We often hear that Americans need to have a conversation on race. However, anyone who has attempted to do so knows that such conversations are incredibly difficult to conduct civilly. At Divided We Fall, we do not fear difficult conversations. We embrace them. This week, Leah Donnella of NPR’s Codesmith and Robert Wilkes are willing to have the much needed conversation on race in America. Read their differing viewpoints as part of our Political Pen Pals series below.
My name is Robert. I’m a bookish, Jewish white male. I can’t sleep at night without Ambien because I can’t shut off my brain, and I’ve been thinking about race recently after participating in a series of conversations between Jews and blacks about race in America.
Jews know from Leviticus, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” Jews have a history of standing shoulder to shoulder with blacks during the civil rights movement and Jews are at the forefront of social justice causes. Jews cannot stand idly by.
Our black-Jewish dialogue program was comprised of six meetings over six months. We got along very well. Our conversations were often difficult, sometimes intense. Blacks and Jews were better able to see the world through the eyes of the other afterwords. For me the most meaningful outcome was just being together—sharing a meal and forming bonds of understanding.
I learned that there is a popular “narrative” about race in America and all the black participants subscribe to it. I have a problem with the narrative. I don’t think it represents reality, and I don’t think it is constructive or helpful. I think it’s actively harmful. You can imagine the uproar I caused.
This opening blast is to defend my position. If it seems as though I’m attacking your race or making you feel that I’m devaluing your life experience as a black American, that is not my intention. My intention is to ensure that all Americans can achieve successful, meaningful and happy lives. I think about young people in America who are black and I want them to succeed.
The narrative, as I heard it, was the following:
All whites are racist. I’m told there is the racism I know I’m doing and the racism I don’t know I’m doing, but it’s all racism. Racism in America is pervasive and omnipresent. The “system” is racist and is designed to thwart blacks for the purpose of white supremacy. Examples include the criminal justice system, voter suppression, redlining of mortgages by banks, profiling by police, higher rates of expulsion in public schools, lower per-pupil funding in schools with high percentages of black students, and general discrimination in hiring, promotion and in all phases of life. In our conversations, the “system” was not defined. The list I just gave you is what I have been able to piece together from the discussion.
I heard that black people fear for their lives and believe there are whites who would kill them just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A traffic stop is a fearful event that can get you killed. White police “murder” black people almost every day. All black leaders have been assassinated (presumably by whites).
I was told that America is tragically flawed and culpable for any number of evils, certainly slavery and Jim Crow, but far beyond that. The blacks in our group don’t believe they have a homeland in the way that the Jews can look to Israel. They don’t seem to identify themselves as Americans (at least not as strongly as I do). As a people with an overwhelmingly deprecating view of America, they are without a home of their own.
They conclude that racism puts barriers in their path that are essentially insurmountable and that for blacks, life in America is hopeless. They believe that the best one can do is survive. Curiously, all the blacks in our group were successful in their chosen fields. Several were leaders and administrators with standing in the community. I was left with a cognitive dissonance I’m still trying to understand.
I challenged the narrative and set off a firestorm. The narrative is unassailable dogma, a law of gravity. No one is permitted to deviate from the narrative, black or white. The whites in the room are just as committed and pushed back just as hard.
I’ll break down my challenge into four points.
Our belief system, or “frame,” is the world view we adopt because it makes us happy and it seems to predict events. No one has a perfectly truthful world view. If they think they do, they’re wrong. To see the power of frames compare an hour of CNN with an hour of Fox News. Notice how differently they report the exact same events. The two popular news services live in separate universes light years apart.
When you choose news programs because they validate your frame, you see the world is working as your frame predicted and you feel smart. You receive “confirmation bias” and are more sure than ever that your frame is true. You become a reliable, loyal viewer; they sell advertising and make a lot of money.
If you think Trump is awful and should be impeached, you’ll find confirmation bias all day every day. On the other hand, if you believe Trump is just what the country needs, you’ll find plenty of confirmation bias for that as well. One or both of these frames is a mass delusion. I think it’s both.
If your frame is the racism narrative you’ll have no trouble finding confirmation bias. You’ll see it in every sideways glance or in the tone of voice of an overworked waitress. The Southern Poverty Law Center paints the bleakest possible picture of race in America. It publishes data reporting every racial incident whether confirmed or not. These numbers increase year by year because the day race relations improve is the day they’re out of business. Donations will dry up. Jewish groups do the same thing, often with the same result—increased fear.
2. Correlation and causation
As I read the literature on the black experience with the criminal justice system, or on higher mortgage rates for blacks or high rates of expulsion in schools, I see logical fallacies and errors conflating correlation with causation. This is, after all, social science; not chemistry or physics. Causal factors are complicated and largely unmeasurable. Social scientists, authors, news commentators, academics and politicians will examine the same phenomena and come to vastly different conclusions.
