THE BLOG
05/06/2014 06:06 pm ET Updated Jul 06, 2014

The Delusional Freedom Fighter

In recent weeks there have been a stunning number of events that have demonstrated how NOT post-racial America is.

There was the standoff between Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his merry band of armed freedom fighters against the United States government -- with Cliven Bundy emerging as the victor.

This outcome of course sparked articles about how this standoff would have ended much differently if there had been an outspoken black or Latino person who owed the government 2 million dollars and, while being backed up by armed rabble rousers from multiple states, refused to pay. (See, for example, Jamelle Bouie's "What if Bundy Ranch were Owned by a Bunch of Black People?."

He says:

As someone who closely follows the regular incidents of lethal police violence against blacks and Latinos, I also wonder whether law enforcement would be as tepid against a group of armed African-Americans. Judging from past events, I'm not so sure.

This was preceded by the Supreme Court's latest affirmative action ruling, which pitted the Supreme Court against its own precedent. It maintained that its constitutional to take away from the elected board of a university by voter referendum the power to determine admissions standards -- thus keeping race-conscious admissions in Michigan unlawful unless a state constitutional amendment is passed -- a seemingly impossible feat. Meanwhile, all other non-meritocratic admissions standards -- those based on athletics, donations, legacy and so on -- remain permissible.

The ridiculousness of this ruling was saturated in terms that allude to a changing America -- an America where race matters less. This notion sparked a 58 page dissent in the form of a history lesson from Justice Sotomayor, saying in part:

In my colleagues' view, examining the racial impact of legislation only perpetuates racial discrimination. This refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters is regrettable. The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination. As members of the judiciary tasked with intervening to carry out the guarantee of equal protection, we ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society. It is this view that works harm, by perpetuating the facile notion that what makes race matter is acknowledging the simple truth that race does matter.

In the same week, there were two big articles published about implicit bias -- one with regard to how legal writing samples are viewed differently depending on the race of the author and the other shedding light on how bias determines who receives mentorship from professors in college. An excerpt from the legal writing study:

On a five point scale, reviews for the exact same memo averaged a 3.2 for the 'African American' author and 4.1 for the 'Caucasian' author. More surprising were the findings of 'objective' criteria such as spelling. The partner evaluators found an average of 2.9 spelling and grammar errors for the 'Caucasian' authors and 5.8 such errors for the 'African American' authors.

As one of three black men in my graduating class at Boston University School of Law, and the sole black male attorney in most places I maneuver through, none of this was surprising to me, but it was disappointing nonetheless.

This was followed by the much talked about Donald Sterling fiasco, where he was caught on tape essentially telling his girlfriend that, in the environment of mega-rich, white prestige that he roams in, it makes for inconvenient conversation amongst him and his billionaire brethren when she parades around posting negro-grams on social media. It didn't matter that the negro-gram was of a hall of famer like Magic Johnson.

Outrage quickly ensued with folks calling for his head. This of course left some scratching theirs about why this instance of racial insensitivity mattered, but years of, for example, housing discrimination did not. Bomani Jones and Ta-Nehesi Coates had the best responses. From Coates' piece, "This Town Needs a Better Class of Racist":

Elegant racism is invisible, supple, and enduring. It disguises itself in the national vocabulary, avoids epithets and didacticism. Grace is the singular marker of elegant racism. One should never underestimate the touch needed to, say, injure the voting rights of black people without ever saying their names. Elegant racism lives at the border of white shame. Elegant racism was the poll tax. Elegant racism is voter-ID laws.

The NBA responded to the whole thing by banning Sterling for life. The Clippers players' muted response - simply turning their jerseys inside out - also led to much conversation about what the more appropriate or more revolutionary response would have been, with articles like "Black People are Cowards" and its rebuttal, "Who's a Coward?: The Flawed Logic of Faux Revolutionaries," among others, popping up.

In the same matter of weeks we have also received a sobering report from ProPublica called "Segregation Now" about the seeming failures of the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision sixty years ago, meant to integrate our nation's schools. Today, schools are more segregated than ever before.

As I sat and digested all of these recent happenings, it dawned on me that, as a racial and social justice advocate, to throw oneself into this work, one has to be delusional.

I have written in the past about how the facts on the ground matter (See #FactsOnly) and about why it's important that we fully understand the full scope of problems before pursuing solutions.

But in this case, when you fully understand the problem, you also have to face the realization of just how close we are today, in the 2000s, to the 1950s.

To fully take stock of the problems is to understand that many of our greatest civil rights heroes were nowhere near achieving the outcomes they set out to achieve, and that we are still light years away from those sought-after outcomes now.

To show just how dominant and unyielding white supremacy has been in our country, take a moment to fully digest this quote from NPR's Tell Me More segment on Native American's and higher education yesterday:

As a group, Native Americans have the highest poverty rate of any ethnic or racial group in this country.

It's apropos that one of the most heralded speeches of all time is the "I Have a Dream" speech, since much of the equality that we advocate for seems to be the providence of flights of fancy... Dreams in which we convince ourselves that a country founded on oppression will eventually yield to a new way of operating.

This to me is the equivalent of deciding one day that we are going to change the way we breathe -- we will no longer inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide -- nor will humans continue to be a land-based life form but instead will become aquatic-based. Do these changes sound likely?

The work of the racial and social justice advocate is effectively the work of changing the governing rules of an entire eco system.

The actual goal that we are pushing for is the end of life as we, as a country, know it -- an end that will not come quietly or without extreme resistance.

After all, to work towards upending such a system is, in some ways, just as delusional as the premise that so many try every day to perpetuate -- that our current system is already one of equity, equality and justice.

To do this work effectively, we have to believe that we can shift the conscience of the masses from one of false positivity, disengaged from the reality of the negative impacts of the current system, to an understanding of just how inequitable the existing system is. In other words, we have to massively reboot and reconfigure the hardware and software that our country was founded on as we seek to change the operating system from white supremacy to a hybrid of equity and restorative justice.

This kind of total reboot doesn't come from turning jerseys inside out, nor from a massive boycott. The question is what does the change come from? How do we get there? Unlike with a computer, we can't just wipe the system clean and start over.

I'm at a loss. Yet to sustain myself in this work, I have had to convince myself that what very well may be impossible is, in fact, possible.

I recognize that this is delusional, but facing the reality is much too painful.

To convince ourselves that we can change America may be either a manifestation of deception, à la the Matrix, or a misreading of our reality, à la Inception.

With the exhausting weight of the reality, it's easy to see why so many bow out of the fight. For us to effectively organize and build power, we have to convince others to be as delusional as we are, ignoring the reality that we see, in favor of the belief in a reality that only exists in our dreams.

I'm engaged. I hope you will be too.

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