I have some bad news. And I have some good news. The bad news is this: Nothing that you’re about to read in this column is new or revelatory. Further, most of those who have written and spoken about the following are more eloquent and more persuasive than I am. The good news is that, if heeded, this message can help to save America’s soul — and perhaps thousands of lives. Thus, despite my reticence to belabor simple truths, I concluded that this message should be stated. Repeatedly.
African Americans are not responsible for racism in this nation. Full stop. African Americans did not impose a racial caste system in which the “lowest” white person is considered to be better than the “highest” Black person. Full stop. African Americans cannot dismantle this caste system by ourselves. Full stop.
These truths are self-evident to anyone who actually knows American history — and who possesses the moral courage to be honest. For years I had difficulty trying to understand why the proverbial canaries in America’s racial coal mines kept dying without their warnings heeded. These “canaries” have names like Baldwin, Height, Evers, Hamer and Du Bois. Then, suddenly, a sad reality occurred to me: Too many white Americans are actually willing to die with the canaries — some unwittingly, but others knowingly. (For the uninitiated, miners used to take canaries to work in order to be alerted to toxins in the air. Dead canaries ultimately led to dead people.)
Rather than turning back after seeing the lifeless bodies of civil rights canaries, much of white America prefers to keep trudging further into danger. In the same way that some Black folks are engaging in the slow-motion self-genocide of our race, too many white Americans are willing to deny themselves — and their children — a better future if it means that people of color will share equally in “the blessings of liberty.” Perhaps this pathology is most obviously observed in the irrational reaction that millions of white Americans had (and have) toward “Obamacare” because it came from a Black president.
Where do we go from here? As I indicated above, African Americans cannot solve this problem by ourselves. We need a solid majority of white Americans to fully commit themselves to actively combatting racism. Specifically, we need the overwhelming majority of white Americans to openly and willingly do three things. The first is to acknowledge that their racism is real — liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat, young and old, well-educated and otherwise. The second is to acknowledge that too many whites are more concerned about being called out as “racist” than they are about actually being racist. It is maddening that so many white Americans engage in astoundingly racist behavior, then claim “not to see color.” (There is a book on this topic titled, appropriately, “And Don’t Call Me a Racist!”) The third is to fight racism like they are fighting for their children’s lives. Because they are.
I’m not talking about the third or so of white Americans who already stand solidly with us. They’re in the streets, taking the blows and sharing their privilege. I’m talking about another 40% or so who fall into two groups. One group is composed of genuinely well-meaning friends, neighbors and co-workers who know the truth about racism, but pray earnestly that it will just “go away” on its own. The other group is composed of somewhat well-meaning whites who don’t (necessarily) commit overtly racist acts, but who ignore their race-based resentment. These people see racial progress as a zero-sum game that leaves whites on the “losing” end. Many of them voted for Donald Trump because they believe that he “stands up for white people.” Many are not willing to admit this — even to themselves.
In short, white Americans must decide what kind of country they want their children and grandchildren to inherit. They must decide whether to hold on to the dying era of white supremacy. They must decide how high a price they’re willing to pay to hold on to their privilege (which many vehemently deny exists). Our democracy will not — cannot — endure, at least peacefully, if they choose the status quo.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.