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Uncomfortable Questions for White People to Ask Ourselves

Updated: Jan 20, 2021

By Katie Helde, Chair of Community Outreach

One day, in kindergarten, I was playing with Fisher-Price Little People toys with my friend Emily. As if we were orchestrating a schoolyard kickball draft, we would take turns picking which Little People we wanted to play. At one point, Emily picked up one of the few Black Little People toys and asked if I wanted her. I said, no, I did not want to play with that one. To my surprise, Emily told me that she did want to play with that one; that she was Black like Emily’s grandma (Emily is white, but years earlier, after her dad was born, her grandfather remarried a Black woman who became Emily’s loving grandmother). In that moment, I realized just how strange it had seemed that Emily wanted to play with the Black toy; I also realized how much I had not.

Studies such as the doll test demonstrate widespread, implicit racism among children. As a child, I would watch Snow White without questioning my native English language, in which “fair” means “light” and “blonde” as well as “beautiful.” As much as I am tempted to pretend that the Fisher-Price toy moment never occurred, the sad truth of my young rejection of Blackness serves as an important reminder that we often carry out racist acts or say racist things, not because we heard an express anti-Black message (although, sadly, that happens as well); but because we have grown up in a racist society, in which the poison of implicit anti-Black racism seeps into us, subtly and constantly.

After the violent January 6th mob of almost entirely white people breached the Capitol, I feel compelled to examine my own actions and my role in the struggle for racial justice. I hope that my fellow white people will join me. On MLK Day 2021, many white institutions and white individuals have seemed content to share the “I Have a Dream Speech” or to cite platitudes about equality, with no further analysis of our own shortcomings, as a nation and as white participants in the fight for justice. Such messages undoubtedly come from a desire to highlight Dr. King’s message, but we can do better.

We can start by looking to Black leaders, thinkers, and colleagues on this day. On this MLK Day, Reverend William Barber, president of Repairers of the Breach, architect of the Moral Monday Movement, and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, stated in his interfaith service:

“We are in fact in the birth pains of a Third Reconstruction. And America needs more than a new president. We must have a moral revolution of values, and we must know that if we are to be the sons and daughters of Martin King. Dr. King saw this, and it was so clear [ ] it’s one of the reasons he was killed; because the power structure could not stand it. And when he was murdered, he was trying to build a movement to address poverty, racism, militarism in order to bring people together to save a soul of a nation [ . . . ] He didn’t get to finish that work. And that’s why nothing would be more tragic than for us to turn back now. We must finish that work.”

Instead of falling into the rosy, comforting tones of unity, Dr. Barber’s message calls Americans to action: to carry forth a Third Reconstruction. What does a Third Reconstruction mean, and how does it relate to Dr. King’s message? Astute students of history will recall that white people responded to the first reconstruction with terrorism against Black people. White people burned Black neighborhoods, such as in Tulsa, Oklahoma. White people terrorized thousands of Black Americans in the Lynching Epidemic, which other white Americans might have fully ignored, had it not been for the outcry of Ida B. Wells. Decades later, in the 1950s and 1960s, many white people responded to the Civil Rights Movement, which Dr. Barber refers to as the Second Reconstruction, with resistance and police violence.

We now find ourselves in the early stages of a potential Third Reconstruction, in which Black activists rally against longstanding police violence against their communities, with protest, conflict resolution resources, and a simple but stirring phrase, Black Lives Matter.

How have we responded, as white people? Do we insist that all lives matter? Do we not understand that to jump to that response is to ignore the very systematic problems, which the Black Lives Matter movement seeks to address? We must acknowledge that Black lives matter, because for the entirety of our nation’s history, our systems of policing, economics, and the law have treated Black people as though their lives do not matter. On this MLK Day, New York congressman Jamaal Bowman shared an excerpt from a 1967 interview with Dr. King:

“Many of the people that supported us in Selma and Birmingham were really outraged about the extremist behavior towards [Black people], but they were not committed to genuine equality for [Black people]. It’s much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee an annual income, for instance, to get rid of poverty for [Black people] and all poor people. It’s much easier to integrate a bus than it is to make genuine integration a reality, in quality education in our schools. It’s much easier to integrate even a public park than it is to get rid of slums.”

That 1967 Dr. King interview highlights a truth often ignored by white people: racial justice in the United States inherently implicates us.

This year, MLK Day came just twelve days after the violent (white) mob broke into the United States Capitol, at least some thirty of whom were off-duty police officers. As white people, we have a lot of uncomfortable questions to ask ourselves. We might be tempted to retreat from Dr. King’s warning of a militarized, racist threat. What about the good police officers we know? Maybe we know a woman of color who is a police officer and is working hard to change the system from within. Maybe we have family members who are police officers or who serve in the military, and we wish to honor their commitment to duty and sacrifice. Is it possible to point out systemic problems while honoring individuals? Not only is it possible; it is necessary in order to heal the deep wounds of this nation.

After four hundred years of murder, abuse, and wage theft–which, as journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson has poignantly explained, operate as a racial caste system–our nation never paid the damages it owes to Black people and particularly to American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) communities. In addressing this omission, we may better understand that, as academic and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates argued in his 2014 article The Case for Reparations, racial justice in the United States inherently implicates economic justice.

Are we only theoretically comfortable with supporting racial equality, without organizing for and supporting the actual, real-life manifestations of racial justice? What do we think about reparations, public education, affordable housing, police reform? If we become concerned with looting and property destruction without any real analysis of the fundamental injustice and economic disparities at play, we ignore fundamental realities. Activist and writer Kimberly Jones expertly pointed this out after the killing of #GeorgeFloyd in Minneapolis.

As a Minneapolis native, I understand well the deep-seeded desire to avoid tension. Conflict avoidance is a tenet of Midwestern white people discourse. I grew up hearing my grandma proclaim, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Sometimes we require hearing words that are not nice.

On MLK Day 2021, a discerning and relevant message appeared on social media, one which the non-white people I follow seem to have shared more than white people. It comes from Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail :

“I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. . . who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.”

On MLK Day 2021, many of us white people felt tempted to speak only of Dr. King’s hope; to not speak out against policing; to ignore deeper intersections of policy and economics as they pertain to racial justice; to remain positive and comfortable. In doing so, we embody the white moderation that Dr. King criticized. As writer and activist Ibram X. Kendi points out in How to Be an Antiracist, it is not enough to be theoretically against racism; we must be actively antiracist, as it manifests in ourselves and in our systems. Following MLK Day 2021, let us lean into the conversations that make us uncomfortable; let us lean into the tension that Dr. King taught us is necessary for justice. It can be tense to think about our own discipline, and think, "oh, the creation and execution of American law is often racist." We can and must lean into that tension. We must address the real-life manifestations of systemic racism- from biased policing, to inequitable housing loans, to our own implicit biases - to remedy our own complicity and to help remedy the deep wounds of racism. As CSJ President Pharoah Sutton-Jackson would say, let’s get to work (and yes, that includes us white people).

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