In "The Case for Reparations," which is one of the most powerful and timely essays on the subject of racial justice that I have read, Ta-Nehisi Coates connects the skepticism toward reparations as a redress for the historical calamities suffered by African Americans in this country to the selective memory of US culture:
We invoke the words of Jefferson and Lincoln because they say something about our legacy and our traditions. We do this because we recognize our links to the past—at least when they flatter us. But black history does not flatter American democracy; it chastens it. The popular mocking of reparations as a harebrained scheme authored by wild-eyed lefties and intellectually unserious black nationalists is fear masquerading as laughter. Black nationalists have always perceived something unmentionable about America that integrationists dare not acknowledge—that white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it. And so we must imagine a new country.
The widely held belief that reparations are unreasonable, "a harebrained scheme," results from a failure to grasp not only the enormity of the harm caused by white supremacy but its presence in, its taint on, what we love and admire about ourselves and our history. A similar blockage seems to be at work in Madison, where the mostly white progressive community--a community that I love, even when I feel alienated from it--has yet to come to terms with the uncomfortable truth that the Madison of the Race to Equity Report and the Madison of the 2011 protests against Act 10 are the same. To imagine a new city, let alone build one, we must first confront things that do not flatter us and things that make us afraid. While this will necessarily be a collective process, it is also deeply personal. The stories we tell about ourselves and our communities are part of who we are. Revising or discarding them can be painful and disorienting, but it is better than the alternative, which is not knowing the truth and causing harm to others as a result.
I am going to write about three things that have happened in the past couple months, because they have changed the way I see myself, and, set alongside of each other, they might reveal something about what has been happening in Madison since the publication of the Race to Equity Report last fall--and, perhaps, what needs to happen. The first is something that Everett Mitchell said at a panel discussion in April. The second is a story about what happened when a white woman repeated what Mitchell said in a classroom at Madison College. And the third is something about my family history that I learned for the first time about a week ago. This past spring, I had the pleasure of being a teacher and a student at the same time, and the time I have spent moving between those positions and the spaces where I inhabit them, UW Madison and Madison College, has enriched my perspective on the conversations unfolding around racial justice in our community. When I attended "Together/Apart: Talking Across the Social Divide" on April 25, 2014, I did so as a student, teacher, and activist. Earlier in the week, the instructor of the class I was taking at Madison College had emailed the class to encourage us to attend. That morning, I had talked about the event with my students in the class I was teaching at UW. And I got a ride to the event with friends I know through Groundwork, and several other members of the group attended.
A panel discussion organized by Wisconsin Public Radio and The Capital Times, "Together/Apart" was emceed by Keith Woods, National Public Radio's Vice President of Diversity and a masterful interviewer. The panel assembled eight of the most important voices in the discussions around racial justice that have been taking place in Madison over the last seven months. Woods opened the discussion by asking the panelists, "What gets in the way, for you, in your attempts to have good conversations across difference?" Michael Johnson, CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, answered first, then Woods called on Everett Mitchell, Pastor of Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church and Director of Community Relations at UW - Madison. "I’ll be honest," Mitchell began, "I think sometimes what gets in my way sometimes is my own fear and that I don’t trust white people. I don’t trust white women and actually I’m afraid. [...] I won’t even allow myself to be in the same office with a white woman without the door open or a window where somebody can see me. My greatest fear sometimes is to be seen as something even though I intentionally know that I am not that at all." Woods asked him to say what that "something" was. "That I am a brutal, black rapist, out of control, angry," Mitchell said. "That if I am passionate, that I am angry. That if I raise my voice, I am about to hurt you. That if I express or sit up on my body, that you gotta call security, because you don’t know what’s going to happen in the room." Some people in the audience gasped.
