Two practical suggestions to meaningfully address racism

One of the few good things about 2020 was that Black Lives Matter officially became a thing. It had been a thing for years, but it seemed in 2020 that White Americans finally decided it should be a thing they cared about. Many of us showed up for Black Lives Matter protests. We helped put a somewhat White face on a problem that ordinarily attracts mostly protestors of color.

2020 was also something of a wakeup call for me. Like most White Americans, I kind of slept through my own White privilege. Over sixty plus years, I think I’ve been pulled over by a cop four times. Once I got a ticket for not fully stopping at a red light. Once I was gently warned that my headlights weren’t on after I pulled out of an underground theater parking lot. Once I was ordered to pull over because I didn’t know that in my state if a cop car is on the shoulder you have to move to the left lane (they were just running an outreach campaign). And once I was told, almost apologetically, that I had a brake light out. In that instance no ticket was written. I never went to jail and at most I paid $75 for a ticket. I’m sure this contrasts dramatically with non-White Americans out there for whom having a police car with its lights on pulling them over is more routine than not.

Most of us don’t want to be racists, and even most racists will claim they are not racists. But most of us White Americans probably are at least subconsciously racist to some extent. I grew up with no memory of even seeing a Black American until I was in my teens. I’d like to say I exhibited no racism when I finally started to interact with Black people, but the truth was I felt awkward feeling awkward. I was the same way with a gay cousin who liked to hit on me. I didn’t know how to react so I reacted awkwardly and warily. It is this newness of being in what appears to be a new and uncertain environment that I think is the cause of implicit racism and homophobia too.

Thankfully, life broadened me. It brought me to the Washington D.C. area. When you are inundated with people of color every day, soon you become wholly inured to it. You realize quickly that there’s very little different about you and them. One of the weirdest things about moving in retirement was to return to a place that was much whiter than the place I left. I didn’t think about it at the time. Despite living in a liberal area, it’s hardly diverse and is about 85% white. Still, in the five years we’ve been here it’s hard not to notice that the place is coloring up.

I’ve come to acknowledge that I carry some implicit racial bias. The question is whether I choose to do something more than attend occasional Black Lives Matter rallies and maybe put a BLM sign on my yard. My life is still pretty insular. Most of my friends are White. Most of the people I see and interact with are White too. How does a White guy like me make friends with more people of color? If I truly care about addressing racism, how can I tangibly make a difference? Showing up at a rally is nice, but I’m just one in crowd.

A couple ideas have come to mind. First, use what I know to help people of color. What I know is IT: Information Technology. I’d like to say it made me rich, but I’m not rich in the conventional sense, just rich in a general sense. And being retired, I’ve got time on my hands. There should be people of color around here with a bent toward IT that could use some mentorship. So I have in mind to reach out to the school system and see if I can find pockets of these people and make myself available, likely after the pandemic is behind us. A lot of what I do to make money probably won’t interest a lot of these people, once they see what it involves. But it may interest some of them and it may help them generate the skills and confidence to nurture their talents.

Another one hit me recently: I could be a White guy who volunteers to walk with people of color when they are dealing with power situations. Power is usually controlled by White people. For example, you won’t find too many Black landlords, because fewer Blacks have the assets to acquire property and rent it out. I could simply volunteer to stand next to them when they are in these situations, and use the power of my Whiteness to see if it makes a difference. I have come to believe that this is a real thing. If I stand with a person of color when they petition a landlord or plea for public housing, it is likely that merely standing with them and advocating for them will affect the power dynamic. I’m retired so I have the time. I also have a car so if necessary I could pick them up and take them back to home or work. I can use the implicit power of my skin color so that, at the very least, they are likelier to be treated as kindly as I generally was as I navigated through life.