The narrative encourages us to regard all setbacks as the result of racism, incorrectly conflating correlation with causation. We can’t solve problems until we face them head on, in an honest search for truth. Reflexively attributing problems to racism is avoidance; it prevents us from seeing reality. It also robs us of our capacity for “agency.” One’s ability to take control of one’s life and act in one’s own interests is handed to others. Those “others” have their own interests.
3. It’s not healthy
This is the main point of my challenge: the narrative is toxic. For some it will be catastrophic. To tell a child that life is hopeless and it’s futile to try, to fill that child with exaggerated fear, is child abuse. The narrative, for some, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Each of us has but one life, a precious gift from God. If the narrative causes one child to lose faith in himself and become so discouraged he gives up, that life is wasted.
The narrative has its allure and its payoffs. In our present social and political climate, you gain power when you establish yourself as a victim. The victim card helps those who know how to play it to their advantage, but it fetters many others from disadvantaged circumstances.
4. The immigrant’s story
There are over 4 million black immigrants living in America. People of color who immigrate to America have an advantage—they have not been raised on the narrative—quite the opposite. They see opportunity in America like nowhere else on Earth. Yes, they know there is racism in America, that they will be black in a predominantly white society, but they don’t choose to let it get in their way. Compared to the circumstances they left behind, where real hopelessness is a fact of life, America offers unlimited opportunity. To the immigrant, racism is real but irrelevant.
And that’s my argument. Yes, there is racism. There is antisemitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, you name it. We will, in time, make those prejudices socially unacceptable in the same way you wouldn’t dare light a cigarette in a restaurant today because no one would tolerate it.
This is not the Jim Crow America of 1950. We have made enormous progress on race. I say resist the temptation to be a victim, to be defeatist and cynical. America is a big hearted, loving nation of powerful moral ideals unique in the world. For blacks, the full realization of those ideals came slowly. First in the genius of our founding documents, then the Emancipation Proclamation, and finally the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. But it came. Take a seat at the table of opportunity in America.
Change your frame. Discard the narrative. Look for the good in our nation and you’ll see confirmation everywhere. Believe in yourself, exercise your own agency, and make a life of your own choosing in this wonderful land.
Nice to meet you. I am a bookish, Jewish black woman. I, too, often stay up at night thinking about race in the United States (partly because thinking about race is my job, partly because racial dynamics inform so many parts of my life, and partly because I just find race fascinating.)
The passage you quoted from Leviticus is very personally meaningful to me. It reminds me of the famous African American civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, who was quoted as saying, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” This idea, that human beings are collectively responsible for each other’s well-being, is one I hear frequently from black people, Jews, and any number of other groups.
That said, in my response to you, I’d like for us both to resist the urge to generalize any racial or religious groups. It’s worth pointing out, I think, that while there are certainly Jewish texts that support the idea of standing alongside one’s neighbors, that in no way means that Jews writ large participated in the civil rights movement. There were Jewish people who made heroic sacrifices in the fight for racial justice, but the majority of Jews did not participate in the movement, (just as the majority of black people didn’t participate in the civil rights movement.)
I’d also like to note that, while I understand the idea of treating black people and Jewish people as two distinct groups (after all, most black people are not Jewish; most Jews are not black), I personally cannot separate the parts of my own identity out into black or Jewish. I am both, fully, at all times, which means that my understanding of who is the “other” likely differs significantly from yours.
I do think we can agree on the idea that all people are deserving of certain fundamental rights and freedoms. My deepest dream is also that all humans, American or not, can achieve peaceful and meaningful lives. OK, onto the narrative. I’m going to respond to your thoughts in the same numbered order so that we can keep track.
1. I’ve only rarely met someone who would argue that “all whites are racist.” The assertion I hear more commonly is that all white people have certain privileges due to white supremacy, whether they want to or not. Peggy McIntosh has outlined a very thoughtful list of some of those privileges in her famous article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”
In terms of the “system” that people refer to — I think your list is a pretty good place to start. Our government puts in play a lot of structures and frameworks that shape the way we all move about in the world, knowingly or unknowingly. The fact that our situations are shaped by norms, laws, biases and patterns, and not just random occurrences, might be a helpful way to think of the system.
2. Black people are consistently killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are more subtle/debatable instances of this, of course, but there are also really obvious ones. If you read any of Dylann Roof’s explanation for shooting black churchgoers in Charleston, you might see that there are indeed people who are clear about their murderous hatred of black people. This is not ancient history.
Traffic stops are fearful events for black Americans — that seems to be a fairly self-evident claim to me. Perhaps knowing the story of Philando Castile, who was pulled over 46 times before being fatally shot by a police officer would help explain why. Republican Senator Tim Scott also talked thoughtfully about his experience being pulled over, and the fear that those stops inspired.
I’ve never heard anyone make the claim that all black leaders were assassinated. This sounds to me like hyperbole that was taken literally. Obviously some prominent ones have been, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
3. Personally, I agree with much of this one. I think the United States is flawed and culpable for a lot of wrongdoing beyond slavery and Jim Crow. Japanese internment, genocide of Native Americans, and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment were the first three to come to my mind. I imagine I could easily list several hundred.
