ED GORDON, host:
Despite the long history of civil rights activism in the United States, inequality and racism continue in our society. Robert Jensen, author of The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism, and White Privilege, says racism will never end as long as white Americans deny it. Here again is NPR's Farai Chideya.
FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:
You start out your book by talking about growing up in a white supremacist society. Now, I've interviewed self-avowed white supremacists: skinheads and Klansmen and Klanswomen. That's not what you're talking about, is it? And are you afraid that the term will turn off some of the people who you want to hear your message?
Mr. ROBERT JENSEN (Author, The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism, and White Privilege): Yes. The term does rub against the grain of contemporary America, but when I say white supremacy I don't mean neo-Nazis and Klan members. I mean that in both material and ideological terms, the dominant society of the United States remains white supremacist, even decades after the civil rights movement. That means there is still a racialized disparity in the distribution of resources in this country. In fact, some indicators of what I would call wealth and well-being, how well people are doing in society, things like income, infant mortality, things like that, the gap between specifically white and black America is wider today on some of those measures than it was in the immediate aftermath of the civil rights movement.
That in material terms is a white supremacist society. If we wanted to change that, we could, we have the resources, we choose not to. I think ideologically, this is still a white supremacist society, and I just don't mean the radical fringe of racists, I mean that this society still is based in the assumption that that which comes out of Northern Europe, white Northern Europe, is still inherently superior. And if anyone doubts that, just look at the curriculum of any college or high school in this country and ask yourself what knowledge is being valued.
CHIDEYA: Also, you tell stories throughout this book. Tell us what happened when you went to a speech with Les Payne.
Mr. JENSEN: Well, I was on a panel with Les Payne, who's a really amazing figure in American journalism, recently retired from Newsday, and I realized that when I stepped onto the panel with him, even though he was older, more accomplished, more published, and a more powerful speaker than I, I had this still-ingrained white supremacist notion that I would be at the center of the program, and it took me a while, speaking with him and another African-American on the panel, to realize, you know, I was still living out that assumption.
And that was a real wake-up call for me. It led to an ongoing conversation with Les. Well, that's a story I tell in part to not just critique others, but to remind us that we have to turn this kind of critical self-reflection on ourselves, and I think one of the things that white people have to do is not only be honest with each other, but be willing to step out into public and have those honest conversations with members of other racial groups.
But we should also recognize that, at least in my experience, when one does that honestly - if I step out into public and I know I'm being authentic, I have yet to have anyone from another racial group come down on me. They can be critical, they can be honest with me, but there's always a kind of very loving support because, after all, non-white folks have a stake in white people getting their act together on the question of race.
CHIDEYA: You talk about white people and non-white people, and in a country like ours where you have the immigration mix changing, do you ever foresee whiteness encompassing what we call non-white people, perhaps Asians, perhaps south Asians, or do you think whiteness is a fairly well defined and fortified territory at this point?
Mr. JENSEN: Well, I think there are two lines that whiteness will never cross. Because of the distinct history of the United States, I think the indigenous genocide and the holocaust of African slavery mean that white America, and at least white America in its current state, is not going to be able to encompass people of African descent or people of indigenous descent. You mentioned south Asians. I know some south Asians - Indians, Pakistanis - who are very dark-skinned but consider themselves white. They come out of a professional background and a middle-class status, and in some ways they think of themselves as white.
Whiteness can be flexible, as in any system of domination and power. The people in power can be flexible when they need to. But I think the distinctive history of slavery and the indigenous genocide, the crimes are so deeply woven into the fabric of American society that it will be very difficult for us to cross that line until we come clean; that is, white America, the dominant culture, comes clean about the nature of those holocausts.
CHIDEYA: Are you afraid, again, that your language, like holocaust, like white supremacy, will prevent people from understanding what you're talking about, or are you - you talk in the beginning of the book about saying that love in action is often harsh.
Mr. JENSEN: Yeah, I think actually some of the polite diversity, multi-cultural language we've been using in recent decades precludes us from really coming to terms with some of these realities about white supremacy. So yes, I realize the language is harsh, but I'm speaking to white people who are struggling. The audience for this book is really white liberals, not reactionary, right-wing conservatives who are in complete denial about the nature of racism.
I use the term holocaust knowing that that's a very delicate term. Many people want to reserve it simply for the Nazi attempt to eliminate European Jews, but I think when we're talking about millions of people murdered, we're talking entire societies, entire continents ravages, I think holocaust is an important and appropriate term. It gives us a sense of the scope. The United States came into being through a racist holocaust of indigenous people. The United States, the Europeans who invaded the United States continent, killed almost every single Indian on the way to creating the United States.
Well, I don't know what word is better for that than holocaust. African slavery, of course, we're talking about an unknown number of people dead in the process of rounding up slaves in Africa. The middle passage, plantation life in both North and South America. Certainly tens of millions, some argue for even higher figures. That's another holocaust.
But I think these are appropriate terms to tell the truth about the world in we live and the way in which the United States acquired the wealth and power it has.
CHIDEYA: One last question. You write, Race is a fiction we must never accept. Race is a fact we must never forget. Now those are your words. So as you look ahead to the future, what do you want to be the future of race, or do you want race to disappear entirely?
Mr. JENSEN: I would like to believe that someday the concept of race evaporates and people do not divide up the world according to race. But we can't get to the stage where that's possible, of course, until we come clean, as I say, until we come to terms with the racialized and racist history of the society in which we live. So it may seem like a bit of a paradox, but we have to take race much more seriously before we can get to a place where we can ignore race.
CHIDEYA: Robert, thank you.
Mr. JENSEN: Pleasure talking, thank you.
GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya with Robert Jensen, professor of media ethics and journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. His new book is The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism, and White Privilege. To hear an except from the book, go to our website at npr.org.