The Role of Whites in Combating Racism

By Milton Meltzer

As a white, I am part of the problem. What is my responsibility as a writer of history for young readers?

When you look at the facts, the problem may strike you as overwhelming. So deep-rooted, so universal is institutional racism, that you may feel helpless before it. What can you, a lone individual, do about it? The feeling is understandable. But none of us is really alone, and each of us has the power to speak up, to protest, to organize for change. We are all part of the lives of others. We can think about our own role in our family, our neighborhood, our church, our school, our clubs, in all the institutions we are connected with, especially in our work, and begin to examine what we ourselves can do to eliminate racism.

For a white writer concerned about racism, the main job today is to combat racism within the white community. That, of course, is equally true for the white teacher and the white librarian. It should be obvious that we cannot deal with the Black experience without talking about the white experience. And vice versa. Each has shaped the course of the other.

The quickest glance at our history illustrates the point. Our constitution and our political parties were molded by issues concerning Blacks. The new nation’s commerce and industrial growth rested on the South’s slave economy. Our territorial expansion South and West were a direct product of slavery. The Civil War and the politics and economics out of which it exploded were linked to slavery. Racism has contributed to our imperialist expansion in the 19th and 20th centuries — down to our war in Vietnam. In a speech in the 1930s, President Roosevelt called the South the nation’s number one economic problem. And that problem’s roots went back to slavery and the subjugation of the Black man afterward. From the 1950s to now the nation has been shaken to its foundations by the failure to make any basic change in the lives of Black Americans.

What more proof does one need that the Black experience and white racism are central to American life and that no writer, no teacher, no librarian can afford to think of it as some old curiosity to be taken down off a dusty shelf now and then and examined with a yawn?

Although we see how the Black experience and the white experience are inseparable, we know that there have been hundreds of histories of America that have left out the Black almost entirely, resulting in a history that is all white and all fake. That, thanks to great upheavals, is now being rectified to some degree.


What about the task of the white teacher and librarian within the institutions they are professionally part of? The fact that one may be working in a classroom or a library that has no Black students or Black book borrowers does not mean there need be no books or other materials about the Black experience and no attempt made to interest whites in them.

Books that give Black children strength and pride should be read by white children too. Any such book will — directly or by implication — reveal to the reader a lot about white life in America. And it is the history and role of white racism that our white children need to know. They — all of us — must become far more conscious of the widespread existence of racism in all its forms. We have got to understand what an immense cost the entire nation pays for it. Racism will not vanish just because it is evil. It has to be studied honestly and openly if we are to make any progress in eliminating it. It is hard for whites to deal with it because a layer of myths and lies has been built up over the generations to justify racist practices.

This is where history and biography can help. For the white child, such books can extend his or her perception of how things are for the victims of racism. And this is no act of philanthropy. For if our children are to live in a society less explosive and more just than what we know now, they must share in rooting out racism. The child whose awareness of Blacks is limited to the picture of a slave picking cotton but who then reads the autobiography of Frederick Douglass will find himself lifted out of an abstraction and plunged deep into the experience of slavery. If he knows Black militancy only from the television screen but then reads Malcolm X’s autobiography, he will feel to some degree the furnace in which those fires of rebellion were built up. And through such life stories he will learn what American institutions have had to do with shaping Black life this way. If he thinks the Black demonstrators he reads about in the papers are in too much of a hurry, he will see in the century and a half that lie between Frederick Douglass’s birth and Malcolm X’s assassination how agonizingly long Blacks have waited for justice from white America.

The ex-slave Frederick Douglass was one of the most prominent citizens of Rochester, New York. Here he edited his abolitionist newspaper, The North Star, and was stationmaster for the Underground Railroad. In 1852 the city honored him with an invitation to deliver the Fourth of July oration. Annually, from the birth of the new republic, Fourth of July orators thundered tributes to the Founding Fathers and the Declaration of Independence. But Douglass was no mouthpiece for dead history. “We have to do with the past,” he said, “only as we can make it useful to the present and the future. You have no right to enjoy a child’s share in the labor of your fathers, unless your children also are to be blest by your labors.” He then went on to fling this challenge from Black Americans to white Americans.

“What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, was to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”

I used this passage in my documentary book, The Black Americans: A History in Their Own Words (1984), to help break down people’s obsession with themselves. If we don’t have the capacity to think ourselves into another’s skin, then we are in deep trouble in this polyglot nation. Frederick Douglass tears off the facade to show white Americans what the reality of America is for African Americans.

To ask that a youngster read such books is not to milk tears of sympathy. As many a Black has told us, who needs white pity? Reading such books will show the white child a picture of American society as seen by its victims. There are plenty of textbooks written from the standpoint of the executioner. The youngster needs to see our history from below. That is what I tried to do with my documentary history. I had come to realize how unavailable to young readers at that time was the testimony of Black people on their own lives. Using material in their own words, I tried to help the reader understand what Black Americans have felt, thought, done, and suffered, and how they protested and rebelled and tried to change this world.