In terms of identifying as American, that to me is a deeply personal decision. I find no moral value in identifying as American or not — just as I find no moral value in being American or not. But here’s my favorite poem about someone grappling with what it means to be American as a black man (or member of any number of groups that have not had full access to the “American dream”). It’s Let America Be America Again, by Langston Hughes: https://poets.org/poem/let-america-be-america-again
I’ve never had a black person tell me they thought life was hopeless because of their race. Spending time with black friends and family members is one of the most uplifting, empowering, hilarious, joyful things that I do.
I do think, though, that when confronted with the long list of ways that life in the United States and around the world is limited for black people because they are black, one might rightly feel somewhat dismayed. Black people experience higher rates of poverty, gun violence, maternal mortality, and incarceration than any other group in this country. We also have less access to jobs, education, and opportunities — you’ve acknowledged much of this in your letter. And, to come back to the idea that we cannot stand idly by, I think these circumstances collectively might naturally result in a feeling of hopelessness.
I am what many would consider a successful person. I have a stable job that pays well, a solid community, family, education, and access to everything I want on a day-to-day basis. But my individual success — the fact that I personally was born in extremely privileged circumstances and have managed to hold onto those privileges — does not prevent me from feeling somewhat hopeless about the circumstances that black people disproportionately have to deal with. In other words, my individual “success” feels somewhat meaningless to me knowing that I am the exception; that through no doing of my own, I have access to opportunities and resources that most people never will.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not trying to say that I haven’t made choices in my life, or that I haven’t worked hard or tried to be a decent person. I have agency. But I was also born to rich, highly educated parents who are U.S. citizens, one of whom is white. The fact that I now have a good job isn’t exactly an indicator that racism is waning.
In response to your challenge: If the “narrative” boils down to the idea that racism exists, I have to say, I’m comfortable with that narrative. Yes, racism can seem overwhelming. And to someone who doesn’t experience it every day, I imagine the thought of having to deal with it sounds soul-crushing. But what would be more devastating, in my mind, would be to ignore the realities of racism. In that world, people would be forced to believe that all these things we’ve talked about: income inequality, disparities in education and incarceration rates and wealth (etc., etc.) are simply the result of poor choices. That if black people just tried harder or took ownership of their decisions or believed in ourselves that these disparities would not exist.
That is an old, tired idea, and it is an insidious one. Trying to gaslight black people (or people from any marginalized group) into thinking that we are at fault for our own inequality is a belief that I do not believe can be justified. Racism is an organizing principle of American life. It was written into our Constitution by our founding fathers, and it has been codified into law. That has profound, enduring ramifications.
It’s also something that I think should resonate strongly with anyone who knows Jewish history.
This letter is getting long, so I’ll just add a few more quick notes.
With respect to correlation versus causation: Yes, I think there are often many things at play when we look at different situations. And I think it’s easy enough to explain away any given set of inequalities. I hear frequently comments like, “It’s not about race, it’s about housing segregation…or poverty…or education…or….” But race cannot be separated from these things.
With respect to black immigrants: The idea that it is people elsewhere in the world that experience “real hopelessness” (but are somehow also immune from white supremacy or anti-blackness) is another old, divisive trope. First of all, what counts as real hopelessness and who is the arbiter? What assumptions are we making about the people who are able to immigrate to the United States? One of my dearest friends moved to the U.S. from Ethiopia as a young woman. Her family was well-off and she went to the best schools in Ethiopia. When they came to the U.S., suddenly they were poor (degrees and credentials don’t often translate over easily) and faced enormous challenges that they hadn’t in their home country — including, but not limited to, the fact that they were suddenly part of a minority group that is subject to negative stereotypes.
Cigarettes didn’t just naturally disappear because of the invisible forces of progress. There was extensive research to show that smoking cigarettes was addictive and giving people lung cancer. There were massive efforts to regulate the tobacco industry and increase public awareness, and laws were changed to prevent smoking in most restaurants. And still, the U.S. tobacco industry is estimated to be worth half a trillion dollars a year. This is despite the fact that everyone knows that smoking is bad.
And that’s cigarettes. Racism isn’t just going to disappear. It is baked into the fabric of our nation. If we want to fight against it, the most basic and fundamental step is to acknowledge it.
Robert Wilkes is a writer in Bellevue, Washington, in the Pacific Northwest. His eclectic career has included military and civilian aviation, engineering, marketing and marketing communications. He is a frequent contributor to Divided We Fall’s Political Pen Pal discussions.
Leah Donnella is an assistant editor on NPR’s Code Switch team, where she helps produce and edit stories about race, identity and culture. Prior to that, she was a summer intern at WHYY’s Public Media Commons, where she helped teach high school students the ins and outs of journalism and film-making. Donnella graduated from Pomona College with a Bachelor of Arts in Africana Studies.