Is the title of this article controversial? To anyone who has spent some time in honest study of our history, the first part of it, at least with regard to our founding and many of the years since, as obvious. The colonists stole land from the indigenous peoples and built new societies on the backs of slaves. For a hundred years after the Civil War, black Americans still lived in a condition of effective servitude in the states that had rebelled and were treated as lesser people in much of the rest of the country. And to this day — the murder of George Floyd being only the latest example — our institutions are tilted to one degree or another against anyone whose percentage of ancestors from western Europe are not seen as high enough. The fact that there is also a tilt against any Americans who are on the lower end of the economic scale only emphasizes the point here, since pitting poor whites against racial minorities is a key tactic for preserving the privileges of those in power.
But do we want to be this way? Hillary Clinton was mocked for referring to a basket of deplorables, and Joe Biden may have offered what will be his equivalent moment by saying that ten to fifteen percent of the population are “just not very good people,” but what gets missed often here in the reactions to such labeling is the fact that a lot of the Americans that are targeted by this language do not wish to be thought of that way. There is a recognition that the characteristics that Clinton and Biden have in mind are bad, that racism, bigotry, and ignorance — but perhaps I repeat myself — are undesirable elements of a personality. And while a common reaction is to become defensive or to take the opposite tack and adopt a stance of pride, however ridiculous, buried beneath is a sense of “I can’t be that, can I?”
And here we have the conundrum of our politics: how to win against racism when calling someone a racist is so often counterproductive. Some people cannot be reached, a fact that the last two Democratic nominees for president would have been wiser not to state aloud, but I have to believe that they are not the majority. This will seem like wishful thinking, though anecdotally we can all come up with stories of people who spewed hatred against particular groups until a member of their families married someone from that group or revealed membership in the group, and I suspect that the number of Americans who are committed not only to the expression but also to the practice of bigotry is smaller than Fox News or right-wing Twitter would lead one to imagine.
The questions then are how many do we have to reach and what do we have to say to them to achieve progress. One answer, of course, is to adopt the fifty percent plus one strategy of Karl Rove, the notion that as long as we win enough campaigns, it does not matter that large parts of the country are outraged. But this is not a stable approach, since the votes can always swing the other direction, and it leaves a seething population that yearns to erase whatever the previous Congress or administration did. We need something out of epidemiology with regard to racism wherein enough people reject hate to make it the equivalent of an uncovered cough and enough people have immunity to racist attitudes that they can spread this to others.
The militaristic behavior of the police in the weeks since George Floyd was murdered has alerted a lot of us to what are the daily experiences among black Americans. His death on video is shocking, especially given the smugness on the face of Derek Chauvin. The video of a seventy-five year old white man being knocked down by officers in Buffalo should drive home the reality that at this point, no one is safe. And the fact that the members of the riot response team resigned because some of them were suspended without pay underlines this. Too many cops stand with each other against everyone else, and we will only change things if we take on the understanding that with respect to the government, in some ways we are all black. I might say that I am not Breonna Taylor, but that only lasts until I realize that if the cops want to get a warrant to burst into my home on flimsy evidence, they will do so. This list of people killed and abused by law enforcement can go on and on. I call for white America to identify with these cases not to diminish the suffering that African-Americans have gone through, but to say that if we do not internalize that suffering, we lack the motivation to make things right.
Once we are aware of how our government views us, we then can get to work on solutions. The 68,000 deaths per annum due to inadequate healthcare and the needless illness that millions endure are unacceptable. Schools that are literally falling apart while the teachers have to buy basic supplies for their students are unacceptable. The more than a trillion dollars of debt for higher education is unacceptable. A police force whose primary job is to arrest people for possession of marijuana and other drugs is unacceptable. And presidents and members of Congress who work for Wall Street rather than Main Street are unacceptable.
These problems can be solved. We have to continue marching and speaking and voting — voting for progressives, not for Republicans or their aides, the Democrats. We have to keep the pressure on against foul attitudes and hateful acts, regardless of where they are found. And with progressive policies, the stresses on ordinary people will diminish, removing the desperation that makes racism feel like a ready tonic.
The reality is that America is a racist nation and that enough of us do not want to be that way. But wishing is not enough. We have to get up and move forward.