On June 6th, less than two weeks after black truck driver George Floyd was callously and very publicly murdered by a squad of Minneapolis police officers, on that single day approximately ahalf million people turned out to protest in cities and towns across the United States.
In Philadelphia alone, 50,000 to 80,000 people protested, with another 20,000 turning out in Chicago and 10,000 in San Francisco. Locally, nine days later on June 14th, 40,000 Angelenos packed the streets of Hollywood with anAll Black Lives Matter rally, broadening the scope of their anguish and outrage to include support for black queer voices.
All told, an estimated 15 to 26 million Americans have joined demonstrations that continue virtually without pause up until today. And, significantly, at most of these protests, a great many of the protesters demanding justice for black men and women have been white.
Clearly, the Black Lives Matter “No Justice, No Peace” chant heard at these rallies far and wide has shaken the country to its core.
A Real Turning Point?
Already, this mammoth outpouring of activism is taking effect, especially as the “defund/disband the police” movement sweeps the country. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti recently promised tocut $150 million from the L.A. police department budget of $1.8 billion. In Minneapolis, the city council unanimously approved a proposal to completelyeliminate the city’s police department, replacing it with a department of community safety and violence prevention. Elsewhere, elected officials and governing councils from coast to coast are ducking and dodging in reaction to the uprisings on their streets.
To save face, major corporations and cultural institutions are climbing on the reform bandwagon, too. Princeton isremoving the name of Woodrow Wilson—president of both the college and the United States, but also an avowed racist and friend of the KKK—from its public policy institute. Even loveable “Rough Riding” Teddy Roosevelt—and not some obscure Confederate general—will find the statue of him “grandly astride his horse as a black man and a Native American walk humbly beside (and behind) him…removed from in front of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.”
Still, perhaps not soon, but inevitably, passions will cool. People will eventually go on with their lives as best they can in the face of the coronavirus pandemic and the resultant economic crisis gripping the nation. And just as inevitably, countervailing forces—the deep-pocketed architects of our white supremacist structure—will throw their shoulders behind defeating any significant change, while they capitalize on society’s current disarray to further buttress their dominant positions.
The question is, can the current fervor in support of undoing the U.S.’s racist culture as reflected in repeated murders of black men and women at the hands of the police have a lasting effect?
So, the question is, can the current fervor in support of undoing the U.S.’s racist culture as reflected in repeated murders of black men and women at the hands of the police have a lasting effect? Or—like the Occupy Movement, like the L.A. Uprising after the Rodney King sentences, like a dozen other flashpoints stretching back to the middle of the last century—will the protesters have their moment in the tear gas, only to see conditions settle down to pretty much what they were?
How Did We Get Here?
This moment owes a great deal to President Donald J. Trump, the fulminating racist who recently has further sought to divide the nation along racial lines by inventing the new enemy of “far-left fascism,” whatever that might be. Slurring his words and stumbling to read from a teleprompter, our latest one-term president inveigled against the “radical left” at Mount Rushmore, making a clear pitch to his dwindling white base to revive his flagging campaign.
If we survive whatever remains of his presidency, we may one day actually want to thank Trump for stating his racist message so bluntly. During the Obama years, there was a great deal of talk about apost-racial society, as if the mere fact of having a black president in the White House would heal America’s racial divide—much as Trump has promised that the Covid-19 pandemic would “magically disappear.”
But if anything, asChristopher S. Parker perceptively pointed out months before Trump’s shocking election, having the Obamas in the White House—no matter how gracefully they handled their charges—actually made things worse. Seeing a black family in the White House—not to sweep the floors and serve the soup, but running the place—some whites argued that blacks could no longer claim any discrimination, and others boiled over in visceral rage with the thought of a black man as commander in chief.
Not by accident the murders of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, and Trayvon Martin—plus the murder of the nine black congregants in South Carolina—all occurred on Obama’s watch. What had been a muted dog whistle during Obama’s tenure has become a racist foghorn in Trump’s hands, granting stark permission to benighted whites across the country to express their racist tendencies loud and proud, with Lynard Skynard’s “Free Bird” blaring in the background.
The thoroughgoing racism expressed by Trump himself, and many of the kiss-ups around him, has made the need to address and dismantle white supremacy the nation’s number one topic, even in the midst of a pandemic that may last for years and an economy struggling near collapse.
