities simultaneously publicized a police report of a nearby robbery allegedly committed by Brown minutes before his death. Turns out it was not Brown who stole a box of cigars.Then an “anonymous source” said he was high on marijuana at the time of his death.

The police were attacking Brown’s character.

The population of Ferguson is roughly 67% black but has a virtually all-white power structure: the mayor, six out of seven school board members, all but one City Council member, and over 90% of the police force are all white.

The black people of Ferguson are angry and traumatized.

And we do not understand why.

In a recent Pew Research poll, 80% of African Americans said Brown’s death “raises important issues about race that merit discussion” while only 37% of white respondents felt the same way.

If the current news coverage of Ferguson is not primarily about race then what could it possibly be about?

White America, we are in denial of so many things.

We are in denial of our own white privileged status that transparently saturates nearly every part of our society.

We are in denial that what is happening in Ferguson could be happening anywhere in America.

We are in denial of the fact that we do not “live” in the same country as our fellow black citizens.  The “typical white” lives in a neighborhood that is 75 percent white while the “typical black” lives in a neighborhood that’s 45 percent black, 35 percent white, 15 percent Hispanic, and 4 percent Asian.

We are in denial that the people of Ferguson are not rioting but engaging in a largely peaceful and justified rebellion against a white power structure that has terrorized them for years, decades, generations and lifetimes.

We are in denial that Brown’s murder is not an isolated incident. To name only a few examples police murdering black men from the last month: Eric Garner was accidentally choked to death by a police officer in Staten Island, NY after resisting arrest for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes; John Crawford was fatally shot in the chest by the police after waving a BB gun he’d picked up from a shelf at a Walmart in Beavercreek, OH; and Ezell Ford was shot in the back while lying down on the sidewalk in compliance with an “investigative stop” by the LAPD.

A common eyewitness description found in police reports states: “the suspect was a 6 feet tall, black male, 18-30 years of age and weighing 160-180 pounds.”

All of these physical characteristics describe me…except one.

In 2014, in the United States of America, that one distinction is far too often the difference between life and death.

In his essay “The Case for Reparations,” Te-Nahisi Coates writes “we must reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is – the work of fallible human beings.”

This is what America really is: It is not a post-racial colorblind meritocracy; it is not a place where you are judged by the content of your character rather than the color of your skin; racial disparities in education, health, income, employment, and just about every other quality of life metric are not solely the unfortunate byproducts of past eras; and, acts of racial prejudice and bigotry are not primarily perpetrated by just a few “bad apples.”

What our country is today, and always has been, is racist.

More accurately, the United States was built upon and is still fundamentally characterized by white supremacy.

An old cliché goes, “all that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

What we currently lack is the courage to be honest in confronting our past and our present.

I do not wish to invoke your guilt or lament the evils of racism generally.

For 19th Century abolitionists, fighting slavery was a moral duty.

Today, it is our duty to take action in dismantling a racist system that we both benefit from and (hopefully) despise.

We are in denial of so many things.

And it is time to change


A Concerned White Man

This post was first published on Advise and DissentMichael Holtzman is a lawyer, human rights activist and writer. You can follow his work at

5 Comments on "An Open Letter: We are in Denial"

  1. Liam_McGonagle | Sep 5, 2014 at 1:11 pm |

    I get the point, but I think there is a type of paradoxical self-reinforcement that comes with most discussions of this issue. I think it might be more rhetorically effective to just say that Mike Brown was a human being.

    “Why are the lives of Americans in Syria–against the State Department’s travel advisory–more important than the lives of Americans at home?”

    If, however, you emphasize Mike’s blackness, you answer your own question.

    Q: “Why are the lives of whites overseas more important than the lives of blacks at home?”

    A: “Because they’re white.”

    Not edifying, but that is the answer.

    • emperorreagan | Sep 5, 2014 at 4:48 pm |

      As Toni Morrison said, “In this country, American means white.”

      • Liam_McGonagle | Sep 6, 2014 at 8:30 am |

        Yes, the optimal situation would be to bring your audience’s pre-existing biases to bear upon the problem. But how do you do that?

        I think part of the answer is to avoid invoking identity politics–do not emphasize Mike’s blackness; although that certainly was the decisive factor in the event, it will only set your audience against you.

        I suspect another part of the answer might be to force your audience into a problematic choice of words. As you say, “American” does mean “white”, but the bias runs so deep that few would feel the need to say so–unless he were forced to explicitly challenge my characterization of Mike as American. I would hope that would trigger some awkward and uncomfortable searching for the ‘proper’ word choice.

        That might be the only real way to get these people to tackle the problem head on, instead of reflexively resorting to cliches of identity politics.

  2. Oginikwe | Sep 5, 2014 at 2:05 pm |

    Which “white people” are you addressing?
    Because you certainly aren’t addressing me or any of the people I know.

  3. gustave courbet | Sep 5, 2014 at 3:32 pm |

    “In a recent Pew Research poll, 80% of African Americans said Brown’s death “raises important issues about race that merit discussion” while only 37% of white respondents felt the same way.”

    While this is an obvious indicator of social bias, I think it points to the deeper mechanics of the human animal. Mainly, that we are relatively simple creatures in that we are conditioned by our daily environment and most people aren’t preoccupied with getting beyond their limited perspective (there are probably a disproportionate amount of people on this site that are). Men are less likely to be aware of rampant misogyny than women, whites are less likely to be aware of the simmering racism in American culture, and fully mobile individuals are going to be less preoccupied with handicap accessibility. I don’t know if it’s possible, but we need more empathy and curiosity in order to make inroads into these deeply entrenched modes of engaging life.

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