One of the terrible truths about racism in America is that the violent deaths of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and so many others were not enough for most Americans to demand radical change. Now, as millions of white people have, at long last, woken up in the aftermath of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, we should ask ourselves why it took so long.
If we’re honest, we see that we are complicit. The governors, mayors, cops, and district attorneys work for us, and they have been carrying out the centuries-old agenda of our policing system, which is to protect white people and property and to intimidate and incarcerate Black people. And you need only to look at the Democratic presidential primary, which included several candidates who built their careers on being “tough on crime,” to see that both parties have participated in the oppression and mass incarceration of Black people.
What we see, if we have the courage to see it, is that we have been here for 400 years and white people have rarely ever demanded that our leaders dismantle systems of violence and oppression. Think about that. Black people have never been safe in this country, but most white people live their whole lives without ever demanding that the violence that’s being done in our names come to an end.
Until — perhaps — now.
We’re in an extraordinary moment. We’re being asked by the Movement for Black Lives to listen and learn — and to unlearn everything we have been taught about governance and policing. We’re being asked to see these systems with new eyes, and to recognize that good white people prop up bad systems that were built to serve white people, and that that is true no matter what’s in our individual hearts.
The small, liberal, predominantly white town in which I live prides itself on a police department so progressive that we have a lesbian chief and hybrid police cars. But none of that matters to my Black friends, regardless of how educated or affluent or well-dressed they are. When they see a cop car in the rear view mirror — hybrid or not — they feel fear. And as many of our residents have responded to the recent murders by taking a closer look, we are learning that our liberal mayor and chief have allowed an officer who was sued for making very racist comments to be in charge of all hiring and promotions for the department.
Such revelations are happening everywhere. And they are revealing a profound truth: systemic racism has been proceeding unchecked, and most white people have not cared enough to stop it.
Because one of the things white people tend to do is to make racism about what’s in our own hearts. We are the good ones, we tell ourselves, the liberals with good intentions who listen and respond and are not racist.
When we do that, we’re not listening. Black people have been telling us forever that racism is not primarily about individuals but about systems that were built to serve and protect white people at the expense of Black people. Racism is lethal precisely because it is systemic. Every institution in this country — governance, banking, education, policing, politics, professional sports, business, medicine, you name it — has within it the DNA of white supremacy.
We have built heavily armed, heavily funded police forces out of fear, and those forces are deadly to Black and Indigenous people and people of color. The Minneapolis police have taken every kind of progressive training imaginable, yet they still murdered Philandro Castile and George Floyd.
Now, millions of us are waking up, and we’re finally reading books by Black authors documenting the real history of these United States. Yes, as some have noted, it’s like white people are cramming for an exam we never studied for, but it’s also genuinely inspiring to see so many of us showing a willingness to learn.
Now comes the hard part. Because reading books, while necessary, is not nearly sufficient if we’re serious about dismantling the systems that uphold white supremacy. If systemic racism is the threat to Black lives, that’s where we must devote our attention: to dismantling it everywhere it exists.
There’s No Solid Ground
One of the challenges of the moment, for white people, is that we are seeing that we have no solid ground on which to stand. Across the country, institutions and historical figures we have long admired are being called to account. Statues are being torn down not only of Southern slavers, but of Columbus and others, like the 18th century Franciscan friar Junipero Serra, who contributed to the genocide of Native Americans. We’re finally noticing that most of the Founding Fathers owned slaves. Venerable universities like Princeton are having to rename institutes named for notorious racists like Woodrow Wilson. Towns named after genocidal white supremacists are being pressured to change their names. The living history museum Plimoth Plantation is changing its name to acknowledge the Native village that pre-existed the Pilgrims.
But this wave of accountability is not just about the past. It’s becoming an examination of nearly every institution, textbook, writer, and story about who we are as a people. And that is becoming very, very difficult for some white people to process. In a Facebook group I belong to, fans of the beloved writer Wendell Berry (a hero of mine) were deeply offended by those of us critical of his decision to sue the University of Kentucky to prevent them from taking down a mural depicting enslaved individuals.
“Where will it end?” some ask. And the difficult answer is: it won’t, not anytime soon. What is now being seen cannot be unseen. And what we are seeing is evidence of our own indifference. How many times have Bostonians walked past the shockingly patronizing statue of Lincoln with a freed Black man at his feet? How many millions have strolled past the racist statue of Teddy Roosevelt outside the American Museum of Natural History? For how many years have we seen racist team mascots as a fact of life?
But worse than that. We are realizing, as Natalie Portman has, that the police make white people feel safe but Black people feel afraid for their lives. We are learning of rampant racism in every industry, from Hollywood to publishing. We are seeing that while white Americans created enormous wealth in the decades after World War II — some $68 trillion is being passed down by the baby boomers— redlining and systemic racism in banking, real estate, and employment so excluded Black Americans that the median net worth for non-immigrant African-American households in the Greater Boston region is $8.
Systemic racism is everywhere and we have ignored it, because the system works for us and we haven’t had the collective empathy as white people to demand a better country. When in January I shared reporting about rampant racism in Pete Buttigieg’s police department, I was roundly criticized for being divisive. It didn’t matter that Black Lives Matter South Bend was demanding that he drop out; most white voters did not want to hear it, just as most ignored similar calls for Amy Klobuchar to drop out over her record as a prosecutor.
This is the painful truth: we have seen racism but have chosen to ignore it because we had other concerns. And our complicity makes this a very difficult moment for many of us.
What Comes Next?
Historically, two things happen at this point. The first is that the systems under attack try to co-opt demands for radical change with window dressing. We’re seeing this all over as mayors paint Black Lives Matter on the streets while refusing to make meaningful budget cuts, and as brands rush to prove their wokeness despite poor records on diversity and inclusion. (Don’t even get me started on the NFL.)
The second is that white people go back to sleep. It’s hard for us to stay engaged once we realize this is a marathon, not a few weeks of action, and as we face so many difficult truths. Because our identities are so closely tied to the mythology of our country’s essential goodness, and our own essential goodness, the loss of this identity can feel quite profound and unsettling. The urge to shut down is strong.
But we have, in this moment, an opportunity to remain awake. Part of finally growing up as white people is sitting with real discomfort about the past and present — as well as our history and our heroes. If we are feeling defensive or upset, we can choose to sit with that pain and see what we can learn. It’s the only way we can free ourselves, and the only way, as Langston Hughes wrote, to let America be America again.
This is our test. Do we remain awake, and demand radical change, or do we go back to sleep?