Hesitations of a Would-Be White Ally

August 2015


Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ fibonacciblue/17130711447

I went to a public elementary school in an all white area of Queens in New York City back in the 1950s (I graduated in 1960). There was one, and only one, Black person in my elementary school – Mrs. Gilliard, my sixth grade teacher. I remember her as a tall, slender, elegant woman who called the students in her class by their last names. I was Post. It seemed strange to me – and rather cold – to call children by their surnames. Still, she was a really good teacher. She had high standards, which I liked. She demanded a certain level of rigor and critical thinking, even for sixth graders. I was glad she was my teacher.

I remember one occasion when I was walking home from school (we didn’t have school buses back then) when I overheard a snippet of conversation between two of the boys in my class. They were talking about Mrs. Gilliard, and they used the n-word. I don’t think I’d ever heard that word before then, but I somehow knew it was a slur. Perhaps it was the tone. I felt deeply ashamed, and bad for Mrs. Gilliard. I was eleven years old.

I think I sensed why Mrs. Gilliard seemed so cold. I didn’t articulate this to anyone (or even to myself, really), but I sensed an invisible, self-protective wall around her – a deep isolation – and I knew it was because she was the only Black person at the school. And I knew that this was different from being, say, the only redhead at the school (although perhaps a bit like being the only female at an all-male school). I don’t remember ever talking to anyone about this, nor how I formed these impressions. But they were indelible. I still remember them today, all these decades later. It’s odd how children pick up these social facts. I knew things were not right, way before I ever heard the words “social justice” or “racism” or, later, “white privilege” or “white supremacy.”

A few years later, in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. This landmark piece of legislation “outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public (known as ‘public accommodations’).”[1]

So problem solved! I imagine Mrs. Gilliard was thrilled. Finally, there would be justice. Finally, Blacks would be treated the same as whites.

Or perhaps not …

It turns out that, while civil rights legislation is necessary, it’s not sufficient. You can prohibit certain kinds of overt discrimination, but you cannot legislate people’s feelings and attitudes.

And the ability to “walk in someone else’s shoes” appears, for many people, to be limited, to say the least – especially when those other people’s shoes are mighty uncomfortable and their own shoes are ever so much more comfortable. And especially when there are handy dandy tools – like motivated reasoning – to help people develop rationales for why things are fine the way they are. And so, although things did change after the Civil Rights Act was passed, there were no miracles. The act changed the laws, but it didn’t change people. It didn’t really change white people’s attitudes. (I would note that white people’s attitudes about racism in this country are not monolithic. There is a wide range of attitudes.)

Fast forward fifty years, and an incident in Ferguson, Missouri – and a subsequent Department of Justice report – suddenly brought to the public’s awareness just how much laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 have not changed things for Black people – most notably, poor Black people – in this country. I should say, “brought to the white public’s awareness,” because I’m sure Black folks were already well aware.

And, with the meteoric rise of smartphone technology, there have been other incidents since Ferguson that have been captured on videos – some of them truly eye-popping – that have been splashed across social media and into the consciousness of white America. I watched several white policemen gang up on an unarmed Black man, Eric Garner, for example, and choke him to death as he gasped, “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” – only to subsequently hear that a Grand Jury did not indict the police officer who literally killed Garner in front of our eyes.

A silver lining of the cloud of these incidents of police brutality towards Black people has been the reinvigoration of the social justice movement to right the wrongs perpetrated against Blacks in this country. In particular, the Black Lives Matter activist movement was born. Like several of my co-religionists at the Washington Ethical Society (WES), I stood outside WES on a number of occasions holding signs that read, “Black Lives Matter” and “Honk for Justice” and “It’s Not Just Ferguson.” And it was gratifying how many of the cars going by during rush hour did honk, and how many thumbs up we saw to show solidarity with a clearly worthy cause.

But I’ve started to have some problems with the Black Lives Matter movement. Like most movements, the Black Lives Matter movement has developed a narrative of how things are, and why. Actually, it’s hard to imagine a movement not doing this. If you have a worthy cause – or what you consider a worthy ideology – you need to be able to explain it to get people on board. But such narratives tend to be particularly susceptible to the confirmation bias of those who create them[2], as I discussed in another essay several years ago, a bit of which I’ve excerpted here[3]:

“In 2004, psychologists at Emory University conducted brain imaging of self-described committed Republicans and Democrats, half Bush supporters and half Kerry supporters, while they considered a series of statements damaging to each candidate. ‘None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged,’ reported Drew Westen, the lead researcher. ‘Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones.’ [4]

 “The tendency of people to form narratives and to become emotionally invested in them was noted … well before the recent work by the Emory University researchers. Once formed, such narratives act as sieves. Facts that do not fit the fervently believed story are allowed to fall through and thus be ignored; facts that support the story are kept in and focused on – a process that might be thought of as the unconscious analog of a mostly conscious activity called ‘cherry-picking.’

