“… God is not interested merely in the freedom of black men and brown men and yellow men. God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race and the creation of a society where all men will live together as brothers, and all men will respect the dignity and the worth of all human personality.”
— Martin Luther King Jr.
I will never forget a woman that I met in Huntington Beach, California a little over ten years ago. It was a warm summer day, and I was on Main Street working hard to raise money for an organization called Hands for Africa. The organization focused on helping amputee victims who were maimed in the brutal violence of the blood diamond trade in Sierra Leone. It was a difficult job, but a rewarding one still. As an introvert, it took me a long time to get used to canvassing — standing on a sidewalk, approaching strangers, and engaging them in conversation. But once I became comfortable with it, I surprisingly learned to enjoy it.
It may come as a surprise that street canvassing actually works. The people you see out there in yellow vests with clipboards, and idealistic gleams in their eyes are not typically volunteers. They are paid employees who are highly skilled at recruiting donors. But there is a lot of rejection in canvassing, as I learned early on when I worked for Greenpeace, and Amnesty International in Los Angeles. I got used to getting rejected, and to remembering that canvassing is a numbers game in which every no gets you closer to those who will inevitably say yes. I would hear a lot of the same responses when people would turn me down: I don’t have the money, I give to other causes, can you give me your website? ect. But on this day someone gave me a reason that I had never heard before, and one that I still have not forgotten.
A college-aged woman — dark curly hair, about five feet tall, wearing a t-shirt and jeans — approached me when I asked if she had a minute, and listened patiently to my pitch. I did what I always did. I tried my best to speak with passion, and conviction, all the while wondering if this could be the one who would finally validate all of my efforts for the day. I asked her if we could count on her involvement, and the hesitant look on her face told me everything I needed to know. Or so I thought. I didn’t have to ask her why. She explained to me without prompting that she would not like to be involved in the organization because she believed in doing what she called “solidarity” types of activism, and that that was different from what I was doing, helping Africans as someone “who is white.” I gave her a puzzled look, and she followed up with a polite “no offense.”
No offense was taken. The conversation ended shortly after, and I wished her a great day. But I was perplexed. I was not used to having the value of my efforts dismissed because of my skin color. And, for lack of a better word it was an…icky feeling to sense that there was a barrier between myself and another person, and that it had nothing to do with anything more than our respective racial identities.
The year was 2010, and I was naive to the cultural changes that were occurring around issues of identity. I had been brought up to believe that the antidote to racism was a firm belief in the fundamental equality of all people, and in the superficiality of skin-deep differences. I was naive also in believing that that way of thinking was more or less universal. Now when I scroll through my social media feeds, and read articles on medium.com I can see that this notion had been abandoned some time ago. For many it has been replaced with a wholly different idea: that one’s skin color is perhaps one of the most important things about them, and that racial differences should be kept top of mind in order to redress grievances, and correct inequities. This viewpoint has been crystalized over the past several decades in the universities under an ideology known as Critical Race Theory, and popularized in bestselling books such as How to be an Anti Racist, by Ibram X Kendi, as well as Robin D. Angelo’s White Fragility.
This new view point seems to make sense on its face, but I can’t help but wonder, has it taken us forward? Whatever we might say about the philosophical merits of a certain worldview, there is an old axiom which states that the quality of an idea can simply be judged by its fruits.
As writer Coleman Hughes pointed out in a podcast he recorded entitled The Case for Color Blindness, what he calls the color-blind, or humanist vision of racial equality espoused by people like Martin Luther King was successful in ending Jim Crow, and outlawing work-place discrimination. The same philosophy was foundational for slavery abolitionists in the 19th century in both the US and Britain. And before we miss the significance of either of those accomplishments, it is worth noting that never before in the history of the world had the institution of slavery, or its institutional remnants been abolished by law. That was an observation made in the final chapter of Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals, and Society.
Do we see the same potential for effectiveness in the most recent iteration of the movement for racial equality? In other words, is what we now call anti-racism actually working?
I am open to the possibility that it could be. Perhaps silently, subversively, it is beginning to dismantle the oppression that still exists, albeit in less obvious ways than it did for our grandparents, and our ancestors before them. But as I look around me I can’t help but feel unconvinced. I see division. I see protests erupt all too easily into violence. I see millions of people angrily talking past each other on social media over an issue as seemingly straightforward as racial tolerance. I see calls to radicalism from mainstream news sources. I see corrupt, and divisive political figures like Donald Trump gaining levels of popularity and influence that would have been unimaginable just 20 years ago. Even the New York Times recently published an op-ed that cast doubts on the effectiveness of our current appraoch to social change.
It seems to me that as humans we have evolved to be tribal. And that regardless of what our intentions might be, to whatever extent we focus on our differences, we will become bitterly divided by them. Being woke to the subtly oppressive power of Whiteness, being reminded to “check” one’s privilege, or remembering to inspect every aspect of society for evidence of structural racism might sound like good ideas in theory. But how are they doing in practice? My simple response is that it is not my responsibility to refute, or deconstruct this way of thinking. The burden of proof lies, as with all new ideas, on those who advocate for them.
So I ask this: what was so deficient about the idea that we should strive to live in a world in which we would judge each other not by skin color, but by character? And in what ways has the movement which calls itself anti-racism been an improvement?
I sometimes wonder what that woman on the street would have said if I had told her that I, in fact, am not white. But that I am hispanic — every bit as much Barak Obama is black. And that the organization I was working for was founded, and headed by two black men from Sierra Leone who had emigrated to the US to escape the poverty that they grew up with. My hunch is that it wouldn’t have made a difference because she had made her mind up the second she saw me. Somewhere she had been taught to see whiteness as intrinsically problematic. And as a result, we both missed out on an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life.
As Black History Month, and MLK’s birthday are upon us, I find myself thinking about what it truly means to be anti-racist. I raise the questions above, not out of a desire to shy away from the history, or presence of racism, but on the contrary, because I care about the issue enough to think deeply and honestly about it. These are my thoughts, honest, raw and very much still in process. If you have good answers to questions I raised, then I am genuinely willing to listen.