Why has America still made so little progress on racial equality?
You’ve probably heard the sayings, “the devil is in the details” and “God is in the details.” According to Grammarist, the first means “mistakes are usually made in the small details… pay attention to avoid failure.” The other means, “attention paid to small things has big rewards.”
When it comes to racial equality in America, or the lack thereof, we — and by “we”, I mean white liberals, like myself — are failing to give the details their due. And I believe that is why, despite our earnest desire to create real change — the reality is we’re not.
This is tough territory to venture into, but I’m going to do it anyway. Because not doing it, staying silent out of fear of judgment, will only perpetuate the problem we’re trying to solve, the wrong we’re trying to right. And that is the sickening, enraging, unacceptable way black people are treated in this country.
On the news other day, I saw a clip from a panel discussion on race relations. One of the participants said his white friends keep asking him, “What can I do?” His answer was to stop asking black people that question and look in the mirror.
I took that to mean more than just reflecting on my own insufficiencies, but following that up with action — a sincere and sustained effort to understand and alleviate other people’s suffering. But before that, I need to understand why these these insufficiencies exist and, more important, why they persist, especially among white liberals.
In his daily briefing the other day, which is now bifurcated to cover both the Covid-19 pandemic and the protests that erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Governor Cuomo said this:
“When does social change happen?… When people are presented with the facts, they understand the facts, they believe the facts. There’s a plan forward based on the facts, and people care enough to make a difference. [With coronavirus] people were motivated because it was about life and death, about their life and death, about their families’ life and death, and we went forward. Compare the coronavirus situation to the situation we’re in with the social unrest we see. People have seen Mr. Floyd’s murder. They’re watching what’s going on in the streets every day and saying enough is enough.”
Let’s look at the details in that statement and, as Cuomo suggests, compare one situation to the other.
First, Cuomo says, social change depends on people caring enough to make a difference. That’s true. And I see a lot of caring among white liberals, but to care is not to act and to act is not necessarily to act in a way that results in any meaningful change. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of important work being done, but I’m interested in the results of that work. The practical, discernible, felt impact of that work on black people’s lives.
And from what I can tell, what I can see and hear, the impact has not been great. How can it be if two decades into the 21st century there is still system-wide and system-deep lack of equal opportunity for black people in education, employment, housing, and health care? If we’re still marching in the streets demanding that the police stop murdering black people?
Oh, no, you might argue. We’ve come so far. We’ve achieved so much. The Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Fair Housing Act of 1968. We even elected a black president. We’ve made so much progress. On paper, maybe. But look around. Does that look like progress to you?
Well, we need to change policy. Damn right, we do. Let’s imagine that happens. The world-wide protests in the wake of Floyd’s murder result in an enormous policy overhaul. Sweeping reform in police departments across the country. More oversight, accountability, transparency. Bad cops fired, funds reallocated. All of it.
Surely, that would go a long way toward ending the oppression, brutalization, and discrimination that black people endure — just as the landmark legislation of the 1960’s did, right? In another three, four, five years we won’t possibly be marching in the streets again crying, “No justice. No peace. No racist police,” following the murder of yet another innocent black man, will we?
If, like me, you have doubts, I think it’s time to figure out why that is — and the devil, or God, is in the details.
1. Saying vs. doing
If you do an online search for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, you’ll find some very telling language. Some sources say the act “prohibited,” “banned,” “outlawed,” or “ended” discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Others say it “intended” or “aimed” to achieve those goals.
That, to me, explains a lot.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. may have put it best: “One of the great tragedies of life is that men seldom bridge the gulf between practice and profession, between doing and saying.”
If the flower children of the 1960’s gave birth to a whole generation of “liberated” offspring, many of whom are now in top positions in politics and law, education and health care, finance and media and entertainment — how is it that we still have structural racism across all of those sectors? Presumably they’re not all run by white supremacists, so why do so few people of color rise to the highest ranks?
Let’s look at the details, which upon close inspection may actually be huge obstacles to change.
In his June 8th column for The New York Times titled “Allies, Don’t Fail Us Again,” Charles Blow asks:
I have been thinking about those very questions since the protests began. Thinking that, yes, it’s inspiring that the marches and rallies are so diverse, but also knowing that so many of the white people out there in the streets and at home supporting the cause are not, as Blow quotes Dr. King from a 1967 speech, “willing to go all the way.”