 “People don’t do this in a vacuum. We do it within communities of like-minded people who reinforce the way we think and act. In fact, we often seek such communities of people who share our religious, political, or ideological views. It’s much easier to maintain a relatively simple narrative in a confusing world in the company of others who share the same narrative. … A community of like-minded people provides an ‘echo chamber’ in which our beliefs seem to be ‘everywhere’ and thus ‘correct.’ …

 “It’s not hard to find … examples of the partial blindness of partisans … American socialists who revered the Soviet Union or Communist China managed to ignore or rationalize away the fact that these were totalitarian societies in which there was essentially no freedom … Liberals in the 1970s and ‘80s didn’t seem to notice that welfare never really broke the cycle of poverty, that society was handing out welfare checks to the children of women who themselves had been on welfare. This too was a glaring fact that didn’t fit the then-current liberal narrative.

 “For their part, conservatives don’t seem to notice (or prefer to ignore) the fact that ‘power corrupts’ applies just as easily to big business as to big government. The examples of government carrying out very popular programs quite efficiently and of private sector corruption and inefficiency are among the facts that don’t fit their narrative, and so have been left out.”

But although there have been “selective omissions,” each of these narratives does capture something real and important. And in each case, there is empirical evidence to support the existence of a problem that the narrative originally arose to describe and address.

And there is evidence to support the narrative of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement too – a lot of evidence. And yet I’m concerned that for this movement, like every other movement, its narrative tends to act like a sieve – facts that do not fit the fervently believed story are allowed to fall through and be ignored or dismissed as “untrue.” As in many other movements, there can be a cavalier – almost dismissive – attitude about facts (in particular, facts that don’t entirely fit the narrative) (as I wrote about here).

Happily, there aren’t a lot of examples of this that I’m aware of so far – but there are at least a couple. The killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, is one. Apparently all the actual hard evidence supports Wilson’s story of what happened; it doesn’t support the meme that Brown had his hands up, even though that meme spread rapidly across social media and is still “alive and well” today.[5] This shouldn’t be a big problem for the BLM movement, since everything else in the DOJ report totally supports the larger picture of racism in the Ferguson police department, and there are many, many other events that corroborate the broader picture. But I’m still hearing people in the BLM movement refer to the killing of Michael Brown as if the movement still believes the meme (and maybe it does).

The other example came up recently, when some BLM activists met with Hillary Clinton. In their exchange, which was recorded,[6] BLM activist Julius Jones seems to want Clinton to admit responsibility for being part of the “tough on crime” approach (via the 1994 crime bill that President Bill Clinton signed into law and Hillary Clinton supported) that resulted in the mass incarceration of people of color that we see today. Jones asks Clinton:

“But now that you see the consequences, what in your heart has changed that’s going to change the direction of this country? Like what in you – not your platform, not what you’re supposed to say – like, how do you actually feel that’s different than you did before? Like what were the mistakes, and how can those mistakes that you made be lessons for all of America for a moment of reflection on how we treat Black people in this country?”

 The BLM activists were not satisfied with Clinton’s answer (which did not actually include any apology). As fellow BLM activist Daunasia Yancey told MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, “What we were looking for from Secretary Clinton was a personal reflection on her responsibility for being part of the cause of this problem that we have today in mass incarceration. So her response really targeting on policy wasn’t sufficient for us.”[7]

Now, I don’t think anyone who cares about racial justice in this country thinks the “tough on crime” stance of the 1990s had a good outcome. I think most – including Bill and Hillary Clinton – would acknowledge that it has had a horrifying outcome for Black people. But there was a larger context to the passage of the 1994 crime bill that the BLM activists did not make reference to, and the omission of that larger context changes the “narrative” in a way that I think is misleading. As Dara Lind observes,

“Many black Americans, including black leaders, welcomed “tough-on-crime” policies as a way to protect their communities. A majority of the Congressional Black Caucus voted for the 1986 law that created the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. And in 1994, it was the CBC that saved President Clinton’s crime bill after an unexpected loss on a procedural vote.”

