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.
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.
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.
Note to blog followers: On 10/29/20, you inadvertently received a version of this blog. It was a work in progress, close, but not quite done. Apologies. This is the final version.
What does it mean to be an African American ‘first’ in 2020?
“Pope Francis names first African-American Cardinal” was the headline across many newspapers in late October. That followed another announcement: Princeton University will name a residential college—the first—for a Black woman, businesswoman Mellody Hobson.
I was drawn to both stories, not only because as a Black person my eyes simply go to such announcements, but also because of a comment made by a white friend a few weeks earlier. He had pointed out another African American first: The Metropolitan Opera had announced that Grammy winner and Oscar nominee Terence Blanchard would open their 2021-2022 season with Fire Shut Up in My Bones, the first work by a Black composer ever presented by the Met. My friend commented that for some white people, particularly older white people, he thought, seeing Black people in these ‘firsts’ and seeing their competence moves the ‘firsts’ from being seen as ‘excellence and inclusion’ to simply, and yet more profoundly just ‘excellence.’ As it should be. Not an act of racial equity, but an earned place where no Black person had been before.
His comment reminded me of something that happened a few years ago. I was listening to a racial justice advocate. She suggested Jackie Robinson wasn’t the first Black man “capable” of playing Major League Baseball, but the first ‘allowed’ to play (in modern times). Of course. I knew that, but the wording and mental recognition, that “aha’ moment, are important reminders and serve to illuminate and clarify. Many others had the talent but weren’t allowed in white ball clubs. Reflect on that.
1970: The first Black contestant was allowed to enter the Miss America contest. Until then, according to rule #7, ‘contestants must be of good health and of the white race.’ It was in 1983 that the first African American, Vanessa Williams, was crowned Miss America.
1975: Lee Elder became the first Black person to play golf in the PGA Masters Tournament. Until 1961, the PGA had a ‘Caucasians-only’ membership clause.
1988: Doug Williams of the Washington DC football team was the first African American quarterback to start (and win) the Super Bowl. For decades, Blacks were not deemed smart enough to quarterback teams.
In some areas, law has prohibited African Americans’ enfranchisement through restrictions, covenants, and discriminatory practices, for example, in housing until 1968 — within your parents’ or grandparents’ lifetime, or perhaps even yours.
In other areas, educational limitations prevented African Americans from obtaining the necessary academic credentials, to become, for example, an astronaut (Guion Bluford was the first in 1983). And sometimes schooling combined with racially-limited personal and professional networks (the ‘good-ole-boy’ network is a real thing) inhibited the likelihood of African Americans rising to certain positions, such as CEO of a Fortune 500 company (Franklin Raines was the first in 1999, Fannie Mae).
And even when African Americans could get into a profession where they were a significant contributor, so much was masked or concealed, or just not celebrated. Consider mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan. Their work at NASA and role in early space exploration were unknown to many of us until the movie Hidden Figures.
Today, there are no African American governors. There have only been two elected in this country’s almost 250-year history: Doug Wilder (VA; 1990) and Deval Patrick (MA; 2006). Why is that? Remember the year of the hashtag, Oscars so white? Brandice Daniel, an African American fashion designer, established Harlem Fashion Row in 2006 when she realized the dearth of Black designers who received exposure. So many other examples could be offered, but you get the point.
When you look around, think about why African Americans aren’t a member —literally and figuratively—of your club. Why aren’t they more fully incorporated into American life’s cultural, business, and political fabric?