As Michelle Alexander, author of the groundbreaking “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” has said:
“Trump’s blatant racial demagogy has awakened many from their “colorblind” slumber and spurred collective action to oppose the Muslim ban and the border wall, and to create sanctuaries for immigrants in their places of worship and local communities.”
Trump hardly deserves all the credit. The pot has been bubbling for a long time to address the systemic racism inherent in America’s culture.
But Trump hardly deserves all the credit. The pot has been bubbling for a long time to address the systemic racism inherent in America’s culture.
Alexander’s seminal book in 2010 took the blinders off the way we had been incarcerating hugely disproportionate numbers of black and brown men and women—often with long sentences for no-harm, no-foul drug charges—going back a half century, at least back to Nixon’s “War on Drugs.” Her book spawned dozens of reading groups at churches—significantly often large white churches in comfortable neighborhoods—across the country.
Black Lives Matter—the black woman-led movement that erupted from the Trayvon Martin murder—is probably the most significant factor driving the hundreds of thousands and even millions of people into the streets in recent months. Organizing itself around a broad range of homelessness, racial justice, and police defunding issues, Black Lives Matter has kept up a steady drumbeat month after month after month of effective activism that has penetrated even mainstream media.
So, when social media blew up with the agonizing images of George Floyd’s murder, people had had enough—and not just black people, who had had enough long ago.
Undoing White Supremacy
Huge crowds of white people jamming the streets of towns and cities large and small, waving placards and shouting as one for justice for black people and the end of police killings of black men—and women! Zoom meetings organized willy-nilly for mostly white people to discuss their ideas for pursuing racial harmony! White Hollywood celebrities loudly expressing their support for Black Lives Matter! Even pro football teams debating dropping their racially tinged team names after decades of digging in their heels!
By god, we’re halfway home!
Well, not so fast. AsErin Aubrey Kaplan has said, “The burgeoning new white consciousness about Black lives, though significant and encouraging, is not an ending, but a beginning.” Indeed, contemporary leading “white studies” voices say that all white Americans are essentially racist and that when they object to that charge too strenuously, they are exhibiting “white fragility.”
Both terms—racist and white fragility—cause some white people a certain amount of angst—a group of “some white people” that sometimes has included me.
Call me a racist and I pull out my trusty Merriam-Webster’s, which tells me that a racist is “a person who is prejudiced against or antagonistic toward people on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized.”
In my mind, a racist is someone who would intentionally want to hurt others based on race.
Take my word or not, that’s not me! I am simply not antagonistic toward black people—or people of any race.
C’mon, I’ve got a beautiful black wife, a lovely black daughter, and bright and talented black stepchildren. My black brother-in-law and his son live with us. My wife and I support—not just with bank drafts but with sweat equity—several black-led social justice organizations. And I edit a daily social justice magazine whose major focus is racial justice, spending hours every day absorbing thoughts—and occasionally writing—on racial justice.
So you call me a racist and I fall back on my old dictionary definition and get a little agitated.
So you call me a racist and I fall back on my old dictionary definition and get a little agitated. Maybe more than a little.
Which then puts me in the “white fragility” tent, of course—and “fragile” isn’t the first word I would use to describe myself. Shoot, I’m a Vietnam veteran, rugby-playing, construction-working, cab-driving—well, my daughter once said I look like thug. But thug or not, I don’t see myself as particularly fragile.
I’ve been encouraged to take a step back. And part of that step back has me recognizing that, yes, I have two beautiful black women in my life—my wife and daughter—who prove they love me to pieces virtually every day. From the start, I was welcomed into my wife’s extended black family with open, loving arms—an acceptance that has only deepened in the subsequent two decades. And the black people we work with have been nothing but accepting.
So my “ally ship” has come to me virtually without cost. Yes, once, eating lunch with my daughter and wife at an alligator shack in the Florida Everglades, the service was exceedingly slow and the two good-ole boys at the next table seemed to be giving me hot looks. But fuck ‘em, that’s been it.
And looking across my seven decades, I see that there have been times when I was enmeshed in racial justice work, seeking out relationships with a broad range of people, checking my own actions and reactions at key junctures—and even taking at least some substantive steps toward righting social and racial wrongs.