 Kevin Drum, blogging for Mother Jones magazine, offers additional context:

“There really was a huge crime wave in the ’70s and ’80s. And it wasn’t uncommon for liberals to downplay this at the time, something that turned out to be a political disaster for liberalism. That’s because the crime wave wasn’t a myth, and it wasn’t made up. Rape, assault, and murder skyrocketed far above their previous highs, and inner-city neighborhoods in particular were especially hard hit. This is the reason that so many black leaders supported tough-on-crime bills of various sorts.

 “And while Lind is right that violent crime had peaked and was starting a long descent by 1994, no one knew it at the time. The peak had only happened a couple of years before, and there was no reason to think that a small drop in a single year or two was significant. So it’s not right to say that the people being put in prison in 1994 had “long since” stopped posing a threat. They posed a plenty big threat, and literally everyone who studied crime at the time thought they’d continue to do so for years. At the time, there was simply no reason to think that violent crime was about to plummet.

 “Now, everyone knows my take on this: Both the rise and subsequent fall of violent crime was largely due to childhood lead poisoning caused by lead paint and leaded gasoline. Tough-on-crime measures, it turns out, probably didn’t contribute much to the fall in crime during the ’90s and aughts. But again, at the time no one knew this. …

 “This in no way takes race out of the crime picture. It just explains it. Black crime really did soar during the crime wave, and the reason was simple: black families lived disproportionately in inner cities, where both lead paint and exhaust fumes from cars were rife. Racism is behind this everywhere. Blacks lived in these neighborhoods in the first place largely because of redlining and racial animus. … And they were never cleaned up because no one wanted to spend money on them. Paint and automobile lead poisoned black kids at a higher rate than white kids, and the result was higher black crime rates. …

 “Lind suggests that intent doesn’t matter. Something is racist if it has racist consequences. But I think you have to be pretty careful about that. Lind is right that, whether racially inspired or not, it’s important to face structural racism clearly and work relentlessly to overcome it. Nonetheless, intent does matter. Calling someone racist does nothing except make matters worse unless they really do have racist intent.

 “So was the 1994 crime bill racist in intent? No. Lots of black leaders, including black mayors who faced rising crime rates daily, supported it. Violent crime really was a huge problem—and it really was especially severe in black communities. Nobody at the time knew that lead might be the culprit for this, so they had to address it as best they could given what they believed. So they did. The 1994 crime bill was not a white supremacist project. It was a crime bill.”

Although the lead hypothesis is just that – a hypothesis – there’s some pretty solid evidence backing it up.[8] But the larger context – of a huge crime wave in the ’70s and ’80s that was disproportionately Black crime, and of Black leaders’ support for the crime bill – is factual. You can call the 1994 crime bill a “white supremacist project” if you want, but you can only do that if you ignore some pretty important facts.

The activists from the BLM movement did not use the term “white supremacist project,” but neither did they acknowledge the larger context – if they had, it would have made it more difficult to “lay blame” entirely on the Clintons and other white politicians who supported the crime bill.

To me, this is an example of letting certain facts that don’t fit your narrative “fall through the sieve.” I don’t know if this omission on the part of the BLM activists who talked to Clinton was purposeful or not. But it created a picture of events back in the 1990s that, I believe, is more in line with the general “white supremacist society” narrative than with the more complicated reality the empirical evidence supports.

Yes, there have been plenty of things that have gone on that I would categorize as part of “white supremacy.” But sometimes the true story is more complicated. And ignoring facts that don’t fit a simple narrative strikes me as intellectually dishonest (although the BLM movement is in “good company” here – every movement seems to do this).

There are some in the BLM movement who think that white people offering any opinions, let alone criticisms of the movement, is “a reflection of white entitlement and supremacy” and they should just stop it. Someone who I would guess would describe himself as a white ally wrote:

“My opinion is that as a white person committed to racial justice and the liberation of Black Lives, it is not my place to have an opinion on the ways in which people who are marginalized choose to enact the fight for their liberation. Rather, it is my place to stand with and next to and in support of Black Activists in whichever way they choose to struggle for their liberation. In fact, my own liberation is tied to my willingness to do so. So please, White Friends, if you are spending a single ounce of energy debating about the tactics and strategies of Black Activists fighting for Black Lives anywhere, STOP NOW. Then recognize that if you feel your opinion on this matter counts for anything in the scope of the bigger movement, that’s a reflection of white entitlement and supremacy.”[9]

Actually, it’s not that I feel entitled to an opinion because I’m white; I feel entitled to an opinion because I’m human. I don’t feel entitled to shout out the voices of Black people, and I don’t feel entitled to speak before listening – and I mean really listening – to what Black people have to say (since this movement is, after all, their movement about their liberation, and I haven’t experienced the oppression that they have experienced).

