Dedicated to Kathy Lamar, the first African-American District 97 school board president, who recently taught me a lesson in atonement and forgiveness:
Some years ago, I proposed in these pages that we institute a National Day of Atonement, modeled on Yom Kippur, which was observed by Jews this past Sunday and Monday.
We could start by atoning for racism.
In the wake of the knee-to-the-neck murder of George Floyd and the collateral killing of Breonna Taylor by white police officers who treat Black citizens as if their lives matter less than white citizens, protests were sure to follow.
The reasons for the protests are valid, and conservatives, to be credible, need to acknowledge that validity before they criticize the violence and looting that (sometimes) accompany such protests. Likewise, progressives need to criticize the violence and looting if they want to be taken seriously when they express support for the protesters.
But let’s take a deeper dive.
What makes white lives matter more than Black lives, especially in the eyes of far too many police officers? It’s an attitude that has long been “baked into the system.”
The system began 400 years ago. To justify the abhorrence of slavery, Americans internalized the myth that Black human beings were “inferior,” so it was OK to treat them as second-class citizens or, as our founders codified it, 3/5ths of a human being. They told themselves they were doing African Americans a favor — by “civilizing” them.
To create our not-so-perfect union, significant compromises were required. The South wouldn’t join unless the North conceded on slavery. To this day our country is based on the notion that white people are superior and Black people inferior. And even though many white Americans now reject that notion, we still grew up in a cultural system where those attitudes (and policies and laws) reinforce the unequal status quo.
I hear white people say, “We worked really hard for our position in this society. We earned it. All they have to do is work just as hard and they too will be successful. This is the land of opportunity.” Not true. This is the land of “possibility.” America doesn’t become a land of opportunity until we remove all the barriers to advancement. As a white-dominant culture, we have made real progress in reducing racism, but we don’t acknowledge the barriers that still exist and we don’t do enough to remove them.
The prevailing paradigm doesn’t work. That’s why we have so many protests.
But there is a new paradigm for healing racial divisions, as laid out in books such as How To Be An Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi, and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, that offers great promise.
In this new paradigm, racism is defined simply as the notion that one group of people is superior to another. Racist ideas, laws and policies support and sustain that notion.
Because we grew up absorbing and internalizing the myth of superiority and inferiority, all of us, white and Black, harbor racist ideas, usually in the form of unconscious biases and attitudes, often imprinted when we were too young to know any better. It can be as simple as “expecting” a Black employee to be less competent than white employees and being pleasantly surprised when that turns out not to be true. We pat ourselves on the back for recognizing the competence, but we overlook the initial expectation, which is usually based on hearing other white people talk about Black workers in subtly, or overtly, disparaging ways.
Surveys indicate that white Americans believe Black Americans are generally lazier and that white Americans work harder, which explains the latter’s relative success — just one of many ideas, not based on evidence, that reinforce the superiority/inferiority complex.
The liberating part of the new paradigm is that we already know we have racism within so we don’t have to live in constant fear of making a mistake and being branded a racist. We acknowledge it upfront. Since we all share the problem, it is up to each of us to do the self-examination that makes what is unconscious conscious and put in the effort to eliminate those vestiges. Since we all suffer from it, no one can shame us. No one can “preach” down to us from the sanctity of their pulpit. We’re all in this together. We are not responsible for the system we inherited, but we are responsible for doing our part to change it.
Black Americans have internalized their own version of all this, but as Kendi points out, it is inverted. African Americans may look down on themselves and accept their inferior status because they grew up surrounded by firmly-fixed attitudes.
The old paradigm says only bad people are racists — hate-filled white people like the ones we see in films about the Civil Rights Movement.
The new paradigm says even good, well-intentioned people suffer from racism. It’s a virus that afflicts everyone, so we all have a responsibility to work on overcoming it through honest soul-searching.
Most white people will state emphatically that they are “not racist” because they’re defining racism according to the old paradigm. The new paradigm says you can be either racist or antiracist. There is no such thing as “non-racist,” no in-between. Those who plead neutrality only perpetuate a racist system by not working actively against it.
Our immigrant forebears worked hard and made sacrifices to climb America’s ladder, sometimes in spite of significant discrimination. But non-black Americans had one big advantage. We had the correct skin color. We eventually joined the club. We are today regarded as “white.”
The new paradigm is our only hope to defeat racism. Racial inequality is at the heart of everything wrong with America. If we conquer it, we can solve everything else because it’s all connected.
No blaming, no shaming, just working our way out of an inherently unfair system that we inherited. Shedding our false superiority. That’s atonement. We are not working to liberate African Americans. We are working to liberate ourselves. Racism is bad for everyone, not just Black Americans.
Antiracism is good for us.
So is atonement.