On June 22, 2015, I posted "White People, If You're Not Part of the Solution, You're Part of the Problem" on LinkedIn, a plea for white folks to examine how our everyday actions contribute to institutionalized racism and suggesting ways to change our behavior to improve race relations. The post quickly went viral, garnering over 20,000 views and nearly 500 comments. The Huffington Post published a revised version on July 1, 2015.
While I knew white people could be ultra-sensitive about the topic of race, I honestly thought that many white people were saddened by the state of race relations in our country and striving to improve. It was in this spirit that I wrote the post.
I did not expect the comments my posts received, approximately 85% of which are not merely negative, but dismissive and cruel. Here is a smattering: "the most vile bit of hate-filled bile I have read on this site," "bereft of any connection to reality," appalling, asinine, delusional, divisive, garbage, hateful, inflammatory, insane, preposterous, puerile, rubbish, stupid and other terms that I will not repeat. Although in the LinkedIn post I did not mention guilt or shame once, and in the HuffPost revision I explicitly stated I am not trying to make anyone feel guilty, many commentators took me to task for trying to make them feel guilty and ashamed. They found it preposterous that I stated that white people had originated American racism and that we hold the power to stop it. More than a few argued that racism in inevitable. They questioned my intentions and integrity. They informed me that white people had gotten over racism a long time ago, and insinuated that people of color brought racism on to themselves. They questioned why I focused on white people, since many people practice racism in America.
And while I cannot be certain, it appeared based on their photos and commentary that almost all of these commentators are white.
My friends of color had a totally different reaction. They laughed when I expressed surprise about the comments' tone. They said, "What you told white people was the straight up truth, and white people don't want to hear that."
This is the impasse we are in. Americans are not at all on the same page when it comes to race, and from what I can observe, at a time when it is crucial we come together, we are drifting even further apart.
Many People of Color are reeling from a series of events that they interpret as evidence that American society finds them of no value. Hence the slogan: "Black Lives Matter." They are exhausted from pointing out the abundant evidence of institutionalized racism that is all around us, tired of calling for a national dialogue on race that has gone unanswered, and exasperated at white people's inability to empathize and recognize that change is needed.
Meanwhile, some or perhaps many white people refuse to acknowledge that we have a problem with race in this country. They view evidence of institutionalized racism as the fault of people of color. They perceive no pattern in recent events. The idea that they might have something to do with racism is utterly ridiculous to them, and they wholeheartedly and vehemently dismiss the thought that anyone else might have another viewpoint.
This is how I came to understand that we do have a problem with race in our country:
I grew up in a largely white community and had very few interactions with people of xolor. In 1987, I got lost in the public transportation system in Washington DC and wound up in a black neighborhood. I had never seen anything like it and could not believe that such a neighborhood existed in the nation's capitol. I found it shocking that public officials did not care enough about the people living in this neighborhood.
At college, I developed friendships with people of color for the first time. I learned from them what it is like to grow up in a neighborhood like the one I saw in DC, how few chances of getting out there are, how difficult it is for those who do get out to feel embraced and welcomed and how stressful that is.
After college, I became a community organizer and spent a lot of time in neighborhoods like the one I saw in DC, getting to know the people there, listening to their life experiences. I moved to New York City to help immigrants become citizens, pounding the pavement in all parts of the five boroughs, speaking with people and learning.
In 2003, the Community Service Society published reports that 50% of the black men in New York City didn't have a job, and in 2005, another report demonstrating that there are 170,000 young adults ages 16-24 who are not in school and not working, largely black and Latino. Having worked with immigrants for so long, who face innumerable hardships and still work, I found it shocking that black American men and young adults of color weren't working, and again, that it was not considered worthy of attention. This was how I became aware of institutionalized racism. I shifted my focus to workforce development and broadened my social network to include people of many races.
In 2012 I moved to San Francisco, and noticed the same patterns here as in NYC, high rates of poverty and unemployment among people of color in a region with one of the highest employment rates in the country. I also started learning more about American history and how past policies continue to shape our society. I decided to shift focus again, to help more people understand how detrimental racism is.
These experiences and friends I have made have taught me that racism is a problem in our society; in fact, it is the underlying problem to many other problems. The bad news is racism is entrenched in our systems, institutions, and culture and will take tremendous effort to undo. The good news is that it is a learned behavior that can be unlearned, but in order for us to unlearn it, we have to acknowledge it first.
My next post will offer evidence of racism, and subsequent ones will focus on what we can do about it. I welcome you to share your thoughts here.