Being a woman, I’ve tried to think about these questions from the point of view of being in the marginalized group. Indeed, I don’t like when men try to “take over” or dominate the conversation. I think they should listen to women when women talk about their experiences; I think they should listen to women’s ideas for tactics and strategies. But, at the same time I welcome men’s input if it’s well-intentioned and thoughtful. I don’t really want them to just shut up and listen to me and other women and mindlessly lend themselves to our movement. Maybe some of them have some good ideas – or experiences in other movements that might be helpful to ours.

The person who wrote what I quoted above would presumably say that these thoughts are “a reflection of white entitlement and supremacy.” This strikes me as axiomatically dismissing what I have to say, rather than addressing my arguments on their own merits – a type of ad hominem argument. And dismissing any discomfort I may express about this as due to my “white fragility” neatly cuts off the possibility of a real conversation.[10]

These issues I have with the Black Lives Matter movement pain me, because more than most movements, I think this movement, and the broader movement for racial justice in this country, is totally justified and important – and overwhelmingly supported by evidence. But I think the selective omission of inconvenient facts in the service of a simple and compelling narrative is a mistake – for any movement – and ultimately damaging to the cause.[11] And I think categorically dismissing the opinions of white people is a mistake too (although I can certainly understand the desire not to have the voices of Blacks drowned out by those of whites).

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt discuss this problem (in a different context).

“A principle of moral psychology is that ‘morality binds and blinds.’ Part of what we do when we make moral judgments is express allegiance to a team. But that can interfere with our ability to think critically. Acknowledging that the other side’s viewpoint has any merit is risky—your teammates may see you as a traitor.”

I hesitated to write this essay. I think what the BLM movement is trying to do is incredibly important – tackling one of the big moral issues of our time (actually, of the last few centuries) – and I’d like to be “part of the team.” And I certainly don’t want to be seen as a traitor or treated as a pariah by those in the social justice movement with whom I regularly come into contact. But I also don’t want to forgo my critical thinking. I hope Mrs. Gilliard wouldn’t be angry with me; I hope that instead she’d be proud.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_Rights_Act_of_1964, accessed August 18, 2015.

[2] Wikipedia describes confirmation bias as “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses while giving disproportionately less attention to information that contradicts it.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias. For an excellent discussion of confirmation bias, as well as other kinds of biases people have, including the research that has confirmed these biases, I highly recommend Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow.” http://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Fast-Slow-Daniel-Kahneman/dp/0374533555

[3] When I wrote this essay, in 2006, I was not yet familiar with the term “confirmation bias,” but that is the appropriate term for the process I describe in this excerpt.

[4] http://www.nbcnews.com/id/11009379/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/political-bias-affects-brain-activity-study-finds/#.VdYW6CxVikp

[5] http://www.npr.org/2015/08/08/430411141/whether-history-or-hype-hands-up-dont-shoot-endures; http://time.com/3605266/facts-and-ferguson/; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2014/11/28/the-physical-evidence-in-the-michael-brown-case-supported-the-officer/

[6] See, for example: http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2015/08/hillary-clinton-black-lives-matter; for a full transcript, see: http://www.scribd.com/doc/275013188/Transcript-Hillary-Clinton-meeting-with-Black-Lives-Matter-activists

[7] http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2015/08/hillary-clinton-black-lives-matter

[8] See, for example: http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2013/01/lead-crime-link-gasoline; http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2014/04/criminologist-takes-lead-crime-hypothesis

[9] https://www.facebook.com/pgorski/posts/10155912291475534?fref=nf&pnref=story

[10] I do think there is such a thing as “white fragility.” I just don’t think every doubt or hesitation or “pushback” from a white person is necessarily due to that.

[11] I think it’s damaging because a movement that does this loses some credibility – as other movements (e.g., the conservative movement) have. And the BLM movement doesn’t need to do this; it has an abundance of evidence to support its basic case; it can afford to acknowledge that, while many interactions of white society with Blacks reflect an attitude of white supremacy, not all do.


5 comments on “Hesitations of a Would-Be White Ally

  1. Leslie Wharton says:

    This is lovely. Thoughtful, empathetic, and beautifully reasoned. Thanks for sharing. Will I see you tonight?

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. G. Kidd says:

    Excellent, Ellen! I’ve been having a discussion on this myself. I’ll forward you the e-mail.

  3. kimlfletcher says:

    As always, Ellen. Thought provoking and beautifully written.

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