We talked about race last class. I mean, really talked about it. My students had been assigned to read Ta Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (2015) and Patricia Williams’ essay “The Death of the Profane,” in her Alchemy of Race and Rights (1991). (You should get and read both of these books. To tempt you, here are excerpts: https://www.amazon.com/Between-World-Me-Ta-Nehisi-Coates/dp/0451482212 and https://books.google.com/books?id=47MNRIA50gwC&lpg=PA44&ots=DEZCVXhZpv&dq=death%20of%20the%20profane&pg=PA43#v=onepage&q&f=false ). I also had them read Kimberle Crenshaw’s recent article in The Baffler, “Race to the Bottom.” https://thebaffler.com/salvos/race-to-bottom-crenshaw.
As always, we started the class by having everyone share one question or thought about the reading. To a one, the students just wanted to talk. In particular, they said, they wanted to talk about their feelings about the material. So that’s what we did.
Both because this is a law school seminar, but also because, as I explained to them, I believe it is important to know that we are all working from shared understandings, we started by identifying the theory underlying or constructed by the readings. Coming off our class last week, the students did not resist my statement that “America has a terrible, terrible problem with race.” Nor did they balk at the notion, described and illustrated by Coates and Williams and Crenshaw, that racism in this country is not only systemic — meaning, it exists in every structure and corner of our society — but also foundational — meaning it has powered and continues to power what we think of as the American success story, the American Dream.
They also seemed to understand without defensiveness that notions like “post-racialism” and “colorblindness” are not answers to our terrible terrible race problem. They got that such ideas and practices actually widen the already yawning chasm between those who “consider themselves white” (per Coates) and those perceived or marked as not white. Even affirmative action got some discussion — is it necessary to right centuries of wrongs; is it too little, too late; is it actually reinforcing the racist notion that non-whites need a hand out or hand up?
Wrapping up the first hour, our group had come to accept that our very Constitution and founding institutions not only benefited from, but were indeed built upon a racial and racist hierarchy with whites at the top. We understood that all that has flowed from those foundational documents and institutions — i.e. all of “American” history — is tainted by the drive to maintain that racist hierarchy. For several minutes, we seven Americans who consider themselves white and one who has been identified as, and considers herself to be black sat and took in that uncomfortable reality.
And then: what can we do about it? My students looked at me expectantly. I looked back at them, expectantly. I shrugged. They looked surprised and a little worried. Like, “wait, you got us all to this point and you don’t have a way to get us out?” I laughed a little and admitted that I didn’t have any answers. I told some stories. I reminded them of our Discussion Guidelines (Group Discussion Rules for Critical Lawyering class).
I asked questions about white guilt and the burden on “non-whites” to represent and answer for all people of color. We agreed that both of those powerful psychological forces undermine our efforts to understand and bridge the racial fault line in the American landscape, by either paralyzing us into inaction, or hardening the lines between us to make dialogue impossible.
And then I turned it back on them: what is one concrete thing you can do, knowing what you know now, to “help”? Here is what they suggested:
Put your race goggles on. See everything through race. It might seem wrong to think of someone as “white” or “black” or “brown,” but we have just identified that America sees everyone who isn’t white as something “other.” Failing to see race is a privilege only those who consider themselves/are perceived to be white can afford. So put your race goggles on and see everything through race. Just for this week. Just until next class.
Have uncomfortable conversations, like the ones we had in class. Call your friends, co-workers, family members on their questionable comments and race-based assumptions. Be that person who is always bringing up race and racism. Do this with humility; and be vulnerable yourself. Start the conversation by telling a story about your own discomfort or racist behavior. Do this every time you can. Just for this week. Just until next class.
Decide to believe other people’s experience of race and racism. Do not assume you know what they’re talking about; in fact, admit that you do not. Do not try to make comparisons, or to find non-race-based reasons for the behavior being described. Ask questions to clarify your understanding, but not to undermine another person’s experience. Don’t ever accuse someone of “playing the race card.” Practice radical, intentional belief. Just for this week. Just until next class.
We all agreed to do these things. Just for this week, just until next class, we will put and keep our race goggles on; we will have uncomfortable conversations; we will ask questions and be humble; and we will decide to believe.
Why don’t you join us?