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 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.

7 Replies to “THE SHOWSTOPPER”

  1. Most whites do not want a discussion in which they are made to feel defensive because of their race. If your parents were notorious criminals, would you be ok w/ just listening? Or would you want a showstopper?

    • John –

      I apologize in advance if I’m about to hurt your feelings. I’m not attacking you, but your comment makes my point too perfectly to pass up.

      You’re describing exactly what I’m talking about. That “defensive” feeling spawns a fight-or-flight reaction, and the showstopper is a way to throw one punch and then run to safety. You say white people “are made” to feel defensive. The speaker isn’t making you feel anything; that feeling is your reaction.

      What I’ve learned about myself, and what I’d hope other white people are beginning to learn about themselves, is that when I get that feeling, when I’m ready to shoot back with my own showstopper, more often than not it’s because the idea I’ve just heard is making me uncomfortable, making me feel defensive. What I’ve learned is that when I get that feeling, that is exactly the time when I have to listen harder. In other words, when my brain makes me feel that way, what’s really happening is that my brain doesn’t want to hear that idea.

      You don’t have to feel defensive. This has nothing to do with guilt. We aren’t active racists, trying to harm Black people. We’re just a couple of well meaning white guys who have been very well acculturated – over our lives we learned to see the world through a particular lens, a lens that makes us believe that the way it is is the way it should be. The truth is that the way the world is ISN’T the way it should be – Blacks should be free like everyone else and they are not. We all agree about that. What I’m saying is that we need to see these mechanisms working within ourselves. When we begin to feel defensive, that should be a cue to us to look inside, to at least suspect that although what we’ve just heard makes us uncomfortable, it may very well be true.

      It’s a journey for all of us.

  2. Great essay, Mark. You’re absolutely right about the use of showstoppers. I haven’t yet figured out a way to counter them. Not with a paragraph, wonderful as your analogies are, but as succinctly and effectively as the showstoppers themselves.

  3. Mark, I need your help. Please develop and give me a formula for having productive conversations with white people. Because I don’t know any Black people, all the conversations I have are with white people, almost all of whom are politically liberal, sympathetic with Black Lives Matter, and equally impotent to do anything substantive to change the consequences of the caste system that you have so eloquently described.

    • Lew –

      Ha! There ain’t no formula, buddy. We’re all trying to figure it out as we go. The important point is that white people have to work affirmatively on the problem. I’d add a couple of points:

      First, “politically liberal, sympathetic” doesn’t necessarily mean that people are dealing with the problem within themselves. We white people all are the problem, because we’ve all been conditioned by our culture to behave in ways that perpetuates the caste system. We’ve come to rely on the caste structure as the way it’s supposed to be, when we should be actively seeking to break down the system. When I hear someone say “we should elect Democrats so we can pass laws to fix racism,” I sometimes (not always) have the courage to respond, “laws aren’t the problem; YOU and I are the problem.” So, I’d say that you almost certainly can have productive conversations with “politically liberal, sympathetic” people. In those conversations you have to move beyond the things that you agree about and talk about what makes you uncomfortable.

      Second, you can pick your spots and speak up when you find yourself in a white person who’s fully acculturated in the caste system and unabashedly supports it. There are millions of those people. It takes courage to do that, and frankly I haven’t found the way to productive conversations with those people. Those conversations quickly end up in the same tired old arguments the two sides make. What I’d like to think I could do is just get them to see that Blacks truly are disadvantaged, that they continue to be denied the same level of freedom and opportunity that this country affords whites. Seeing that is the critical first step. It isn’t easy.

      Frankly, if it’s up to you and me and a half dozen of my friends to talk the whole country into seeing and fixing the problem, we’re sunk. But if a million white people are doing it, it’ll help. What we really need is serious, long-term marketing of the message, the kind of messaging we’re seeing from major corporations these days. We need to pitch to the country these ideas to begin to unwind the centuries of programming we all have built into us. We know that serious anti-smoking campaigns reduce smoking in young people. How we treat Blacks is a much more dangerous and much more complicated set of behaviors. We need a serious, long-tern anti-racist marketing effort. If we have that, then the little conversations you and I have with friends can reinforce the message.

  4. Mark, As you know, I am white. I am lucky and do have Black friends. This is what one of them told me this week: she lives in a nice condo in West Hartford. Her 20- something grandson is staying with her. He was living in a bigger city but was forced to work from home. Since he can do his work from anywhere in the country, he asked to stay with his grandmother in a much smaller community where he can actually go outside and be more or less away from the virus.. He would like to go out for a run, but considers it would be too dangerous for him to do so on the ring road around the condo complex inhabited mostly by white people! It is not the first time I have heard this story from a Black friend.

  5. Thank you Mark. I am a 67 year old Black women that has mostly white friendships. I am at a loss as to what I have uncovered as it relates to undertaking racism.
    I feel that most of them don’t want me to talk about it. But I am scared for my grandchildren, nieces and nephews. So I will no longer be quiet ?

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