What White People Should Know About George Zimmerman & Themselves

I’ve been stopped by the police twice in my life.

The first time I was speeding on a residential road. I panicked, having never been pulled over before, and tried to swerve down a side-street (signaling like normal) because I thought maybe if I pretended I didn’t see him the cop would go after one of the other people around me, who were also speeding. My nerves made me act as sketchy as possible (pulling down the side street, GETTING OUT OF THE CAR when the cop was taking awhile to come talk to me… I made many mistakes) but at the end of the day my overt sketchiness didn’t even get me an extra ticket (for evading arrest, for threatening an officer by getting out of the car… nothing.) I wonder how much my pale white skin had to do with it?

The second time I was in the same town as before, and somehow I managed to lock myself out of my car (with my phone and EVERYTHING inside!) Before I could even think about how to handle the situation a police officer had pulled up to see if I needed help, since I looked “confused.” He had AAA on the scene within a half-hour to get me into my car and on my way. He even let me borrow his phone while I was waiting, to try and track down the friend I was meeting. I wonder, if I hadn’t been so white or so young-looking or so blatantly female… would he have still seen me as confused? If I was black, instead, would he have still seen me as a citizen-in-distress or would he have assumed that I was trying to break into the car? I suspect the latter.

Biases exist everywhere. As a young, white woman from a generally well-off community I have been taught, through experience and other people’s words, that the police were people I should trust for my whole life. Moreover, I have been taught that people, generally, will look at me and assume I am trustworthy without any effort on my part. Not everyone is so lucky.

I have posted this older video from What Would You Do before, but I think it bears repeating. In this video the police are called by a man looking to report that he has seen three black boys laying down in a car (sleeping, in fact) – and he thinks they are going to rob someone. How the hell did he jump to that conclusion? Do you think he would have assumed a young white girl like me, lying down in a car, was trying to rob someone? Probably not. This all happened in the same town that I got my speeding ticket. The same town that I locked myself out of my car. The same town that I, as a young white girl, have never been given a single reason to feel unsafe in. Some people aren’t as lucky.

Relevant portion of the clip starts at 4:40

When I heard about what happened to Trayvon Martin I was devastated, but not in the least bit surprised because George Zimmerman’s attitude is one that I know. Its one that is illustrated very clearly in this clip above, that took place right in my own neighborhood. It is an attitude that has been expressed to me by certain well-meaning liberal-leaning family members & friends who tell me that those “gut assumptions” (read: racism) we make about people can sometimes be prudent- because statistics show that it makes sense for someone to be more nervous around a person of color since “they commit more crimes.” This attitude is complete BS, of course, because judging individuals based on sweeping generalizations is reductionist and wrong. (Yes, even those based on statistics.)(We’re not going to get into how messed up talking about statistics are in this particular case, since we’d be here all day.) Statistics don’t mean much on a micro-level, where individual experience trumps the bigger picture, and since the mico-level is where we are interacting people on a daily basis it makes sense not to bring big-picture things like crime statistics into our interactions.

The sick sad thing is that George Zimmerman thought that he was doing good, protecting his neighborhood from some danger. It is so easy to vilify Zimmerman and hold him up as an example of extreme racism. An example of something us good liberal people would NEVER even fathom doing or thinking. So easy to extend that anger towards the police force, who are dragging their feet in investigating and trying their damndest to cut Zimmerman a break. Racist monsters, all of them. Racist, but not like us. That’s bullshit.

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An Open Letter to Congress

Dear Congress-people responsible for the ridiculously-named  Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act:

Have you heard about the 2006 study* on pre-term births that revealed racism as a very real risk-factor in early labor?

African-American women at every socioeconomic level have higher rates of preterm birth and infant mortality. Incredibly, these rates exceed those of white women who have not even finished high school and those of black women who emigrated to the U.S. from other countries. For example, infant mortality in white women with a college degree or higher is 4 per 1000, while for similarly educated African-American women, the rate is 12 per 1000 births. [Source]

If that is not compelling enough check out the transcript for Unnatural Causes: When the Bough Breaks, one part of an (awesome) documentary series about health disparity in America (that I was lucky enough to be introduced to at a recent YWCA Cultural Competency training!)

