Silence Is Not an Option

SilenceI know I am not the only one that has continued to read and think about the death of George Floyd and the protests that continue to spread around our nation. Just about everyone has had something to say and you cannot spend any time online at all without encountering something related to Floyd’s death and /or the protests. But in the past 24 hours I have been intentionally seeking and reading what African Americans have to say about it all. I have been doing that not because I think they have a monopoly on offense at the actions of Derek Chauvin, because I do not. Nor have I been doing it because I think that African Americans somehow have a more valuable or more relevant perspective or insight on the tragedy of Floyd’s death. I do, however, recognize that many African Americans have a different perspective and different insight into the situation than I do, and considering them has value.

Herman Cain began his May 31 commentary with this statement:

Everyone who saw the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis is right to be incensed by it. It’s one of the worst and most obvious instances of police brutality we have ever witnessed as a nation.

I agree with Mr. Cain completely and I specifically appreciate his use of the word “everyone.” There is no way that anyone, regardless of skin color, could watch what happened to George Floyd and think it is possible for it to be justified or necessary–or that it should not result in the full punishment the law allows.

Also on May 31, Ben Carson’s Facebook post began with this: “The blatant callous murder of Mr. George Floyd is one of the most heartless acts of cruelty ever recorded.” Again, I agree.

Senator Kamala Harris, who is at the other end of the political spectrum from Cain and Carson, released a statement on May 29 that said that the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor are “the result of broader systematic racism that exists in our country.” Her statement concluded,

Police brutality is a matter of life and death for Black people in this country, and we have to be clear about the injustices within our criminal justice system and demand accountability to the communities law enforcement are sworn to protect and serve.

Do you notice a difference in what Cain and Carson said and what Harris said? Cain and Carson addressed the death of Georg Floyd as a terribly evil act without any reference to race. Harris made race and racism the foremost issue in her comments.

Oprah Winfrey posted a statement on Twitter on the same day that Harris released her statement. Winfrey pointed out what was going through her mind as she went through the motions of her day, “I think: he doesn’t get to do this.” She concluded her statement:

#GeorgeFloyd, we speak your name. But this time, we will not let your name be just a hashtag. Your spirit is lifted by the cries of all of us who call for justice in your name.

There was not a single mention of race or racism in her post. There was no mention of a Black community or any institutional racism. Instead, she used the words “all of us.” That is as broad and as inclusive as Herman Cain’s “everyone.”

On June 1, Dawn Staley, the women’s basketball coach at South Carolina, posted on The Players’ Tribune an editorial entitled “Black People Are Tired.” With a title like that, it is hard to interpret her us of the word “us” as meaning anything other than African Americans. And that is unfortunate, because I agree with much of what she has to say. Staley shared a very personal story about her mother having to leave South Carolina as a thirteen-year-old because of her grandmother’s concern that she might be lynched. Staley said that happened about sixty years ago. That is tragic and there is no excuse for it.

That’s why I both appreciate Staley’s post and dislike it. She says that Black people are angry. They should be. But all people should be angry. Being white does not give me a pass on being angry about George Floyd’s death or about the fear of Dawn Staley’s grandmother.

Staley goes on to write:

When you are privileged — when you are the privileged race, you don’t have to think about what we think about daily.

You just see the world through your own eyes. And it’s a lot different than it is through a black person’s eyes. A lot different. Say what you wanna say, but it’s a lot different.

I cannot dispute that. I have only ever been white and I will only ever be white. Accordingly, I can never experience life through a black person’s eyes and can never approach life with the experiences and history of a black person. And while it may be appropriate and helpful for me to understand and acknowledge that, it is not helpful for Dawn Staley or anyone else to suggest that because of that I cannot contribute to the solution. Staley writes,

That’s why I have to constantly ask myself: Am I doing right by our players?

Are they learning? Are they understanding? Are they being equipped to navigate the world as a black woman in our society?

That’s a problematic line of thinking. First of all, as she acknowledged earlier in her piece, Staley does not coach black women only. Thus, to equate doing right by her players with being equipped to navigate the world as a black woman is drawing an unhelpful line on her own team.

She seems to recognize the problem there, because she immediately writes this:

And that’s not to divide our team by race. It’s just a statement of reality that as human beings, we see color. Yes, we see color. We feel color. Without a doubt. And it’s a shame, but that’s how we have to navigate the world.

This is the second problem with her line of thinking. It is not how we have to navigate the world. To suggest that it is is to suggest that we cannot do better. Early in her piece Staley says, “People are mad because NOTHING HAS CHANGED.” Saying that continuing that way is “how we have to navigate the world” is to assert that nothing can change.

I may not be able to agree with him on much, but Mokokoma Mokhonoana was spot on when he said, “Racism is one of the most common results of the combination of stupidity and the ability to see.” We do not want to deny people the ability to see. Not literally, anyway. A world full of blind people would have quite a few problems. What we need to do, then, is try to fix the “stupidity.” It’s been widely said—and I’ve said it myself—that you can’t fix stupid. But that is not really true. Racism is a learned behavior and any learned behavior can be changed.

Herman Cain wrote,

…we make a mistake if we see this entirely in the context of race. Statistically, black-on-black crime is a much bigger problem than white-on-black crime. Statistically, police officers are much more likely to be victims of deadly violence than they are to be the perpetrators of it.

