American Racism: We’ve Got So Very Far to Go

And the journey must continue step-by-step.

Today let’s dive into one of the toughest questions of our religious, cultural, and political lives. While we write and print millions of words about race in America, why is it still so hard to have a truly respectful, decent, and humble dialogue about perhaps the most complicated and contentious issue in American life? It’s a huge topic, but let’s start with what I believe is a true principle of human nature, a maxim called Miles’s law: Where you stand depends on where you sit. 

While originating as an explanation for behavior of people in bureaucracies, Miles’s law has a much broader application. It speaks to the overwhelming influence of our own social, religious, and cultural experience over our viewpoint. Our different political cultures not only live different lives, they speak different languages. They apply different definitions to the same words and phrases—and those definitions are not self-evident.

Take “systemic racism,” for example. I daresay that only a vanishingly small number of Americans know that this is a term with an academic meaning that’s not entirely obvious from the words themselves. Here’s one definition—“structural” or “systemic” racism is:

A system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. It identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with “whiteness” and disadvantages associated with “color” to endure and adapt over time. Structural racism is not something that a few people or institutions choose to practice. Instead it has been a feature of the social, economic and political systems in which we all exist. 

Yet millions of Americans read the accusation that America is beset with “systemic racism” and hear a simpler and more direct meaning of the term—you’re saying our systems (and by implication the people in them) are racist. But that’s completely contrary to their experience. They think, “How can it be that ‘the system is racist’ when I just left a corporate diversity training seminar, I work at an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer, my son’s college professors are constantly telling him to ‘check his privilege,’ and no one I know is a bigot? It seems to me that the most powerful actors in ‘the system’ are saying the same things—don’t be racist.”

Then, when you go online or turn on the television, you’re hardly persuaded to change your mind. If you’re conservative, chances are your social media feed is full of images of rioting and looting. There are viral videos (including one the president retweeted Saturday) that declare “George Floyd was not a good person” and “the fact that he has been held up as a martyr sickens me.” There is the constant repetition of statistics about black-on-black crime, and posts and pieces arguing that police racism and brutality are overblown are shared across the length and breadth of social media.

Even a well-meaning person subject to this barrage of messaging is then apt to look at clear racist injustices—like the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, where the killer allegedly used a racial slur after he fired the fatal shot—and say, “Sure, there are racists still in this world, but they’re not part of any ‘system’ I know.” Moreover, compounding the problem, those voices who are most loudly condemning American racism are also the voices he or she trusts the least on other issues—such as abortion, religious liberty, economics, or health care. Something in the conservative mind and heart rebels, I can’t join with them, can I?

We each like to think we’re not unduly influenced by our immediate environment and culture. That’s a phenomenon that affects other people, we believe. I’m the kind of person who has carefully considered both sides and has arrived at my positions through the force of reason and logic. Sure, I’ve got biases, but that only matters at the edges. The core of my beliefs are rooted in reason, conviction, and faith.

Maybe that describes you, but I now realize it didn’t describe me. I freely confess that to some extent where I stood on American racial issues was dictated by where I sat my entire life. I always deplored racism—those values were instilled in me from birth—but I was also someone who recoiled at words like “systemic racism.” I looked at the strides we’d made since slavery and Jim Crow and said, “Look how far we’ve come.” I was less apt to say, “and look how much farther we have to go.” 

Then, where I sit changed, dramatically. I just didn’t know it at the time. I went from being the father of two white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed kids to the father of three kids—one of them a beautiful little girl from Ethiopia. When Naomi arrived, our experiences changed. Strange incidents started to happen.

There was the white woman who demanded that Naomi—the only black girl in our neighborhood pool—point out her parents, in spite of the fact that she was clearly wearing the colored bracelet showing she was permitted to swim.

There was the time a police officer approached her at a department store and questioned her about who she was with and what she was shopping for. That never happened to my oldest daughter. 

There was the classmate who told Naomi that she couldn’t come to our house for a play date because, “My dad says it’s dangerous to go black people’s neighborhoods.” 

I could go on, and—sure—some of the incidents could have a benign explanation, but as they multiplied, and it was clear that Naomi’s experience was clearly different from her siblings, it became increasingly implausible that all the explanations were benign.  

Then the Trump campaign happened, the alt-right rallied to his banner, and our lives truly changed. In October 2016, I wrote a piece describing what happened. It began like this:

I distinctly remember the first time I saw a picture of my then-seven-year-old daughter’s face in a gas chamber. It was the evening of September 17, 2015. I had just posted a short item to the Corner calling out notorious Trump ally Ann Coulter for aping the white-nationalist language and rhetoric of the so-called alt-right. Within minutes, the tweets came flooding in. My youngest daughter is African American, adopted from Ethiopia, and in alt-right circles that’s an unforgivable sin. It’s called “race-cucking” or “raising the enemy.”

I saw images of my daughter’s face in gas chambers, with a smiling Trump in a Nazi uniform preparing to press a button and kill her. I saw her face photo-shopped into images of slaves. She was called a “niglet” and a “dindu.” The alt-right unleashed on my wife, Nancy, claiming that she had slept with black men while I was deployed to Iraq, and that I loved to watch while she had sex with “black bucks.” People sent her pornographic images of black men having sex with white women, with someone photoshopped to look like me, watching.

The attacks got worse and some became overtly threatening, including posting image after image of dead and dying African-Americans in the comments section of my wife’s blog. Suddenly, my understanding that “we’ve come so far” in American race relations was replaced by the shocking, personal realization that “we’ve got so far to go.” 