I agree – racism is a serious issue – but how about we deal with the racism faced by fully-gestated people first? There are a plethora of reasons why you should care about the racism that fully-gestated people face every day (basic human decency and a sense of justice, for starters) but if none of those reasons compel you, then do so for the fetuses that you care so very much about. Fetuses who are being born pre-term because their mothers bodies are so worn down by the constant stress of racism that they cannot carry their baby to full-term, despite making every effort to do so.

Or, you know, you can keep writing bills that exploit the very real problem of racism in an attempt to screw over women of color even more. Your choice.

– A concerned voter.

*Institute of Medicine Committee on Understanding Premature Birth and Assuring Healthy Outcomes, Board on Health Sciences Policy, Behrman, R.E., and Butler, A.S. (eds.). (2006). Preterm Birth: Causes, Consequences, and Prevention. Washington, DC, The National Academies Press.

It All Comes Back to Love

What can I even say?

I didn’t know anything about Troy Davis’ plight or his case until last night, when his life was taken by the state.

I am angry, sad, confused, lost… its crap like this that leaves me feeling hopeless, unable to escape from a culture that would murder a man who had so much reasonable doubt tied to his conviction that he probably shouldn’t even be in jail, let alone dead right now.

I feel complicit in all of this hate. No matter how much I read, no matter how many worthy causes I advocate for there are always going to be things that I miss. Like Troy Davis. I want so badly to do my part in advocating against racism, but I don’t even know where to begin in my community.  I want to advocate against the death penalty. I want to do something that would help to stop this from happening ever again. Yet I can’t seem to get past this feeling that my one voice doesn’t mean a single. damn. thing. I mean, if the voices of the thousands who did protest meant nothing to America’s government, why would mine?

How do you pick up and keep going when the country you’ve been raised to love violates its own principles so blatantly?

How do you accept the fact the the cries of so many Americans, calling out for justice for Troy, were so soundly ignored?

Tonight I watched a room full of Republicans boo a f*cking soldier, risking his life in Iraq for a country that doesn’t even recognize him as an equal citizen. So much for, ‘support our troops.’ Earlier this week I saw headlines telling the story of Jamey Rodemeyer, a fourteen year old boy who was pushed to suicide at the hands of bullying.

Where do you go when you dread opening your computer, turning on the TV, even opening your eyes in the morning… for fear of witnessing something else you can’t bear to comprehend?

What could I ever say, or hear, that could make this better? There’s the old standard: life goes on. And that’s true, life will go on and before long Troy Davis and Jamey Rodemeyer will be forgotten by most of us, overshadowed by a million other injustices, annoyances… and good things, too.

If anything, that makes me feel worse. For me, and for so many other life goes on. For Troy and Jamey it ends abruptly, senselessly, without justice.

Its human nature to look for connections, even when there are none. This time, there is a connection: it’s hate.

We’re trained, from an early age, to fear one another, to hate one another. White kids taught to hate kids with skin darker than their own by parents who weave elaborate lies about entitlement (welfare, affirmative action) and danger (muggings, crime). I should know, even my own progressive family feeds right into this BS from time to time. Children who aren’t white taught to hate themselves by a society that tells them you are not good enough, not deserving even of the things you have earned, a society where history has no meaning and everyone’s circumstance is something that they have earned rather than something determined by centuries of history, stretching back long before their birth. Is it any wonder Troy Davis is dead despite the overwhelming doubt surrounding his conviction?

When straight kids are taught to fear queer kids, as preachers teach that love can be a sin, teachers turn a blind eye to bullying and parents try to steer their kids in the “right direction.” When those queer kids are taught to hate themselves, to want to change because as they are love is something dangerous, not something that every human being deserves. A country where just being openly gay is enough to get a soldier booed. Is it any wonder that Jamey Rodemeyer killed himself just this week?

We’re taught to fear everyone who is not just like us, fear that can turn to hate in the blink of an eye.

A system that executes people for their crimes teaches us that killing, violence, and hate are the answer.

A government that refuses to grant basic rights (like marriage, or job protection) to vulnerable members of its population is one that teachers discrimination is okay.

