Why We Can’t Stop Making The Same Mistakes On Race

Like in 1965 and 1992, America today is caught within crisis and a politics of fear. This time, can we get it right?

Illustration Dewey Saunders
September 29, 2016
Why We Can’t Stop Making The Same Mistakes On Race

We are living in serious times. Since 2012, the names of the fallen — Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald, the list never seems to cease — have catalyzed collective outrage and grief. In the waning years of a black presidency, we saw a proliferation of images of black people killed in the streets and the rise of a national justice movement to affirm that black lives matter.


Young people who grew up exemplars of post-1965 American diversity while attending schools that were dramatically resegregating have taken to the streets and the university quads to march against their own invisibility and demand a renewed attention to questions of equity.

And even the machines of our culture industries, which for the past 20 years have tried to assure us that our rainbow nation is indeed a happy one, have found their gears ground down by popular protests led by people of color against their lack of access, representation, and power.


In Who We Be, I wrote about visual culture and what I called the paradox of the “post-racial” moment — that while our images depict a nation moving toward desegregation, our indices reveal growing resegregation and inequity. The book was published a month before the announcement of the non-indictment of officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Since then, the idea that there had ever been a post-racial moment has come to seem naive, even desperately so.

Once the embodiment of hope, President Obama leaves office publicly regretting his inability to reconcile the country’s polarization. At the same time, Donald Trump focuses the anxieties loosed by white vulnerability — an inchoate, inescapable sense that the social and economic present and future of whites will only get worse — onto the bodiesof migrants, Muslims, blacks, women, and all those others who do not deserve the gift of America. Like climate change, the culture wars seem to have become an enduring feature of our daily lives, the permanent fog of a country that repeats the spectacle of fire in every generation.

Polls show that more Americans are concerned about race relations now than at any time since 1992, the year of the Los Angeles riots. The previous peak had come in 1965 — the year of the Voting Rights Act, the Immigration and Nationality Act, the apex of the civil rights movement, the year of the last national consensus for racial justice.


1965 was also the year of Malcolm X’s assassination and the Watts riots. It was the beginning of the post-civil rights era, an era that has been defined by a vital culture reshaped under demographic change but a politics mobilized around racial backlash. That historic arc — of an explosion of cultural expression that moved us forward toward mutual recognition amidst a cascade of regressive policies, laws, and political maneuvers that pushed us backward toward inequality and resegregation — was my focus in Who We Be. Over the past two years, it seems even clearer that we as a nation are caught in a bad loop of history — from 1965 to 1992 to right now.

We live in a time when merchants of division draw us away from mutuality and toward the undoing of democracy itself.

Race makes itself known in crisis, in the singular event that captures a larger pattern of abuse and pain. We react to crisis with a flurry of words and, sometimes, actions. In turn, the reaction sparks its own backlash of outrage, justification, and denial. The cycle turns next toward exhaustion, complacency, and paralysis. And before long, we find ourselves back in crisis. Racism is not merely about individual chauvinism, prejudice, or bigotry. Ruth Gilmore reminds us that it is about the ways different groups are “vulnerable to pre- mature death,” whether at the hands of the state or the structures that kill.

We know now that implicit bias, stereotype threat, and the empathy gap are real things. People harbor subconscious biases that are hard to root out but can be unlearned. Social psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt, for example, has argued that training police to see the way in which people subconsciously associate criminality with black faces can reduce rates of racial profiling.

But the social structures that create premature death do not harm only those individuals who have the misfortune to come into contact with bigots or quick-trigger authorities who have not yet learned how to see. They also prevent people from getting adequate food, shelter, and housing. They limit physical, economic, and social mobility. They refuse to let us all be free. Over time, these structures have proven extraordinarily adaptable.

Inequity and injustice are not abstract things. They impact real people and real lives. In terms of poverty, annual income, wealth, health, housing, schooling, and incarceration, persistent gaps separate whites from black, Latino, Southeast Asian, Pacific Islander, and American Indian populations. And in the specific case of premature death — defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as death among persons under the age of seventy-five — the death rate of blacks is over 50 percent higher than that of whites, and higher than that of all other major ethnic groups, except for some American Indian cohorts.

Only a small part of this statistic is attributable to homicide and that favorite digression of conservative pundits, “black-on-black violence.” In fact, most of the reasons have to do with large disparities in access to quality food and regular and preventative health care, and with diseases such as cancer, stroke, and HIV. A shockingly large portion is the result of an African American infant mortality rate that is more than double that of white Americans, triple that of Swiss citizens, and five times that of Japanese citizens. Racism kills.

Extrajudicial police shootings have been the organizing spark of the Movement for Black Lives. But the facts of inequality and death hang over us all like a toxic haze. In the United States, segregation and resegregation happen through the disappearing of the signs of inequality. Whether through white flight, the optics of diversity, or metaphorical and actual wall building, the privileged spare themselves the sight of disparity, and foreclose the possibility of empathy and transformation.

