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.
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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