The other day, I came across a column I wrote way back in 1997 titled, “Act 1, Scene 1 in the conversation about race.” I was interested in comparing how I wrote about this topic 23 years ago with what’s happening today. Here’s a portion:
It is extremely difficult for many white Americans to admit that this is a country based on the “principle” of equality but the “practice” of inequality — that there is a sizable gap between what we aspire to be and who we actually are. Our money says, “E Pluribus Unum,” i.e. “Out of many, one,” but our history more closely resembles, “Out of one, many.”
I sometimes think we would do better if we changed the national motto to “We can do better.”
Our national flaw is that our ideals have always exceeded our grasp. “We can do better” may be a good place to begin our national conversation on race. Someone, after all, has to start this dialogue, and white Americans should begin with that admission: “We can do better.”
White Americans (to risk a generalization) absolutely hate accepting personal responsibility for the sins of their forefathers. “I didn’t engage in the slave trade. I didn’t sell human beings like cattle. I didn’t break up families and flog those who tried to escape and use Black women as sexual playthings late at night in the slave cabins. I’ve never hurled a racial epithet or turned a firehose on civil rights protesters or refused to hire someone on the basis of skin color. I don’t consider Blacks to be subhuman. So stop blaming me for the imperfect society we all inherited!”
As they say in recovery groups, the first step is to admit you’ve got a problem. White America has never really admitted that racism is our oldest social virus, and white Americans are responsible for perpetuating it. We can do better. We need to do better because too many have suffered too much for far too long, undeservedly, and because the more unequal we are, the weaker we are as a nation.
Nearly a quarter-century later, some of this still applies. I even used the term “virus” to describe racism, which is the metaphor in vogue these days. But the message “we can do better,” sounds too timid. We must do much, much better than “better.” Things have shifted momentously, but only in the last few years, mostly in the last two months. Our national conversation on race, since Ferguson, Missouri, now accelerated by the virus and George Floyd’s murder, sounds something like this:
“Black lives matter.”
“No, all lives matter.”
“Black lives matter.”
“I’m not a racist!”
“Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd.”
“OK (pause), Black lives matter, but what about the looters?”
“White supremacy, white power, white privilege.”
“OK, white privilege. But what about all those statues? They’re going too far.”
“White supremacy, white power, the confederate flag in Mississippi, taking a knee, the Washington Redskins, Native American genocide, police reform … now!”
“OK, OK, OK, OK, OK, OK! (pause) What now?”
What indeed? Now that they have our attention at last, people of color are telling their stories, and for the first time, large numbers of their fellow white citizens seem ready to listen. This is what progress sounds like.
It has always been about stories with human beings. Stories humanize us, connect us, change us. People of color need to tell their stories. How they got here. What they went through. What they still go through. White Americans need to listen, then get in touch with their own stories. How they got here. What they went through. What they are going through still. White America is in recovery over racism. The first step is admitting we’ve got the virus. All of us. Then we’ll be listened to.
And then it’s time to act. People of all colors and all the lives that matter need to vote out the God-damned racists once and for all, so the laws can change and the police can change and this country can close the awful gap between our noble ideals and our ignoble reality, bringing this experiment in democracy in line with who we aspire to be.
As Frederick Douglass in his famous 5th of July speech to the ladies of the Rochester Anti-Slavery Society in 1852 — following a lengthy, no-holds-barred, scathing takedown of an America morally rotted by slavery — said:
“I leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. … Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe.”
Slavery was undone in Douglass’ lifetime, but 168 years later, we have not cured ourselves of the virus that still causes so much inhumanity. We have not developed a vaccine for racism. We have not built up immunity. The time for conversation alone is past. We must also act.
As it happens, there is a vote this November.
We can do better. Finally, actually.