But there have also been broad stretches of my life where that was not nearly so true, where I lived in mostly segregated communities, did not have especially diverse relationships, and was not particularly focused on racial justice in those communities or in the nation as a whole.
And that is where an evolved definition of “racist” comes into play.
White people—me included—are racists, or structural racists, because we benefit from white supremacy. As social justice scholarRobin DiAngelo says:
“You're a racist, pure and simple, and without a lifetime of conscious effort you always will be. You just can't help it, you see, because you've been swaddled in the cocoon of white privilege since you came sputtering out of your mother's womb, protesting the indignity of it all.”
And I can certainly see—especially being enmeshed in Sharon’s black family and doing the work we do together—that I have benefited from white privilege in ways writ large and small throughout my life.
For just one example, let me tell you what it’s like to be pulled over by the police as a white man.
Coming home from downtown Los Angeles one time, Sharon and I were pulled over as we exited the freeway at the foot of the hill where our house sits. A taillight was out and my license tags were expired—and not just by a few days but for a month more. I knew about the light and the tags. Yes, yes, I was going to get around to fixing them.
As I have come to expect, especially as my hair has turned gray and now white, I was pleasantly, courteously, downright solicitously treated by the young highway patrolman who had pulled us over.
Sharon was agape.
“No worries Sir, I’ve done the same thing myself,” the officer said about the expired tags. “You won’t even have to pay the fix-it ticket if you get to it this week.”
Sharon sat there quietly fuming.
See, in that same neighborhood, her brother had been pulled over three times in a single day—nothing broken, nothing expired, just for driving down the street as a youngish black man in a mostly white community.
She knew, and I knew, had I been a black man, I would likely have been sitting on the curb as my brother-in-law had been, holding my hands in plain sight if they weren’t handcuffed behind my back, stewing in my own juices while the officer took his time to run my license and let me know just who was boss—and who wasn’t.
Me? Shoot, he would have driven me home had I asked.
Undoing White Supremacy
My wife—who has been “weathered” by the daily harm of “well-meaning white people at the overwhelmingly white workplace that send black people home exhausted and wondering if it’s worth it to try to discuss racism”—likes to point out the difference between intention and results.
Right now, to judge from all the earnest discussion and huge crowds of white people out in the streets for racial justice, we’ve got a lot of my fellow white folks expressing the very best of intentions—and good for us!
But “results” are where the rubber will meet the road. As Erin Aubry Kaplan says,
Being truly antiracist will require white people to be inconvenienced by new policies and practices, legal and social, that affect everything in everyone’s daily lives, from jobs to arts and publishing.
It’s one thing to declare your support for Black Lives Matter with a lawn sign and quite another to give up segregated schools, or always seeing yourself and people like you as the center of the moral universe. The privilege to not engage is one that many may be loath to give up, even if they believe engagement is the right thing to do.
And, so, that brings the conversation back around to me. By all signs that I can see, I can float in a soft cocoon of my allyship, surrounded by a loving black family, buffeted by black friends and acquaintances, publishing good articles about racial justice on LA Progressive.
But that’s clearly too soft a ride.
Here are three steps I can take to be a more effective antiracist:
- Embrace Fragility: Drop any quibbles about what the term “racist” might mean. Instead, fully understand that I have lived my whole life in a white supremacist structure that at every turn has freely provided me benefits that are routinely denied to people with darker skins than me.
- Understand the Damage: Witness directly the pervasive, ongoing damage systematic racism causes great numbers of my fellow Black and Brown Americans. Don’t only read about it—that’s good, too, of course—but come to feel it through personal relationships sustained over time.
- Put Knowledge into Action: Absorb what I understand and see, but then put it into action in the way I live my life—at home, at work, at church, in my friendships, in my actions.
There’s nothing profound here. It’s good that I understand my inherent racism. It’s good that I’ll grab a sign—quarantine permitting—and get out in the streets for racial justice. Sign petitions, vote the right way, lobby legislators, stand against injustice—all good.
But somehow, those intentions and actions need to be embedded into my being, in how I live my life, day in and day out, forever. It needs to be central to my everyday thoughts that the white supremacy that has buoyed me for so long has also suppressed, damaged, killed Black Americans—and that it’s my responsibility, at every turn, to do something about it.
That’s developing the lifetime of conscious effort Robin DiAngelo talks about.
Editor, LA Progressive