Picture this. The coronavirus is over. Scientists have given the “all clear”. One million white people have gathered on the Mall in Washington, DC with signs that read “Black Lives Matter” “I am marching for Armaud Arbrey” “I march for Trayvon Martin” “I march for the thousands of black men and women imprisoned who simply can’t pay bail to get out” “I march for clean water in Flint” “I march for quality grocery stores in black and brown neighborhoods.” “I march for the black people who white leaders don’t listen to.”
Can you see it? Can you see one million white people marching for black lives, for black bodies?
I appreciate all my white friends who have posted their outrage on social media about the killing of Armaud Arbrey. I value your allyship and your sense of humanity. I also value your public statements. Many think the thoughts, but then don’t write the words where one of their friends, or family, or colleagues might see them. “You know,” they say, “I have to pick the right moment.”
White people, as Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote in her 1619 essay, “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.” I’m not saying that white people didn’t participate in the Montgomery Bus Boycott or Selma or the March on Washington or in countless other protests to make America’s promise true. You have. But, I need you to step it up. America needs you to step it up.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Black people’s voices have been, and continue to be, powerful in enabling our own liberation, 400 years ago, 200 years ago and today. But to paraphrase racial justice advocate, Dr. Robin DiAngelo, “Could women have gotten the vote without the leadership of men? No.” Black people can march, and will march, until the soles of our feet are raw. We will protest until our voices are strained to a whisper, but white people, we need you to step it up.
In large measure, your people run Congress … your people lead states … your people run business, the Fortune 500 companies … your people control the media. You run America. Raise your voices. Step it up.
“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.
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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.
Over the last couple of years, I have heard a lot of talk about racial healing. I have the same reaction every time: How can we heal without treating the wound, and how can that be done effectively without understanding it?
I want America to recognize the depth of the racial wound and to acknowledge how that wound, that injury, that disease… spread and infected society.
Recently when talking with a black friend, she reminded me that my perspective is that of a black person. In her view, white people want this conversation to go away. When she hears ‘racial healing,’ she thinks it is code for ‘Black people need to get over it.’ Hmmm. Get over it.
I am just beginning to understand IT; the extent and impact of racial inequity and injustice were hard for even me to see. I too was duped. I understood prejudice and discrimination, but I thought those who were prejudiced were ignorant people or those whose views were ill-informed because they hadn’t gotten to know black people. And then, ignorantly, for decades, I thought discrimination had ended with the passage of critical pieces of civil rights legislation. I believed this country was a meritocracy. I believed that if you worked hard and played by the rules, you would ‘win’ by American standards. I was so very wrong. I didn’t understand the facts or the subtleties, the biases that shaped how the world was presented to me.
It wasn’t until recently that I began to fully appreciate the white lens through which many stories and ‘facts’ are told. Even when the recounting is not directly by a white person, the story is influenced by the majority culture/lore/norms. With each visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, or when reading posts on the blog, The Root, for example, I get a deeper appreciation for how much I never learned of the history, the accomplishments, the positive impact of black people on America. And it still isn’t being told in the dominant media.
It took the injustice of Trayvon Martin’s murder, coupled with the lack of consequences for his murderer to shock me out of my stupor. And it took listening to countless podcasts like ‘Uncivil,’ absorbing the wisdom and in-depth racial analyses from leaders and thinkers like john a. powell (capitalization is his preference), Robin DiAngelo, Richard Rothstein, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram Kendi for me to learn the insidiousness, intentionality, and impact of structural racism; the structures in place for decades causing black people to be disadvantaged as white people moved farther and farther ahead. My learning until 2012 had been casual, family-influenced, experiential. After the horror of Trayvon, my eyes opened to an obscured reality. I started on a conscious learning journey to understand the depth, breadth, and impact of structural racism on society and on me.
There have been decades of Band-Aids placed haphazardly with no real sense of where the wound was or the fact that the injury may present as a flesh wound — a small cut, quickly addressed, but it isn’t. IT is cancer, invasive, and all-consuming. Those Band-Aids were insufficient unless their intent was not to heal but to both mask the problem and the fact that no one was trying to cure it.
