If you’re a white American, to whom among your fellow citizens and residents do you owe reparations for past injustices? Sixty-five years ago, a teacher at Fountain Valley School suggested to his all-white, all-male 11th grade history class that our country’s past wasn’t what we imagined it to be.

“America was founded on three great crimes,” he told us. “Theft: We stole the land from the Indians. Genocide: We killed them with disease and firearms. Slavery: We enslaved, bought and sold Africans as if they were cattle or sheep.”

This wasn’t a message that resonated with a dozen privileged 16-year-olds. After class, I asked my friend Jerry what he thought of it.

“He’s right, but so what?” he replied. “The past is the past. You can’t change it.” That made sense to me at the time, and still does to many white Americans. That’s one of the many reasons that reparations of any kind remain so controversial, especially those focused on whiteness itself.

Such beliefs sometimes arise from critical race theory, defined by Britannica as “The view that the law and legal institutions are inherently racist and that race itself, instead of being biologically grounded and natural, is a socially constructed concept that is used by white people to further their economic and political interests at the expense of people of color.” So the crimes or good works of your ancestors are immaterial — you’re either a beneficiary or a victim of systemic biases.

Jerry, a progressive kid who died a few years ago, would have agreed. Long after we graduated in 1958, he summarized 1950s racism by quoting a jump-rope rhyme from his childhood in a racially diverse urban neighborhood.

“If you’re white, you’re all right; if you’re brown, stick around; if you’re Black, get back!”

To be honest with ourselves, we white folk should look upon our skin color as an undeserved inheritance that has benefited us all of our lives. We have an individual and societal responsibility to pay it forward, and it may not be enough to just disavow overt racism and try to be a better person. 

For example, how can we help change our nationwide business, educational and nonprofit meritocracy? Harvard, Yale and other elite private colleges and universities hoover up the best and brightest, virtually guaranteeing their future. They’re far from racist, but they drain money, talent and entrepreneurial vision from publicly funded education across America.  

This stratification has created an American aristocracy forever insulated from poverty, want or hard manual labor. They’re a new ruling class, members of an elite club that rejects most applicants. Like their fellow aristocrats in previous centuries, they seem to believe that they know better than the untutored bourgeoisie in the hinterlands.

You can count us among the untutored non-elites, but Colorado Springs is taking steps that will help end systemic racism. Public and private entities are focusing on remedying investment and infrastructure deficits in Southeast Colorado Springs, while taxpayers in revenue-starved Colorado Springs School District 11 passed a $43 million mill levy override in 2017. Business and political leaders have strongly supported UCCS and Pikes Peak Community College for decades, making quality higher education reasonably affordable and available to all residents. Unlike the hollowed-out small cities of the Midwest, we are able to create, retain and attract our own elites. Combine our soaring physical geography with smart, entrepreneurial local government and you have a recipe for enduring prosperity — so how do we ensure that our good fortune benefits all? The short answer: Invest in education, housing and jobs.

Absent the kind of sustained, intelligent governance that Mayor John Suthers and city council have provided in recent years, we may fall short. That’s why we need to make good choices in the April 6 council races, and hope that Suthers’ successor is up to the task. Since I moved back to my hometown in 1981, we haven’t had a single bad mayor — Bob Isaac, Leon Young, Mary Lou Makepeace, Lionel Rivera, Steve Bach and Suthers have all served admirably. It’s the most important job in the city, one that calls for non-partisan excellence and superb leadership skills — wonder if one of our business leaders would be willing to take a pay cut and lead city government for a few years? We can’t settle for second rate — Harvard graduates need not apply!

John Hazlehurst, whose great-grandfather came to Colorado in 1859, is a Colorado Springs native. He has worked as a reporter/columnist for the Indy since 1997 and the Business Journal since 2006.