As I’ve said before, I’ve become convinced that America’s problems around the issue of race must be solved by white people, because white people have the power and presumably will continue to have it. The solution is for white people to stop exercising their power in ways that relegate Blacks to the lowest American caste and to begin exercising their power in ways that finally allow Blacks to enjoy all of the freedoms and privileges that white Americans enjoy.
That process has to start with conversations among white people. Many white people don’t believe there is a problem. Many more white people agree there is a problem but believe they personally aren’t part of either the problem or the solution. Until they see the problem and their involvement in it, white people won’t solve the problem. Blacks have been saying this to us for decades, but we haven’t listened. So white people have to say it to white people.
Conversations between white people about the problem are uncomfortable. They are uncomfortable because there is something in white people that tells them not to talk about the problem. Somehow they’ve learned that if they don’t talk about it, they can ignore it and continue to enjoy the benefits the caste system affords them. So when someone starts to talk about race, they get uncomfortable. (It’s not unlike when a wife asks her husband if her new dress makes her look fat. Alarm bells go off. Say the wrong thing, and the blessings of marital life may be temporarily suspended. Nobody has to tell the husband that this conversation has to end – soon!)
White people also get uncomfortable because they seem to believe that they must stick together on this issue. They don’t want to be disloyal to their friends. Some commentators call it “white solidarity.” When white people perceive other white people breaking ranks, both the speaker and the listener get uncomfortable. This discomfort is evidenced in the speaker’s initial defensiveness: “I know you might not agree with me, but the Black guy is right.” It’s as though the speaker is ready to duck to avoid the return volley.
I’ve witnessed this phenomenon several times in the past few months. It’s now almost completely predictable. It’s discouraging. And it’s personally upsetting, because I can see that it puts my relationships at risk, valued, long-term friendships. People don’t want to talk about it.
When an uncomfortable conversation is just beginning, I often run into what I call the “showstopper.” The showstopper is a one- or two-sentence response intended to stop the conversation in its tracks, to end it even before it begins. The showstopper has the appearance of being responsive, universally true, and unassailable. In fact, it is none of these things, but a good showstopper requires multiple sentences or paragraphs to debunk. A good showstopper often so discourages the defensive speaker that it does indeed stop the show.
Members of the highest caste expect to be free from the problems of the lower castes, including free from talking or thinking about those problems. That’s one of the advantages of being in the top caste – those below them don’t matter. The successful showstopper shuts down the discussion, returning the white person to their comfort zone, to the Black-free world that the caste system has created for them.
The almost universally known showstopper, admired and employed by many white people, is “all lives matter.” I say “Black people need help,” they say “all lives matter.” That’s a convenient short-hand for “I treat all people fairly, I’m a good person, Blacks don’t deserve special treatment (affirmative action).” The response, of course, completely ignores the fundamental point, which is that they and I live in and maintain a system that values white lives more than black lives. That is a demonstrable, inarguable fact. “All lives matter” is ingenious, because it requires several sentences or more to make the counter-point, and because it signals a firm unwillingness to devote the time or interest required to listen to those several sentences. Yes, of course all lives matter, but that’s not the point – we’re talking about the fact that the majority culture does not treat Black lives as though they matter as much as white lives.
Some showstoppers are data-driven, and they are quite clever and effective. One I’ve heard several times (somewhere there must be a showstoppers.com for everyone to learn the same showstoppers): Talk about willful extra-legal killings of black men by white men in the form of police brutality and vigilante violence disguised as “citizen’s arrests,” and you get a classic showstopper response: “Seventy percent of the murders of black people in the U.S. are perpetrated by black people.” End of conversation.
What is that supposed to mean? I guess it’s supposed to mean that they don’t have to talk about, and the country doesn’t have to do anything about, cops killing black men until black people stop killing black men. Huh? If most bank robberies occur on Tuesday, does that mean we shouldn’t prosecute those who rob banks on Thursday until Tuesday bank robberies decline? If ten people die in a hospital because oxygen equipment failed, and if 100 people die in the hospital because the medical team couldn’t resuscitate asphyxiation patients, does that mean the hospital doesn’t need to fix its oxygen delivery system? What they really mean is that they don’t care if cops and vigilantes kill black men. It’s been that way for centuries. It isn’t all that unusual, because, well, if we’re honest about the truth of our behavior, Black lives don’t matter.
I was trying to start a conversation about race with a white guy. He said he didn’t need a conversation about race because welfare destroyed the Black family. That is, when welfare laws created a financial incentive for single parents, men left Black households. The age of the poor, single mother began, and that was that.
Say what? All of American racism is reduced to a single change of governmental policy? Whatever the cause, isn’t the problem still a problem? Not to mention that black America was just as poor and just as disadvantaged before the supposed all-encompassing policy change as after, so why would we think the policy change was the cause of racism? And even if they believe this bizarre idea, isn’t it possible that a simple conversation on the subject could be beneficial? I guess not. Welfare destroyed the Black family. End of story.
Start talking about protest marches. “RIOTS!!!” Bring down the curtain.
Reparations? “My ancestors didn’t own slaves.” So?
Income inequality? “My ancestors had it tough, too. They worked their way out of it.” Sure they did, by joining the unions from which blacks were excluded, and by buying suburban houses with federally subsidized, low-interest loans that, by law, were not available to Blacks.
And, of course, the local favorite: Segregated schools? “I live in West Hartford. Schools are Hartford’s problem.”
Friends, if we’re serious about fixing racism in our communities and in our lives, we need to leave the showstoppers behind. We must recognize that this country, our country, created what has become a more or less permanent underclass. We no longer can choose simply to dismiss the persistent injustice of America’s caste system with clever one-liners. Instead of showstoppers, we need serious conversations, plenty of them.
Don’t stop the show. Just listen.