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.


“American” Firsts: UPDATED (Revised post)

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?

Many doors remain closed to African Americans.

Which are you fighting to open?

Which ‘first’ title will you hold?

Does the American flag represent red, white, and YOU?

A few years ago, my neighborhood was trying to define a communal look. Some neighbors already flew the American flag and suggested the flag as our shared identifier, the hallmark to creating visual cohesion. Several other neighbors almost screamed their objection to the American flag, noting that it did not reflect their values.

I was reminded recently of the angst of that neighborhood conversation. First, on the anniversary of September 11, I remembered our country’s collective patriotism back then against a shared enemy who we couldn’t even identify. Flags flew from car antennae and from front porch flag posts, and many were teary-eyed that evening in 2001 as members of Congress sang God Bless America on the steps of the Capitol. We were brought together as proud, united Americans.

The second event that brought back that neighborhood memory was hearing our country didn’t need a history curriculum based on the 1619 Project, but instead one that was “pro-American, celebrating the truth about our nation’s great history.” That sentiment, while purporting to be pro-American was a clear message: a curriculum grounded in an African American reality was anti-American. That message justified the feelings of those neighbors who said the flag didn’t represent their values.

For those unfamiliar with the 1619 Project, in August 2019, the New York Times Magazine published a groundbreaking edition. Every article centered  our country’s history on the arrival, 400 years earlier, of 20-30 enslaved Africans. Noted journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones used that seminal event to tell our country’s history, focused on the contributions of African Americans throughout America’s history. Then, partnering with the Pulitzer Center, the 1619 essay was turned into a free curriculum for classroom teachers.

If you read my Daughters of the Dream post last month, you’ll know I have concerns about how our country’s history is taught. Using the 1619 Project as the starting place sounded exactly right to me. I thought it would finally tell the actual truth of our nation’s history. Hannah-Jones starts her opening essay by saying her father always flew the American flag proudly in front of their home. But she didn’t understand how he could love a country she felt had never loved him. But, after a full examination of the country’s history and deep reflection (remember ‘reveal, reflect, recalibrate’), she ends the essay noting: “We were told once, by virtue of our bondage, that we could never be American. But it was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all.” With pride, not only does Hannah-Jones understand her father’s belief in and love for the country, she has proudly staked her own claim as an American. Only to have the essay and project attacked as not ‘pro-American’  by the highest levels of government and prohibited in the duplicitous and Machiavellian wording and language of a presidential executive order.

I’m torn.

I know what image comes to mind, for many, when picturing the all-American boy. I think I know what comes to mind, for many, when they think of the American dream.

Try that right now.

What did you think of? Tell the truth.

In your mind’s eye, I don’t think that boy has dreadlocks and brown skin and does not live in that suburban house with the well-manicured lawn.

The “American” narrative, that pro-American truth distortion of our history, is still grounded in white skin and white-centered values. The ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps, equality of opportunity, hard work leads to success’ values that may be American, but they—like the history that has been taught—are not valid for all.

The author purchased a flag. It’s just inside her tiny entryway, not flying outside her home. Ready whenever the time feels right.

It’s hard for me, and many Black people, to embrace fully the American flag, the flag of a country that doesn’t seem to include us. But I am trying. I want to claim my country and to feel the sense of pride felt in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. I want to work for a racially just America reflective of the words in those patriotic songs and in the country’s founding documents.

And I believe more white people today than in our country’s history are trying to understand the America that Black people see. I believe that more and more are joining with the BIPOC community to work toward a racially just, pro-America reality.

I believe we can create an inclusive America stronger than anything envisioned in the 18th century. One without a solo image representing an idealized all-American boy or girl that excludes the diversity of the nation we’ve become. One where the American dream is not solely defined by a white person—a white family—owning a house. We must determine what a truly democratic economy looks like and how can we— we the people—ensure everyone succeeds in this all-embracing, new America.

I hope one day, maybe soon, we can all proudly wave that flag.

NOTE:  If you are interested in learning more about the 1619 Project, there is an online study group meeting 10/1, 10/15, 10/29, 11/12 and 12/10. Here’s the link to register.