A White Guy, Listening
I write this as a member our most privileged national demographic group: a married, white man who works in tech. I don’t have any particular expertise or degree that allows me to bring new knowledge to the discussion about race in America, but I’ve been curious and listening for a long while now, and with great attention since the death of George Floyd. This is not an exercise in virtue signaling. It’s just what I’ve heard.
George Floyd’s execution by a member of the state, and the public reaction that followed, are symptoms of an undressed wound. His death once again pulled forward centuries of accumulated pain from extra-judicial killings (public lynchings alone accounted for more deaths than 9/11 between the civil war and WWII, almost 600 in my home state of Georgia). The 26 million Americans protesting last summer during a pandemic was a collective wailing of the unheard.
The message was this: White America, you have a trust problem. A unique, painful history exists between you and your black neighbors which you need to acknowledge and repair.
The civil rights project that’s been underway since the end of slavery is not over. Artifacts of white supremacy live on in the dispositions of some of our neighbors. The white nationalist movement in our country is as vocal as it’s been in my lifetime — the confederate flag was unfurled in the capitol for the first time on January 6 — and there are forces at work that would erode the progress we’ve made in the last sixty years.
Our fellow citizens still have to fear that some Kafka-esk nightmare will unfold in their lives because of the color of their skin. Stories of family, friends and their own experiences tell them they could be under a unique threat every time they see blue lights, and that judges and juries will offer them less than justice if they find themselves in court. This is an enduring, unacceptable threat to the principles of the Declaration of Independence that we claim are sacrosanct. It’s our national duty to eliminate this fear.
I could share stats that celebrate our progress on this question of racial police violence and the problems with mass incarceration that Michelle Alexander outlines in The New Jim Crow, but an “actually” analysis, in this case, would only serve to deflect. The problem is an undisputed fact, and the only debate is what’s to be done about it.
We in the fading white majority are in a civic marriage with our friends and peers of color which has a complicated history, and we should commit to therapy, some truth-telling. We should come to the counseling session with a willingness to hear, leaving our excuses and what-about-isms at home.
America deserves a confessional moment. Our nation needs a truth and reconciliation commission on Slavery and Jim Crow. The U.S. Government has never sponsored an official accounting of the racial violence and apartheid that 14% of our population has faced for most of the country’s history. We might have said we were sorry, in 2009, but if you look at South Africa, at Germany, they made formal commitments to healing their national wounds (After you read this, read Bonny Ibhawoh’s excellent history of such commissions). It offers a common set of facts, an accounting of the costs and suggestions for restitution.
Bryan Stevenson had one of the clearest articulations of the justified mistrust and pain that inspires the racial justice movement. I should just link to his thoughts on truth and reconciliation and call it a day, but here’s a snippet of his insight that gets at the heart of why such a commission would be valuable:
I want to talk about this history of enslavement and of native genocide and of lynching and segregation, not because I’m interested in punishing America. I want to liberate us. I really do believe there is something better waiting for us. I think there’s something that feels more like freedom. There’s something that feels more like equality. There’s something that feels more like justice that we have yet to experience in this country.
Healing requires a formal moment as a nation to collectively acknowledge this past and to repair the injury. The victims live among us. There are roughly 10 million Black Americans who were born and lived during the time of Apartheid. Their children suffer from reverberations of these policies, including a stubborn wealth gap born from unjust policies such as redlining and school segregation .
We’ve done this before. We’ve adjudicated the harm caused by Japanese Internment camps, almost 40 years after the events under inquiry.
Congress can act on Barbara Lee’s Concurrent Resolution 100. After we’ve gotten through the crisis of Coronavirus, we can devote legislative attention to a formal commission with serious scholars from a variety of intellectual traditions to create a defining document of this period in American history, the role national and state governments played in perpetuating it, and put it into the historical record.
We should expect the commission to offer recommendations on how to repair harm, suggest policy changes, and we should take action on those recommendations during Joe Biden’s first term, before the 2022 midterms. The voters will reward the campaigns of leaders who make the commitment to an honest telling of our history.
Until we make this social investment, the pain will manifest itself again in the next George Floyd event. As Stevenson says, our denial is a bind on our national potential, in the near and long term. There is a national appetite for a truthful reckoning with our racist past. We just need to demand our leaders to prioritize it and get it done.