I am a middle-aged white male in America and I cannot find my tribe.
A soul-crushing level of racism exists in America today, and it’s the most obvious thing in the world. Why aren’t there more people out there that look like me saying it? I don’t have enough brainpower to understand how any person who is not grossly misinformed or just plain dumb, cannot see what I see…right in front of our faces…all the freakin’ time– RACISM. And yet it’s my experience that very few people truly understand and accept the full picture of racism in America. Where are my people? I ask this with all my heart.
Yes, nearly everyone is a racist to some degree. Of course we are! The air we’ve all been breathing our whole lives is polluted with racism, so it only stands to reason. Your chances of growing up in a truly racism-free environment are miniscule, at least in this country [though I don’t wish to invalidate the possibility]. The United States has a 400-year history of racism. Did it end a few years ago and I missed it? Not by a long shot.
If your defenses go up because of the truth-bomb I am hurling at you, stop, drop ‘n roll with me through my explanation, starting with how I define it. A “racist” is anyone who has a race-based hierarchy of value lodged somewhere inside their head. I know I do. I couldn’t avoid it. None of us can. And when I say lodged somewhere inside the head, I’m saying it’s certainly in the subconscious, and for the unabashed racists it also lives smack-dab in the frontal cortex.
Thinking of yourself as someone who carries around racist ideas is a scary thought-bridge to cross– but it’s one that leads to a more comprehensive understanding of racism. Crossing that bridge is uncomfortable. By doing so you admit to being this thing you’ve (hopefully) spoken out against your whole life– a racist. It’s not easy. Perhaps this is why my tribe is so small.
No Escape from Everywhere
Maybe you think you’re saying all the right things already, so crossing over the I-have-racist-thoughts bridge is not something you feel is necessary or that you’re comfortable with yet. Would it help if I show how you became a racist in the first place? (without your knowledge or consent, btw). The key is first understanding that the consequences of racism are everywhere. No hyperbole, not figuratively, literally EVERYWHERE!!! You have to get this. As a writer, this is what I want leaping off the page. Once more my firm proposition is:
The consequences of racism are everywhere!
If you find yourself unconvinced by this truth, but are willing to consider the proposition, I welcome your attention. My tribe would love to grow. But, if you just flat-out don’t believe it and will never believe it, you are definitely not in my tribe. You are in a tribe of the grossly uninformed or dumb, and I’d love to see your numbers shrivel.
The 10X Diff
Let’s start from today and work backwards. Maybe then you will be able to see racism, not for what it is, but for what it has done. According to a 2016 report from the Brookings Institute, a ‘think tank’ [such a pretentious term!] that is committed to doing independent research, the typical white family in America has a net worth of $171,000. The typical black family has a net worth of $17,150. Just let that sink in for a second. That’s a 10X difference! Now ask yourself Why?
One of two things is going on, take your pick. Choose A, B, or both: A) People with black skin are not as good at managing life as those with white skin; B) Racism is everywhere– from individuals to institutions– and those with black skin are put at roughly a 10X disadvantage.
C’mon, man! If you hesitated between A and B even for a second, it’s a prime moment to pause and look-inside for any racist notions you may have lurking. Make a mental note and let’s keep the discussion moving forward. And just so we’re a billion percent clear… the answer is B and only B. Yes, racism is EVERYWHERE. It’s so damn obvious, people. 10X Diff!!!
Are we on the same page now? No? Not yet? No worries. This is big stuff. We’ve all been so thoroughly conditioned.
Born of Pure Hearts
Babies are not born racists. I was not born a racist! But with racism being everywhere (review answer B, above), one cannot escape its impact on the subconscious ←That’s the key ingredient! The polluted air of racism is so prevalent, your brain begins to code the 10X Diff world as “normal.” It’s like getting used to an odor you are exposed to for a prolonged period of time. After a while you don’t smell it anymore.
Understand, I don’t ever need to have experienced individual or institutional racism directly for me to have been shepherded by its existence. Since I’m white, I benefited. But if I had been born black, that shepherding would always have me at a disadvantage. That 10X racial difference is what we get when the “invisible hand” of racism (personal and economic) operates unchecked across multiple generations. What I am also saying is that we don’t have to be raised by racist parents or surrounded by racist friends to internalize certain notions about how the world works vis-a-vis race. I grew up in a predominantly white middle-class neighborhood and went to predominantly white schools from K – 12. For the entirety of my school experience I don’t recall seeing any clear signs of racism. Why would I have? I was benefiting from the 10X Diff world of racism the whole time. The clear signs were all around me. I grew up in a real-life holodeck that was and continues to be racism’s creation. God I hope that makes sense! If this concept is not quite gelling for you, I’ll elaborate on more of those signs in the next segment.
