Out of sight, out of mind

When a problem isn’t constantly before you, directly impacting you, concern often ebbs. Sadly, it seems to happen regardless of the seriousness of the issue or your degree of previous commitment to address it. This is especially true when you don’t understand how you are impacted by the problem, a problem that, on the surface, seems to be someone else’s problem. That’s the situation as I see it with racial justice. Top of mind – always — for Black people. Out of sight, out of mind – often? typically? — for white people.

It looks like this is the year racial justice has again fallen off the social justice map. The May 2020 televised murder of George Floyd galvanized the country. Finally, many white Americans understood why the slogan, Black Lives Matter, had emerged as a rallying cry and they joined in the push for racial justice. For a minute, it seemed that Black lives did matter. It seemed that white people were understanding how racist narratives had shaped, or misshaped, their perception of the truth of America. They were digging deeply into a topic that many had only scratched the surface of before. Now, interest in learning about race and racism seems to have waned, as have many of the public efforts to fight for racial justice. Not only are states banning the accurate teaching of our country’s history, but books on our racial history and our current reality that once dominated the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list are no longer there. Training of staffs on racial equity has slowed as businesses, governments, and nonprofits seem to feel like either they’ve done it – checked that box — or other social justice concerns have popcorned to the top. Is it my imagination? Has the multi-racial moment/the movement ignited by the murder of George Floyd come to an end without fanfare and without much notice?

Black people live with the trauma and reality of racial inequity and injustice every day, never needing any reminders beyond day-to-day life. Many white people seem to need “punched in the gut,” horrific, visual moments for them to be jolted into racial awareness. Moments like Mamie Till Mobley’s raw despair as she grieved over her son, Emmett’s battered body; the national coverage of water hoses and snarling dogs attacking peaceful civil rights protestors in Alabama, or the plethora of cellphone videos of racially-charged incidents in a hotel lobby, a college dorm, a park, or just about anywhere. These incidents sparked momentary outrage and commitments to racial redress. The images, in 1955, 1963, the 2010s or 2020, got many off their sofas and into the streets to protest or into the voting booths to elect individuals committed to change. But the commitment, the passion, in white communities seems to be rarely sustained. I want to know how to change that.

Understanding and addressing racial injustice is not a one and done situation, not reading one book, or participating in one racial equity training, or voting one time for the “right” candidate. There must be lifelong learning and unlearning of years of messages, and then working, in many ways, big and small, for racial justice. I thought the heinousness of George Floyd’s murder, coupled with so many high visibility, recorded racial incidents, might be enough, but it doesn’t seem to be. While race and racial justice remain top of mind for Black people all the time; for white advocates, other issues seem to have pushed race and racial equity to the back of the proverbial bus.

Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility

Racial injustice cannot be recognized and understood only by Black people. White people must see this too if we are to have a racially just America. White people must believe that justice for Black people will enable justice for them as well.  White people hold the reins of power in America.  Just as women wouldn’t have gotten the vote without the commitment of men, Black people alone cannot overhaul all the policies, procedures, and practices that undergird racial inequity in America. Black people can identify issues/inequities. Black people can march, protest, and vote. Black people can define and humanize the impact, but Black people do not sit sufficiently in those positions that wield the power necessary to transform racist systems and institutions. White people, you must engage on this topic, not just in the moment of a hate crime like the recent ones in California and in Buffalo, but on an ongoing basis. Black people must not die to prove that America continues to be racially unjust. Black people must not die to prompt white people to act.  How do we sustain the commitment of the white community to work for racial justice? I really want to know. I need to know.

12 Replies to “Out of sight, out of mind”

  1. Tamara
    Thank you so much. I agree with you wholeheartedly. In the 1960s I participated in a group called ACCESS the Action Coordinating Committee to End Segregation in the Suburbs (DC/MD/VA area (to end segregation especially in rental housing — this before the Fair Housing Act)

    We were led by the late Charles Jones, one of the founding members of SNCC, then a law student, but we were largely a white group that involved many from area Unitarian Churches.

    We were affirming our need as white people to end segregation because it affected us as well as the African American individuals and communities in these various suburbs and DC.
    Those of us with children brought them to our picket lines and sought integrated facilities and institutions so we could raise them as non-racist in what we optimistically hoped would be a new era in America.

    And much did happen.

    Yet we have so far to go… still.

    I have been thinking about how change can occur and wonder if the churches (especially white churches) could play a more significant role.

    In my city of Charlottesville there is an interfaith / interracial group pressing for affordable housing, which is good. Yet I still feel a need for broader action in our community, the state and nation.

    I would love to hear more of your ideas. Also maybe you could contact me as there is a Coming to the Table group here that discusses such issues (still thru Zoom). — Kay

  2. “Black people must not die to prove that America continues to be racially unjust. Black people must not die to prompt white people to act.“ Bold statements. Equally true for acts of hate, prejudice, injustice.

    There are many issues over which some of us despair at the moment ~ gun violence and the slaughter of innocent lives, the conservative court and Roe v. Wade, the war in Ukraine … but underlying all of these issues is the pervasive and consistent push by a very loud (and in my opinion, UNHINGED) culture of white supremacy. It spills over into many other cultures, but the main target is directed toward the African American community who built this country, literally built this country.

