A few days ago, I learned of the passing of Randall Robinson. I learned about it, not from a major media outlet, but from a colleague who posted on Facebook. I immediately checked the news outlets, but nothing was posted – that I could find – until yesterday, two days after his death.
I kept looking for the coverage and was surprised that someone of his stature would not be lauded by the national media. Then it struck me. Do I know Randall Robinson because he was from Richmond, my hometown? Do most white people, and younger Black people, not know who he was? Why isn’t the passing of this remarkable man being announced and his work recognized and celebrated?
I don’t know why his passing isn’t being widely announced. I do know that I want to recognize someone who I felt had lived his life with passion and purpose.
Randall Robinson founded TransAfrica in 1977, an organization committed to influencing American foreign policy in relation to African and Caribbean countries.
Randall Robinson organized and led the protests, beginning in 1984, in front of the South African Embassy in Washington, DC focused on freeing Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners. His voice and his actions were critical in elevating Mandela’s plight and leading to the multiple interventions instrumental in his release.
In 2000, Randall Robinson’s book, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks was published. This was the first book I read that fully explored the concept of reparations.
Randall Robinson left America in 2001 and moved to the Caribbean Island of St. Kitts noting that he was looking for a place that was more welcoming to Black people.
I hope you will reflect on this life well-lived, why his life isn’t getting the deserved recognition, and then look at his work as another example of how to make a difference in the fight for racial justice.
I love to travel. I was scheduled to go to Tanzania in Fall 2020, my fifth trip to Africa. I’ve been to Egypt, Senegal, Morocco, and South Africa. Something had always bothered me a bit about the Tanzania trip; but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Then came the pandemic. The trip was cancelled. I wasn’t disappointed … not really.
As COVID restrictions lessened, friends asked if I planned to reschedule the Tanzania trip. I didn’t. I now know what had been missing all along. The trip to Tanzania had been largely about animals. I wanted to learn about the people, the culture.
Travel in many African countries is centered on animals. Visiting the Serengeti plains and viewing exotic animals was to have been the focus of my trip to Tanzania. I hadn’t sought that. In fact, I had already been on a safari in South Africa, but I’d never thought of that trip as a trip about animals. My friends and I had planned everything. It wasn’t a tour package. We curated it ourselves. We learned about Nelson and Winnie Mandela, David Webster, Steve Biko and Bishop Tutu, the Zulus and the Xhosa, apartheid and the truth and reconciliation hearings – the people, not the animals, were at the core. The safari was just a small add on. But when Tanzania became the destination for my new traveling group, every trip package we examined, from multiple tour companies, focused on the Serengeti plains and what was often referred to as “Africa at its most primitive.”
If you’ve been to Africa or have started planning a trip there, did you notice that?
Primitive Africa. I am of an age when Africa, for many, was defined largely by Tarzan, a fictional white man raised since infancy by apes in the jungles of Africa. Movies and books about Tarzan only feature native Africans as servants carrying crates for white people exploring the jungles. The image of Africa has changed, somewhat, particularly with the fictional depiction of the fierce, sophisticated, and technologically advanced Kingdom of Wakanda in the 2018 movie, Black Panther. But even with this evolving image, is culture and civilization what comes to mind for you when you think of Africa? What is your image? What do you know about African countries? How did you learn it?
Our formal education about Africa remains very limited. I bet you that most well-educated Americans, whether of the age of Tarzan or of Wakanda, can tell you an awful lot about the political, social, and historical reality in western Europe. Western civilization. That’s the focus of textbooks used in schools, the coverage of major world events in newspapers, and what is reported on on televised news. Our education is Eurocentric. Our sense of other parts of the world is not driven by formal education, but by cursory classroom exposure or fictionalized presentations. Since that education happens so subtly and nominally about some places, we are often unaware of just how skewed and unbalanced an education we’re receiving.
COVID, while limiting my travel, offered me uninterrupted time to learn. I watched, and you should too, the PBS series Africa’s Great Civilizations. Over six hours, historian Henry Louis Gates introduced me to African civilizations and culture — art, history, accomplishments — that I had glimpsed here and there but never taken the time to fully explore. This is what I had wanted in my Tanzania trip.
Even something as innocuous as travel is racialized. Vacation options continue to underscore Europe as a land of culture and contributions while presenting Africa as a land of beauty and majesty, majestic landscapes and beautiful animals, that is. For the African culture and contributions, sadly, with most tour companies, you still have to dig for those add-on experiences. Primitive, not cultured or civilized, continues to be the projected and marketed image of much of Africa.