That’s how I see the rush to racial healing. Another Band-Aid.
Even though wounds can be ugly and painful to look at, they must be revealed and their cause understood. That’s my issue. I don’t think the racial wound has been fully revealed and understood. Has it been diagnosed by people with the insights, knowledge, and sensitivity to determine the problem fully, i.e., has the cadre of diagnosticians gone through the educational rigor to understand the symptoms, how the problem operates and how to treat it? Who is studying how to prevent it from returning? Who is focused beyond treatment to eradication?
Personally, I want to heal. I want America to heal. I just know that if it has taken me, a black, educated person directly affected by structural racism and implicit bias, some time to see and begin to understand it, how long will it take those who benefit from the way the country is?
America doesn’t seem ready – as a country — even to admit that racism exists, much less to learn how it occurred, and how it continues. And there is no quick, easy fix. It will take years of work. Racial healing is a process, not an event. We must unspin the web that created and now perpetuates racism. Then, systematically, we must replace it with a new societal reality. Only then do I think we can heal.
“It takes a deep commitment to change and an even deeper commitment to grow.”
“I know few significant questions of public policy which can safely be confided to computers. In the end, the hard decisions inescapably involve imponderables of intuition, prudence, and judgment.”
—John F. Kennedy
I just finished my second year co-teaching a course on philanthropy and racial equity. Here’s the remarkable part: the students—all graduate students in public policy—reported that they had never had a course on racial equity. They were required to learn about economic practices, statistical procedures and, broadly, about ethics, public management and creating public policy. My course, like others on racial equity, is an elective at this university. It took me a while to figure out why I was bothered by this. Finally, I got it. Where is the balance between empirical data and experience? Where does humanity enter? How is the data about disproportionate outcomes, by race, revealed?
When I pointed this out, a colleague cautioned that it is the research-base that appeals to students. The students drawn to this campus want to create policies that are driven by data. I agree data is invaluable in creating sound public policies. But I believe there is a large realm of facts that isn’t being considered. A full exploration will occur only by consciously including an examination of what has contributed to racially inequitable public policies. For that to occur, racial equity education must be in the public policy curriculum, not as an elective, but as a requirement.
Last year, I heard noted author and academic Robin DiAngelo talk about white privilege. Midway in her remarks, she commented that one aspect of white privilege is never having to understand racial inequity. She noted that most people will go through college, many graduate programs, law school or medical school without ever taking a course on race, racial equity or racial justice. She continued by noting that even though few are taught this topic, many continue to believe they understand the issues. How can they? Her question and mine is how is that knowledge acquired? Why is it that so many people believe they understand racial equity without ever having been taught this? It seems they think of it as a lesson in politeness. As long as they treat people with respect, there will be no inequity. That’s not true. In fact, the most detrimental inequities are those embedded in public policy. This has to be academically taught, not casually learned.
It is incumbent upon public policy analysts and practitioners to delve beyond merely presenting, aggregated data. We must ask questions to find answers (and solutions). Why are there more people of color incarcerated than white people? Why are the educational outcomes for black and brown people worse than those for white people? What are the zoning policies that have disproportionately placed more halfway houses in communities of color? What are the policies and incentives that enable more economic growth in certain communities than in others? How is the schedule of actions as basic as street cleaning or bulb replacement in street lights determined from community to community?
If you’re not thinking about racial equity, your analysis will stop before it reaches the crux. You’re unlikely to discern disproportionate impact based on race unless you look. And without being primed to the possibility, you are unlikely to look. A policy might appear race neutral when it’s not.
It’s noteworthy that I’m co-teaching this course at Georgetown University. I only mention that because Georgetown has been in the news lately both for acknowledging its role in perpetuating the sale of enslaved Africans and for the recent vote by the student body to charge an additional attendance fee to create a reparations fund for the descendants of those enslaved people. It’s commendable that institutions of higher learning, like Georgetown and my alma mater, the College of William and Mary, are addressing historical, racially-driven, wrongs.
That lens on past actions is important, but without intentionality and probing, we might miss the wrongs of the present. It took me a minute to see the potential impact right in my academic backyard. Not requiring public policy students to learn about racial inequity just doesn’t seem like good policy.