For example, if creating equity in the public school system required sending your child to a “less good” school would you do it? Would you be willing to be part of that bumpy initial period, the guinea pig phase of ironing out the wrinkles in order to create a better educational future in America?
Would you accept a decent-sized tax hike so more money could go into minority communities? Would your family participate in a mandatory community service program to improve conditions and promote better relations? And I don’t mean a one-off on some random Saturday. I’m talking about an ongoing commitment of your time.
Yeah, I know, holding up a sign that says “Black Lives Matter” or sending out a well-crafted tweet would be a lot easier. But unfortunately, that alone won’t get the job done.
This takes me back to what Cuomo said about how quickly New Yorkers changed their behavior in the effort to get rid of coronavirus, how fast we modified our entire way of living. People were motivated, he said, because it was about life and death. But the part of that quote to pay attention to — the detail to notice — is it was about their life and death, about their families’ life and death. But do white liberals have that same degree of motivation, that same willingness to “go all the way,” when it’s not their life and death, but black people’s? I’m not so sure.
Coronavirus was a direct threat to everyone, so everyone hopped-to in a way that has resulted in fast, meaningful change, at least in New York. Racism is a threat to everyone as well (though some are too blind to see it), but most white liberals see it as an adjacent threat, one they care about but are not directly hurt by, and because of that, I’d argue, how far we’re truly willing to go to end it is different than with the pandemic.
We can create all the new policy we want, march and protest and tweet and cry and hold up our white fists for black power until the end of time. But until we acknowledge that when push comes to shove, many of us, no matter how liberal we are, are not willing to go all the way, we cannot have complete change, honest and true change. There will always be a piece missing, a drag on the flight.
How about this for a first step: Can you, white liberal, reframe what it would take to achieve racial equality not as a sacrifice or cost to you, but a benefit to us all? And can we all stop thinking about solutions in terms of what needs to be “given up” by one group in order for another to have — and instead recognize that equality (and maybe in a capitalist society equality is a pie-in-the-sky notion, but I remain optimistic) gives to everyone?
2. Half-baked ideas
This is a problem for everyone these days, not just white liberals. One example: Blackout Day, a digital protest organized within the music industry. Chad Sanders referenced it in his June 5th opinion piece for The New York Times called, “I Don’t Need ‘Love’ Texts From My White Friends.” An excerpt:
On Monday evening my agent, a liberal white woman in her 30s, sent an email informing me that she was postponing our important meeting with my editor the next day. The agency representing my book was observing a Blackout Day “to honor George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and the countless other black men and women who have been unjustifiably brutalized and killed.”
The company planned to “take this time to reflect and think about long-term actions we can take both as individuals and as an organization to address the systemic racism that persists in our business and communities,” she added.
To paraphrase, my agent was pushing back a meeting necessary for the completion and timely release of my book — which is about how black people can apply the lessons we derive from traumatic experiences to our careers — so that white people could reflect on how to help black people. I countered, insisting that our meeting take place as scheduled because black people’s lives are in danger, and I shouldn’t have to sacrifice momentum on a book written for black people because white people are performing empathy.
Everyone from Rihanna to the Rolling Stones jumped on board Blackout Day. But no one, including the protest’s founders had fully articulated what participants were supposed to do. (As of this writing, its website #theshowmustbepaused still says “a plan of action will be announced.”)
In a piece headlined “‘Blackout Tuesday’ Is In Full Effect, But What Does It Mean?” the Los Angeles Daily News reported: “People outside the music industry began posting black tiles on their Instagram feeds without anything but a hashtag and this is causing both confusion and anger from Twitter users and black activists.”
LilNasX was more blunt:
I don’t know about the worst idea ever, but definitely half-baked. Well-intentioned, but poorly executed. Nice set-up, but no follow through. Again, without details and specifics what appears powerful at first, upon closer inspection can be kind of a hot mess.
This takes us to an “emperor has no clothes” problem. According to the website BookBrowse, that expression is used to describe “a situation in which people are afraid to criticize something or someone because the perceived wisdom of the masses is that the thing or person is good or important.”