In the same vein, history can recover for the young reader those times in our past that have shown the possibility of a better way of life, a more humane, a more decent existence. I’ve tried to do this with two books about the Reconstruction era. Freedom Comes to Mississippi: The Story of Reconstruction tells the story of Reconstruction by focusing on that state. Talk about the South today, and Mississippi is on everyone’s mind. It is one of the poorest states in the Union. By almost any standard of life’s decencies, it ranks near the bottom. Yet freedom did come to Mississippi. It was 100 years ago and it didn’t stay, but out of the blood and wreckage of the Civil War, a new life was born to the South. Slavery was ended and the freedmen in that state tasted democracy for the first time. They voted at last, they built the South’s first public school system, they fought to farm their own land, they were elected to local, county, and state offices, and to Congress. Mississippi, today at the bottom of the heap, saw the finest flowering of Reconstruction. True, it lasted less than 10 years, but it did happen once. Knowing that it did, young people can learn from it that something else, something better, is possible in this world, that we can change things.

The other book, called To Change the World: A Picture History of Reconstruction, is a simple and brief picture history of Reconstruction throughout the South. By using a great many prints and photos of the era, it tries to dramatize for very young readers the same hope embodied in the other books (e.g., Freedom Comes to Mississippi and The Black Americans).

Is it enough to provide books that make us aware of what is wrong? Certainly that is a beginning. But more is needed. For nearly 400 years the white majority in America has systematically subordinated Indians, Blacks, and other racial minorities. Consciously or not, white America has acted as though it believes there is a superiority in its whiteness that justifies actions that harm people of color. Why has racism lasted this long? Largely because we whites profit by it. Millions of us gain economic, political, and psychological benefits from racism. Some of us profit by conscious, individual acts of racism. Others—and far more of us — profit from institutional racism. By that I mean the actions of institutions we are part of — school boards, businesses, churches, trade unions, newspapers, city councils, hospitals, welfare agencies, courts — the institutions of our society that always have and still do place whites first.

Well-meaning though we may be, unknowingly and unthinkingly we whites operate in and through institutions that oppress the life of the racial minorities. The question of intention isn’t as important as the effects these institutions have.

Their policies, procedures, and decisions do in fact subordinate Blacks, Indians, Chinese, Hispanics, and permit whites to maintain control over them. It took a very long time for any attention to be paid to those institutional practices that give advantage to the white and penalize all the others. Few of these institutions are openly racist any longer. Civil rights measures have deprived much institutional racism of any status in law. But institutional practices remain covertly racist nevertheless. Built into them are attitudes, traditions, habits, assumptions that have great power to reward and penalize. History can also illuminate the role of governments and institutions in keeping things as they are. Sometimes this is done by force, sometimes by deception, sometimes by both. To take the race question again: after the Civil War there were three Constitutional amendments — the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth — giving slaves their freedom, and guaranteeing Blacks their citizenship and the right to vote. Armed forces were assigned to the South to protect the new Reconstruction regimes in which Blacks played a role. And Congress passed several civil rights laws. But court decisions gutted the fourteenth amendment, and the freedmen never got the promised land to have and hold. It was taken away from them and given back to the white planters, and the Freedmen’s Bureau was cleverly used by President Johnson to put the Black labor force again in the hands of the white planters and businessmen. With the aid of government Blacks again became victims of discrimination, of social ostracism, and of economic subordination.

At the same time, white children — and the children of minority peoples, too — need to know that there have been white people who have challenged racism, such as John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Prudence Crandall, Theodore Weld, Lucretia Mott, to name only a few. I thought it useful to study the lives of three such whites — Lydia Maria Child, Samuel Gridley Howe, and Thaddeus Stevens — and to write their biographies for young readers. Telling the stories of such brave women and men who fought for equality is important. We are not just showing young people what is wrong with American life when we do this. We are introducing men and women who found that out for themselves, who struggled to overcome white racism in themselves, and who joined in the social and political fight against it. The young reader sees that history isn’t made up only of the great and the powerful who oppressed others, or of those who didn’t care. We have had heroes and heroines who were frontline fighters against racial injustice. And we will always need them.


No reading of history will guarantee that something better is bound to come. Nothing like that is inevitable. But it can show us that something better is at least conceivable. Black and white did unite to operate the underground railroad and to achieve the goal of abolition. Labor did at last win the right to organize in the 1930s. The Algerians did drive out the French. Ralph Nader has shown that one man can take on giant corporations and institutions and force concessions from them. And the people of Southeast Asia stood up to American aggression with a courage and durability almost beyond belief. Seymour Hersch, a young newspaperman no one had ever heard of, somehow found the way to expose the horror of My Lai to the whole world and make us Americans face up to what we had done.

What we learn from such experience is that citizens — then and now — must act for themselves. They cannot rely on government alone to satisfy their needs or give them justice and equality.

But knowing what is wrong does not necessarily move us to action. We have to believe that something else is possible, that what we do can make a difference. Otherwise, we may decide to live only for ourselves, to retreat into drugs and despair, or cynically to ride with things as they are and to get a little piece of the action for ourselves.

Milton Meltzer is the prize-winning author of scores of children’s and young adult books.

The above is reprinted with permission from his book Non-Fiction for the Classroom (New York: Teachers College Press, 1995).