Quick quiz: There are 44 countries in Europe and 54 in Africa. How many on each continent can you name? For how many, do you know the name of the current leader?
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.
“Truth is revealed by removing things that stand in its light, an art not unlike sculpture, in which the artist creates not by building, but by hacking away.”
Alan Watts, British philosopher
Step Two: Reflect
Being by the water is peaceful for me. That is the place where I do my most serious thinking. Over the last few years, I have thought a lot about race and racism in America. Have you?
When you sit back and reflect, you sometimes realize how much you take at face value. A quick example: One often hears statistics about the disproportionate number of African-Americans in prison in the US. In 2017: 33% of those imprisoned were black, yet blacks represented only 12% of the adult American population. Why the overrepresentation?
Do you think black people are more criminal than whites?
Do you sympathetically/empathetically/paternalistically believe African-Americans have had a hard life in America and therefore commit more crimes to survive?
Do you think there may be something systemic that contributes to this disparity?
If the third option has never occurred to you, add Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th” and cartoonist Mark Fiore’s Racist EZ Cash to your viewing list along with adding Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness to your reading list. My point, simply, is that race and racism in America require significant learning (sometimes un-learning) and then reflection if we are trying to get to racial healing.
Is it possible that race, and disparate treatment (based on race), may contribute to some disproportionate outcomes we have in America?
Is it possible that some of your “truths” were born of prejudice, misinformation or just plain old ignorance? You don’t know what you don’t know, right?
While we can all sit quietly and consider what we’ve read or viewed—and we should do that—I believe there are other ways to jump start the reflection process. Here are two resources that were developed based on deep reflection.
Waking Up White by Debby Irving. Irving is a white author who describes her growing understanding of what it means to be white in America, something that she had thought nothing about until well into her adulthood. Her “aha” moments started with understanding who benefited, and who didn’t, from what many feel created America’s middle class, the GI Bill.
White Privilege (2018) is a video in the “Putting Racism on the Table” learning series produced by the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers. This segment features noted author, Robin DiAngelo. DiAngelo, who is white, is credited with the term, “white fragility.” In an easy-to-digest way, DiAngelo reveals that white privilege is not about income (the common misconception), but is about power, acceptance, and position in society that is “earned” solely by skin color.
I have been told by many white friends and colleagues that they rarely think about race — theirs or anyone else’s. That revelation had a powerful impact on me, someone who thinks about race every day. So, let’s stop here. The reflection can begin now: When did you know you had a race and what did it mean to you? Your answers might surprise you and be instructive to someone from another race.
Yes, I believe you need a partner for your reflection. No one can walk in another’s shoes. You need a guide, a translator, someone to help you see the world through a lens you don’t have. I urge you to find a thought partner with whom you can be truthful. Have serious conversations about the racial reality of America—the small things and big—and reflect on what you think and why you feel that way; share your thoughts fully and honestly. These conversations, the serious reflection, will bring you to an understanding you cannot reach alone.
Now, while I think personal reflection and conversations with a trusted colleague/friend will broaden your understanding and deepen your interpersonal relationships, the critical question remains: How can this country move to societal-level racial healing? Well, first, the obvious: societal change doesn’t happen without the leadership of a person. That person sharing his/her understanding/passion will catalyze a small group whose energy then moves to a larger group, rippling out. The fostering of ideas and understanding among average, everyday people, like you and me, leads to a groundswell of interest and understanding that can lead to change. But we also need the leadership of people at the top, people in power, who want change to occur. In South Africa, for example, F. W. de Klerk, the last president before the end of apartheid, a white man, and Nelson Mandela, the first president after apartheid, a black man, came together to support a process to foster racial healing in their country. This process was intended to recognize the racial wounds that had divided their nation, and then lead to healing and restorative justice. Fully successful? Perhaps not, but a vital collective step for their country was taken. Through a means of revelation and reflection, we can create a growing group of people who understand what has happened in America and why. We don’t have the leadership that South Africa had, at least not yet, but we can, and must, develop a focus on change and be ready when the needed leadership emerges. Until then, we can still take steps toward racial justice and healing.
* * *
Check back in about a week or so to read Step Three: Recalibrate. In the meantime, please share your thoughts and reflections on race and racism in the comments section.