So, there are two things that happen with this phenomenon. First, the masses accept ideas without taking the time to see whether they hold water. The second is the masses are skeptical of an idea, doubt it, or even flat-out don’t believe it, but are afraid to say so. These are always dangerous practices, but especially so when it comes to the issue of race.
But, first, Malcolm Gladwell.
Gladwell is a best-selling author, journalist, and public speaker. His work is so popular that the titles of two of his books, “The Tipping Point” and “Outliers” are commonly used in the vernacular. I haven’t read either of them. And that is because every time I’ve heard him interviewed, I get a funny feeling. My journalist’s radar goes off, and a little voice inside whispers, “But the emperor has no clothes.” Don’t get me wrong. Gladwell is engaging and charming and clearly smart, but I can never understand what he’s getting at, what he’s actually saying. Finally, I decided to look into this and see if I was missing something or there really was no there there.
In a 2013, a Columbia Journalism Review article called “Why Are We Still Listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s Cherry-Picked Gospel?” Alexis Sobel Fitts writes, “In the 13-years since The Tipping Point shot Malcolm Gladwell onto the map and America’s bookshelves, his brand of counter-intuitive wisdom has occupied a strange and relatively stable corner of pop culture. Even though his schtick is supposed to be drawing unseen connections in scientific literature and translating the academy for the masses, social scientists mostly loathe the writing wunderkind and his self-serving approximations of their research. Still, every few years comes another Gladwell book and every few years it ricochets, relatively unscathed, into the bestseller charts. It’s easy to see why. Like a porous pastry, Gladwell’s books are easily digestible, and they’re affixed with the gold star of The New Yorker. They’re filled with seductive cocktail party tidbits that make his readers feel smart, the bearers of privileged information.”
Now, this is going to get me in trouble, but my “emperor” radar went off big-time when I heard about sociologist Robin DiAngelo’s best-selling book “White Fragility. (It’s currently number one The New York Times paperback nonfiction list, and has been on the list for 91 weeks and counting.) This term has become red-hot in discussions of race relations and is either slung with great force or absorbed with great shame, often by the same person.
While I could find vicious takedowns of Gladwell’s work all over the internet, in publications ranging from The Atlantic to The Wall Street Journal, I could find only one — one — that questions DiAngelo on a granular level. Why do you think that is? Is it because her work is so stellar, so pristinely researched and argued that it’s beyond reproach? Or is it more likely that people are terrified to say anything that could be perceived as critical? My money’s on the latter.
DiAngelo defines white fragility as: “A state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.”
On Sunday morning I read an interview with DiAngelo on CNN.com. The introduction reads: “If you’re a white person in America, social justice educator Robin DiAngelo has a message for you: 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.”
One of the questions the CNN.com interviewer asks: You write about the “pillars” which support white fragility. What are they?
DiAngelo gives this an example: “Spike Lee is always a black film director who makes films about black issues and we always mention Spike Lee’s race. Mike Lee is a white film director but he’s just a great film director who makes films about the human condition. We never mention Mike Lee’s race and we continually grant to Mike Lee the ability to speak for all humanity, from some disembodied neutral position.”
Hold up. Last year, dozens of students at my high school alma mater held a days-long lock-in demanding that the administration meet a list of demands that included the implementation of a mandatory Black Studies course as well as a requirement that juniors and seniors take at least one History and one English elective that focuses on the “histories and writings of people of marginalized identities, including, but not limited to, African-American Literature.”
So, black students are not asking but demanding that their history and literature are broken out into a separate class. I get that. But DiAngelo just told me that attaching “black” to filmmaker is racist. So wouldn’t attaching it to authors and periods of history be as well? What am I supposed to want here? I’m confused. Wait, does my confusion make me racist? Does asking for clarity? Can I ask myself for clarity?
