Even for a country where racial commentary is an amateur sport and racial incidents come in waves, we’ve had a strange run of racial news about black Americans, people who think they’re black Americans, and justice.
There’s Kalief Browder, pushed to suicide by years of abuse in the New York jails for a crime he arguably should never have been arrested for and did not commit, juxtaposed with what is variously described as the trans-racialism or minstrelsy of Rachel Dolezal. (See Ta’Nehisi Coates’ juxtaposition of the two cases…and note which one got more media attention.) Then there’s there’s a white man murdering churchgoers at Emmanuel A.M.E. in Charleston, South Carolina. The church had been burnt down in the early 1800s in retaliation for a planned uprising of enslaved people organized by Denmark Vesey. That Emmanuel re-organized, re-built, and played a crucial role in the community and civil rights is its own testament to the human spirit.
Vesey was executed for daring to take action against the system of treating humans as chattel. Browder, nearly two centuries later, was treated like chattel or worse. Dolezal’s story is many things, but in light of the murders at Emmanuel, in particular, it strikes me as a man-bites-dog story that’s easy to consume when we have bigger things to think about.
For example, take the recent court ruling that says (for now) that one single Uber driver must be treated as an employee. That could up-end the company’s model, arguably undermining a financially productive, disruptive, technology-based company; or providing more security to workers displaced by disruption. How does this relate to race? In many cities across America, non-white Americans and immigrants are more likely to be drivers than white native-born Americans, in part because these hard jobs provide an economic point of entry into a society where opportunity is still linked deeply to race, class, and national origin. A ruling that stands up to legal challenges and puts more impetus on the parent company to, say, provide corporate insurance for its drivers could provide more economic leverage not only for Uber drivers but also, as market forces balance, for drivers of traditional cabs and cars.
My problem with the discussions on race we’re having today is that they’re so limited. We’re talking about race as a thing-in-itself when it’s never been just that. Slavery was about commerce and nation-building. Jim Crow was about labor economics. The inequality in the current education and prison systems set up deeper divides tracking people into futures of potential security or insecurity. Race was never just about race, but often our conversations about it are.
In my experience, being black means strangers feel free to tell you what they think about black people. I’ve had strangers in airports and newly-met attendees at business conferences quickly move from pleasantries to a discourse on why black people (sometimes Americans; sometimes globally) are incompetent, lazy, violent, etc etc. My reactions used to be shocked silence or quiet intellectual anger, followed by rebuttals of their points. Now, if I respond at all (and often I don’t), I simply respond with my own historical knowledge of how we got to where we are today — whether that includes current employment statistics on hiring bias and educational inequality, to historical analysis of wealth-building and legal justice from the colonial era through Jim Crow.
I was raised to be an information warrior — to help speak on behalf of black people to the white mainstream I was trained to go to school and work with. And while I have succeeded in some small part I’ve become increasingly skeptical of the mission. I can’t convince anyone (including black people and people who are neither white nor black) that black people are equal to white people, or immigrants to American-born. Your belief in equality is something you chose from your core. What I can do, and often do, is provide information that can inform our understanding of structures that support or deny equality-in-fact. Whether we want to know the lessons history has to share with us is completely our own choice.