Beloved Community

On fighting racism with something better than more racism.

About half of American adults say race relations in the US are generally bad. Almost half say that Black people face a lot of discrimination in America. Nearly half of Asian Americans have experienced an incident tied to their race or ethnicity since the start of the pandemic. And on and on it goes. If I've left you and your group out, it's only for the sake of brevity.

I don't know anyone who doesn't think racism exists and is a problem. It's real and ugly and has deep roots and needs to be addressed. But that doesn't mean that every strategy for addressing it is a good or sensible one. It also doesn't mean that no strategy for addressing it is a bad or harmful one. And, at least as I see it, we have a moral duty to criticize bad and harmful ideas. And since we also have a moral duty to keep trying to solve the problem, we have a meta-duty to criticize constructively, with the aim of making bad ideas better, including our own.

Criticism of a strategy for addressing a problem is not a claim that there is no problem, or that we shouldn't be trying to address it. (It could also be that. But it's not necessarily that.) And yet, the mere act of questioning the efficacy of strategies that aim to fix racism with more racism has somehow itself come to be seen as racist. And I have truly struggled to understand this.

In trying to grapple with it, I have scrutinized my own beliefs and inclinations and inherent human biases. I have thought long and hard about the advantages and blindspots that my own skin color, sex, gender, and social class may have allowed me. And this has been good. This is struggle at its best. I.e., struggle that leads to growth; struggle that is eye-opening, mind-expanding, kindness-inducing, and valuable.

But it has also illuminated and tempered my belief that any strategy for addressing racism, to be effective, must be rooted in love and compassion and an emphasis on our common humanity. It must also allow for freedom of expression and discourse. At the very least, it must not be rooted in bigotry.

Any attempt to remedy racism from a grossly oversimplified oppressor–victim framework—one that reduces infinitely complex individuals to mere dehumanized agents of their vague group and its worst conceivable traits, sins, manifestations, and outcomes—is doomed to be ineffective. It also happens to be racist. And racism, we should all know by now, is a supremely bad idea.

Another idea I've been met with multiple times is that focusing one's attention on the problems with some of the strategies for addressing racism (some of the well-intentioned but hugely flawed anti-racism curricula being taught in schools, for example) is a poor use of one's time. The thrust of this argument is that the historical issue of racism is the bigger problem, and so one's time would be far better spent focusing on it instead.

Again, what I think is flawed about this idea is it presupposes that strategies for addressing racism can't be as bad or as harmful as racism itself. What's more, it presupposes that strategies for addressing racism can't themselves be racist. But there are plenty of examples that disprove this. So I can't in good conscience agree that this is a trivial concern. It's just a different part of the same problem. And I would argue that it's (inadvertently) making that problem worse.

What happens when an anti-racist strategy is racist? What happens when an anti-racist strategy does harm not only to the individuals and groups it was designed to help but to the whole righteous cause? What happens when a bunch of them do? What happens when we don't voice our concerns, when we allow such strategies to become widespread? If that happens, will we have added to the world's total misery or subtracted from it? Because I have tapped my thoughts and imagination dry, and I genuinely cannot see a way forward on this path where these approaches don't backfire and do us more harm than good.

There are ways out of this, though. There are better ideas and strategies. And all of the ones I see start from our shared human capacity for love, and listening, and understanding; compassion, community, and commonality. And if you think I'm wrong about this, my ears and eyes are open to you. You'll find them roughly 18 inches above my heart and somewhere in the vicinity of my mind, both of which are open to you as well. But only to all of you.


Notes:

For those of you who wish to join me in my quest to stay open and build better ideas for bringing people together, I encourage you to take a look at the organizations linked below. They're not all focused on race. But they are all doing great work to unite people via common ground and shared humanity, and in pursuit of what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the "Beloved Community."

And here's more information on those Pew Research Center numbers I referenced at the top of this piece.