Is racial injustice becoming clearer?

“I’m learning how to see. I don’t know what the reason is, but everything enters into me more deeply and no longer stops at the point where it used to come to an end.”

― Rainer Maria Rilke, Poet

 

Police activity around the January 6th Capitol insurrection and the 2020 marches for racial reckoning looked very different. In less than 24 hours, mainstream media was comparing responses. Peaceful protesters vs. armed insurrectionists. BLM vs. MAGA.

The image that aired most often showed National Guard troops stationed last summer on the Lincoln Memorial’s steps, protecting the monument, compared to a complete lack of the same to defend Members of Congress as people climbed the walls of the Capitol in January.

While January 6th sickened and angered me, I had two positive thoughts:

  1. For the first time in recent history, at least that I can remember, no Black person was killed or severely injured to focus white America’s attention on disparate treatment based on race. No George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake….
  1. Black people didn’t have to point out that there was a different police response to a primarily white crowd than to a largely BIPOC one. That difference was widely and almost immediately noticed and became a vital and consistent part of the story.

Does this mean that racism is becoming less invisible? I think so, and that’s good.

But it is not the entire story.

Racism—personal racism and structural racism—is becoming more visible. I’m just not sure that’s true for most of America. Consider these three categories of folks:

  1. The large segment of our country that denies racism (remember Ambassador and former SC Governor Nikki Haley on the first night of the Republican National Convention: “America is not racist” she extolled as she claimed her immigrant status and Indian heritage). These folks believe anyone can succeed in America if you play by the rules and work hard. No need to look deeper. Racism is not the problem. Work harder.
  2. The group that thinks they understand racism and disparity. They want to help, but they often focus on the surface, on prejudice and bigotry, not on the vast, hidden iceberg of injustice below.
  3. The truly segregated white Americans who rarely think about Black and brown people. Out of sight, out of mind. Not on their radar at all unless prompted by a media story (media stories that often contribute to fear of the “other”).

It’s that last category I want to focus on a bit.

Many white Americans live, work, and play in segregated parts of America. Not just rural America, as you may think, or suburban America, but all of America. They have limited contact with people who don’t look like them and rarely think about it. Racial segregation is their norm. Others proudly claim they live in a racially diverse community/city. Still, when you probe a little, you discover that’s not so. They actually live in a racially homogeneous enclave within that city, in the next county over, or even 20 miles away from the part of the city — typically the inner city — that makes it racially diverse.

I mention this because we are far more likely to understand people different from ourselves when we live, work, and play with them. Not just one environment (usually work), but all of them. Live and Work and Play. When different people come to your home, work with you, and regularly enjoy leisure activities with you and your family, those are your friends. Those are the people you care about. Those are the people you want—really want—to achieve the American dream. It is those folks you seek to understand, and it is for those people that you will see what prevents them from achieving their goals.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you have to be best buddies to understand the humanity of people who don’t look like you or to work for racial justice. Clearly that is not the case. The racist behavior of individuals or racially unjust actions of groups seem clearer to many now and is regularly called out. White allies are seeking truth and working actively for societal change.  However, for many, it seems that something must prompt you to delve into understanding a people or a topic far afield from your everyday existence.

Yes, the invisibility is diminishing. I was glad for the two positive signs last month. But racial ignorance remains powerful in many corners of America. Until we address that, my fear is that racial justice will remain far away.

20/20

It’s over. My 2020 calendar is literally and figuratively in the trash. Whew.

I was just about to do a happy dance and celebrate the new year when I recalled my mother’s voice: “Look for the good in anything bad that happens.” So, I stopped and reflected on a year that seemed to brim with ‘bad.’ And I’m glad I did. Without that, I might not have realized all the good that has come from the past year’s tragedies.

If it hadn’t been for the COVID-19 quarantine and the quiet of self-isolation, would the world have watched, been absorbed by, and responded to the horror of the murder of George Floyd? And if not for George Floyd’s murder (and far too many others), would racial reckonings have emerged across the country?

Would Black Lives Matter Plaza have been born in Washington DC, offering a visual counterpoint to remarks and policies coming from the White House right across the street?

Would monuments that devalue human life have come down, not just in the United States, but around the world?

Would the symbol of the Confederacy on the Mississippi state flag have finally been replaced?

Would racist team names have been removed from the pro sports teams of Cleveland, Ohio, and Washington, DC?

Would recognizing the need to repurpose police funds, moving from militarization to mental health support, have gained the traction it has?

Would books on invisible racism and the need for racial equity have topped reader’s lists as more and more Americans, particularly White Americans, seek to understand—and address—the truth of America?

Would we have understood the fragility of our country’s democracy and the massive efforts to suppress voters? And without that, would we have voted in record numbers moving away from the toxicity of fascism toward a healthier democratic America?

I grieve the tragedies of 2020, but just as my mother wisely told me, from the bad has come good. The foundation laid last year is what we will build a more positive future upon.

Happy New Year.

White people, there is so much to gain.