    Am I naive to think education is the answer? How did I just learn about the founding of “Memorial Day” AKA “Decorations Day”? Why was I not taught about Juneteenth or the Tulsa Massacre in elementary school, high school, or at the college level? And NOW … thanks to the erroneous mention of CRT, the Virginia Education system is having its hands shackled… or teachers are working a more complete history into their lesson plans, while watching their backs. Do I trust all teachers to be honest and unbiased? Not really.

    We need more involvement, more interaction, more conversations, and a willingness to seek out more information. Books, movies, television programs, and art galleries and museums can explore and expand understanding. Curiosity and the encouragement to learn might help promote our youth to become more open-minded. Knowing the history helps guide the slow change in mindset.

    1. You captured it, Barbara. “Underlying all of these [social justice/humanity] issues is the pervasive and consistent push by a ver loud … culture of white supremacy.” Racism underpins so many of the problems facing America and the rest of the world. But it’s the problem that too many pretend isn’t real and fail to address.

  3. Watching all the awful things that have been happening in this country, particularly in the past few years, makes me worry for all of us. It is growing clearer that white supremacists are pulling down the whole country. Yes, it is a “very loud and unhinged” group. Great quote. Education is part of the answer, but while I watch what’s happening under Gov. DeSantis, we are moving backwards in education, not only in Florida but in many other R states. Moms for Liberty is one group to watch, but I’m finally seeing pushback against what they are doing to our public schools.
    Here’s something I truly don’t understand: How “being woke” has been turned into something negative by some of our politicians.
    Tamara, all of your examples are excellent. It will take consistent efforts by white people to move racial equity forward.
    How to sustain it? I don’t know the answer. On my hopeful days, I am convinced there are increasing numbers of white people who are “getting it.” I don’t think we need more hideous crimes in order to see and understand. Those who “get it” are already convinced. They may be quiet, but they also might be a larger group than we think.

    1. Joanie, thanks for your comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts about how we get those who are convinced of the need for racial justice, but who might be quiet to speak up. The squeaky wheels like Moms for Liberty are getting a lot of attention. If there is a silent majority committed to racial equity, I don’t think we’ll get traction until leaders hear them and know that there is support. Your thoughts?

  4. I read and re-read your post, as well as the thoughtful comments, in an effort to come up with an answer to the all important question of how to sustain commitment in a meaningful way. There are probably multiple answers, but here’s what I’ve been observing in my own behavior. I feel my own understanding of racism in the culture and in myself widened and deepened in the last 2 years. I know I became more thoughtful and active in addressing it when I encountered it. But my commitment has been sporadic, derailed by general anxiety, depression, a sense of futility-and believe me, this is no excuse, especially for a white woman. I’m just pointing out factors that need to be addressed-in myself. What encourages me to get up and do what I know I should do, need to do and frankly want to do-is communicating with like minded people. This blog provides some of that, as do other social media groups. I think physical groups promote it even more. It’s up to us (me) to seek that out. As Barbara Brown noted education is everything, so I’ll try to be more involved with local board of education elections and meetings. And when I fall out of being active, I’ll try to shore up by finding and donating to organizations that are committed to doing the work. I need the little automatic donations because I will fall out from time to time from daily action. I like calls to action. I like to learn about progressive, anti-rascist candidates and I like to share that information. We (I) have to work nationally for political solutions and I think that means finding, donating to and supporting the right candidates. Forgive me if this is just a memo to myself, but I’m hoping this will be of some use to other white people, who will return the favor by kicking me in the butt.

    1. Jan, I appreciate your introspection and honesty. I also appreciate your multiple interventions — direct action and philanthropic support. Another prompt could be one book a month or a podcast. I’m happy to make some suggestions. Another useful tool is https://medium.com/equality-includes-you/what-white-people-can-do-for-racial-justice-f2d18b0e0234. While this may have been a memo to yourself, I hope you printed it out and put it somewhere that you’ll see it regularly. I know you’ll be engaged and make a difference.

      1. Thank you so much. I would love book and/or podcast suggestions. And thanks for the link. Printing out my “memo to myself” is a good suggestion.

  5. Powerful!
    I’ve kept your recommended article “101 Thing White people Can Do” to keep me active. Thanks.

  6. unless we all recognize that unequal justice and inequality affects us all and our Country is the lesser for these continuing “deaf, dumb and Blind “sitautions in our alleged Democracy we are going to pinball from crisis to crisis, violence and shootings almost daily targeting minorities and people of color and abject neglect by the US Congress, City , County and State “leaders ” /apologists and thus no long term ,systemic Change and just more claptrap and polarization by the people elected to represent us all help set a platform for discourse, dialogue and actual plans of action to change this Country’s dark heart and muddled thoughts on who we are and what we have to set our minds to changing and improving . no more replacement theory nonsense , no more MTG, Gosar, Gaetz, Jordan , Goehmert,Bobbert, any version of Trump, Stefanik,Hawley,Palin,etc, ad nauseum telling us they know what’s wrong – it’s they , themselves who are the culprits . Vote out these marginal /closeted Klan members and their racist screed and then try to have a reasoned dialogue about what our ongoing experimen t in democracy should be and collectively work on cahnge and real equality .

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