Since the 10X Diff model of the world is all we’ve ever known, and every breath we’ve ever taken is racism-polluted, those on the whiter and wealthier (they often go together) side of the 10X Diff, can look straight at blatant examples of real-life racism and still interpret them as isolated incidents. That stuff just doesn’t happen in their world. This is how some people can watch video after video of the police treating black citizens as if their lives don’t matter, and still not recognize that what they are witnessing is racism in the flesh. Yes, police departments all across the US are filled to the brim with white racist cops that value black lives either a little less or a lot less. Or not at all.
But don’t think for a moment it stops at the cops. Again…it’s everywhere. Though I’m betting heavily there is a higher concentration of hard-core racists in law enforcement than in other professions. [Even the FBI agrees.]
Finding That Confounded Bridge
The level of intensity and depth of stupidity of a given person’s racism places them somewhere on a range, a spectrum, a scale that slides from worst-of-the-worst racist to birds-of-a-feather biased. Someone who grows up in a super-racist, low-information environment might have it really bad. On the flip side, growing up racist sometimes propels people to reject that way of thinking as garbage. Luckily for me, neither of my parents espoused racist language or sentiments. I don’t want to give them too much credit, but it’s even possible they consciously steered me away from such notions. I was 3 years old in 1968, the year many historians regard as being the most racially divisive and socially tumultuous year of the modern era (until 2020). My parents sided firmly with the movement for civil rights, thank goodness. I have a lot to complain about when it comes to both my parents, but this is one area in which they didn’t screw me over.
Is there some hope that 2020’s impact on today’s parents will lead them to consciously steer their children a little further away from racism? I desperately hope so. Perhaps this will be 2020’s silver lining.
Even though my parents did their part, think of all the racialized influences that existed outside of their control– segregated neighborhoods and schools (like mine), notoriously racially-biased local news, even restaurants where the front-of-the-house is white and the back-of-the-house is not. These are all cognitive influencers and I could list a thousand more of them. In the end, racist notions were still getting lodged inside my head all through my childhood and far into adulthood, too.
Wherever you are on the spectrum of racism, the route to more fully “getting it” begins with acknowledging the two things I’ve talked about at length now. One, we are all bound to have racist notions buried deep inside our subconscious. And two, we are all living in a racism-constructed world. If you can get these two things and see how they work together, you will have crossed that bridge and can then look back to the other side and see the 10X Diff world with more clarity than ever before.
Here’s one quick but revealing personal example of how insidious racist notions can percolate to the surface when you least expect it. I was doing some traveling for work last year and I had just taken my seat on a plane. A few rows behind me a baby was crying, and I mean wailing like their diapers were on fire. I didn’t turn to look right away, but when the crying continued for 5 minutes, 10 minutes, I finally twisted myself around to check out all the fuss. In the midst of all the majority-white faces on the plane, a black man stood in the aisle cradling his crying baby, adding some bouncy motions for good measure. A thought-flash darted through my head, chased by a faint negative impulse. I thought… figures.
Wait! What?! Figures…? Why? Why did that thought ever slink through my noggin? It’s a dad caring for his crying child. Holy reveal! The racism buried inside my polluted subconscious had just showed itself. Yes, I caught the micro-aggressive bastard-thought red-handed, but I’m admitting to you: it was there!
Thankfully, I’m on the “lighter” side of racism, presumably because of how I was raised (or maybe because I once thought, Maybe I’m Jesus). Either way, perhaps it’s easier for me than it is for others to own up to racism and recenter myself when needed…and even lean myself harder in the anti-racist direction too. But tragically, there are hundreds of millions of Americans who are not on the lighter side of racism and will deny (on a stack of bibles even) they harbor any racist thoughts to begin with. And they live among us. And many of them are cops…
For decade after decade and decade….people of color in America have been telling stories of police abuse, and of racism in many other contexts. It’s a perversion of common sense to believe they’re all lying. We shouldn’t have to see it from someone’s camera phone to believe it.
The more I hear stories about what it’s really like to be living while black, the more sensitive and aware I become about the topic of racism as a whole. Aware meaning also– self-aware. These days I know enough to identify my own corrosive racist thoughts when they occur. But now imagine if I didn’t have this self-awareness, or far worse, if I denied that I was holding onto any racist notions in the first place. How easy it would be for me to say or do things (without even knowing it) that subtly or bluntly serve to uphold the 10X Diff world we live in. It’s practically guaranteed. Without that awareness I might just act…and the racist thoughts lodged inside my head would go out into the world unchecked.