If you’re reading my blog, you’re probably among those fighting for racial justice, some at the macro-level of societal transformation, others working for enhanced understanding among family. Or maybe you’re just beginning to recognize and reflect on the depth, breadth, and impact of racial injustice.

Regardless, here is my question. What drives you: wanting the oppressed to have a greater opportunity or wanting to free the oppressor?  To my White readers,  today I want to call this out: True racial equity will bring significant benefits … to you.

You’re accustomed to hearing racial justice advocates  speak of the needs of the oppressed: lost opportunities, lost potential, a focus on ‘lesser than’ statistics, such as home ownership or educational outcomes. Tangible data is compared across races.  And by that data, the White population is better off than communities of color, on multiple fronts.  Because of this, the racial equity battle often focuses solely on gains  needed for the oppressed.

But, White people, have you ever reflected on what you will gain?

First, your own psychological well-being. You have to believe, to some degree, that Black and brown people are more criminal or less enterprising, for example, to accept their overrepresentation in prisons and underrepresentation in places of academic and financial success.  Noted author and activist James Baldwin suggested that White America needs to believe in Black pathology to justify what has been, and continues to be, done and to alleviate any obligation to fix the true problem.  Yes? No? Is there cognitive dissonance, a disconnect between what you say you believe (everybody has a fair chance) and what is the allowed reality in America?

Now to history. What has been lost to White people by not fully understanding our country’s history? As more comprehensive explanations of historical ‘facts’ are revealed, are you looking more critically at your heroes, at the foundation of America? Are you considering what/who supported your ancestors’ or immediate forbearers’ ability to pull themselves up by their bootstraps? Did they really do that? “Pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” I mean? No supportive government programs? Think about the GI Bill or preferential housing or unconstrained banking policies. No help from families or social networks better positioned to offer help?  How is your authentic sense of self affected? Is there some internal alignment that needs to happen to make your world view/your familial context more coherent with truth?

Then just one more thing. There has been a lot of attention given to the value of diversity in the workplace. Problem-solving, research has shown, benefits from different viewpoints, people with varying experiences of life. Varied thinking and cultures are enriching, not limiting. If this is true in the workplace, why would it be different in friendship groups or neighborhoods? What is missed by having racial homogeneity in so many parts of your life?

The balance of assets and societal power is unequal. That is true, but adjusting that imbalance doesn’t make anyone a loser. Everyone wins. We all win if fewer resources are used, for example, to imprison, freeing up more to support asset building, the true provision of quality education for all, clean water everywhere, or medical research. Who loses if more Black or brown people can purchase homes, building their wealth and ability to contribute even more to our country’s economic viability?

I know there is an intangible benefit to resolving the internal moral or psychological battle among some in the White community.  There is significant inherent value in embracing the humanity and worth of all people. And there is tangible value to more people contributing to the common good.

As I write this, I realize I am struggling to find the right words. I can’t make the case as eloquently as I would like. Still, I know that the deficit model of fighting for racial equity is neither the full story nor the best strategy. Self interest is a powerful motivator.  You must fight for racial equity as a benefit to the oppressor and to the oppressed. As Ibram Kendi has said if you aren’t fighting against racism, you are a part of the problem, a part of what is causing all of us to lose. Racial equity is a win for everyone.

11/7/20: The date I reclaimed the American flag

When I looked at TV coverage of election celebrations from Atlanta, New York, Philadelphia, and my city of Washington, DC, I saw liberals and Democrats waving the American flag. BIPOC, LGBTQ, people whose T-shirts and buttons proudly proclaimed who they were and what they valued, people who had been demeaned and insulted, bullied, and dismissed. People who looked like me, people who shared my views and my hopes.

For me, the American flag had been co-opted by right-wing America, the far-right-wing. The flag-wavers who I usually saw weren’t simply those who called themselves conservative, but people whose views of what America should be involved taking away their fellow Americans’ rights. They insulted, maligned, minimized, and marginalized anyone whose opinions, skin color, religious beliefs, or families differed from their own. They waved that flag with aggression and superiority. The symbols that represented them—especially the American flag—couldn’t represent me.

So, I noticed them… people I can identify with… as they raised and waved that flag,  a symbol I had become doubtful would ever represent what I—and they—believed in.

The announcement that Joe Biden was president-elect and Kamala Harris was vice president-elect was met with shouts, cheers,  horn honking, and … flag waving as people celebrated the end of four long years of hatred, lies, and national disgrace. They celebrated the election of a man of integrity who pronounced he would reclaim the soul of America, a man with vision, a leader for all Americans. They celebrated the first Black vice president and the first woman, and even the first second gentleman. They were joyful, smiling, dancing, high-fiving, and proudly waving our flag. I noticed. I felt the same way — a new lightness and relief at reclaiming America and the American flag as my symbol, a symbol of my country,  a country that isn’t perfect, but one whose days ahead now seem hopeful.

We can make America great… it can live up to its ideals. The president-elect encapsulated America in one word: Possibilities.

Yes.