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One of the great moments in the recent Undoing Racism workshop I went to was the discussion around an article written in Multicultural Education, Fall 2005, “When the rules are fair, but the game isn’t.” Our facilitator set the stage. She said the authors set up a game of monopoly for their graduate students in education. Picture this. One group begins playing the game and plays for about 40 minutes or so buying up property, accumulating wealth, gaining power. Then, the second group comes to the table and joins the game in progress. They are given the same amount of starting money and the same rules apply. The facilitator then asked, “That’s fair, right? The game is fair.” The people in our workshop were quiet for a second and then some said yes, some said no, others started talking to the person next to them and the hum in the room grew. The facilitator raised her voice and said. “Everybody got the same amount of money going in. The rules are the same, what’s the problem?” The volume rose in the room a little more. People started asking her questions and she said with a slightly annoyed tone. “Why do you always have to bring up the past. The past is the past. Move on. Things are fair now.”

And in that moment, clarity came thundering into my head and heart.

Before then, we had been talking about the concept of race, who created it, who defined it and to what end. We talked about historical laws and how they were continually adjusted to benefit “whites,” how systems and institutions were created to give  “white” (then men) the advantage and continued power. How even things that seemed like efforts to benefit all (like the GI Bill) continuously discriminated and oppressed people of color. We talked about the cumulative effects of oppression when generations upon generations have been denied the same opportunities in life as their (privileged) neighbor (and also the consequences of cumulative privilege).

I’ve always struggled with the “that was then, this is now” argument I’ve heard plenty of times. And with this one analogy, I gained tremendous insight into the complexity of racism and the powerful manifestations of a world where (presumably) the rules are fair but the game is not. During this week of reflection on Martin Luther King Jr. and his life, I urge all to read and contemplate this article.