The only substantive criticism of “White Fragility” that I could find was a piece written by Jonathan Church in 2018 for a website called Quillette. I’m not familiar with his work and I’m not saying he’s right or wrong. But I do appreciate that rather than swallowing DiAngelo’s assertions whole then going out and handing everyone and their mother a copy of her book, he paused to examine whether her conclusions stayed intact when held up to the light. You know, when you look at the actual data behind them. I pulled out some food for thought from Church’s piece:
• I first came across the notion of ‘white fragility’ when I began raising concerns that, in many cases, progressive activism is inspired by ideas that lack sufficient support from social science research… In raising these objections with progressive friends and family, however, I have often been ignored, or met with skepticism. In essence, I have been asked, explicitly or implicitly: Why are you so uptight? Why do you have a problem with the pursuit of social justice? Why do you get defensive about white privilege? I am then directed to the work of Dr. Robin DiAngelo on ‘white fragility.’
• The inconvenient truth is that the available social science research does not currently provide support for the ‘implicit bias’ hypothesis, so DiAngelo should reconsider her assumptions about the nature of racism, as well as her claims about the role of ‘white fragility’ in its perpetuation. She does not, however, appear keen to do so, despite being a trained social scientist with a PhD. For anyone who cares about the scientific method, that is both unfortunate and indicative of a willingness to subordinate facts and data to ideology… This kind of thinking has a tendency to transform education into indoctrination.
I’m not saying white people — including me — aren’t born with advantages because of the color of our skin. I’m also not saying I don’t have any unconscious biases. But I am saying that since the publication of “White Fragility” two years ago, what I’ve seen is a whole lot of white people, progressive educators and parents, in particular, falling all over themselves to apologize for their cluelessness and insensitivity, expressing the deep shame they feel about being the racists DiAngelo insists they are, yelling at anyone (including me) who dares to suggest that her argument might be neither wholly sound nor particularly revelatory — and pretty much zero meaningful change in the lives of black people.
What does that detail tell us?
Of course, no one’s going to say out loud that they think the idea that all white people are racist, were racist before they were even born, and will always be racist might have a few holes in it. That it’s like telling someone, “You’re stupid. And if you tell me you’re not, that just proves how stupid you actually are.” There’s nowhere to go from there. You’re trapped. And as Church writes, “The idea that white people don’t like to be called racists is not an especially unique or compelling insight. Psychological defense mechanisms are commonplace in human nature.” In other words, having a reaction to being called a life-long racist isn’t necessarily evidence of being fragile, it might just be evidence of being human.
Let’s look at another example of a half-baked idea. On June 5th, protesters in Minneapolis screamed at Jacob Frey, the mayor of that city, “Go home, Jacob, go home!” and “Shame! Shame!” when he would not, on the spot, commit to abolishing the city’s police force.
The video is powerful. I’d encourage you to pause and watch it:
Now, I understand there is anger, justified anger, and a need to express it. I understand there are calls to defund the police and reimagine public safety. I understand that many black people not only don’t feel protected by the police, but feel actively targeted by them — and that black people who are out bird watching or jogging or simply existing should not have to fear for their lives.
But Jacob Frey is not Bull Connor. He’s a civil rights attorney, who became a community organizer. In 2012, the city of Minneapolis awarded him its inaugural Martin Luther King, Jr. Award for his civil rights work.
Two days after Floyd’s murder, Frey took what Minnesota Public Radio called “the unusual step” of calling on county prosecutors to charge the police officer who kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, resulting in his death. Frey had announced the day before that all four responding officers had been fired. (All four now face charges.)
In response to the protests in his city, Frey told reporters, “What we’ve seen over the last two days … is the result of so much built-up anger and sadness. If you’re feeling that sadness and that anger, it’s not only understandable, it’s right.”
This is the guy you want to attack? To curse, heckle, and shame?
According to CNN, nine members of the Minneapolis City Council on Sunday announced they intend to defund and dismantle the city’s police department. Maybe that will turn out to be a good decision. Maybe it won’t. But I don’t think vilifying a man like Jacob Frey was a good decision. I don’t think standing over him and, yes, holding a metaphorical gun to his head for not saying on the spot that he would abolish the police department, and then, when he doesn’t, vowing to vote him out of office is a fully baked idea.
We don’t want to create a culture where everyone is either walking on eggshells or in a defensive crouch, coiled for confrontation. We don’t want to become the circular firing squad President Obama warned about, be so blinded by righteousness that we end up killing our own. We don’t want to risk turning an ally’s true desire and dedication to help into doubt, or allowing it to harden into resentment. We saw what that kind of resentment produced for our country. He’s sitting in the oval office.
