I’ve been thinking about race relations most of my life. But truth, be told, I haven’t thought about them enough. Few of us have. It’s extraordinary how the repercussions of our ancestors live amongst us and I believe our refusal to think about it is a large part of the fuel that keeps the engine of injustice running full throttle. “Refusal” seems a strong word, implying a conscious decision to look the other way. Most would plead simple ignorance or lack of interest or passive sense that it doesn’t affect them or too-easy complacency because things are “so much better.” But all of those gets us privileged white folks off the hook. I think refusal is correct and the antidote is commitment to look deeper.
If we look all the way down to the roots, we find some disturbing rot down there. I’m the world’s worst gardener, but five minutes in the yard with my wife trying to pull out oxalis made it clear—if you just tear it at the stem, it will continue to grow and thrive. If you dig down to the roots and pull out the whole plant, there’s a chance you can plant something more beautiful there.
Reading a 1959 Look magazine article about Minnijean Brown’s experience trying to integrate Central High School, it was clear that what provoked the most anger and hatred in her white classmates was, in their own words, “She thought she was as good as us.” Time and time again in the Deep South, you see the worst crime of the black person was to be uppity. Why? Because the white identity had been built wholly on the foundation of an illusion, the narrative of white superiority carefully crafted to keep an economic situation going without guilt. Go to the Birmingham Museum and see the TV clip of the Army colonel telling how slavery saved blacks from savagery in Africa and concluded, “The black man’s best friend is the Southern white man.” And believed it.
This is a human problem that goes far beyond race. We seem to have a need to create an identity dependent on someone or some group being lower than us. And once that becomes hardwired in our system, it is nearly impossible to disconnect. Nothing is so threatening as the loss of identity, real or imagined. Connect that human need to feel superior with economic institutions dependent upon it and you have white folks gone crazy when their alleged superiority is questioned or threatened. But why do they seem to need someone else to be lower in order for them to be higher? Here’s what Baldwin said in 1962 in his book The Fire Next Time.
…the most successful Negroes proved that one needed, in order to be free, something more than a bank account…It was absolutely clear that the police would whip you and take you in as long as they could get away with it, and that everyone else—housewives, taxi-drivers, elevator boys, dishwashers, bartenders, lawyers, judges, doctors and grocers—would never, by the operation of any generous human feeling, cease to use you as an outlet for his frustrations and hostilities. Neither civilized reason nor Christian love would cause any of those people to treat you as they presumably wanted to be treated…White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.” (p. 21)
Here’s how Coates talks about it in 2015 in his book Between the World and Me, written as a letter to his son:
“In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage. …the right to break the black body is the meaning of their sacred equality. And that right has always given them (white folks) meaning, has always meant that there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.
You and I, my son, are the ‘below.’ That was true in 1776. It is true today. There is no them without you, and without the right to break you they must necessarily fall from the mountain, lose their divinity and tumble out of the Dream. And then they would have to determine how to build their suburbs on something other than human bones, how to angle their jails toward something other than a human stockyard, how to erect a democracy independent of cannibalism.…” (pp104-5)
I’m one of the white folks complicit in all this through accident of birth and find these words necessary and true, a wake-up call to us privileged folks to get on with it. Might we learn to love and accept ourselves instead of projecting our failures on an entire race? Might we equally embrace the mountain and valley in all of us and build a democracy from our shared concerns and love of genuine freedom? Might it be a good idea to "tumble out of the Dream" that it is a nightmare for so many and build a new, more inclusive one?
Well, I don’t want to be simplistic or naïve here. Walmart’s success comes from sweatshops abroad, folks drive to the mall from the oil we invaded the Middle East for, Victoria’s Secret makes big bucks from the neo-slave labor of black men in prison. It’s a big messy institutional political problem far beyond individuals who need to raise themselves up by putting someone else down.
But we all have to begin from our area of expertise and education is mine. Can we raise children differently? What if we start to pay attention to an identity based on our actual thought and achievement and moral character? What if we educated children to start and end their quest for identity connected to their neighbors? What if they learned that they could become a somebody without a twin nobody to keep them elevated? That yes, there is hierarchy in the world, we all “compare and despair,” noting who is higher and who is lower. When it comes from achievement— Art Tatum had more interest, talent and perseverance in piano playing that I did or do—we needn’t feel threatened, but actually inspired. The gifts of those above trickle down to those below. That’s the proper hierarchy. If you are protecting what you have above from those below, you can take it as a sign that you didn’t actually earn it and it harms the world. Hierarchy exists to bless those below and help lift them up.
This is not solvable in a blog, a couple of books or even a lifetime or two of thinking and acting on these issues. It may never be solvable. But if all folks, white and black, keep asking the questions, keep the conversation moving, keep digging out, plant by plant, the roots of the horror, we just might be able to finally grow the garden we all deserve. All of us.