Can Anti-Racism Win This Round?
Signs of hope transcend years of history
We eye each other warily, a group of six adults: two young white women, two older men — one white, one black, one young black woman and one grandmotherly black woman. We live within approximately the same one-mile city area, but beyond a passing acquaintance with the other young white woman I have never met any members of my group. We are one of a dozen similar groups spaced out in the city recreation center auditorium. We’re there at the invitation of the city and a loosely-organized interfaith group, in response to interracial tensions we hope to calm. Perhaps even heal.
After going around the circle introducing ourselves we look at the hand-outs we’ve been given on arrival. The sheets say things like, What would you like to know about others in your group? What would you like them to know about you? Do you have thoughts or questions about the changes that are happening? Please share.
We begin with carefully edited stories of who we are. Within a very short time, though — it’s the 60-something black man who issues the first challenge — our conversations become more raw and our stories closer to the truth. My initial enthusiastic openness quickly turns into defense and self-doubt, tinged with fear. But this is the first of what will be many talks, many tears, and small victories. We believe things are changing. Not without pain, and not as fast or as far as we wish, but all of our eyes are a little more open and there’s optimism all around. Despite so much turmoil here and everywhere, the future holds promise of better days.
But this is not 2020. The above happened in 1964 in Decatur, Georgia, a decade after Brown v Board of Education officially ended segregated schools — it had taken that long for the Supreme Court decision to work its way into reality in my town. I was pregnant with my youngest child, who would go from first grade to high school graduation, unlike her two older siblings, without ever being in an all-white classroom.
In that and subsequent gatherings we eventually got comfortable with each other. A neighbor of the young black woman would become a friend and colleague, and later the first African American Mayor of Decatur. I went on with my life, satisfied that the world was getting better. I eventually moved to San Francisco where everything felt, if not exactly like the Summer of Love, at least like a confirmation that love would prevail. I joined interfaith vigils after senseless murders of young black men. My church hung a Black Lives Matter banner next to its rainbow flag and All Are Welcome proclamations; we became a Sanctuary community, with energetic fellow members going to work in behalf of those seeking asylum and refuge. Even though the federal government seemed usually to be working against what I see as justice, I was certain we were on the right path and that justice would prevail.
Then came 2020.
How did I get it wrong for nearly sixty years?
The answer may be in Ibram X. Kendi’s book, How to be an Anti-Racist. Too many people, especially white allies of black and brown justice movements in which I’ve been so comfortable most of my adult life, self-identify as “not racist,” and then figure all is well, Kendi said in a recent PBS NewsHour interview. But “the opposite of racist isn’t not-racist,” he says; “it’s anti-racist.” Kendi kept returning to the word “policy.” The need to re-imagine policy, the “striving for policies” that will indeed bring justice. I think, in these past nearly sixty years, I may have fallen a little behind in the policy area. That business of getting policies enacted at the local, state and federal level. Sixty years of good will did not necessarily equate to justice.
Ibram Kendi is an historian, a professor of history and international relations, a leading anti-racist voice and the youngest ever (at 34) winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2016 for Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. While I was working on this piece my very wise daughter-in-law posted a link to a podcast Kendi recently did with professor/lecturer Brene’ Brown featuring this tagline: The heartbeat of anti-racism is confession, admission, acknowledgment, the willingness to be vulnerable, and the willingness to identify the times we are being racist. In that podcast Kendi again often invokes the policy word.
I think I know what I got wrong. Maybe not the confession, admission, acknowledgment, even willingness to be vulnerable — but too little attention to what’s going on in the policy area. Policies at every level have got to change. The good news is, I believe this is beginning to happen. Abolishing choke-holds and no-knock invasions is a step in the right direction; if Georgia cleans up its voter suppression efforts it could set a lovely example for other states where voter suppression is just another reality.
For those of us proud citizens of progressive California, the sight of police officers in Oakland kneeling alongside the protesters seemed an optimistic start. But one of the most eloquent statements of the nationwide white/black/old/young determination to change was pictured online, posted on Facebook by my granddaughter and even appeared on an inside page of the New York Times print edition last week. It’s a group of thousands of citizens of all ages and races quietly, peacefully demonstrating — in downtown Decatur, Georgia.