Perhaps this could become a thing that could go national. Create a website, say bringawhitey.org. It would allow people of color to connect with Whites who want to use our inherent power to mitigate racism. I imagine like any other social media site it would need some reputation management system, so people of color could feel assured their volunteer White person was genuinely antiracist. People could be matched based on location, need and availability. We White people might need some professional training first. We’d probably have to learn how to use our power correctly and be up on what was and wasn’t allowed. There would need to be clear boundaries by all parties. But I am willing to bet that if I walked up to an apartment rental office with a person of color and said, “My friend Brian here is looking to rent an apartment,” it would get a whole different response than if Brian went in by himself. And if I detected some implicit bias and gently called it out, I’m betting it would have a whole lot more effect than if I wasn’t there. There might be an implicit assumption that because I am assumed to be Brian’s friend, that he’s safe somehow.

Some of this is doubtless a gnawing feeling of my unearned privilege that now that I’m fully aware of it I feel needs some redress by me. As a teen I was aware of my implicit racism simply from my feeling of discomfort being around people of color. Even then I was ashamed of it.

Now though I am both aware of it and have spent so much time around people of color that racism makes me viscerally angry. Perhaps steps like these would allow me to move beyond anger and into doing something productive with this anger. It’s likely I’d expand my pool of friends of color in the process.

Ken and Karen’s futile adventures

With so much news out there, it’s hard to pick a topic. So for today Ken and Karen will have to do.

Ken and Karen are stand-ins for various white Americans in the news. They try to use white privilege and guns to deal with the social change all around them. Ken and Karen were probably best epitomized recently by Mark and Patricia McCloskey of St. Louis. “Ken” was on his front porch hefting his semi-automatic rifle while his wife “Karen” next to him held her pistol with her finger on its trigger while protesters marched down the street on Sunday in front of their swanky home in a somewhat gated part of the city.

Ken and Karen hard at work
Ken and Karen hard at work

The protesters were part of the swelling and seemingly unstoppable Black Lives Matter movement, a local group called Expect US. They were on their way to the mayor’s house a few streets away. Parts of St. Louis are effectively long-standing gated communities, which is true of both the mayor’s and the McCloskey’s homes. The protesters were apparently loud, but not violent and got in through an open gate. They want the city’s mayor to resign over his handling of police violence in the city. While Ken and Karen brandished their weapons menacingly, the unarmed protestors passed by. Videos of the couple went viral. They became the latest face of white America’s discomfort with the social change underway. It’s just that most of us wouldn’t be so public about it. This Ken and Karen were sending a statement.

For me, the statement is about how clueless they are. Their cheese has been moved and they don’t understand it. If this change actually meant the collapse of civilization and you think that a few semiautomatic weapons are going to save you, you got bigger problems. If you think your guns are going to keep your little world safe from the Apocalypse, you are living in La-La Land.

Granted they have plenty of company. Millions of mostly white Americans are loading up on firearms and ammo assuming they will save them if all else fails. Some are also hoarding food and medicines, ready to ride out Doomsday with their gold and crypto currencies. They will join with their fellow neighbors when the time comes to take their country back and to reconstitute government into one they find acceptable, you know, one that leaves the whites with overwhelming power and money.

These Ken and Karen incidents are utterly predictable, so expect to see a lot more of them. They want things to remain as they were when they cannot and more importantly won’t. There are lots of us who cannot handle change, and they populate the Republican Party principally. At some level they know life as they knew it is coming to an end for them, and they need to adapt and seek a new stasis. And that’s going to happen in time. It’s inevitable as is this current time of change.

The thing is, the more they try to keep things the way they were, the worse it becomes for them. We can see their foolishness in many news stories. These Ken and Karen incidents though are minor compared to what these people are doing to themselves. They seem determined to have their cake and eat it too, no matter how much worse they make it for themselves. They might as well be hitting themselves on the heads with iron skillets.

Take COVID-19, for example. To those of us who understand science, the crushing rise in these cases in mostly red states comes as no surprise. I’d say I told you so, and I have many times in this blog, but they weren’t ready to listen. So their surrogates in power delayed shutting things down, and reopened the economy long before it was prudent to do so. Like our stupid president, they shun masks as unmanly.

Unmanly? If being a man means protecting life and property, there is hardly anything more manly than wearing a mask when outdoors. But if your idea of manhood is that you get to live life your way, damn the consequences to you or anyone else because of this bogus interpretation of freedom, you’ve got major problems upstairs. Also, it’s the height of selfishness. It’s like saying I have the right to trash my neighbor’s lawn because of freedom, or the right to drive drunk or not wear a seatbelt. Will they be advocating to not require drivers to be insured next? Taken to the extreme, this is not freedom; it’s anarchy.

