Outrage over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police shows no sign of abating. The nation seethes, collectively, over yet another excessive use of force on a black suspect by a white police officer.
As abhorrent as the execution of Floyd was, the police officers in the video appear appallingly detached from his suffering. The pathology of indifference to racism was laid bare on that gritty street. Instead of averting their eyes, white Americans must look deeply at their role in the widespread societal suffering of people of color. That means that white people have to get past their denial that racism is an entrenched American problem.
I’ve experienced that indifference, denial and racism up close in Washington state, from Seattle to Walla Walla, where I live now. Being a light-skinned brown man has helped shield me from a hostile police encounter (so far). So has my law degree, or so I hope. I’ve lived with microaggression, shunning and outright job discrimination. A white lawyer in Seattle slandered me professionally because he couldn’t convince himself I really was a lawyer in good standing. Interviewers have challenged my credentials and demanded I recall test scores from my college days. Recently, a white board member of a nonprofit where I was one of two finalists raised concerns that my ethnicity might cloud my judgment as an executive. You know what most of us do with hateful treatment like this? We choke it down so we don’t become pariahs in our communities.
The costs of racism in our country continue to multiply. Yet the reality is that too many good, decent and kind white people have either compartmentalized or calcified their indifference to racism. They are unconsciously willing to accept the fact that racist acts and policies harm and humiliate people who don’t look like them. The damage includes minority students’ appallingly low school test scores, mass incarceration of men of color and plummeting household incomes of minorities. How is it that white Americans’ detachment from racism is functionally not an endorsement of racism?
Worse is denial or dismissal of racism. I suspect that white Americans conjure an image of racists as people who wear pointy white hoods with eye cutouts. Let’s get real. Racism went stealth long ago. Like a coronavirus, racism eludes eradication precisely because it benefits from people denying it’s a problem, ignoring it, or discounting and belittling minorities who raise it as an issue.
If you don’t see a problem, there’s nothing to solve, right? That blindness is white privilege, and it gets people of color killed. It destroys lives and shatters dreams, the videos of which we will never see.
White people commonly tell me they don’t know what to do about racial inequality and inequity. They want to know how to approach people of color. I’ve been blessed with an abundance of love, kindness and friendship from people, many of them white, my whole life. I know there is a deep reservoir of good will in my community. I am confident that it exists in abundance in communities all over our country. But that good will can’t sit idle in the wake of America’s overdue reckoning with matters of race.
When white people do talk about race to me, they often end the quick discussion by saying that change takes time. I tell them: What a privilege it must be to tell other people they must wait for what you already have. Seriously, stop using this excuse. Change takes courage. Your courage.
If you want to build connections with communities of color, reach out and engage directly with people. Personally and continually invite people from marginalized neighborhoods to community gatherings. Better yet, hold gatherings in those neighborhoods. Organize potlucks and trade stories over good food. Breaking bread bridges cultural divides. Hold nonprofit boards accountable to intentionally reflect community diversity and promote inclusivity. Mentor children who look nothing like you. Learn from them, and their families.
Meet people where they are in life, not where you’d like them to be. Build relationships from the bottom up, not the top down, and build solutions that way, too.
If done with humility, an open mind and an open heart, this stuff works. Multiracial, cross-cultural engagements and civic projects can build and sustain mutually respectful relationships and create pathways of trust. It’s a way to humanize each other. Community democracy, like family, requires constant nurturing, work, patience, forgiveness and faith.
It shouldn’t take a national crisis to inspire transformative change. Yet here we are. The heinous killing of George Floyd was a punch to America’s gut. People have stood and marched and knelt together. It’s up to us to join fearlessly and compassionately to repair and rejoice in the vital social and multicultural fabric of our cities and communities.
We need to act now. The fragility of our republic must fuel our haste.