All this was happening as I had already grown alarmed at the sheer vehemence of conservative defensiveness on matters of race. Before the backlash I received for opposing Trump, the piece that generated the most personal anger from conservatives was a 2012 essay in Commentary called “Conservatives and the Trayvon Martin Case” where I critiqued the conservative media’s seeming rooting interest in George Zimmerman’s innocence, and I critiqued George Zimmerman’s decision to arm himself and pursue a teen whose only “crime” was walking to his father’s girlfriend’s house after dark. I did not judge Zimmerman guilty, but I did signal that conservatives should not reflexively defend the police:

[C]onservatives should not be inclined to trust without question the actions of local law enforcement. There is no evidence that a single national conservative commentator knew the first thing about the competence or character of the individuals who made the initial decision not to charge Zimmerman. They don’t know whether those local officials are wise, foolish, or free from racist taint. But they do know, or should know, that public officials (even public-safety officers) make mistakes even when they have the best of intentions, and they should also understand the need not only for constitutional constraints on police actions but also for public accountability. 

This is when I began to learn about conservative political correctness. If politically correct progressives are often guilty of over-racializing American public discourse, and they are, politically correct conservatives commit the opposite sin—and they filter out or angrily reject all the information that contradicts their thesis.

For example, if you’re a conservative, you’re likely quite aware that the Obama Department of Justice decisively debunked the “hands-up, don’t-shoot” narrative of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. You’re less likely to remember that there was a second Ferguson report, one that found Ferguson’s police department was focused on raising revenue more than increasing public safety, and it used its poor, disproportionately black citizens as virtual ATMs, raising money through traffic stops, citations, and even arrest warrants. It painted a shocking picture of abuse of power. 

If you’re a conservative, you may well be aware of the research cataloged by Heather Mac Donald rebutting claims of systemic racial bias in fatal police shootings. You may be less aware of the recent New York Times report indicating that African Americans make up 19 percent of the population of Minneapolis, 9 percent of the police force and an incredible 58 percent of subjects of police use of force. 

But again, I hear the objection in my head, the sentiment of good friends and thoughtful people—“If racism is this bad, and if the experiences of black Americans are this negative, why don’t I ever see it?”

Let’s perform a thought experiment (I did this on our Dispatch Live event this week, so I apologize to readers who’ve already heard it.) Let’s optimistically imagine that only one out of 10 white Americans is actually racist. Let’s also recognize that—especially in educated quarters of white America—racism is condemned and stigmatized. If this is the reality, when will you ever hear racist sentiments in your daily life? The vast majority of people you encounter aren’t racist, and the minority who are will remain silent lest they lose social standing.

But imagine you’re African American. That means 10 percent of the white people you encounter are going to hate you or think less of you because of the color of your skin. You don’t know in advance who they are or how they’ll react to you, but they’ll be present enough to be at best a persistent source of pain and at worst a source of actual danger. So you know you’ll be pulled over more, and in some of those encounters the officer will be strangely hostile. The store clerk sometimes follows you when you shop. A demeaning comment will taint an otherwise-benign conversation. Your white friends described in the paragraph above may never see these things, but it’s an inescapable part of the fabric of your life. 

This is how we live in a world where a white person can say of racism, “Where is it?” and a black person can say, “How can you not see?”

So now I sit in a different place. But where do I stand? I believe the following things to be true:

  1. Slavery was legal and defended morally and (ultimately) militarily from 1619 to 1865.

  2. After slavery, racial discrimination was lawful and defended morally (and often violently) from 1865 to 1964.

  3. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not end illegal discrimination or racism, it mainly gave black Americans the legal tools to fight back against legal injustices.

  4. It is unreasonable to believe that social structures and cultural attitudes that were constructed over a period of 345 years will disappear in 56.

  5. Moreover, the consequences of 345 years of legal and cultural discrimination, are going to be dire, deep-seated, complex, and extraordinarily difficult to comprehensively ameliorate. 

It’s hard even to begin to describe all the ramifications of 345 years of legalized oppression and 56 years of contentious change, but we can say two things at once—yes, we have made great strides (and we should acknowledge that fact and remember the men and women who made it possible), but the central and salient consideration of American racial politics shouldn’t center around pride in how far we’ve come, but in humble realization of how much farther we have to go. 

Moreover, taking the next steps down that road will have to mean shedding our partisan baggage. It means acknowledging and understanding that the person who is wrong on abortion and health care may be right about police brutality. It means being less outraged at a knee on football turf than at a knee on a man’s neck. And it means declaring that even though we may not agree on everything about race and American life, we can agree on some things, and we can unite where we agree.

For example, here’s a thought—you don’t have to be a critical race theorist, agree with arguments about implicit bias, or buy into the radical social platform of Black Lives Matter to reach consensus on some changes that can make a difference. I’ll call this tweet, from my progressive friend at Vox, Jane Coaston, the “Coaston plan,” and I endorse each prong:

A journey of a thousand miles continues step-by-step, and you don’t have to agree on the entire travel plan to put the next foot forward.

Oh, and as we do it, be better than me. Remember, I had to change where I sat before I could change where I stood. If you first change where you stand, then the next generation will sit in a very different and better place. 

One last thing ... 

We’ve seen too many images of violence from this week’s protests. We’ve seen police violence. We’ve seen riots. We haven’t seen enough moments like the short clip below. It comes from one of my favorite cities (Memphis), it’s my favorite hymn, and it touched my soul:

Photograph by Brent Stirton/Getty Images.