For all the pain we’re collectively shouldering right now, I like to see people looking for sources of uplift, wherever that may come from. For some, it’s sports, a TV show, or just spending time with the people they love. I see others taking some measure of relief from small moments of racial bonding and reconciliation. These moments are captured in photos, Reddit threads and Facebook posts, spreading virally across progressive and conservative networks alike.
One of the defining examples of these viral moments in recent years is the photo of a Black boy hugging a cop at a Portland Black Lives Matter protest in 2014. And in the days since the killings of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and the Dallas officers, I’ve been seeing more of these: a story about a white cop asking a Black girl how she’s doing and her breaking down in his arms; a video of an officer having a dance off with some kids; a Reddit post about a white man, two Black men and a white cop bonding over Pokemon in the middle of the night; and still more pictures of white cops and Black protesters side-by-side.
If these moments give people some slight relief or sense of hope in a dark time, great. I don’t want to take that away from anyone. And certainly any instance of police trying to build better relationships with the community is a welcome sight. But I’m concerned that there’s a risk that these images and stories reduce the problem of violent, systemic anti-Black racism to simply a matter of white people being mean to Black people. Or potentially even worse, of Black people not being nice to white people either.
The racism those photos and stories are curing can only be a thing that exists in fleeting moments of interpersonal interactions. And even then, those are exceedingly rare because apparently it only counts as racism if you have at least one racist bone in your body. White people, being more offended at being called racist than at actual racism, will go to any length to make sure that the term can only be used in cases of the most extreme degree. And even then we’ll only truly reach a feeling of open national panic when the protests start, or god forbid, something awful happens like in Dallas.
Then, and apparently only then — after two Black people were killed in cold blood, captured on video, stirring protests, more murder, and then violent crackdowns — will we be ready to — no, not promise to eradicate racism in every shape and form; and no, not apologize solemnly and ask for grace and forgiveness — ”begin a national conversation on race.”
Like we’re saying, “It’s cool, Black america. It’s time to hug it out. We both got a little drunk, said some things we didn’t mean, so bring it here.”
That’s not how this works.
Framing racism in these terms ignores the overwhelming machinery of racism that lives in the law, our economy and culture. It ignores the way the War on Drugs locked up Black people, the way that Jim Crow, redlining and more recently subprime mortgages contributed to a massive racial wealth gap, and the way that voter ID laws disproportionately disenfranchise people of color. And it ignores the unrepentant undermining of our nation’s first Black president at every conceivable stop.
A multi-century history of racism isn’t a “both sides were wrong now go make up” sibling roughhousing situation. It’s not a situation where there’s any ambiguity over who started it first or what the outcomes were. The evidence is pretty goddamn clear: we white people started it and the outcomes are playing out in our streets, our schools, the workplace and the voting booth.
I love the way Chris Rock puts it:
”When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that Black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.”
We can’t hug-out “racial tension”. We need to eradicate racism and we need to do it now.
Can we all be more compassionate and accepting in our daily interactions? Absolutely. But that’s not going to solve the problem, and pretending that it will ignores what we need to do. So what should we draw inspiration from if not feel-good moments? Personally, I draw inspiration from anything that seems like it might signal or drive meaningful systemic change.
So I draw inspiration from every time when I see powerful people genuinely condemning racism, like when President Obama spoke forcefully on the problem of systemic bias in policing in his speech for the Dallas officers (even if he did go “both sides” later on). It’s not just the condemnation that matters — that can only go so far. It’s that these ideas are shared by many of our political leaders and they might just be able to affect meaningful policy changes.
I draw inspiration from seeing cops make meaningful efforts to change, like these NYPD officers of color who are breaking ranks, bringing a lawsuit and speaking out against the NYPD’s racist policing. If we’re going to transform policing, we need officers to take a stand against discriminatory tactics.
I draw inspiration from seeing new people genuinely condemn racism, like when a new white friend, who I didn’t know to care much about the issues, speaking out against racism for the first time. Sure, it’s only Facebook, but I see this as a meaningful indicator that at least some white people are being “less crazy”.
And most important, I draw inspiration from the young Black folks I see leading the movement to force real change at the level of policy. National groups like Campaign Zero are pushing a powerful agenda, and local groups in Chicago and Cleveland have scored big wins by unseating their County Attorneys for failing to prosecute police misconduct. While white people have a role to play (I’m writing this piece, after all), this movement needs to be led by people of color, and I’m constantly inspired by the talent, passion and dedication of folks around the country doing this work.
These things may not be as photogenic as a viral moment of forgiveness, but unlike those memes, they might actually signify real progress towards ending the racism that maims and murders in 2016.