… and we’re all complicit. Every single on of us has had a moment where we stayed silent, watched hate unfold before our eyes but sat paralyzed and unable to act. Maybe it was a friend calling a stupid movie gay or a grandmother making a ridiculous comment about Mexican students going to school for free. I’ll just let this one slide, we think. We’re having a nice time and I don’t want to be the downer.

I almost stopped blogging just a few weeks after starting, because the passage of Prop 8 in California left me feeling so gutted, so hopeless, that I just didn’t see the point. Just as I did then, I find myself returning to the idea of love as the only thing that matters, the only thing powerful enough to change our world into one that doesn’t hurt so much to inhabit. I don’t meant this in a wishy-washy metaphorical sense though. I mean we have to love each other enough to be honest. Love ourselves and the people around us enough to confront the hate, head on, to call it out even when it is masquerading as humor. We need to love our country enough to demand better. To write letters, and protest, and vote, and campaign until America lives up to the values it was founded upon. We need to love even the most hate-filled people, love them enough to push the hate from their hearts and help them to transform. We have to love even when all we want to do is close out the world because the hate simply hurts too much to bear.

It won’t ever be easy, but it will be worth it. That’s what I’ve learned, at least, in twenty one years of muddling through this all, and personally I will never stop trying to prove that love is stronger, for Troy Davis and Jamey Rodemeyer and the million other voices silenced all too soon by the simple power of hate.

My Problem With “The Help”

I started reading The Help for a few reasons: because it was sitting in the living room when I came home for the summer, because Emma Stone is in the upcoming movie adaption, and (more importantly) because I had noticed quite a bit of criticism being written and linked to regarding The Help on some of my favorite blogs. I don’t like reading pop-culture critiques without an understanding of the source material if I can help it (as evidenced by the fact that I plowed through all four Twilight novels a few years ago), so I read the novel.

The Help is a well executed book from a marketing standpoint. It is nicely paced, wonderfully dramatic, and it features a classic (but always satisfying) struggle of good vs. evil. If we lived in a nice little whitewashed vacuum where this was just a good story, where real women’s lives were not being used as fictional fodder, where the privilege that the fictional white characters possessed never really existed and didn’t still exist… if that was the world that this novel was published in, then this one “guilty pleasure” book wouldn’t be such a big deal.

We don’t live in that world.

There are plenty of things about this book that are just plain offensive. Most glaring, to me at least, is the very affected “accent” that Minny and Aibileen’s sections of the book are written in, while Skeeter’s parts are devoid of even a hint of a southern accent. This sets the two main black characters in this novel off as “other” from the very beginning, which is off-putting. Additionally, Aibileen’s comparison of her own skin color to a cockroach (among many other comments the character makes against her own skin color) is appalling. As are the historical errors in terms of incorporating Medgar Ever’s death into the novel (claiming he was bludgeoned to death, rather than shot) which just show a lack of respect for the topic she was writing about.  The stereotypes – from absentee or abusive black men to sassy or saintly black women don’t help anyone either. I could go on, but these points and many others were already made beautifully here.

Still, the book is quick and easy to read. The conclusion of the book provides a nice, neat, ending sure to make any white person who finds themselves identifying with Skeeter feel good. I can understand why so many people were quick to jump to this books defense because, quite frankly, I’d feel quite a bit better if I could be one of them. 

It would be much easier, much less uncomfortable to close my eyes to the privilege of constantly seeing a variety characters who look like me in the media, enough that I am sure to identify with one… a privilege  that allows me to decide whether or not to be unsettled by another stereotypically written black character because I’m not being discriminated against and, thus, that punched-in-the-stomach feeling that goes with subtle discrimination is missing.

It would be much easier to ignore the privilege of being considered “default” in my whiteness, of knowing that people will not assume that I hold my opinions simply because of the color of my skin. A privilege that comes with knowing I have a much better chance of having my words taken seriously by the mainstream media, especially when talking about marginalized groups, than an actual member of that group.

I would be so easy to indignantly insist that I deserve to be listened to because I work hard on my blog posts (which I do), ignoring the fact that plenty of less-privileged people also worked damn hard on their writing, writing that is often ignored because it lacks “mainstream appeal” meaning, it is not white enough to be lifted up by mainstream feminist blogs.

But I can’t, because that is what The Help is. A whitewashed, declawed version of history that simultaneously manages to condemn racism and absolve the white people who let it continue or who do “enough” to help the cause, by offering up Skeeter as the “good” anti-racist white woman we can all identify with.

