In response to my essay last week, Lew asked how he, a retired white guy with minimal contact with Black people, can help promote racial justice. I gave a brief (for me) response. Here’s a more detailed look at the question.
“What can I do?” begs the question “What needs to be done?” Everything needs to be done. Education discrimination is unjust. Employment discrimination is unjust. Housing discrimination is unjust. Discrimination throughout the criminal justice system is unjust. Racial injustice is endemic in our society, and efforts to address these problems have been underway for decades. So a simplistic answer is decide where you’d like to help and start writing checks, writing letters, going to meetings, getting involved.
Programs intended to address racial injustice in housing, education, employment and other aspects of American life are certainly important. If work in those arenas appeals to you, I say “go for it,” but social programs attacking inequities are not the answer. Some changes in laws are necessary, but more laws are not the answer.
The only real solution is to eliminate the root causes of racial injustice – those beliefs and behaviors that we learn and pass on to our children. We need to change our culture. Abolishing slavery was necessary, repealing Jim Crow laws was necessary, but those steps didn’t change beliefs and behaviors. The Civil Rights Movement after World War II caused significant change, but it didn’t change beliefs and behaviors imbedded in our culture.
This essay is about what I think white people can do to change beliefs and behaviors.
LOOK AT YOURSELF
Be informed. First and foremost, we white people need to be informed. We need to learn about the American caste system, about things we’ve never really thought about before. We need to begin to see the culturally imbedded beliefs and behaviors that create and maintain the caste system; we need to begin to understand how we are the problem.
Throughout our childhoods, we learned values: values about our country, about hard work, about how to treat people, about music, about foods. Much of what we learned is still with us – it’s what we call culture. While we were learning those things, we also were learning about race, learning those things that mark Blacks as a lesser caste, and those things are still with us, too. We often aren’t proud of those things we learned about race, so we don’t talk about them. In many cases, we don’t even recognize that they are in us.
Most of us white people live our lives with built-in cultural biases; the lives we live seem normal to us. We haven’t intentionally excluded Blacks or intentionally made life more difficult for them; nevertheless, the collection of our habits and behaviors has exactly that effect.
We must first begin to see those things, and we can’t see those things unless we regularly work to be informed about them. We need to become active learners about race in America. It’s a complicated and nuanced subject, so one book or one video or one lecture isn’t enough. We need continuing education.
What should we read? My wife says every American should read Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson. I’ve read only excerpts, but it already has changed fundamentally my understanding of race in America.
I’ve mentioned before the books that have contributed most to my own awakening to racism: Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Tears We Cannot Stop, by Eric Michael Dyson, and White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo. These books are difficult for white people, because they force us to see what we don’t want to see – that we are the problem. These books made me uncomfortable, because they were speaking truths I didn’t want to hear.
Check out the New York Times bestseller lists. Use Google. At the end of Tears We Cannot Stop, Dyson provides an extensive reading list. Search Black lives matter on Netflix and find a movie – When They See Us and 13th, both by Ava DuVernay, moved me to tears. Pick almost anything and dig in. Come at it with an open mind, and ask why we are so uncomfortable with the ideas we disagree with. Soon some part of the world begins to look different to us, and we are on our way.
Examine and re-examine our own behaviors. Being informed doesn’t help if it doesn’t change us. It’s not enough to read Ellison’s Invisible Man; we need to see ourselves in the story Ellison tells. (Spoiler alert: you’re not the one who’s invisible; you’re the other people, the people who choose not to see the invisible man.) It’s not enough to reread To Kill a Mockingbird; we need to see ourselves sitting in that courtroom, not condemning poor Tom Robinson but not standing up for him, either.
We need to ask ourselves questions we’ve never asked before, questions about the assumptions behind our everyday lives. What are our unspoken assumptions when we see a Black busboy in a restaurant or a Black physician in a hospital? What are our unspoken assumptions when we see a Black woman with a bullhorn, leading a rally? What are our unspoken assumptions when we see a Black man and a white woman walking together? A Black woman and a white man? What are our unspoken assumptions when a white presidential nominee picks a Black running mate? Why does the XL Center crowd enjoying a UConn women’s game feel “normal,” but the Sports and Medical Sciences Academy crowd enjoying a Greater Hartford Pro-Am game doesn’t?
In short, what are all those little thoughts and ideas about people of color that are running somewhere in the back of our heads every day, and how do those assumptions shape our behavior?
CHANGE HOW YOU RELATE TO PEOPLE
Consciously manage how you relate to Black people. Go out of your way to talk to Black people. Be open and welcoming, and make them feel welcome, especially with Black people who are serving you. Learn their names, have conversations with them. Start from the point of view that this person may become our friend or our son-in-law.
When we go out of our way to talk to Black people, we accomplish two things: First, we enhance our understanding of Black people as people, instead of simply people in the category “other than me.” Second, we enhance their understanding of white people as people, instead of people simply in the category “boss.” We help ourselves understand that Black lives matter, and we help them understand that we understand.
When we go out of our way to talk to Black people, we begin to build a bridge to another person, a bridge that our culture has taught us not to build. When we build those bridges, we change our culture.
Talk to people about cultural change. Talk to families. Talk to friends and neighbors. Talk to people in person, on the phone, on social media.
Talk to them about what we are learning about our culture and about ourselves. Be open. Tell them how we’re changing. Talk to them about how important these things are to us and our country.
