Well-Meaning White People, the Fabric of America Isn't What We Say It Is.
For generations, White Moderate America has been telling black people to wait for justice. We may shed a tear, toss in a cherry-picked MLK quote, and acknowledge, “America has made mistakes.” But beyond that, the conversation usually hits a wall – White America will say that deep social change threatens “the fabric of America.”
What counts as a threat is revelatory: Black Lives Matter is a threat (but not a culture of police violence, an unjust and racist drug war and mass incarceration, and an immoral criminal justice system). Affirmative action and reparations are threats (but not generations of state-sponsored segregation). Even talking honestly about racism is a threat (but not living in collective denial).
This is a common mindset among even the most “well-meaning” white people. It prioritizes shallow comforts over hard truths; white sensibilities over black human rights; form over function; order over justice. See a pattern? It's preserving the status quo. It says that the damage this country has done isn't an existential threat, but repairing it is. It's an upside down sociopolitical worldview. [Update: Case in point, here’s what CHS City Council is worried about after last month’s slavery apology discussion – "decorum and civility." As Benny Starr put it to me as I'm writing this: "It's Trickle Down Everything."]
Our concept of America’s “fabric” shouldn't be stories about individualism and meritocracies. That's admitting that the soul of the country should be propaganda. It shouldn't be the economy either – though it’s obviously crucial, by its nature it isn’t the root, it’s the branch. The fabric shouldn't even be our institutions (though they're obviously pretty important).
At its core, the “fabric” is a social fabric. We are social animals, not autonomous cowboys. That's facts, not politics; and it means that the strength of our country comes from the fundamental elements that connect people from different backgrounds and experiences. Basic stuff like trust, intellectual honesty, empathy, and dignity.
The "unity" we keep pleading for should be the natural symptom of these strengths, but it's not the goal. It is a conditional unity. Otherwise, "unifying" means accepting injustice. So no, politics are not “getting too divisive.” We are divided. There is a White American experience, and a Black American experience, predicated to this day on an assumption of black inferiority. We know it. We have the receipts. And until we stop living in denial of this, we should feel divided.
I’m not judging. I am just trying to get us to be much more honest. I know you aren't personally and wholly responsible, and I am not. But we benefit, and we are part of society – so we have a social duty to be a part of fixing this if we expect to be taken seriously when we say we care. I'm a white guy who was raised Christian conservative in the South. I’ve been blinded by the bubble too. I get that the societal role of this deep work can be conveniently avoided when we're in a position of relative privilege and the system is working for us (and even when it’s not, we've been conditioned to believe that seriously critiquing it is un-American). But without this work, our precious institutions and ideals are meaningless. Like slave owners proclaiming “all men are created equal.”
Do we really care about the fabric of America? Then we have to admit that we cannot strengthen it when we are living in collective denial of objective sociopolitical realities. It’s like that person you know who can't get their life together, no matter what job they have, because what they really need is mental therapy. That’s the kind of evasion we choose when we stop the political conversation at systemic change, dismissing it as hysterical or “radical.” Radical often just means getting to the root. And America’s systems of racism are root-deep.
Well-meaning white people of America: If you feel like despite your best intentions, you are still not taken seriously by those who want profound reform regarding systemic racism, this is why. It isn’t their “hypocritical liberal intolerance”, “reverse-racism”, or “divisiveness.” It’s our collective warped sense of priority.
When the discourse gets to the point that people have to explain basic stuff to us – like why social consciousness is not just some self-righteous fad, or why mass social movements are necessary to progressing society, or what political will is, or why in a free society there are more urgent matters than respectability politics – it feels like we must be full of shit; and probably at least harbor racist assumptions. Either that, or we've just given up on the concept of society.
Regardless, what else is there to discuss with us at that point? Do we know these things, deep down, beneath the layers of fear and confirmation bias? Will we meaningfully change, and decide to choose true justice over false order? Honesty over comfort? Based on what I know, I'm very skeptical. But for the country's sake and ours, I hope so.