Thinking About Racism

The Last Black Man in San FranciscoRacism is at the heart of almost everything that’s wrong with the United States.

Last week I saw two powerful movies: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, an excellent documentary, and The Last Black Man in San Francisco, the most unique and creative film I’ve seen in years.

The Morrison movie left me even more in awe of one of our great writers, even as some of the things she experienced made me shake my head. Early on, reviews praised Morrison’s writing, but said she needed to move on to more “universal” topics to be considered a major writer. They meant she needed to write about white men. I’m so glad she stuck to her own vision.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco broke my heart. It’s hard to describe why, because it’s hard to explain what the movie is about since it is in many ways a surrealist work — not quite fantasy and based on real life, but not quite real either. On the surface it is about a young man’s fixation on the old house his family once owned, but that’s just a starting point.

Instead of trying to explain it or review it, I’m just going to recommend that everyone see it. The only thing to add is that my inner critic did not say a word during the entire movie (and I can’t remember the last time I saw a feature film without that voice) and that I cried more than once.

Oh, and also it made a valid point: You don’t get to hate San Francisco unless you love it. I think that can be applied to a lot of places that are special, or used to be. I feel that way about Texas, for example.

In addition, I just finished Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, which, following on from his Stamped From the Beginning, provides a valuable way to analyze racist culture and how to deal with it. This deeply personal and deeply philosophical work has me thinking about not just how to be more antiracist, but also about how to make effective change. Moral suasion isn’t going to fix racism; getting power is what makes a difference.

I’ve also been reading a current series in The New York Times, “The 1619 Project,” in which I learn something new (to me) and shocking about racist culture in every article. Did you know that doctors today still use a medical device that measures lung capacity that includes an allowance in its software (so it’s a very modern adaptation of the device) that is based on some junk science from the 19th century that asserted Black people had 20 percent less lung capacity than white people?

I grew up in a very racist part of the world, but I was also raised to know that racism was wrong. I grew up aware that things were bad and cheered on the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Panthers. The years I spent in Washington, DC, many of them spent living in a predominantly African American neighborhood (and not, I add, as a gentrifier) and some of them spent working for a local non-profit, gave me broader knowledge and respect for African American history.

I saw a lot of progress, more than I expected growing up in culture that still revered the Confederacy. But of late I’ve become very aware just how fragile that progress has been and how much the racism is built into every structure in our society.

Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow shocked me, because I had somehow missed the increased incarceration rates in the U.S., even though I knew Black people were more likely to end up in prison. Richard Rosenstein’s The Color of Law shocked me even more, because even though I worked in housing in D.C. for many years, I did not realize that the intense discrimination was not just the result of redlining and discriminatory selling of property, but also caused by federal law requiring discrimination.

I continue to be shocked as I learn things, shocked all the more because I thought I was paying attention and thought I understood history. Black people are less shocked, I’m sure, but some of the good work coming out today, such as Kendi’s, provides a broader perspective that makes it clear just how distorted everyone’s view of race is in this country.

I’m not doing this viewing and reading for any concrete reason. I’m not looking to write on the subject directly (beyond the occasional essay like this). I just feel like I need to know these things, to understand them more deeply, to be an engaged person at this point.

We must all become antiracist if the human race is going to recover from its many mistakes and figure out how to thrive in the future.

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Thinking About Racism — 2 Comments

  1. The thing is, none of this is new. Black people always have known all of this. So have a lot of historians. We have all this in our book, The American Slave Coast (and by the way, the first slaves were not brought to North America in 1619, but much earlier, to St. Augustine – the Floridas).

    It’s as with the issues of feminism — the wheel is forever being rediscovered and re-invented — because the forces lined up against this knowledge and information is so relentless in its determination to deny deny deny, or so what, that’s how it should be. See — the vast anger across the internet at The News York Times 1619 Project at all — the very idea that slavery and racism are central to the history of this nation must be denied at all costs — how dare people be so stupid, so racist against white people, so political as to even suggest that the state of our health care begins with racism?

    Just back from upstate horse country … saw not a single black face the entire time. One might take heart that the usual black faces of those jockey statues have all long ago been painted over as white, but, somehow, I did not.

    • None of this is new, but I do think Professor Kendi’s way of analyzing it gives us valuable tools for changing things. As long as the opposite of racist is seen as “I don’t see color” or its equivalent, we never deal with what is going on. Learning to be antiracist changes the conversation. The same might be true of learning to be antimisogynist.

      And your book is also one that brings the facts back into public view. It’s very powerful.

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