Editor’s Note: Jess Row is the author of White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination. The views expressed here are his. Read more opinion on CNN.
When I knew him in the mid-1990s, Nick (as I’ll call him here) bore a disconcerting resemblance to Dickie Greenleaf, the character played by Jude Law in “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” He came from a wealthy New England family on Boston’s North Shore; he’d been expelled from a dozen prep schools and barely graduated from college; he was effortlessly good at all sports and was the center of attention wherever he went.
We worked together at an outdoor education center serving underprivileged children and on the weekends bar-hopped across the city. One night he told me a story I’ve never forgotten: some years before, he’d been stopped by state troopers on suspicion of DUI – while carrying a lot of cocaine, enough that he was charged not with possession, but with trafficking. He hadn’t spent more than a few nights in jail. His father had flown in lawyers who had sprung him immediately, brought him home and ensured that the case was dropped.
Nearly every white person in America has heard a version of this story about another white person. This one sticks in my memory simply because it’s so vivid, and so blatant: if Nick had been black or brown, he’d likely still be in jail today. At the very height of the War on Drugs, a single charge of drug trafficking could swallow a defendant’s entire life. No one around the table that night at the bar – white twenty-something guys, brought up in the same privileged circumstances, to varying degrees – needed that to be explained.
There are moments when white Americans step up to the edge of the chasm that separates us from everyone else and just barely glimpse the other side. And then, more often than not, look away quickly – because, as Nietzsche put it, if you stare too long into the abyss, the abyss stares into you.
Since George Floyd’s killing, and the waves of mass protest that have followed, I’ve seen hundreds or thousands of social media posts on the theme of white innocence—white people expressing their horror at the “hatred and division” overtaking the country, as if out of nowhere, and lists of books and resources white people can use to educate themselves. Sales of popular books on whiteness and racism, like Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility,” have skyrocketed. That’s a wonderful thing. (I’m not a distinterested party – I’ve written one of those books myself.) Recently I saw a tweet by the black screenwriter Marquita Robinson, answering requests from white friends by riffing on a gospel classic: “What a friend we have in Google.”
But here’s the uncomfortable truth: white people already know exactly what it means to be white. White people, in our way, are experts on racism. We know it because we practice it, implement it and benefit from it, in small ways and large, from the way we’re treated in line at the grocery store to the jokes we hear in hiring meetings about who is and isn’t a “good fit” for the company. When asked to speak about racism, particularly in the presence of people of color, we might stumble over words, apologize profusely, express bewilderment and assure everyone of their good intentions, but among other whites in private, at the bar, on the sidelines at soccer games, on the fishing boat, we often have a lot to say.
The Black Lives Matter movement, which took hold in earnest after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014, has already made many earnest, educated, left-leaning white people aware of systemic racism and unconscious bias, and so when I listen to these private, whites-only conversations today, I often hear a tone of self-awareness and active discomfort or resentment of other whites who are oblivious to racism. But I also often hear tones of cynicism, helplessness, and resignation, sometimes all at once. I’ve spoken to quite a few white friends who have tried and failed to create meaningful change – actively working to hire people of color, introducing an anti-racist curriculum in their children’s schools, speaking up against racists in their communities – and now they’re discouraged and even a little resentful of how hard it all is.
White helplessness and incapacity is for many a reassuring – and therefore extremely dangerous – condition, because it allows white people to push race to the side, convince themselves either that “they’ve done their part” or “they can’t possibly do anything about it,” and then return to what James Baldwin once described as the “sunlit playpen” of white American existence. So I have a counter-suggestion: let’s start treating white people not as bystanders to racism but as protagonists: that is, expert racists. Consider Amy Cooper and how fluently she was able to turn what she described as her fear during a dispute over leashing her dog into a threat to call out the NYPD against an “African American man.” Amy Cooper didn’t need to be educated about acts of racism and police violence; she needed to be prevented from instigating one.
Call this a transition from an era of education to an era of expectations. (I’m echoing the words of the black scholar Koritha Mitchell, who wrote, in 2016, “American expectations of whites are so low that they are never assumed capable of identifying with anyone but themselves.”) Last year, Grand Rapids, Michigan, debated an ordinance that would make “biased crime reporting” a criminal misdemeanor carrying a $500 fine. In the wake of the George Floyd protests, cities are now considering laws that would require police officers to intervene if they witness fellow officers committing illegal or racist acts.
It’s not that racism can be criminalized out of existence, but there are many ways to use existing regulatory systems – insurance, corporate law, municipal codes, shareholder governance – to hold people and organizations responsible for sustaining racist practices and to seek reparations for past offenses. This, too, is already happening, mostly on a voluntary and small-scale basis: some liberal, predominantly white churches with endowments and real estate that stretch back centuries have begun creating “slavery reparations funds.”
The question now is about scale: how can we make build anti-racism into our laws and norms as a concrete expectation not as a special exception?
Many white Americans, however much they support the idea of racial justice, are afraid to answer that question – not because they don’t know the answer, but because, consciously or not, many of them believe it’s a zero-sum game: whatever people of color gain, white people lose. It isn’t. Racism is devastating this country. Health disparities, infant mortality, immigration restrictions, police budgets – the US wastes billions of dollars a year upholding white supremacy. Americans are poorer, sicker, less educated and less safe than the inhabitants of any comparable nation.
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If you are white and have won the American racial lottery, and if you’ve spent any time in the last few weeks protesting or posting your outrage about the recent spate of well-publicized police killings, you already know your work isn’t finished. Make a list. Your expertise is needed.