And that’s kind of what they are getting in these states: driving systems like the health care system out of control. Naturally they will expect a ventilator to be available for them should they contract COVID-19, which many don’t believe is real. It likely won’t be in these states though. Someone else will be on it already, and there will be a long queue of patients with labored breathing hoping one frees up in time. And a lot of these Ken and Karens will be among the recently dearly departed.

Or you can be less stupid. I live in Massachusetts where the COVID-19 situation was very bad a few months ago, but less so in its western part where I live. We could have locked down sooner, but we did things reasonably well once we did. Now we live in the state with the least new COVID-19 infections. My county of 160,000 had only a handful of new cases last week, and no new deaths. Restaurants are reopening, but seating people mostly outside. We are wary and wear our masks. And we get tested. We’ll know when if it’s time to shut things down again, and won’t hesitate to do so. It’s ultimately less painful and expensive if you just do what the scientists tell you to do. It seems even red states like Florida and Texas are now figuring it out. The pain just had to reach an unacceptable threshold for them to see the light.

Society depends on the consent of the governed, and the nature of that consent is changing quickly. It must and will reshape itself until we arrive in a more equitable place. As John Donne noted, none of us are truly self sufficient. We all need each other. The McCloskey’s would have been much better served if they had joined the protests instead. In time, if they are still alive, they will wish they had.

St. Louis

It’s been thirty plus years since I was in St. Louis, and that was for an unmemorable business trip. If you are to visit though, it’s hard to pick a better location than the downtown Hyatt, as it is virtually in spitting distance of the Gateway Arch. I am here because NetRoots Nation 16 is being held here in one of America’s most chocolate cities. Their choice of St. Louis is perhaps in response to last year’s conference in Phoenix. There then new Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders encountered some virulent Black Lives Matters protesters, and epically failed to respond appropriately, as did its mostly white attendees.

That’s no problem this year. These liberal but predominantly white attendees at Netroots Nation have since gotten fully educated in this Black Lives Matters thing. While attendees are predominantly white, there is plenty of evidence of more people of color, perhaps about a third altogether. Still, it’s an often awkward dance between whites and people of color here. This is not an issues with the LGBTQ community, where seeing a black transgender in high heels asking to be pointed to the men’s bathroom is wholly unremarkable. (This happened to me yesterday while volunteering at the registration desk. Up the escalators and make a U turn, I told her while noting that her high heels and gams would be the envy of many women here.)

Getting vertigo looking up at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, MO
Getting vertigo looking up at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, MO

There might be more people of color here if this convention were more affordable. The official convention hotel rooms are $200/night and a discounted registration runs more than $300. The non-subsidized rate is $800. So with airfare it’s easy to spend $1500 or so for the privilege of communing with fellow progressives for three days and perhaps seeing an important politician or two. The cost is apparently not an obstacle for the 3000 or so attendees, and wasn’t for me although I chose the Hyatt because it is considerably less expensive with my AAA discount.

A driving tour of St. Louis last night facilitated by my longtime friend Tim left me impressed. The St. Louis area reminds me a lot of Baltimore with many traditionally ethnic neighborhoods. St. Louis is a bright blue dot and the economic engine of the state, but it is still in a red state. Unsurprisingly there are quite a few issues of local concern being discussed, including a so far failed attempt to make Missouri a “Right to Work” state. But it is a surprisingly pretty place and cooler than I expected in mid July, although this may be an aberration. While known for its beer, now owned by European masters, there are lesser known foods of interest. I tried one at dinner last night with Tim: toasted ravioli. Two thumbs up. If the rest of America knew how good it was, its popularity would quickly spread.

