A Path Will Emerge
There are many great reflections available on this MLK day and I encourage you to read widely. This is mine, but as a white guy I encourage you (if you are also white) to hear Melissa Harris or Coates or West or Eugene Robinson or Maya Angelou or John King or listen to your black neighbor today. Nevertheless, here are my reflections.
John King wrote a thoughtful commentary for the Baltimore Sun that was reprinted in our home town Akron Beacon Journal today. Well worth reading in full.
His central argument is that we cannot fully understand racism today (that is, understand deeply enough such that we are able to find ways to productively address it), without taking a sober look at our past.
We cannot fully understand frequent police shootings of young black men, with officers exonerated and communities broken and silenced, if we allow ourselves to believe (the obviously false) story that ‘once there was slavery, then MLK pointed the way, and today all is good.’
Or the even less accurate version that concludes the only racism today is that blacks keep bringing up racism. As I read John King, I thought, as a nation we should all participate in book clubs to read New Jim Crow together, because that book (in a powerful and clear way) shows us the scars and wounds and concentrated disadvantages that are a cancer on the great American experiment today and flow from slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow laws, lynchings, urban ghettos, and the prison-industrial complex.
We know from numerous studies that job opportunities (call backs for interviews, job offers, and promotions) are dramatically reduced for our fellow citizens with darker skin. Their experience with public education is captured by John King as 'less than'… “less quality preschool, less access to effective teachers, less access to advanced coursework, less access to school counselors, and less access to resources need to thrive.”
One analysis concluded that we have an educational system best described as Punishing Schools: for decades we have punished our public schools by starving them of funding and encouraging them to adopt zero tolerance postures such that these institutions become more instruments of punishment (punishing schools) than instruments of education.
We know that unemployment hits those with darker skin more than twice as hard, that average wealth of families with darker skin is 7-12 times less than for white families, and that even though white citizens sell and consume drugs more often it is black citizens who are many times more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for this illegal behavior more often perpetrated by whites. Yes, the penitentiaries are filled with blacks, but not because they are more criminal or violent.
We also know, that while this data and legacy are not secret many or even most white Americans are unaware, not yet aware, or choose to ignore our own history and present when it comes to race and racism. This includes many very good white Americans; not because they have hate in their hearts, but (at least in part, and for many) because they do not understand our own history or present, because too many white elites discourage us all from understanding, AND because one characteristic of white privilege is we can afford to live our lives oblivious to this problem in our midst.
Side Bar: white privilege does not mean my (or any other white) grandparents did not work hard or that my family does not deserve the meager rewards we have earned. It does, however, mean that there are other grandparents, with darker skin, who worked just as hard and also earned a purple heart defeating the Nazis, but they were denied the FHA loans and GI Bill benefits that made it possible for so many white GIs to accumulate the wealth we now see as their American dream.
WP means that there are others who worked just as hard but were denied the same reward. We cannot continue to refuse to see and hear this fact by pretending it is an insult against our family’s hard work. It is not. Not even close. That is one aspect of understanding our own history and present that John King is talking about today.
This is also why it is important, today, to begin conversations about race and racism by familiarizing ourselves with this basic data and history of the present.
But that is only step one. The difficult dialogues remain to be engaged. Because even with a more shared and data-driven understanding of our history and present, the challenges we face today remain gnarly. It is not entirely clear how this deeper understanding, for instance, should impact a workplace conversation about changing vacation policy, a legislative deliberation about hiring local contractors, administrative plans to address opioid addiction, or a neighborhood meeting about how to address rowdy teenagers.
Even with a deeper understanding, these conversations remain tough…for those with lighter and darker skin. In part because policymaking is always about difficult trade-offs, weighing short and long term costs and benefits, balancing competing needs and interests. And overlaying these already complicated trade-offs are layers of familiarity: each need or concern or interest is always associated with real people and some of these look more like me and others do not.
We know from studies of policing, for instance, that this is not a trivial added layer. Donald Black’s groundbreaking ‘determinants of arrest’ study found that the most important factor driving an officer to choose between a warning and an arrest is the level of respect shown to the officer by the accused. Not evidence or facts, but respect. And when there is a familiarity gap between the cultural experiences of the officer and accused, lots of things can feel like disrespect, in both directions.
Thus, Black concluded that officers are more often enforcing their own authority than they are enforcing the law. This is not how the rule of law is designed to work; and this layering effect also impacts all the other conversations noted above: that is why we call them difficult dialogues.
