I’m pleased that Joe Biden chose Kamala Harris to be his running mate, but I’m not sure my reasons for being pleased would pass the test. What test? Why, the racist test, of course. Not familiar with it? Hang on for a bit, and I’ll try to explain how it works (and why it exists).
First of all, my reasons for being pleased with the Harris choice start with the realization that she increases the chances that Biden will be replacing the current incumbent as our next president. First and foremost, I regard that result as my (and my country’s) fervent need. I’m also pleased—very pleased—that she is a woman of color who identifies as Black and Indian, both of which encompass diverse individuals who should be valued more (and certainly should be holding more of our most important jobs).
But that last paragraph would already have me in trouble with a group of social justice warriors who would claim that the order I indicated is evidence of my racism. For them, the most important thing about the Harris selection is that she is Black/a Black woman/a woman of color. Trump, for them, is only emblematic of a racist society that will not end with his defeat and will only be on its way to being non-racist when all persons whose skin color is “white” have admitted that they are racists.
The law school where I work has now resolved to be an “anti-racist law school.” The administration made that declaration last month, and, to get us started, we were all given copies of Robin DiAngelo’s best-selling book, “White Fragility.” We were urged to read it and were then asked to attend a three-hour session on the topic, led by a diversity specialist (an associate dean from another law school who is in charge of that school’s diversity program).
The session started with the moderator stressing openness and acceptance and tolerance. (He used an acronym – HAVEN – that essentially translated to those points.) I mistakenly took him at his word and asked if we could define “racism” since I wasn’t sure I knew how we were using it in being an “anti-racist” law school. I got immediate push-back, with one colleague saying she didn’t see how that would be helpful. And it went downhill from there.
Now, understand: I’m fine with being an anti-racist law school. I just wondered why we had to declare ourselves as one. Hadn’t we always been?
And the answer, per DiAngelo’s metric, is that we had not been anti-racist, and, in fact, have been a racist institution throughout our history and up to this very day. Her evidence, following the logic she lays out in great detail in her book, is that we have never had more than one Black faculty member (current number: 0), that we only have one Black administrative person holding the rank of dean, and that a disproportionate number of the few Black students we admit every year either do not graduate or fail the bar exam if they do.
DiAngelo has a different way of identifying racism than I do (I focus on intent). She would judge me to be a racist because I am a white American who has led a privileged life (when compared with the lives Black Americans live). And, of course, I’m also a racist if I acknowledge that I’m a racist, or if I don’t. It’s that kind of logic, if you will.
Yeah. I didn’t care for her book. It’s shallow, simplistic, anecdote-driven, and devoid of deep analytical thinking. She employs the kind of logic that concludes absolutely that a school is racist if the Black students underperform the non-Black students; the kind of logic that says a few horrible incidents of police brutality that kill Black individuals prove that all police departments are racist; the kind of logic that claims that the burning of stores and the destruction of businesses is a legitimate way of protesting against racism; the kind of logic that brands you as a racist if you didn’t first exult over Kamala Harris’s selection because she is a Black woman; the kind of logic that proves you are a racist if you just wrote this paragraph.
So, here’s the kind of racist I am: I marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis. I spent part of my senior year of college at an all-Black college in Tennessee, where I mourned with my classmates the assassination of Rev. King. I served as a leader in the Race Relations Council of my Air Force Base as a Captain in the Air Force during the Viet Nam War. I have always advocated for equality in all areas of our lives, from the education that all children receive to the jobs they are offered. I have always decried racism, publicly and openly. I’m the guy who calls out someone at the gym for a racist comment. I fell deeply in love with and married a woman of color. She and our biracial sons are the three people I love most in the world.
DiAngelo artfully covers my kind of racism in one of the nifty chapters in her book. She calls it White Privilege: the privilege to make those choices, have that life, be where I am, which no Black person “automatically” has. And claiming I was a victim of prejudice in my youth (I was) or that I might even have been considered a person of color in some circles (I was) doesn’t make a bit of difference. I’ve been privileged because I was born white, was raised white, and have always been white. It’s the structural racism, you see, that makes me a racist. Once you accept that our society is structurally racist and that as a white person you have benefitted as a result, you, perforce, are a racist.
Now by this point you might be thinking “his defensiveness proves that he is a racist. If he had comfort with who he is, he wouldn’t be needing to defend himself.”
Sure. I have an ego, and the instinct to be defensive does seem to be part of the human condition. But my point isn’t to defend myself, but to defend the right to question and to disagree and not to be “cancelled” because I do.
Here’s the kind of question that I can’t reconcile with the racist country DiAngelo claims I am part of: How did Barack Obama got elected – twice? DiAngelo says Trump disproves Obama, but does he? Is it that simple? Trump represents a bigoted portion of the country, most certainly. But that fact doesn’t make the country racist. Trump also represents a fervently evangelical portion of the country, and a fervently capitalistic/free market portion of the country, and a “fed-up with Washington” portion of the country, and a loved-his-TV-show part of the country. None of those other reasons that people voted for Trump relate to racism.
Obama was a Black candidate. He beat a lot of non-Black candidates in primaries and then beat white guys in the elections. He got more than 50% of the votes, both times. Were those voters unaware of his skin color?
So I question whether we are a racist society. I accept fully that there are racists in our society – far too many of them for my taste. I prefer/strongly desire to live in a country where the only race of concern is the Human race, but we are a long way from that point of development.
Do we need more diversity in our upper ranks? Absolutely. We need more open doors for everyone instead of hard-to-open doors for some and impossible to open doors for still others. How we get to those points of development is the stuff of policy debates: Should we provide more low-income support? Should it be targeted to people of color? Should it even be income based?
In a truly democratic republic, which is what the U.S. purports to be, those questions are debated by elected representatives of good will who iron out the details. Democracy, as Winston Churchill, once noted, is a messy form of government, but it’s better than all the others.
So, how are people who express these kinds of thoughts to be received? Are we racists who need to be shamed into silence? Are we causing trouble that shouldn’t be tolerated? Are we, perhaps, threatening the logical essence of the movement?
If you’ve read DiAngelo’s book, I hope it made you more aware of your own racism, if not a little more tolerant. For another perspective, one that might be less acceptable but still merits attention, I recommend Thomas Chatterton Williams’ “Unlearning Race: Self-Portrait in Black and White” in which the author argues forcefully against color-based racial identity and in favor of a “post-racial” world. Mr. Williams may not express the politically correct thinking of the day, but he just might represent the way we should be looking at race and claims of racism, both now and in the future. I’ll explore more of his thinking in my next column.