St. Louis from the Gateway Arch
St. Louis from the Gateway Arch

St. Louis has a metro, an apparently relatively recent creation undergoing a slow expansion. The trolley lines of a hundred years ago are being put back in in places. Their metro doesn’t go that far, at least north and south, but it does go to Lambert, i.e. St Louis International Airport. I took it into the city on Wednesday and found it both convenient and affordable. You pass stadiums, hospitals and eventually are deposited downtown where walking the mostly empty streets near twilight felt a bit scary. Along Big Muddy (the Mississippi) it is appropriately touristy with amenities like a steamboat cruise and carriage rides. It is often humid at this city at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

As for NetRoots Nation 16, it seems lower key than in past years based on anecdotes I hear. As I noted last year Bernie Sanders attended. I don’t expect to see him this year, not surprisingly as his campaign is over. So far the only politician of note spotted was Rep. Alan Grayson, annoying for a liberal, who is running for Marco Rubio’s Florida senate seat. Perhaps more notable politicians will show up in time.

Speaking of confluences, NetRoots Nation is a confluence of passionate people embracing so many causes it’s hard for them to concentrate on any of them. There are plenty of well attended seminars where issues and strategies are hashed out. (For two seminars, I volunteered to monitor the stream in case there were video or audio issues.) There are training sessions in how to do non-violent protests or wage a campaign for political office. So stuff does happen here, it’s just seems amorphous at times.

I am pondering what to make of this first attempt to attend a political convention. It turns out that making change is really hard. I’ve attended a number of seminars on the Black Lives Matters movement. It’s hard for a white guy like me to feel up to speed on all their issues. As speakers detailed the staggering challenges they face, it’s hard not to feel how Herculean an endeavor this is or how I can contribute in a meaningful way. Yesterday a speaker pointed out that sixty years ago the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King had approval rates of just 10%. A majority of Americans polled thought that blacks were being too aggressive in their push for civil rights and needed to be nicer and stop trying so hard. Sixty years later while there has been progress there are still staggering amounts of institutional roadblocks that contribute toward the oppression of black people. These include gentrification, those “right to work” laws Missouri is trying to enact, crime, continuous harassment by police (the riots in Ferguson occurred here), under-funded schools, poor air and water quality in their neighborhoods and general poverty. It’s a game of multi-dimensional chess that has to be played simultaneously on many levels. It’s a hard game for blacks to play because they are bearing the weight of oppression so it needs white people like me to fight with them. That is hard to do too when you have not spent your lives unfairly defined by the hue of your skin. And this is just one of the issues that are of great concern to progressives. It’s hard not to feel despair.

Unsurprisingly a lot of the attention here is on the November election and here at least there is a lot of hope. With political power comes the chance to wield it, although there are so many obstacles in trying to wield power (as President Obama can attest) that it’s not hard to feel maudlin even if Democrats win both the White House and Congress. The chances for meaningful change are chancy at best. Realistically, meaningful success is much like those of a tightrope walker without a pole, in the wind with the rope vibrating. It takes a brave progressive to take on these causes anyhow, and a lot of them are here.

The hoopla largely dies down tomorrow night. I fly home on Sunday.

Yes America, we have a race and class problem

In case you missed it, Alvin Toffler died on June 27. The author, principally known for Future Shock (1970), warned us that our future was not going to be easy. The book was a warning that too much change happening too quickly would have predictable consequences. In 1970 change was everywhere. Bellbottoms have since disappeared but we’ve been racing toward the future since then, with economic (industrial to service economies), gender, sexual, class and racial changes occurring far more quickly than most of us can handle them. Future shock is still a thing but with his death at least Toffler doesn’t have to deal with it anymore.

Currently it’s manifested in our racial strife. The fatalities keep rolling in. It’s getting so that when I wake up and read the news I expect to feel a wave of nausea. Not even two days apart there were egregious murders of black men by police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and St. Paul, Minnesota, at least partially recorded on smartphone cameras. It used to be that white people like me could sort of excuse these events as the act of a rogue cop or two, but that’s not the case anymore. Last night of course in Dallas, Texas following a protest on police shootings of blacks more than one sniper killed five police officers and wounded seven other officers, plus two civilians. At least one of the shooters was killed by “bomb robot”, something that sounds like it is from a Terminator movie but is apparently quite real.