We need to vote that clown out. We need to change racist policies. But we also need to make root-cause change which is the hardest change because it involves all of us getting off our high horses and connecting with those who don’t understand us. Not screaming at them or shaming them or shutting them down for asking what you think is an offensive or dumb question, not dismissing or denigrating them for wanting to pause and think and discuss an idea before just adopting it — but listening. And then maybe, just maybe, they’ll listen to you, and you might start dissipating some of that anger and making some actual change.
3. Can I get a solution?
I love a good Donald Trump rip-fest as much as the next person. Talking about what a moron he is, what a nasty narcissistic buffoon. And while it is important to know all of that, and for the media to broadcast all of the idiotic, hateful, and flat-out insane things he does, at some point we have to stop the “Can you believe how awful he is?” and start coming up with some solutions to get rid of the awfulness come November.
Voting him out is not a solution. It’s a goal, and achieving that goal will require an airtight, rock solid, brilliantly conceived strategy — especially because the election may well take place during the second wave of this pandemic, which makes the potential for chaos even higher than it was when we only had to deal with the threat of Russian interference. So, what’s the plan, Stan? How’s this gonna go, Joe? Because we’ve got to get ourselves free.
I can always rely on the “liberal media” to give me a heaping serving of Trump outrageousness, followed by a half-dozen experts who will analyze and explain that outrageousness and add some more outrage of their own. Of late, I’ve also heard many powerful accounts of the civil unrest that has occurred in the wake of George Floyd’s death. But I haven’t heard many solutions.
And I don’t mean big sweeping concepts like “justice” or “equality.” Of course, we want that. But again, we need details, specifics, a game plan. There are some good ones out there. I’ve read Obama’s suggestions on police reform as well as the eight polices to reduce police violence identified by Campaign Zero in its “8 Can’t Wait” campaign, and the five demands printed on the flyer a member of the New York Justice League handed me during a march on Saturday, and I get emails daily from The Action Pac on its ongoing efforts to radically transform policing in America. I am behind these initiatives and will support them until the changes they call for are implemented.
But, as I’ve said, it’s clear despite all the progress on civil rights America has made since the 1960’s and all the white “wokeness” of late, something is still holding us back from making real progress. So, what do we do?
There is no easy answer. No “Five Simple Steps To Extinguishing Racism.” But in addition to change on a policy and leadership level, every one of us must commit to change on a personal level. Because, like it or not, no one is exempt from or untouched by this fight. And if you think because you’re wealthy you can sit this one out, stay at a safe remove until it blows over, you could not be more wrong. Just go look up the effects of mass incarceration. But that’s a topic for another time.
We all have a stake in winning this battle. Our survival as a nation depends on it. So look in the mirror. Examine the details. Ask if you’re willing to go all the way and, if not, why — and how can you change that? Don’t adopt ideas or philosophies without thinking them through and deciding for yourself whether you really believe in them. Don’t attack your allies. Don’t jump on half-baked ideas. I know it seems daunting and hopeless, but I do believe we can get there, get past the anger and the pain and the fear, the trauma and the hate, and dare I say it, arrive at love. Love of each other, of our country, of our similarities and our differences.
When I feel lost and hopeless, I often look to music. Hit shuffle and see what comes up, like an audio tarot card drawing. Kind of silly, I know, but it works for me. Today what came up was Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “Could You Be Loved?” It was released in 1980 on the group’s last album, “Uprising.” The lyrics brought tears to my eyes — and, yes, they were white woman’s tears that some would say I have no right to cry because of my privilege and fragility, but I cried them anyway.
In the middle of the song, the background singers quote a verse from Marley’s first recorded single “Judge Not”: “The road of life is rocky; And you may stumble too. So while you point a finger, someone else is judging you”.
Could you be judged? Could you be hated? Could you be killed?
Could you be silenced? Could you be shamed? Could you be attacked?
Could you be fed up? Could you be exhausted? Could you be defeated?
We know the answers to those questions.
But could you be loved? Could we love each other?
I say yes.