If you are not there already– ya know, able to think it through like I am– I urge you again to tune-in to your own racist notions, as uncomfortable as that might be. Exposing the insidious race-based hierarchy of value we subconsciously place on every racial category of person we encounter is how we begin to recognize what’s really going on around us. It’s how we gain the upper hand on racism.
We aren’t going to fix it, folks, but we can grow our tribe. If we grow strong enough, we can pound away at the moral arc of the universe until it finally submits to being bent towards justice…yes, for all. We’ll know progress is being made when 10X becomes 9X becomes 8X and so on.
There is one perfectly appropriate idea that would facilitate a trend in that right direction….
The Highest Hurdle
Present-day events have brought racism in America into stark relief. Meaning: the state of being distinguished by contrast. From non-stop in your face what-are-you-gonna-do-about-it killings of unarmed black men and women by police, to the BLM protests that have erupted in response, from police brutality towards protesters protesting police brutality [so ironic], to counter-protesters….to rioters, disingenuous agitators, complicit media, dishonest pundits, all the way down to online fighting between strangers, and then in-person disagreements among (soon to be former) friends. The flash-points we bear witness to today are a portal into the greater reality of racism in America (and around the world for that matter).
When I take a wide-angle view, I see the through-line that runs from the slave ships that left the shores of Africa hundreds of years ago to the multitude of racial inequities we are currently mired in.
The issue of unequal treatment of black citizens by police is only an exposure point today because of cell phones. It’s been going on for centuries but now we can all see it with our own eyes. It is no less clear than it was when uniformed white men on horses were swinging their batons at marchers on the Edmund Pettus bridge in 1965. That through-line screams at us daily. If this has made you deaf to injustice, you are not in my tribe.
YES, I’m going to talk about reparations. And not fake reparations for the sake of political theater. Real reparations in pursuit of justice. Justice that looks a lot more like a 1X diff when we compare our net worth’s, 1X when we grow up in our predominantly mixed neighborhoods, 1X when we send our kids to our predominantly mixed schools. Reparations. How ‘bout it? In my tribe, it’s not even a close call. There’s no need for further debate. A huge debt is owed. And if reparations are what we call repayment, so be it. Let’s study it, let’s figure it out, and let’s make it happen. We’ll never get over the hump of racial injustice in America until we do.
If you have never read The Case For Reparations, by Ta-nehisi Coates, read it. Do not pass go, do not collect $200, until you have taken the time to read this lengthy treatise on the topic (published in 2015). Read it first, then come at me. Until then, we’re not having a discussion because you have no idea what you’re talking about.
I am under no illusion that America will EVER make reparations to right our wrongs. Racism is so firmly entrenched in our society that I’m sadly confident public opinion on the subject won’t ever budge. Money controls our government anyway and the reparationist lobby (if there even is one) doesn’t have big checks to hand out to politicians. I am truly afraid that racial injustice and inequality will never end. This leaves me deeply saddened, angered and disgusted. And I pray to be wrong.
If you are not in my tribe already, well, I certainly cannot join yours. If you are in the tribe that thinks all this talk about racism is overblown, or, for example, is convinced police brutality towards citizens of color reflects the actions of a ‘few bad (and racist) apples,’ you undoubtedly live inside a protective bubble where your daily life is untouched by racial tensions. You are the fish that is asked, “How’s the water?” And responds, “What water?” People of this tribe will always deny being racists themselves, too. In addition to lacking self-awareness, part of their denial stems from the fact that their racial comfort zone is rarely if ever breached. Their lives on the upper-end of the 10X Diff scale of net worth are structured so that any racist notions lodged in their subconscious can remain comfortably stowed away.
If you are in my tribe, where are you? It seems the air is so polluted with racism we can’t even find each other. Please make yourself known; I need to pass along this torch. You see, I will not be living in America much longer. As 2021 begins, the winds of change are taking me to foreign shores. It is my choice to be leaving America and racism is not the reason. However, is it part of the equation? Yes it is. Same as with my other “political” post, Down Goes America, I would not have included these topics as part of this epic blog if they were not relevant to my story.
My final thought. The 10X Diff world that divides us today is racism’s unjust creation. Justice first. Then peace. No justice. No peace.
Wow! This was a tough one, folks. I learned a few new things just from the process of writing it, too. I thank you so much for reading.