READ THE REST AT PERSEPHONE MAGAZINE!

Other Great Related Pieces:

(This is one of my favorite posts from the entire blog dedicated to analyzing this novel.)

Who’s Allowed to Tell the Tale? (And Which Tales Should They Tell?)

Join In My Anti-Racist Activist Education!

This post will be cross posted at Persephone Magazine tomorrow – be sure to check out the discussion there!

I have no time for a huge introspective post right now, thanks to the two classes that I decided to take this summer. Fortunately, both of those classes are helping to inform my activism, feminism, and blogging! I am taking Advanced Topics in Black Psychology and Film Representations of Race, Class, and Gender because they both could towards my degree and they both help to fill the MAJOR gap in my activist knowledge surrounding issues of race and ethnicity.

I don’t have time for long blog posts at the moment, but I DO have time to share some of what I’ve been reading in and out of class so that we can learn together!

I didn’t know much at all about the Tuskegee Syphilis studies until last week, but I’m glad to have learned. What happened to the men involved in this study (and their families) was terrible. Essentially, over 400 black men with syphilis were recruited for a study on the effects that the disease has on the body (especially the heart, brain, and spinal cord.) These men were promised free healthcare and money for a burial in return for their participation… which is where we run into our first ethical mistake. Technically these men couldn’t consent because, at the time, black people could not purchase life insurance and most could not afford health care, this creates a power imbalance that makes honest consent more or less impossible.

One of the doctors involved with the study, injecting a participant.

The study went on for years, with the men receiving nothing more than pink aspirin and an annual checkup… although they were told they were being treated. Some dangerous treatments (like arsenic) were experimented with and given out for free, but the men in this study were carefully tracked and kept away from any potential treatments. This is ethical mistake number two: deception is permissible only when it is the only option, and its not okay in cases where extreme damage will be done to a participant without their knowledge or consent.

After it was discovered that Penicillin cured the disease the scientists involved with this study decided to continue anyway… keeping the men in this study away from life saving treatment, for no good reason. The scientists wanted bodies to autopsy and study, and they were determined to get them even at the expense of real human lives that could have easily been saved. This can’t even be called an ethical mistake… its just flat-out inhumane.

The kicker of it all is that we didn’t even learn anything new. According to my professor, Syphilis had been studied many times before this. We already knew what it did to the body, the researchers just wanted to see the process in action, and they were willing to essentially kill innocent people in order to get what they wanted.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, the United States conducted a similar study in Guatemala around this time. In order to test the effectiveness of penicillin in treating the disease, US scientists purposefully infected people (by paying infected sex workers, or just putting the disease right into the body using medical techniques) and then gave some treatment, and some nothing at all.

When did this all happen? The Tuskegee study started in 1933 and didn’t end until 1972, just 39 years ago. The Guatemalan study took place from 1946-1948, 64 years ago.

[Sources: Tuskegee, Guatemala.]

What strikes me most, I think, is that things have not gotten much better when it comes to our societal structures and racism. While I doubt scientists would dare attempt to violate human rights in as blatant of a manner in the present (in the United States, at least… part of me feels like we’re probably still engaging in some sketchy things abroad), there are still plenty of systemic injustices that place the black population in a vulnerable position.

For example: I found this article, Fourteen examples of systemic racism in the U.S. criminal justice system, on Tumblr instead of in class, but it is still incredibly relevant and powerful to a lot of what I have learned in a formal setting so far.

Eight. The U.S. Sentencing Commission reported in March 2010 that in the federal system black offenders receive sentences that are 10% longer than white offenders for the same crimes. Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project reports African Americans are 21% more likely to receive mandatory minimum sentences than white defendants and 20% more like to be sentenced to prison than white drug defendants.

[…]

Thirteen. Remember that the US leads the world in putting our own people into jail and prison. The New York Times reported in 2008 that the US has five percent of the world’s population but a quarter of the world’s prisoners, over 2.3 million people behind bars, dwarfing other nations. The US rate of incarceration is five to eight times higher than other highly developed countries and black males are the largest percentage of inmates according to ABC News.

