‘How do the events of the past week keep happening?” was the subject heading of an email I received Sunday morning from the Unity Temple Unitarian/Universalist congregation, which was planning an online discussion of the issue the following day. That’s certainly the question of the moment. Along with a few others: How does a white police officer kneel on the neck of an already handcuffed African-American man until that man dies? Could there be a more apt and telling symbol of our racially unequal society? And how could three supporting officers witness this and not intervene? An apt and telling symbol of the rest of us.
There are no innocent bystanders here. It doesn’t matter whether you’re shaking your head or nodding it in the aftermath.
The reason this keeps happening is that we live in an unequal society, and if we don’t actively work to dismantle the inequities, we are implicated in perpetuating an inherently racist system, which inevitably leads to events like George Floyd’s murder.
That was the assessment of Stephen Carter, law professor at Yale University, who was interviewed by Scott Simon last Saturday on Weekend Edition. Simon, too, wanted to know how such casualties keep happening.
It happens, Carter said, “because for centuries now, so much of the West, including America, has been infected, if I can use the word, by a pandemic of hatred, a pandemic of suspicion that rests on the fundamental lie that black people are inferior and white people are superior. That’s the lie that permeates our society. And until that lie is undone, we’re going to keep seeing incidents like this one.”
Carter and his family are members of an organization called Community Healing Network.
“It is founded,” he told Simon, “on the proposition that until we deal with and work toward extinguishing these terrible lies of white superiority and black inferiority, we’re not going to make the progress that we need to make.”
Is it a simple matter of getting to know one another better, Simon asked, getting out of our silos?
“People getting to know each other is always a good thing,” Carter replied, “but it runs deeper than that. These lies themselves so touch our interactions. Thirty years ago, I wrote an article called ‘When Victims Happen To Be Black’ that talked about these stereotypes and how they increase these interactions. And it grieves me to look at how little has changed since then.”
The hard truth — but also the starting point for ending events like George Floyd’s unnecessary death — is admitting that all of us are influenced by racism, racist policies and racist ideas. I recently finished the book, How To Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi, founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, where, as a professor of history, he has extensively studied and traced the origins of racism and racist ideas in this country. He also spends a lot of time examining the racist ideas he himself absorbed unconsciously growing up in a culture based on racism. It’s unavoidable, he says. We have all, consciously or unconsciously, absorbed and adopted ideas that perpetuate the lie that whites are superior and blacks are inferior. Our entire society is built on that lie.
Race is a fiction. White superiority is a fiction. Black inferiority is a fiction. Some fictions lead to truth. Some lead to more lies. Racism belongs to the latter. Hallucinations are not real, but they’re real to those who believe them and we have to deal with that “reality” in order for healing to take place. Racist ideas are not real, but racism is real. Kneeling on the neck of a black man until he dies is very real.
We would make a lot more progress if we recognized and acknowledged that we are all influenced by racist ideas — and stop wasting our energy defensively insisting that we aren’t racist.
Kendi’s book should be read by everyone of every color. It provides a clear road map to begin the process of becoming an antiracist. Chapter One alone is worth reading for his definitions [My italics for emphasis]:
“Racist: One who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea. Antiracist: One who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.”
There is no in-between. You are either racist or antiracist (often both, moving back and forth). Anyone who thinks there is a neutral middle ground is kidding themselves.
“Racism,” Kendi says, “is a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities. … Racial inequity is when two or more racial groups are not standing on approximately equal footing.” Racial inequities are created by racist policies. Racist ideas support both racist policies and the racial inequity that results from them.
You want examples? Read the book, he’s got plenty. But whatever racist ideas you have absorbed and/or adopted will likely not survive reading this book.
What is a racist idea?
“A racist idea is any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way. Racist ideas argue that the inferiorities and superiorities of racial groups explain racial inequities in society.”
Antiracist ideas, on the other hand, are any ideas “that suggest racial groups are equals in all their apparent differences — that there is nothing right or wrong with any racial group.”
We are surrounded by racial inequity. In Oak Park, the most obvious and immediate example is education at OPRF High School. We saw it in the docuseries America to Me, and we can see, in the resistance generated to the recent antiracist equity curriculum proposal, just how far we still have to go.
“The question for each of us is: What side of history will we stand on?” asks Kendi. “Racist ideas have defined our society since its beginning and can feel so natural and obvious as to be banal, but antiracist ideas remain difficult to comprehend, in part because they go against the flow of this country’s history. … To be an antiracist is a radical choice in the face of this history, requiring a radical reorientation of our consciousness.”
But this is where we must begin if we want to understand why events like the death of George Floyd keep happening — and if we want to prevent more knees to the neck of handcuffed African Americans.