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A moment of opportunity: America needs a sustained movement to change white hearts and minds

A mural honoring George Floyd
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
A mural honoring George Floyd on display outside of Cup Foods in Minneapolis near where he died.

I’m a white person with a racially diverse family, a student of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s I grew up with, and informed by racial justice and diversity and inclusivity work both professionally and as a volunteer. Here’s what I’ve learned as relates to our unique moment of opportunity for racial justice and equality:

There’s a straight line from slavery to today’s injustices. Equal Justice Initiative founder and Executive Director Bryan Stevenson has said, “The true harm of slavery was the narrative that Blacks are less than human. Slavery didn’t end. It evolved.”

When the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery in 1865, whites terrorized Blacks through systematic lynching, convict labor, Jim Crow laws and segregation. When the Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, it took the National Guard and the Civil Rights Act 10 years later to integrate southern schools. When the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ensured Blacks, once and for all, the right to vote, voter suppression tactics became an art form that continues to this day. Trying to eradicate racial injustice from American life is like playing whack-a-mole with racism.

The reason the Civil Rights Movement, for all its courageous acts and hallowed martyrs that led to landmark policy achievements, fell far short of reaching true racial justice and equality is because there has never been a similar, sustained movement to change white hearts and minds. The Freedom Riders, marchers and sit-in demonstrators earned for Blacks freedoms codified in law, but the people from whose chokehold they were yearning to be free haven’t let go.

Too many whites still don’t consider Blacks equal, and are triggered by such a small thing as a Black man going for a run or asking a white woman to leash her dog per park rules. And, as Minneapolis has reminded the world, a Black person suspected of passing a $20 bill still might not survive an arrest.

There are two strikingly different American experiences. More and more whites are opening our hearts and minds to the reality of white privilege and the pervasiveness of systemic racism. Even before the George Floyd murder, the pandemic and resulting financial crisis exposed egregious inequities inherent in our system, with a growing chorus of calls for rebuilding a more just society. And now, with united chants of “I can’t breathe” echoing across our land and from beyond our shores, whites marching with their Black and brown neighbors in solidarity, we’ve reached a moment of opportunity.

But we will have squandered this awakening if we focus exclusively on the urgent need for justice for George Floyd, essential policy changes and criminal justice reform. Now is the time for those of us in the majority to shine a light on the underlying attitudes that have made racial injustice such a resilient force, and that perpetuate the dual American experience.

Fill in stereotypes’ blanks. The Minneapolis YWCA racial justice program where I volunteer affirms that we’re all at different points on a continuum of racial sensitivity and understanding — what matters is the desire and commitment to keep moving along the continuum. The best way to move along the continuum is to recognize that racial fear and misunderstanding are fueled by stereotypes that stamp an entire class of people with one perception — one story.

Rich Cowles
Rich Cowles
Award-winning author and speaker Chimamanda Adichie in “The Danger of a Single Story” says, “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete.” The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, reinforces that view, saying that removing stereotypes “boils down to people being able to see each other as complex, individual human beings. That requires effort — but it’s an effort that could save lives.” Filling in stereotypes’ blanks will change the wrenching historical narrative. It will also afford the enriching human experience of embracing differences.

People of color can teach others. Every interaction or conversation with a person of color — or their every article or blog — is an opportunity for whites to better understand what it’s like to be born into a society where the color of your skin puts you at a daily disadvantage and subjects you to hatred by complete strangers. People of color can tell whites about personal struggles we never even consider, like building pride in one’s identity without feeling bitter or angry — Martin Luther King Jr. described being Black in America as “plagued with inner fears and outer resentments.” They can tell us the emotional toll of feeling under suspicion wherever they go.

They can tell us what it’s like to be excluded from the official or “normal” perspective. Juneteenth provided a prime example: President Trump said, “No one had even heard of it.” That may be a somewhat true statement — if “no one” refers to only Americans who aren’t Black.

It’s time to listen, and time to talk honestly about just what it is we’re afraid of. In the spirit of the great Civil Rights Movement over half a century ago, let us not rest in this effort until all people fully experience the rights, privileges and protections promised in the Constitution.

Rich Cowles is a retired nonprofit executive, writer, volunteer for various nonprofits, and proud grandfather.


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Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by cory johnson on 06/23/2020 - 09:54 am.

    Any solutions?

    • Submitted by BK Anderson on 06/29/2020 - 12:20 pm.

      Well, perhaps the first step would be convincing white people (like yourself?) that white racism still exists, and that the Civil Rights Act(s) of the 1960s didn’t end it simply by instituting a legal regime of equal rights (when equal rights hadn’t existed since long before the country’s founding).

      Why so defensive about the very existence of white racism?

  2. Submitted by cory johnson on 06/23/2020 - 10:00 am.

    Also- are you trying to say not all cops want to kill minorities at every opportunity? They aren’t all the same? Because that’s not what I’ve been hearing from BLM.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 06/23/2020 - 11:42 am.

      Congratulations on embodying the problem. But fear not, those of like mind will be swept aside, whether they know it, or not. We WILL change, and nothing can be done to prevent it.

    • Submitted by Jermaine Taris on 06/23/2020 - 12:02 pm.

