In the past few months, I have addressed issues that stifle the civil rights progress of the black community: the shortcomings of affirmative action, the resurgence of a ‘hip-hop’ culture, the deafening silence around reparations and police brutality. But today, I want to take a look at a few white leaders throughout history who, despite criticism from their own community, have contributed to the progress of the black community by fighting against racial injustice. Indeed, because of these whites, African-Americans have seen measures of racial progress. Naming every white person who falls in this category may be impractical, so I have compiled a list of whites who should be recognized for certain deeds that have helped African-Americans in their struggle for equality.

While most presidents’ commitments to civil rights were questionable, John F. Kennedy’s actions showed a lifetime commitment to helping oppressed communities. In 1962, Kennedy issued an executive order that required federal agencies to “take all necessary and appropriate action to prevent discrimination.” It was the first explicit statement of a national policy against residential segregation. This preceded the introduction of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlawed racial segregation in public places and employment.

And as presidents go, Gerald Ford can’t be excluded from the list. He showed his commitment to affirmative action at his alma mater, the University of Michigan. As explained in the 2006 New York Times article “Gerald Ford’s Affirmative Action,” Ford’s commitment and influence in the Supreme Court ruling that upheld the University’s affirmative action program in 2003 may have been the “most influential amicus brief in the history of the Supreme Court.” Opposing most of his Republican ilk, Ford argued that losing affirmative action would force “future college students to suffer the cultural and social impoverishment that afflicted my generation.”

But Ford’s significant impact on affirmative action pales in comparison to the sentiments of political activist and writer Tim Wise. Wise has committed his professional life to educating Americans about modern racism, white privilege and civil rights injustices. His articulate and militant debate style baffles his opponents. He has fully acknowledged his natural position of white privilege in his book, “White Like Me.” In this book, he makes the claim that “the denial of racism is a form of racism itself.” His most recent book, “Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama,” questions the claim by many whites that Obama’s rise signifies the end of racism as a pervasive social force. Wise gets major kudos in my book.

Michael Moore is a slightly more powerful media force than Wise, but their ideas have many parallels. In 1999, as unarmed Amadou Diallo reached for his wallet, the police said they thought it was a gun and shot 41 bullets at him. Moore documented the incident in 2000 in an episode of his television program, “The Awful Truth,” where Moore responded by exclaiming, “Attention, the New York City police have a difficult time distinguishing between a gun and a wallet.” He proceeded to create an African-American Wallet Exchange stand, where people could exchange their dark wallets for bright orange ones. Michael Moore deserves recognition since he has been active in opposing racial injustice against blacks.

Many more whites have been recognized in works like the 2003 book “White Men Challenging Racism,” where authors Cooper Thompson, Emmet Schaefer and Harry Brod document cases of white people who have committed their lives to fighting against black oppression. Many white women have undoubtedly also been committed to racial equality. Nadine Strossen and Susan Herman, the former and current president of the American Civil Liberties Union, have each fought on the front lines for racial justice.

Each of these deeds have contributed to combating injustices and helped keep the conversation of race alive. They speak to the important reality of any civil rights struggle that for progress to occur, the conversation of justice must go beyond dialogue within the oppressed group. If the goal is in fact to reach a “post-racial” era, then each person must act against the burden oppression sitting heavy on the shoulders of whites and blacks alike. As African-American activist Marian Edelman said, “We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee.” If every white person in America committed themselves to just one deed toward ending black oppression, the changes could be extraordinary.

Matthew Hunter can be reached at majjam@umich.edu.

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