James Baldwin claimed “the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it, and history is literally present in all that we do.” We who are alive today embody all that’s inaugurated this urgent chapter in human history. The patterns, dysfunctions, and blessings that have marked our families through the generations are made manifest in ourselves and our children. We feel in our bones their struggles. Their songs play on our lips. None of us are immune, then, to the inherited history of manifest destiny, slavery, rape, lynching, segregation, red-lining, and mass incarceration that trouble the waters of our past and ripple into our daily lives. This is what Dr. King spoke about when he said, “our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny,” all of us caught up in that “inescapable network of mutuality.”
A potent myth that prevents us from repairing the terrible racialized trauma of our nation’s history is the notion that kind white folks simply cannot be racist. Racists are bad, this good-bad binary says, and therefore anyone we know to be a fundamentally decent person is, by definition, not racist. Robin Diangelo advises breaking through this unhelpful binary by interrogating any comment, action, decision, or incident with the question: How does this function? In other words, who benefits? A decision to send a white child to a private school rather than the neighborhood public school, for example, results in the same outcome regardless of intention: it introduces that child to a more segregated educational setting, which--studies show--contributes to inequity.
Our intentions don’t have to cooperate for Americans to perpetuate systemic racism. Such systems don’t require our permission, or even our knowledge of their implicit bias. The question is not whether we are racists at heart (the truth is, not one of us can escape racism if we were raised in the United States), but how our actions function in our lives, the lives of our children, and within our institutions. Racism, Diangelo asserts, is a system, not an event.
Dr. King applied pressure to systems. He did not protest the individual acts or personal comments of a bus driver, but the busing system that mandated segregation. He did not go after the individuals who denied blacks the right to vote, but the voting system on the whole. He kept his eye on the prize, and yet he is too often remembered only for his visionary dream rather than the clear systemic change required to get us there.
In her groundbreaking book, Stand Your Ground, the Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas explains, “Just because chattel slavery no longer exists in America...does not mean that the racist constructs slavery produced do not continue to exist.” The criminalization of the black body, reinforced by racially biased laws, Douglas writes, stands in to feed the collective imagination. Why else would so many whites accept the horrific violence against black bodies by blaming the victim? Why else would Cyntonia Brown, who was repeatedly raped and trafficked as a minor, serve fifteen years in prison for killing a man who purchased her for the purposes of statutory rape? How else could three officers in Chicago be acquitted for covering up the killing of Laquan McDonald despite contradictory video evidence? In what other universe would a President justify a wall by asserting that brown people are invading our southern border to sell us drugs before they rape and murder us?
To truly carry King’s dream forward, white folks must be the first to say--we all carry racism within us, so what will we do about it? Rather than using discomfort as a way to opt out, we can choose instead to opt in. Instead of exempting ourselves, we can increase our capacity to tolerate what Diangelo calls “racial stress”--listening to hard stories, believing people of color, sitting with our mis-steps, refusing to brush them away because we had good intentions. We can build up our repair skills by apologizing, without excuses, when we act out our implicit biases. We can learn from our mistakes and do better. Progressives can wean ourselves off of the practice of “credentialing ourselves” to prove we are the white exception and choose, instead, to interrupt racist power plays. We can call each other in when we need accountability.
Perhaps most importantly, we can impact systems--from educational gaps and disproportionate health outcomes to media misrepresentation, voting suppression, and criminal (in)justice, we can work in our own corner of the world, in coalition with people of color, to advocate for change. A lifelong commitment to the work of racial justice means we will make mistakes. We will have to wrestle with shame. We will need to sort through all that we carry from our nation’s history to our family histories. Most importantly, we will need the core commitment to stand back up, dust ourselves off, and get on with the work.
According to Dr. King, the greatest stumbling block “in the stride toward freedom is not the...Ku Klux Klanner, but 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 can’t agree with your methods of direct action;’ who paternalistically feels” they can set the agenda for another’s freedom. The season has arrived in which we too can no longer tolerate this internalized superiority. Otherwise, King’s dream remains just another generation's longing.