Toffler would not be surprised by this reaction. It was neither a right nor a just thing to do, but it was entirely predictable as tone-deaf police departments and officers continue to disproportionately kill blacks in altercations that are at best minor. I mean, killing someone for having a taillight out? There’s little doubt in my mind that if I had been driving that car I would likely have gotten a friendly warning and I would have been on my way. But then my skin is white and that gives me privileges obviously not afforded to many blacks by police.

I once wrote optimistically about our post-racial society. As I look back on it, clearly I was widely off the mark. It’s truer to some extent for the latest generations that are at least growing up in a multicultural world. Post racial for them is the new normal. But it’s not quite as normal as we think. Americans are in general strictly self-segregating along racial and class lines. Having spent more than thirty years in the Washington D.C. area, its multiculturalism became the norm, which was surprising given that I grew up in an area almost exclusively white. Moving to a more white area in retirement seemed quite odd.

You have to wonder how this happened. I don’t think most police officers are overtly biased against blacks. Police officers though work in the real world. Crime tends to occur more often in poorer neighborhoods, which are usually minority and typically black. If I had to struggle to survive like a lot of these people I’d be more likely to commit crimes as well. It must not be hard for a police officer that constantly finds trouble in these parts of town to develop an unconscious bias against the poor and blacks. Their job is to keep society safe so naturally they are going to focus on those areas they perceive as less safe. When you have your wealth and status, there is little reason to cause trouble.

Policing though is a tough job. You deal with life’s nastiness everyday. It’s not for everyone. I suspect if I had been a police officer I too would eventually behave a lot like these rogue officers, simply because of the constant pressure of it all. Despite their training my bet is a lot of these officers are victims of PTSD simply from being officers. It comes with the territory. Clearly we should recruit officers that can keep an even keel, but in reality police officers come from a pool of people with aggressive and authoritarian tendencies. In addition, we don’t pay them nearly enough to deal with the stress they endure everyday.

And speaking of stress, when you are poor, black or really any minority in this country, your life is unlikely to be a bed of roses. You spend much of your life being ethnically profiled. Add to this the likelihood that you will be poorer and live a more challenging life. Unlike me you are unlikely to inherit tens of thousands of dollars when your father passes away. You will struggle for respect, for equal pay and simply to keep the floor under you.

The results are not too surprising. Police officers, many carrying around an unconscious or overt bias against people of color, hired for being aggressive and authoritarian, but also understanding that their place within society in on the lower part of the bell curve will tend to act out their anxieties. And since they literally have the power of life and death, it’s pretty hard to keep your feelings in check when you figure that black guy probably doesn’t like you and has a gun, and you want to make it home to dinner. Meanwhile the black guy, being an otherwise normal human, is sick to death of being pulled over and acting subservient to police officers and white people in general. It all feeds on itself.

But feeding it all are those on top: the politicians and basically those with money, projecting their class and racial biases on those who enforce the law, and tacitly looking the other way so often when incidents like these occur. It’s a rare cop whose behavior will be judged criminal when they happen.

How do we stop this? In reality it is a very complex and multidimensional issue. Getting cops some cultural sensitivity training and making them wear body cameras isn’t enough. A real solution requires a lot of lowering of shields, community discussion and transgressing not just our racial prejudices but our class prejudices as well.

Certainly those we are hiring as cops aren’t getting the right training for a 21st century America. We are in general picking the wrong people for these jobs and not paying them commensurate with their difficult jobs, much like teachers. The overarching issue is really our staggering level of income inequality, if not the downright cruelty of society in general. Recently the Arizona legislature decided it hadn’t made the poor miserable enough yet. Now it’s limiting TANF benefits to the poor from two years total to one year, as if people are only allowed to be poor once. Otherwise, let ‘em eat cake, which in their case may be Twinkies. There is no compassion here, simply on overwhelming disgust from those in power toward those that have none.

In short, it’s going to take a lot of time but mostly it’s going to take a lot of white people like me to stand up and say “Enough!” This is because apparently we’re the only ones the power brokers listen to. Besides posting essays like this, I’m pondering the best way that a white male like me can move the needle on this issue. Suggestions are welcome.