By Steve Wessler
For a long time, I believed I knew what white supremacy meant. For over 29 years, I have dedicated my professional life to preventing racial bias, harassment and violence. As head of the Maine Attorney General’s Civil Rights Unit for its first seven years, I brought perpetrators of racist violence to court. For the next 12 years, I led a civil rights organization focused on preventing bias and hate. Since 2011, I have developed and implemented curricula to reduce bias-motivated violence directed at people of color and other groups in the U.S. and in Europe. I believed that white supremacists were limited to the perpetrators of the violence I have worked so long to prevent.
I have thought about my privileges as a white man for years. I thought I understood the level of racial bias I carry with me. But recently I began looking at my biases far more closely, through the lens of white supremacy.
Legal scholar Frances Lee Ansley described white supremacy this way: “I do not mean to allude only to the self-conscious racism of white supremacist hate groups. I refer instead to a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.”
I believed white supremacy did not apply to me. But racist ideas, white supremacist ideas, are lodged in my mind. I pushed them aside. When I have heard about Black men being hired for important jobs I have wondered, “Are they the best candidate?” “Are they competent?” I have not had those thoughts in similar situations with white men.
These white supremacist ideas are also embedded in our institutions. From health care to employment to policing to schools, Black people and other people of color experience deep and lasting harm from white supremacy. Too many lose their lives.
A friend of mine suggested that to eliminate the false stereotypes that linger in my brain that I should consciously think about the Black people who I have worked with and about the intelligence, creativity and dedication they’ve brought to their work.
My friend also suggested a way to reduce stereotypes about Black people by reversing the question: “Do you know white people who fit that stereotype?” The answer for me is invariably “yes,” and this reminds me that being smart or being a compelling speaker or being highly productive has nothing whatsoever to do with your race, your religion, your gender or your sexual orientation and gender identity. Most important for me, it allows me to begin moving past false stereotypes.
The impact of white supremacy is deeply destructive. Black people and other people of color face discrimination in hiring, in housing and in access to vital services. Black students frequently hear degrading racist language directed at them, causing some to lose their ability to focus on academics. Those police officers who interact with Black youth by engaging in unnecessary and aggressive physical force create fear of police rather than respect.
My white supremacist thoughts will not decrease magically on their own. It requires me to listen carefully to critiques from Black people and other people of color. It requires me to have uncomfortable conversations with myself. It requires me to admit that the white supremacy that has existed in this country for the past 244 years and earlier has affected me in ways that I cannot see but that deeply damage Black people and other people of color. It requires me to challenge the racial biases embedded in me and in the institutions that I work in.
I have been thinking about my work over the past three decades. I have worked to reduce the risk of racist violence in schools and communities. This work has often been difficult. But it is far more difficult to admit my own failings as a white man who has accepted the benefits and privileges of white supremacy without even thinking about it.
Steve Wessler, of Bar Harbor, led the Attorney General’s Civil Rights Unit from 1992 to 1999. He founded the Center for Prevention of Hate and currently works as a human rights educator. This column originally appeared in the Maine Sunday Telegram.