Ask them to examine their own assumptions about Black people, about their reaction to recent racial justice demonstrations. Suggest a book to read.
In short, encourage them to start or continue on a journey that helps them understand how the American caste system works and how we all are part of it.
Help them understand that guilt is not part of the journey. Racism is no one’s fault; it’s just a collection of habits we’ve learned.
Stand up against racist words and ideas, and stand with others who are working to change hurtful cultural beliefs and behaviors. It’s not enough to learn, to be instrospective, and to have warm, touchy-feely conversations with friends. We must have uncomfortable conversations.
When we hear a racist comment, or simply an ignorant comment that has substantial racist impact, we must be silent no more. We must speak up, express our displeasure and disagreement. We must have the courage to stand up and do the right thing. If it means the conversation will end, so be it. We cannot be silent in the face of immorality.
Seek to have a conversation about why the comment is offensive. Help people understand the problem with their point of view. That’s difficult, and it can put at risk the relationship we have with that person. However, if we do nothing, we are complicit.
Will we change the speaker’s mind? Probably not, because the speaker’s point of view is firmly grounded in a lifetime of cultural learning. The speaker is naturally defensive when that point of view is challenged, because their culture is being challenged. We’re all programmed to defend our culture; that’s why those books I read made me uncomfortable.
Challenging the speaker sometimes feels as though we are starting an honest-to-goodness physical fight. But there’s no need for a fight; when we get the almost inevitable strong, defensive comment, it’s enough to say simply “I understand you disagree, and I’m not going to argue with you about it.” End of conversation. But maybe we will plant a seed, maybe in the speaker, maybe in someone else who hears the exchange. Maybe someone will admire us for our courage and begin to see how important this is.
CHANGE HOW YOU RELATE TO YOUR COMMUNITY
Engage with your community. It’s the unusual person who changes the world, but any of us can change our community. The United States is my country, but greater Hartford is where I live, and greater Hartford is where I can make change.
We need to find out what people are doing in our community to promote change, to integrate our lives, to welcome Black people into the life we enjoy. Check out your town’s website. If there’s nothing there, call the town and ask why not. Check out your local library. Check out the local historical society website. We need to learn the history of how our community treated Black people. Get in touch with Rotary or other community service organizations and find out what they’re doing. Check out local religious congregations for programs they are organizing or supporting.
Join and participate in efforts to learn, to understand, to welcome, to make change. If that effort isn’t under way in our town, ask community leaders how to help to get it started.
We can change our communities. We can help make them open and welcoming to Black people.
Support minority-owned businesses. If we have a choice, and we often do, we should support minority owned businesses. It’s our own little affirmative action plan.
What’s the objective? To afford Blacks access to the same life, the same opportunities available to white people in our country. One of the great glories of American life is that anyone can make it here, except historically that hasn’t been true for Blacks. As in so many other categories, Black business ownership lags the population in general – Black-owned businesses generate only 3% of of the total revenue of all businesses. We can help, if in only the smallest of ways, by looking for opportunities to support Black-owned businesses in our communities.
Every Black success story helps, and we can be a part.
Where can we find Black-owned businesses? Start with www.shopblackct.com and Google.
Challenge organizations to adopt, publicize and promote social justice policies. We patronize stores. We belong to organizations. We should ask each for a copy of their social justice policy, and we should ask each how that policy is being implemented and sustained. If the answer is “we don’t have one,” we should encourage them to get going, and we should seriously consider whether we want to continue shopping there, being a member there. We can change our community by insisting that every organization in our community promote social justice.
How many places have we visited in the last month that have signs on their door stating that patrons are required to wear masks to enter the store? Those signs are evidence of the business or organization being socially responsible about controlling COVID-19. We should expect our local businesses and organizations to be equally responsible about social justice. We should speak up and let them know.
ENCOURAGE NATIONAL INSTITUTIONS TO LEAD
Support businesses and institutions working to change cultural beliefs and behaviors, and urge other businesses and institutions to be come part of the effort. Although I believe that cultural change is a task for every one of us, with three hundred million people in the country, changing minds one at a time will take a while. We need help.
We need access to mass media because like it or not, mass media are what drive social norms in our country. We’ve seen it over the last month or two. Professional athletes are demanding that their leagues make air time available for social justice issues. We’ve seen major advertisers shift their themes to promote social justice issues. We all know how subtly but effectively advertising shapes our poiint of view about cars, about beer, about smoking, about candidates. We need continued advertising for social justice.
Just as we need to let our local organizations know that we care about their social justice policies, we need to let national advertisers know that we welcome their efforts and we want them to continue. We don’t need five months of social justice advertising; we need five or ten years. We need Amazon and Coca Cola and Toyota and Google and Nike and the NFL and the NBA out front and leading the way. People will follow, and when people follow, our culture will change.
Patronize the advertisers who promote social justice. Write to them to express your appreciation and to encourage them to continue.
It’s Up to Us
We need to recognize that the American caste system is immoral. We need to eliminate caste in America.
We have an American creed. We are proud of it, and we like to think it is uniquely ours. It defines the fundamental morality of our country: All people are created equal and all people are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Our country has violated that creed for 400 years when it comes to Black people. The cumulative effects of our historic and ongoing treatment of Black people have denied Black people those very things that we say all people are entitled to. That’s immoral.
We must confront the immorality of the American caste system, challenge it, stop it. Being silent in the face of immorality is being complicit in it.
We can do this. We must do this.