Fourteen. Even when released from prison, race continues to dominate. A study by Professor Devah Pager of the University of Wisconsin found that 17% of white job applicants with criminal records received call backs from employers while only 5% of black job applicants with criminal records received call backs. Race is so prominent in that study that whites with criminal records actually received better treatment than blacks without criminal records!

[…]

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness sees these facts as evidence of the new way the US has decided to control African Americans – a racialized system of social control. The stigma of criminality functions in much the same way as Jim Crow – creating legal boundaries between them and us, allowing legal discrimination against them, removing the right to vote from millions, and essentially warehousing a disposable population of unwanted people. She calls it a new caste system.

Poor whites and people of other ethnicity are also subjected to this system of social control. Because if poor whites or others get out of line, they will be given the worst possible treatment, they will be treated just like poor blacks.

I pulled out a few examples that really struck me, but you really should just go read the whole thing. Aside from explaining the problem of the Prison Industrial Complex in easily understandable terms, this piece makes suggestions as to how we can begin to mend a broken system and highlights organizations doing the work.

I have to go do a paper now, so I don’t have the time to formulate a thoughtful response to all of this reading yet. Plus, to be honest, I’m a little overwhelmed with information at the moment… kind of the same way I felt when I first started reading about queer and gender studies. Just like then, reading and talking and repeating is the best way (for me at least) to get past my own ignorance and move into a place where I can start to contribute to the solution. I hope some of you learn in the same was as I do and can benefit from this as well! So, lets help each other grow?

I’d love to have a conversation with people about this though so please, share your thoughts in the comments!

Tip-toeing Towards Being an Accountable Ally

“I’m going to expect any ally to speak out against racism and any other injustice…If you can’t challenge racism in your own safe spaces, you’re not an accountable ally…We need to stand up for justice all the time.  We’re privileged to speak for the women whose voices may never be heard.”

Loretta Ross, Founder of SisterSong
@ the CLPP Closing Plenary

The last workshop I went to today, a Strategic Action Session on Racism & Being an Accountable Ally lead by Lorie Seruntine, was honestly transformational.

In order to even have a prayer of being an effective anti-racist activist & ally to people of color focused initiatives that want allies I have a ton of work to do. The biggest thing I took away from this weekend is quite simple: I don’t know much of anything at all when it comes to issues of ethnicity and race. Its obvious through the clunky way I write about it, the way I nervously and carefully select my words, the way I often stay silent for lack of the right words.

I don’t have much more concrete information now than I started with at the beginning of the weekend… but what little I have has released me from this self-imposed silence.

In the Strategic Action Session I learned the history of the word Caucasian [click  to read Zaneta’s post on this issue, from awhile back.] All this time I have been referring to myself, off and on, as “caucasian” because in my mind it was the politically correct word to use in this dialogue. I never took the time to figure out where this word came from or what it really meant and, as a result, I messed up and inadvertently supported a racist system through my ignorance.  Recognizing this ignorance is the first step to moving past it.

I have messed up, a lot, in the past. I will continue to mess up in the future, no matter how hard I try, its inevitable. When I first came to feminism I said a ton of stupid things about gender issues, reproductive justice, and so on… I still do mess up from time to time, but as I read and read and read and write (or listen and listen and listen and talk) more I mess up less and less because I learn from my mistakes and the mistakes of others. Its scary to be at the beginning of that process again, which is why it has taken me so long to start holding myself accountable as an ally to anti-racism work. Staying in the comforting realm of (white) body image and (white) gender issues would be so much easier and would feel so much more comfortable… but it would also mean that I was alienating tons of people and helping to contribute to a system of oppression.

In the same workshop I also learned just a tiny bit about how white supremacy was put into place in the United States:

In 1676 came Bacon’s Rebellion by white frontiersmen and servants, alongside black slaves. The rebellion shook Virginia’s planter elite. Many other rebellions followed from South Carolina to New York. The main fear of elite whites everywhere was a class fear. Their solution: divide and control.

On one hand, the slave codes were enacted that legalized chattel slavery and severely restricted the rights of free Africans. The codes equated the terms “Negro” and slave. At the same time rules were set for servants, their bonds were loosened, they were granted certain privileges such as the right to acquire land, join militias, and receive bounties for the slaves they caught.