So, what is the second step, after a sober engagement with our history and present, engagement with the best available data on prejudice and privilege based on skin color? (Of course, this is best not thought of as discrete steps, since step one here should be ongoing. But if we do use the step framework to help us identify our next action item, what does it let us see?)
The next step is to work together. I am not trying to be flip. It is precisely this easy and this difficult.
What I mean by this is that in addition to facing our history and present we need to face each other. We need to recognize the power of the familiar, the pull of tribalism on all sides, and the inescapable injustices attached to having darker skin in America. And we need to do this with others, in conversation with fellow citizens with skin tones unlike our own, listening to their stories and telling our own stories with an open mind and open heart.
Why? Because the challenges we face are gnarly, complicated, and always involve trade-offs. To figure these out, without reinforcing long-standing racial disparities that feel ‘normal’ because they are familiar, we need to listen and discuss, experiment, and share the objective of learning how to work together across racial (and other) divides.
Focusing on this deeper level of conflict, the process level or the communicative action level, lacks the drama associated with focusing on whatever presenting conflict promises to capture headlines and deliver the goods we seek right now. But it is this deeper level that is transformative and will result in delivering the goods in ways that are more just and stable and democratic.
Responsibility is shared here, but not equally.
The key is we share a responsibility to share the goal of finding ways to figure this out together. The path to this place, however, remains largely uncharted, but a path will emerge when enough people walk on it. We share a responsibility to walk together.
But the well-worn path we are, therefore, choosing to depart from is one where white skin results in privilege & power denied those with dark skin. Just like any situation where there is a power imbalance, if the (currently) power-rich group does not accept more responsibility, the power-poor groups cannot do it alone.
So, we share a responsibility to learn how to walk together and, when we hit inevitable bumps in the path, it is reasonable to expect that the more powerful group will learn to listen more and speak less to ensure they are not confusing ‘the right thing to do’ with ‘what is best for my group by reinforcing existing power imbalances.’
This is a principle, more like a compass than a commandment, not an infallible answer-key that tells us the right thing to do. The added responsibility for the power-rich group is to remain committed to figuring this out and that involves (see step one and two above) understanding and working together, as well as (step three) humility that comes from recognizing that our skin tone carries privilege beyond what we earned.
This does not leave the power-poor group without responsibility. Just as the power-rich group is expected to do the work to be the change, to make ourselves the organic bridge between a deeper understanding and figuring out how to apply this to the actual challenges we face every day…
…in the same way, the power-poor group has a responsibility to similarly learn to see the actual fellow citizens across the table we are working with and work with them, rather than sitting in the familiar and simply repeating the data on disparity and privilege—join in efforts to apply these insights by weighing trade-offs and sharing the goal of finding ways to walk a new path together.
Just like focusing on the process level is less dramatic and less satisfying, rolling up our sleeves and accepting the inevitable trade-offs (while central to just democratic decision making) requires us to moderate and temper and compromise in order to create a new path by walking it together.
We all have a responsibility and more power brings more responsibility. But, even in the shadow of the great disruptor in chief, my confidence grows in our capacity to accept this responsibility to walk a new path together, because I see courageous leadership, enacting the spirit of MLK, at the local level every day, particularly among the 20-and-30-something generation.
As Cornel West argues, we all—liberal and conservative—need to learn to see and overcome our own blind spots. While some of us only see institutional structures perpetuating injustice, some of us only see irresponsible individual behaviors. West argues that we all need to learn that structure and agency are inescapably intertwined. Until we do this, we cannot fully understand the world we live in.
When Tupac describes his life growing up “poor, but even worse I’m black” in Changes, he is (in my view) enacting West’s analytical strategy. He is pointing to both macro-structures & individual behaviors. He is treating cultural institutions (like churches and schools and families) as structures similar to political and economic structures. And his lyrics make it impossible not to at least catch a glimpse of the ‘ratta-tat-tat-tat’ monumental loss of hope that may be the most devastating legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and the new Jim Crow today.
We all understand, from experience, the fragility of life. We know how difficult it can be to make ends meet. For those of us who are white, like me, it should not be tough to then see that all these challenges become even harder to overcome when one grows up with darker skin. If we can start from that shared insight, and come together around a desire to walk a new path, we stand a chance of learning the skills it takes to be real, learning to see each other as siblings instead of two distant strangers.