Media coverage of the event has tended to describe Mitchell’s statement as honest and necessary. It was also heroic and compassionate. Public discussions of race tend toward cant and platitude, but Mitchell spoke from the heart--and he did so at considerable risk. His answer to Woods’s question offered the audience a glimpse of what it’s like to live as the object of the racial stereotypes and racially inflected anxieties. He also reminded white people in the audience that, no matter how many meetings or trainings we attend, we will carry the history of racism and white supremacy with them wherever we go. As a result, the color of our skin has the power to poison relationships and make people afraid. I can't say for certain what the people who gasped at his remarks were feeling. Surely, for some, it was an expression of disbelief or anger. For others, it may have been a reaction to the pain of recognition. I felt pain and discomfort, too, as I always do when someone, especially a person of color, talks about white supremacy. But I also felt relief and gratitude. Thanks to Mitchell, the ugly reality we had gathered to face was now before us. We had entered that uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous place where learning and growth are possible.
Two weeks later, Mitchell’s comment came up in a class I was taking at Madison College. My instructor, a white woman, quoted Mitchell to illustrate a point she was making about the value of saying and hearing things that make us uncomfortable. Before she had finished speaking, a middle aged white male student cut her off, and said, in a mocking voice, "I don’t trust white women either." When my instructor repeated Mitchell’s words, this student heard in them nothing but an echo of his own misogyny, and he made them into a weapon he could use to silence a woman whose authority he resented. Before the class period was over, this same student left abruptly, saying only that "He had to go." For the rest of class, I sat facing the side of the room, so that I could keep an eye on the door. I was afraid that he might come back with a gun. In April, Madison College’s Truax campus was locked down because a suicidal man told his girlfriend that he was going there with a gun. Last week, on another college campus, Elliot Rodger murdered seven people in a rampage he planned as a "War on Women."
The same week as the Isla Vista shootings, I was visiting family in Pittsburgh, and my father told me a story about his father, my grandfather. A man I had never met and whose first name I have trouble remembering, he is nevertheless a man whose life is part of my history, whether I like it or not. He was an ninety-day wonder, an officer in the second world war commissioned after a three-month training course. Because he was unusually cruel for an officer, the Army punished him by putting him in charge of a regiment of African Americans, a post that was considered dishonorable at the time. He was so afraid of the soldiers in his regiment that he taught my grandmother, a white woman, how to use a handgun. She died when I was young, but I think of her often. A teacher who devoted her life to working with children with disabilities, her seemingly boundless love and generosity is one of the things that inspires me as an activist. When I heard Rev. Mitchell discuss his fear of being perceived as a "brutal, black rapist," I knew that the history of that stereotype was a history of violence. Emmett Till, whose murder was one of the events that launched the civil rights movement, was beaten, mutilated, and shot to death for speaking to a white woman. What I did not know, until last week, was that one of the people who taught me how to love had once learned how to handle a weapon because she thought she might need to shoot African American men to protect herself. Her legacy of kindness, which lives in my heart, is bound up inextricably with a legacy of violence and death.
We are living in a moment that is as fraught with danger as it is dense with revolutionary possibility. When I talk to my friends about the coincidence of these events, it feels like I am playing with dynamite. These words and stories have a volatile power, like nitroglycerine, that is unpredictable and difficult to control. Or, rather, they feel like the words in a spell that, spoken aloud, will summon terrifying creatures from another realm. At least, that’s what they feel like to me as a white cis man, who lives in a culture that tells us racism and white supremacy exist only in the past, consigned safely to the dustbin of history. One of the most eloquent and accurate definitions of privilege that I’ve read can be found in a book by Sarah Schulman called The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination. Linking the rapid gentrification of New York and San Francisco to deaths caused by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, she writes:
The replacement tenants [who took over apartments owned by people who died from HIV/AIDS] had a culture of real privilege. I know that’s a word that is bandied about, and can be applied too easily in many arenas. But what I mean in the case of gentrifiers is that they were "privileged" in that they did not have to be aware of their power or of the ways in which it was constructed. They instead saw their dominance as simultaneously nonexistent and as the natural deserving order. This is the essence of supremacy ideology: the self-deceived pretense that one’s power is acquired by being deserved and has no machinery of enforcement. And then, the privileged, who the entire society is constructed to propel, unlearn that those earlier communities ever existed. They replaced the history and experience of their neighborhoods’ former residents with a distorted sense of themselves as timeless.
