White People Didn’t Know This Would Be On The Test

Listen closely. Do you hear it? Do you hear the sound of millions of white people furiously cramming for a test we had 400 years to prepare for?

Nationwide, bookstores and retailers are sold out of titles about how anti-Black racism has remained at the center of our society and how white people of all political persuasions have played an active role in upholding that intolerable status quo. Book clubs are eschewing Sheryl Sandberg for Robin DiAngelo, and local booksellers are placing bulk orders for How To Be An Antiracist

In film too the cramming is apparent, if a bit less heartening. Even as America reopens from the first part of Wave 1 of the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, citizens are staying home to watch The Help (sigh) and 13th (lfg). Even that sacred safe space for white complacency, podcastdom, has been overtaken by a fervor for racial justice.

In other words: at least 401 years after the first America-bound slave was kidnapped, brutalized, and brought to our shores; 237 years after the Constitution falsely claimed that its authors believed all men were created equal; 155 years after the enslaver’s rebellion was put down by force; 134 years after Rutherford B. Hayes traded generations of Black dreams for four years of power; 99 years after Black Wall Street was pillaged and burned by domestic terrorists; 65 years after Emmett Till was murdered; 57 years after Bull Connor’s attack dogs; 55 years after Malcolm X was murdered; 52 years after Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered; 28 years after Rodney King was beaten; 8 years after Trayvon Martin was murdered; 6 years after Mike Brown and Laquan McDonald were murdered; 3 years after Eric Garner was murdered; 4 months after Ahmaud Arbery was murdered; 3 months after Breonna Taylor was murdered; and 2 weeks after George Floyd was murdered… white people have discovered we may have some work to do to dismantle white supremacy. 

Now, that sounds like a condemnation—and in part, it is. Cramming for a test we’ve had our whole lives to prepare for is deeply embarrassing. But feeling embarrassed and trying to educate ourselves are two of the better things we can do right now. The situation is deeply embarrassing and at the same time it’s encouraging. Understanding that contradiction is central to how we maintain the momentum of the last few weeks.

We wrote after Ahmaud Arbery was hunted and killed that we’d been here before, and that it had all become so sickeningly familiar. Now, this time feels different, no doubt. But for it to actually be different it’s going to require white people to finally do the work we’ve been putting off for half a millennium. 

So reading up, getting educated, and sharing resources is a good start. But it really is just a start, a bare minimum first step, and we can’t lose sight of how much damage has been done by waiting this long. If the last-second studying gets us anywhere, it’ll hopefully be a place where we start to conceptualize the work and time that’s needed to repair that damage. 

Image credit: 12 Books Written by Black Authors You Won’t Be Able to Put Down ✊🏽✊🏾✊🏿

We’ve Been Here Before

There’s a construction site a block over from my apartment. It’s a full gutting of one of those beautiful Chicago brownstones. You can see straight through; everything but the stairs has been torn seam from seam.

I know this because I stopped to look a few weeks ago. I don’t think it was on one of my quarantine jogs, but it might have been. It was definitely since the weather started to get nicer. I remember thinking how fragile the whole house looked, like you could knock it over with a toothpick. 

Ahmaud Arbery was out for a jog. He apparently stopped at a construction site in the neighborhood too. Video shows a man who may be him entering the site. He looked around. 

Ahmaud Arbery was three years younger than me. I have to use the past tense because Ahmaud Arbery is dead. He was shot to death by Gregory and Travis McMichael, a father and son pair who were recently arrested in the killing. 

This is the part where I mention that I’m white, and Ahmaud Arbery was black, and that—in America, in 2020—is still enough to make the difference between life and death. But you already knew I was white. Not just because of the tone of this newsletter overall, but because you’ve read this piece before. 

You read it after Trayvon Martin was stalked and killed. You read it after Eric Garner died pleading for his life. You read it after Michael Brown was shot to death by a cop who claimed the child looked like a demon. You read it after Tamir Rice, age 12, was killed for playing in the park. You read it after Sandra Bland was hauled off to her death. You read it after Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times, many in the back, 15 minutes from my home. 

There’s a familiar rhythm now to these ungodly slayings. The initial outrage on social media, the chorus of activists and celebrities calling for an investigation at the very least. The authorities making some sort of gesture of goodwill—empaneling a grand jury, signing an arrest warrant, calling in a special prosecutor. Then the backlash, usually from the conservative media echo chamber, explaining what actions are newly capital offenses. 

Then come these columns. Fervent, outraged declarations from white people about these deadly double standards. We white people feel that these things must be said, that silence is complicity. And there’s undeniably some truth to that. 

But it’s what comes next that just destroys me. Trayvon Martin’s killer, acquitted by a jury given stand your ground reminders in their deliberation instructions. Eric Garner’s killer, fired but walking free while the primary witness to the killing is locked up. Laquan McDonald’s killer, given a prison sentence 16 times lower than the sentencing guidelines allowed for. Michael Brown’s killer, free to call the dead kid names to the media. 

So we’ll hope that this time, there will be true accountability. That the justice system will finally act as if all lives matter. But those of us who’ve read these columns before won’t be holding our breaths.