      Not once was there an argument that remotely supports the police in this article. What he is saying is that right now, in this very time we live in, is the prime opportunity to not only focus on police reform, but to focus on making sure that white people take time to learn about what it’s like to be black. As a black man, I have spent most of my life having to explain to white people what it’s like to live in a society that wasn’t tailored for us. I completely understand what the writer is getting at. Even if I hadn’t been black, or experienced half of what I have been through, I would get it. This article is pretty cut and dry. I honestly feel like you should either take time to process what you’re reading before you ask questions, or you should just stop trolling. Because, you’re either lacking in a serious amount of understanding in this topic, or you’re just trying to push buttons.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/23/2020 - 12:16 pm.

      I think you are confusing BLM with Fox News coverage of BLM.

      • Submitted by lisa miller on 06/23/2020 - 03:38 pm.

        Exactly. Great point. Mr. Johnson needs to engage in more dialogue one on one with people vs assuming things about an entire group. Of course that would require critical thinking skills as well as some listening.

        • Submitted by cory johnson on 06/23/2020 - 07:44 pm.

          You’ve all proven my point by stereotyping me because I won’t bow down to a Marxist organization. I believe in equal rights (which we have) not equal outcomes. There isn’t any shred of evidence of a current systemic system keeping every minority down.

          • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/24/2020 - 08:03 am.

            There is an incredible amount of evidence. Again, just not on Fox News.

            • Submitted by cory johnson on 06/24/2020 - 10:49 am.

              There aren’t any objective statistics proving your cause, which is why no one can point to them.

              • Submitted by Matt Haas on 06/24/2020 - 10:38 pm.

                Equal rights do not equate to equal opportunity. You advocate for a meritocracy which does not exist (and which you’d abhor as socialistic if it did). The only statistic needed to refute your idea is that which shows the average net worth of whites vs. POC. Every succeeding generation born under that disparity illustrates the inaccuracy of your position. Unless each and every human being in this country is born into, and brought up under, the exact same conditions, meritocracy is nothing more than the myth one tells themselves to rationalize one’s advantage.

  3. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 06/23/2020 - 12:11 pm.

    I remember a white southern friend I knew in the army in the 60s. He seemed like a good guy, decent, religious but when we talked about black people he reveal his very deeply felt racism. No amount of logic could persuade him that bigotry was wrong.

    That and other lessons have taught me that most racists learn it as small children, usually from their parents. It is a reflex, an attitude, an emotion and it is almost never subject to change based on argument and logic.

    I think it is mostly a waste of time to dialog with these people. I’m not talking about the many white people who are unconsciously racist and don’t recognize it in themselves. I think dialog and changing social norms can reduce their racism. I’m am talking about the overt proudly racist whites. I think they need to be marginalized and suppressed and their influence on others reduced in any way possible. It is like a virus that needs a lifetime quarantine..

    • Submitted by cory johnson on 06/23/2020 - 07:45 pm.

      unconscious racism is the biggest scam in history. just another excuse for Marxism.

      • Submitted by Matt Haas on 06/24/2020 - 10:40 pm.

        No that would be objectivism as it provides rationalization for overt sociopathy.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/29/2020 - 12:44 pm.

        I think you understand neither anti-racism nor Marxism.

        Orthodox Marxism focuses on class and economics as the root of society’s ills. Anti-racism says that race tops class as a determining factor.

        I know you’ve been told to hate both BLM and Marxism, but at some point, a fellow would do well to educate himself on the truth.

  4. Submitted by David Therkelsen on 06/23/2020 - 12:19 pm.

    Oh for sure, Cory, all cops want to kill minorities at every opportunity.
    I encourage you to read Mr. Cowles’ piece again, with an open mind. He helps us see that there is a lot of ingrained prejudice in our society. Not just in the hearts and minds of cops, including the good cops. Sure, most cops, by far, are “good cops.” Yet they take part in a culture that as we have seen repeatedly allow the bad cops to thrive. And here in Minneapolis, the good cops re-elect the baddest of bad cops, as their union president, by large majorities. So the line between good and bad turns out to be a bit blurry. Not surprising. We should expect cops to reflect these blurry lines that exist in the society around them. Rich Cowles and many other observers are helping us understand this.

    • Submitted by cory johnson on 06/24/2020 - 09:48 am.

      The decades of far left politicians who dominate minneapolis bear far more responsibility than the boogie man union leader. The problem is public sector unions that get to influence politicians with votes and money. And the problem with bad cops crosses all races. Bad cops are dangerous to everyone.

      • Submitted by Matt Haas on 06/24/2020 - 10:42 pm.

        You can influence politicians with votes and money too. Hundreds of conservative PACs do it every day. Whenever you’d like to set about eliminating them, we can have a chat regarding unions.

      • Submitted by David Therkelsen on 06/26/2020 - 04:23 pm.

        As a left-of-center, long time resident of Minneapolis, I do not disagree with you that public employee unions distort good governance in cities and school districts.
        This does not in any way, however, refute Mr. Cowles’ argument about decades or centuries of systemic racism that has brought us to our current state.
        I would ask Mr Johnson if he owns a home. If, perhaps, he has owned several homes, gaining appreciated value every time.
        I have; in fact my $3,000 investment of my own money (the rest was a mortgage) to buy my first house in 1971 has been parlayed into house value today, that I own free and clear, that is 111 times that first investment.
        Suppose you, Mr. Johnson, could not buy a house of your choice because of redlining practices, or bank lending practices, and needed either to rent or buy in “certain” neighborhoods, where housing values do not gain in value? Might your ability to accumulate wealth have been a little less?

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