Excited and agitated, my friend and colleague Liz Chen popped into my office yesterday to ask my opinion of the news that had her Facebook friends buzzing.
Last month noted actor Forest Whitaker was falsely accused of stealing from a popular New York City deli when he stopped in to buy a cup of yogurt. A Milano Market employee frisked the famous black actor, believing him to be one of the shoplifters who pocket items from the store without paying for them. As it turns out, however, Whitaker didn’t steal anything—and when the story hit the celebrity websites, the employee quit his job amid apologies from the storeowner.
But it wasn’t Whitaker’s plight that blew up Liz’s Facebook newsfeed. Instead, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s pensive New York Times essay, “The Good, Racist People,” had her Facebook pals talking about racism in a way that Liz told me she’d never experienced before. In his op-ed, Coates raises the question of what the appropriate response is from an individual, the larger public, and any sentient being to an exposed racist act.
“Facebook got started about the time I was in high school,” Liz explained. “I’d watched how conversations there have grown over time, but I’d never seen as many and as diverse a group of people all passing around that article and commenting on racism in our society as they did with this story.”
She said that the conversation among her friends—nearly all socially engaged progressives—moved from the virtual world to the physical, as a group of them gathered over the weekend and talked about Coates’s article nearly nonstop. “Most of my friends care only about their specific issues—women’s rights or gender equality or saving the whales or whatnot—but this was the first time they all came together to talk specifically about racism and issues surrounding white privilege,” she said, noting it was something of a breakthrough moment.
Liz, a Policy Analyst with American Progress’s Women’s Health and Rights Program, is a whip-smart graduate of the University of Chicago and the Washington University School of Law. Her parents are from China, but she has lived her entire life in the United States. And, like nearly every person of color that I know, she’s keenly sensitive to issues of race and identity in this country.
Liz and I talk often about these matters, partly because it’s my work and partly because of my experiences. I am 56 years old; Liz is 25 years old, not quite half my age. We learn from each other.
I came of age as the Great Society of the 1960s closed—a period defined as the “years of the black” by author and scholar David Bradley in a 1982 Esquire magazine essay. Bradley called my formative years a “fascinating epoch” during which benevolent, wealthy, and white liberals, driven by the guilt of their forefathers’ sins and the ranting of Afro’d, heat-packing, shades-wearing-at-night brothers in leather jackets persuaded politicians and activists to swallow an expensive set of social programs meant “to conceal evidence of a scandalous past or present.”
I’ve kept a copy of Bradley’s article—titled “Black and American, 1982: There Are No Good Times to Be Black in America, but Some Times Are Worse Than Others”—since the first time I read it. Back then I was starting my career as a reporter at The Charlotte Observer, my hometown newspaper, convinced that ambition and drive would take me places that my parents only imagined and that race would one day be unimportant in my life. I was right about the former and wrong about the latter.
Since my youthful days, newspapers have given way to social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. But racism endures.
I have spent a lot of energy and emotion over the years on studying why that continues to be so. I haven’t figured it out. But this much I do know: Racism is like gravity. Its unseen force is omnipresent, pushing all of us to the ground. There is no permanent escape for anyone, only temporary reprieves that are more possible for those with means, contacts, and talents than those who lack such life benefits.
The most troubling part of this understanding that I’ve come slowly and unhappily over a lifetime to accept is that racism’s force seems only to be apparent to its victims. That’s why people of color—and black people, in particular—tend to make such a ruckus over the slightest of racial insults. We want “The Other” to see what they’re doing. Mostly they don’t open their eyes, but sometimes they do. It also explains why insensitive people tell us to “just get over it.”
Coates’s essay was an eye-bulging, get-’em-talking moment. Most significantly, he made it plain and put it before a larger, whiter audience of elite New York Times readers:
The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion. We can forgive Whitaker’s assailant. Much harder to forgive is all that makes Whitaker stand out in the first place. New York is a city, like most in America, that bears the scars of redlining, blockbusting and urban renewal. The ghost of those policies haunts us in a wealth gap between blacks and whites that has actually gotten worse over the past 20 years.
But much worse, it haunts black people with a kind of invisible violence that is given tell only when the victim happens to be an Oscar winner. The promise of America is that those who play by the rules, who observe the norms of the “middle class,” will be treated as such. But this injunction is only half-enforced when it comes to black people, in large part because we were never meant to be part of the American story. Forest Whitaker fits that bill, and he was addressed as such.
In this mistakenly labeled “post-racial” period, Coates’s essay made it all the more difficult for the sighted to shield their eyes from how 21st-century racism grounds even the most exalted among us. And it begs the question: How do the rest of us respond? Do we demand an apology? Public humiliation? Boycotts? What happens when those tactics don’t produce satisfaction? I have many angry friends who tote in their heads a checklist of places and products—Shell Oil (apartheid), Denny’s Restaurants (racism), Wal-Mart (worker exploitation), Nike (child labor)—to avoid due to their past and current exhibitions of human indecency. For the most part, their individual and silent protest amounts to narcissism, a feeling of superiority over a corporation that doesn’t know they exist. Meanwhile, the vast majority of America yawns—if it even does that.
My young friend Liz and her friends are wrestling with this dilemma in their Facebook postings. Like me, they haven’t figured it out. What they do know, though, is that they can’t simply be mute. I find hope for the future in their refusing to let injustice pass without naming it.
“Maybe we are learning in a different way in the Facebook generation,” Liz said, just before our conversation closed. “I don’t have any expectations of racism ending, but on an individual level, my friends and I have a responsibility to call out people on their racism and do it in a way that they can hear.”
Who says youth is wasted on the young?
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.