None of that gets better if we view each other with suspicion and hostility.

That’s another way of saying that we cannot see and feel color…and he is right. What we must learn to do is see human. There is nothing inherently wrong with seeing and taking notice of skin color. In and of itself, it is no more wrong than noticing if someone has brown, green, blue or gray eyes or blonde, black, brunette or red hair. The problem is not in the noticing. The problem, rather, is in the notion—the belief—that skin color matters.

It is not wrong for there to be genuine and healthy differences of opinion. It is not wrong for me to think that the comments by Kamala Harris and Dawn Staley are not all that helpful. It is not wrong for me to think that Sarah Parcak was in the wrong when she tweeted instructions designed to help rioters know how to tear down monuments or that celebrities paying bail for “protestors” is not helping address the real problem. It is not wrong for me to think that Billie Eilish’s Instagram rant was a waste of cyberspace or for me to think that Reese Witherspoon’s use of Instagram to urge parents to talk to their children about racism was worthwhile and helpful. It is not wrong for me to find some of Natasha Cloud’s piece “Your Silence Is a Knee On My Neck” to be offensive while also agreeing wholeheartedly with her conclusion that “if you’re silent, you are part of the problem.”

I am not going to stop intentionally seeking to hear, read and understand the black perspective. I do hope, though, that there is also an intentional effort for all of us who are furious about what happened to George Floyd to seek to understand each other and to work together to achieve real change. The collective “we”—all of humanity—will never agree on everything. Nor would we really want a world in which we did all agree on everything. What we must do, though, is agree that all human lives matter and every human being deserves to be treated with respect. That the problem can be resolved peacefully. And that silence is not an option.

The content of their character

On Monday Sarah Palin took to Facebook to ask President Barack Obama to stop playing the race card. She posted, “Mr. President, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. and all who commit to ending any racial divide, no more playing the race card.” USA Today opined that while Palin did not specify how Obama “plays the race card,” her comments came on the heels of The New Yorker‘s profile of Obama by David Remnnick in which Obama makes reference to the issue of his race. Obama stated that there are surely some people who dislike him precisely because he is black and others who no doubt like him solely for the same reason. Sad though that may be, it is true, and I am not sure I would consider that “playing the race card.” However, that is not at all to imply that the race card does not get played, because it does.

As I reflected on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Monday I could not help but think that his dream that his children would “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” has not been fully fulfilled. What I find most troubling about that–as, I suspect, would King–is that African Americans are just as responsible for that as whites. In some cases perhaps even more so. There are many instances in which African Americans–leaders and non-leaders–make race an issue.

Examples are, unfortunately, not hard to find, but an excellent one can be found just last week. Tamera Mowry is an actress most known for starring, with her twin sister Tia, in the 1990s television show Sister Sister. Mowry is bi-racial; in her interview with Oprah Winfrey she said, “My mom is a beautiful black woman and my dad is an amazing white man, and I grew up seeing a family. I didn’t grow up saying, ‘Oh, that’s a white man.'” Mowry is now married to a white man herself, FOX News correspondent Adam Housely. The two have been married for three years and, Mowry says, ever since the wedding she has been subjected to name calling and all kinds hatred due to her marriage. The UK’s Daily Mail said she has been “remorselessly attacked.” Mowry told Winfrey, “I have never experienced so much hate ever in my life, ever.” Providing specific examples, Mowry said, “I get called ‘white man’s whore.’ The new one was ‘back in the day you cost $300, but now you’re giving it to him for free.'”

This is not the kind of attitude or dialogue that Martin Luther King, Jr. would have encouraged. He would certainly disapprove. The vitriol Mowry describes comes predominantly, if not exclusively, from other African Americans according to her report. What makes the issue ever worse is that the racial hatred spewed at her seems to be intensified because of the fact that her husband is a correspondent for FOX News, widely seen to be the conservative television news channel. During the 2012 vice presidential debate Mowry re-tweeted a Twitter post from Greta VanSusteren referencing her frustration with Joe Biden’s interruptions of Paul Ryan. The Twitter-sphere erupted with comments about Mowry being Republican, being married to a white man, and being “a light skinned hoes boy.” Alfre Woodard is married to a white man, too; as far as I know she has never faced the kind of hatred Mowry describes. Compounding the problem is the fact that it seems widely accepted and even celebrated within the African American community for a black man to marry a white woman. Why the double standard?

There are of course plenty of other examples; sadly, prominent African American political leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton seem to bring race into almost any discussion, even when it does not conveniently fit. I know that Rev. Jackson was a colleague and friend of Dr. King; I cannot, though, help but think that Dr. King would frown at the rhetoric Dr. Jackson so often uses.

Bottom line, I agree with Dr. King’s dream; the content of an individual’s character matters much more than the color of their skin. And as I think about it it is indeed the “content of their character” that shines through when ignorant people attack Tamera Mowry for being happily married to a white man. It is the “content of their character” that shines through when Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton tries to manipulate a legitimate political discussion into a racial issue. Sadly, those individuals often insist on connecting “the content of their character” with “the color of their skin” and the two are really not connected. At the end of the day, there are people of all skin tones that are stupid, arrogant, bigoted or contentious. Likewise, there are people of all skin tones that are intelligent, compassionate, humble and gracious. The best way to fulfill Dr. King’s dream, I think, is simply to live skin color out of it altogether.