With these privileges they were legally declared white on the basis of skin color and continental origin that made them superior to blacks and indians, thus whiteness was born as a racist notion to prevent lower class whites from joining people of color, especially blacks, against their common class enemies. [Source]

Seeing whiteness as a construct invented to create this discomfort, this divide between me and the people of color in my community, is the key that has finally, finally unfrozen me.

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Racism, Hollywood, and The Hunger Games

This post contains a small amount of spoilers regarding The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins.

I knew from the end of the first chapter of The Hunger Games, that I was going to write about the series because these books are, in a word, amazing. They’re so well done that I devoured the trilogy in just three short days… I honestly could not fall asleep if I was in the middle of one of these books. That said, I had already heard about and been angry about the racist casting decisions for the movie version of this book before I picked it up… now that I have finished the series that anger has been ignited into full-out rage.

A summary of the situation, via Racialicious:

Hollywood doesn’t like to take risks. But a huge, devoted fan base has fallen in love with these books and with Katniss, described as olive-skinned and dark haired. Yet the director still couldn’t extend the casting call to include anyone other than Caucasian? Before the Harry Potter movies, no one knew who Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, or Emma Watson were. Why wasn’t an unknown actress of biracial, Latina or Mediterranean heritage given a shot? They could cast Tyler Perry in drag (*shudder*) in this role and it would still make buckets of money.

Katniss’ racial identity is left somewhat vague, we don’t know what she is, but we know what she’s not. She’s not blonde haired and blue eyed like her mother and sister and Peeta. She’s dark, like Gale (can’t wait to see who gets that part). And even though we know that the cinema magic that can turn handsome 40-ish Brad Pitt into 80-year old Benjamin Button can surely turn J.Law into the grey-eyed, black haired Katniss, that’s not good enough.

In my mind, this particular casting decision stands out among the sea of other movies that also contain shitty, white-washed casting decisions. Not only are these particular movie producers keeping yet another talented non-white actress from landing a role in an industry where most roles are not written with them in mind, but by making this casting decision they are stripping out a great deal of the trilogy’s message. Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games tie some fairly complex social justice concepts up into an engaging and appealing young adult package. By choosing to cast this movie in the way that they have the producers and directors are sending a strong message, a message that says they could care less about the meaning of these books. The producers could care less about the parallels that readers could draw between the society in the Hunger Games and the real world; a parallel that can serve as a jumping-off point for discussing how people who fall into marginalized groups in our society (like people of color, for instance) are often exploited for the entertainment and comfort of the people who hold the power (usually rich white dudes.)

In the books Katniss is olive-skinned and dark haired like most people from the Seam, the run-down area of their district where she lives. Her mother and sister are exceptions in this district, they are light-skinned and blonde haired because Katniss’ her mother belonged to the merchant class before she married Katniss’ father. This is important because over the course of this trilogy the struggles between the different classes within district (the people within the Seam, the merchants, the peacekeepers/mayor) are fleshed out and contrasted with the struggle that exists between the people in all of these groups and the people who live lives of complete luxury in the capital.

For me, this was a powerful illustration of the way that the small group who holds the most power (in our kyriarchial society that would be the rich, white, cisgender, heterosexual, christian dudes, in the books it was the people of the capitol) can manipulate the situation to cause the groups of people being oppressed to see one another as the enemy, effectivley distracting them from attacking the real oppressor and freeing everyone. The crux of this whole series centers around Katniss working through this deception to realize who the real enemy is so that she can destroy that enemy.

Even without these implications, though, this casting decision still sucks. Why? Just think about it this way: how often have we seen a person of color cast to play a character explicitly described as white in the source material? I can’t think of a single example. That says something to me.

Hollywood tries to shift the blame here. Just like Bloomsbury did with Justine Larbaliester’s book, they claim that movies starring people of color just don’t sell as well. Basically, they make it seem like the audience’s fault that this discrimination takes place. This is bullshit. The studios, the producers, these directors… these people have money and they have creative control. If they wanted to they could produce a movie starring a woman of color, make it epic, advertise it in the way it deserves… and make bank. Fact of the matter is they choose not to because… why would they? Having a culture where most of the people depicted in our media are white helps to maintain white as the norm, and preserve these people’s power.

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