While Schulman is describing a particular history of gentrification, her analysis of the cultural dimension of privilege can be generalized to illuminate other historical situations, including our own. The Race to Equity Report described the racial disparities that define life in Dane County in terms that could not be ignored by Madison’s mostly white progressive community, which constitutes a majority of the city’s political elites. They have responded by attending public forums and listening to people of color tell them about the structural racism of which they are the principal beneficiaries. Events like the panel discussion in April are rare opportunities for middle and upper class white people in Madison to peer through the veil of supremacy ideology. What lies behind that veil seems like a nightmare, only the demons are real and the realm they inhabit is our world and our history.
Reflecting on these experiences, I am also reminded of an essay by James Baldwin. Written in 1963, "My Dungeon Shook" takes the form of a letter from Baldwin to his nephew and namesake, then a young man. Baldwin tells his nephew that he must never believe what white people think and say about him, and he must also learn to accept them, with love:
The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for so many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shining and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.
I first came across these words, which blaze on the page as if written in fire, during an anti-oppression training organized by Groundwork. They helped me understand more deeply what I was going through during the workshop, and they inspired me to keep thinking through what it means to be the benificiary of racism and white supremacy. Thinking that you can separate yourself from history--that you are "timeless," as Schulman puts it--is another way of being imprisoned by it. For most of my life, I thought my family history had relatively little to do with the political commitments and intellectual interests that brought me to the First Unitarian Society and my classrooms at UW Madison and the Truax Campus of Madison College. Now, I am beginning to understand that to be a witness and an agent of change in Madison, to hear the testimony of people like Rev. Mitchell and to do the right thing when misogyny interrupts the exchange of ideas, I need to learn how to be accountable for the white men and women in my past whose anger and fear, as well as compassion, brought me into being. Something that James Baldwin wrote in another essay, "Stranger in the Village," helps me to believe that this is possible, and not for me alone: "When one considers the history of the Negro in America it is of the greatest importance to recognize that the moral beliefs of a person, or a people, are never really as tenuous as life--which is not moral--very often causes them to appear; these create for them a frame of reference and a necessary hope, the hope being that when life has done its worst they will be enabled to rise above themselves and triumph over life." Baldwin’s essay, written in the middle of the twentieth century, anticipates the Madison of 2014. That it resonates so powerfully with the struggle we face in our city shows that that struggle is not unusual, let alone paradoxical, as it is described in the Race to Equity Report. The contradictions of present day Madison are the contradictions of the history of the United States.
We tend to speak of dialogue as a prelude to action, and the forums held in the wake of the Race To Equity Report have been framed in this way. First, we will discuss what must be done, and then we will do it. Of course, public forums alone will not eliminate the racial disparities in Dane County, and all of us are eager to move from dialogue to action. Attending events like "Together/Apart" is a way for white Madisonians to demonstrate their commitment to racial justice, and in this way their listening is performative and a little self-congratulatory. Our presence shows that we are truly progressive, even if the material conditions of life in our city contradicts the values held so dearly by its elites. Look how much we care: we are here in droves. Yet they--we--are listening, even if our motives are imperfect, and, at First Unitarian, Mitchell and the other panelists said the kind of thing that can cause an upheaval in someone’s universe. I do not know what it’s like to live as a person of color in a racist nation, county, or city, but I do know what it’s like to discover your own privilege, as a white person, after spending your life immersed in culture where that privilege is naturalized. It feels like the very ground beneath your feet is breaking apart, and it is terrifying enough to take your breath away. Is that why some people gasped when Mitchell said he had trouble trusting white people? If it is, that is grounds for hope.