Now this haze has blown into white America as well. More white U.S. women and men in their forties and fifties — particularly those with lower levels of educational attainment— are dying prematurely. This reversal of fortune for middle-aged whites is unprecedented in American history and unique among the wealthy nations. When examining the causes, researchers Anne Case and Angus Deaton found significant rises in painkiller abuse, liver disease, suicides, and drug overdoses. “Future financial insecurity may weigh more heavily on U.S. workers,” they wrote, calling middle-aged whites a “‘lost generation’ whose future is less bright than those who preceded them.” At the height of the Reagan-Bush era the writer Barbara Ehrenreich named this condition: whites, whose once solid destinies were melting into air, harbor a deep “fear of falling.” That tumble is now all too real.

A turn in fortune should move us toward empathy and solidarity. When a natural disaster tears apart a village, the human tendency is for one neighbor to help another, regardless of whatever feelings they may have had for one another before the catastrophe. But we live in a time when merchants of division draw us away from mutuality and toward the undoing of democracy itself.

David Graeber proposes that their demagoguery is not so different from schoolyard bullying, which is “a kind of elementary structure of human domination.” Trump, the silver spoon-fed child who, as a second grader, punched his music teacher in the eye, aspired “to be the toughest kid in the neighborhood.” He described himself as “very well liked ... the kid that others followed.” Bullies, Graeber argues, don’t usually lack self-esteem. They do not see themselves as outcasts but as heroes.

Dylann Storm Roof, the young man who murdered nine black parishioners in a prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015, in the hope of starting a race war, wrote that he “was not raised in a racist home or environment.” He had black friends, or at least acquaintances. One who had known him from childhood said, “He wasn’t like: ‘When I grow up I am going to show all these kids.’ ” Instead, Roof wanted to lead by example.

The bully needs an audience to enable his act. “When researchers question children on why they do not intervene [to protect the bullied], a minority say they felt the victim got what he or she deserved,” Graeber writes, “but the majority say they didn’t like what happened, and certainly didn’t much like the bully, but decided that getting involved might mean ending up on the receiving end of the same treatment — and that would only make things worse.”

Culture-war extremists do two things. They water the seed of insecurity into a weed of hate. They do so by seizing on white fears of the future, conflating economic insecurity and looming demographic eclipse. The first is as tangible as monthly bills, specific, looming, and real; the second is as subrational and inarticulate as seeing Taylor Swift perform with Kendrick Lamar.


Roof wrote in his conflicted, contradictory manifesto, “Why should we have to flee the cities we created for the security of the suburbs? Why are the suburbs secure in the first place? Because they are White ... Who is fighting for these White people forced by economic circumstances to live among negroes? No one, but someone has to.” Roof, like other extremists, believed in the restoration of white power. The main way Roof departed from the rest was in his insistence that the restoration be violently begun and maintained. He took the metaphor of war seriously.

One need not be a pessimist to see the bad loop of history we are caught within — crisis, reaction, backlash, complacency, crisis. There are fires. There are calls for action. There is then a bullying politics of fear.

But even for those who say they don’t like the bullying and don’t like the bully, the culture wars allow them cover to do nothing. Demagogues evoke restorationist dreaming, a deeply imagined past of order and tranquility. Reactionaries do not even need to sustain the belief or the anger of the fearful; they need only the silence and the complicity of the masses. In this way, from Wallace and Nixon to Palin and Trump, the energies of anxious whites have been diverted from class uprising toward racial division.

The culture wars continue through justificatory innocence and willed inaction. They allow the structures that produce inequality and segregation to persist. They even generate the ideas that adapt those structures to better enforce racialized exclusion.

Before the 1980s, it was mostly Marxists who used the term “politically correct” to mock other Marxists. Since then, charging someone else with political correctness has become the first line of defense for racists, one of the best ways to shut down any discussion about inequity. That silencing isolates the most marginalized communities, and demobilizes white communities. Resegregation grows not from white ignorance, but from white refusal and denial. And so a half century after the peak of the civil rights movement, the nation has moved again into crisis.

One need not be a pessimist to see the bad loop of history we are caught within — crisis, reaction, backlash, complacency, crisis. There are fires. There are calls for action. There is then a bullying politics of fear. If most Americans recoil from the kind of excessive, gleeful, cynical bigotry someone like the billionaire Donald Trump proffers, they are yet demobilized to the point of denial (“there is no problem”) or justification (“there is a prob- lem but I can’t solve it”). And then we find ourselves in another crisis.


Today, we have slid back toward segregation. To be sure, there has never been a time when we did not live separately. In 2014, more than 300 school districts across the country were still involved in active desegregation orders dating to the civil rights era. At the same time, even as we have come to mostly celebrate “diversity,” resegregation is happening all around us: in our neighborhoods and schools, our colleges and universities, even in the culture. The culture wars have obscured and exacerbated these facts. Worse, they have left us without a common understanding or language that might help us to end them. Inequality and segregation impact us all. Our destinies are interconnected, but not all of us have the best vantage point to see our way out of the fog of the culture wars. Some of us still can’t even see each other fully. But those who suffer the most have the most to teach the entire nation about how to move away from it all, if we choose to listen and act.

What today’s activists, organizers, and artists are giving us are new ways to see our past and our present. Even more, they are giving us the directive to address inequality and inequity now — to make it clear that if we do not do so, we will continue to be drawn back into the bad cycle, just as we were after 1965, and after 1992. Right now we have the opportunity to get it right. Our shared future depends upon it.


The following is excerpted from We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation, recently published via Picador.

Why We Can’t Stop Making The Same Mistakes On Race