I didn’t want to write about race today.
After columns on gun violence in inner-city Chicago; the viral McKinney, Tex., swimming pool video as a proxy for segregation; the sideshow of the formerly white, former NAACP official Rachel Dolezal, I just wanted to step back and catch my breath.
But then, so did Eric Garner.
The instinct to call a pause when events feel overwhelming is often not an option when it comes to race in this country.
More precisely, that’s not how white supremacy works.
I speak explicitly of white supremacy not just because last week’s shooting at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., is being called a hate crime. Not because the alleged shooter, Dylann Storm Roof, 21, who wore flags of apartheid-era South Africa and white-minority-ruled Rhodesia, is reported to have said, “You’re taking over our country” before killing nine people at Bible study.
Not because the Confederate flag flies on the South Carolina statehouse grounds and Alexander Stephens defined the Confederacy — of which he was vice president — thusly: “Our new government is founded upon . . . the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”
I speak of it because those are just iterations of something foundational and monstrously paradoxical to the ideals of America.
Because Roof and Dolezal (to a far more complex and interpersonal extreme) exist along a continuum of unbalance. Whether murderous or deluded, racial sickness is all around us.
It is a sleight of mind whose roots stretch back centuries beginning, perhaps, with a simple conversation I imagine may have gone something like this:
Person One: I’m a free person.
Person Two: I need to be enriched, so I say you’re not a person at all. You’re property. No different from my foot stool, and so, I leave you to my favorite niece. Long may she rest her heels on your back.
It’s that “thingification” of human beings that warped us, white and black alike, and echoes through all the generations and every stratum of America.
It is in housing, in criminal justice, in education. It is historical, it is structural, it is DNA-level.
I am reminded of a central allegory from the “The Walking Dead.” In that popular zombie series, a plague of such overpowering virulence has struck the nation and everyone has been infected.
Some of us are just more symptomatic.
That notion of collective illness feels like a useful frame to look at black alienation, nihilism and gun violence. And, certainly, at white hate groups and steady rates of hate crimes.
But it is also useful in the softer, rheumy, more quietly rotten ways of the nation. It is in my inbox full of e-mails from whites who skip simple, intuitive truths for the mental gymnastics required to believe nothing is about race. Ever.
A Washington Post analysis of Pew Research polling found last week that “half of American whites see no racism around them.”
Mental gymnastics. Sleight of mind. Zombies. I think you see where I’m going with this.
Robin DiAngelo, a white professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University, coined a term for it: “white fragility.”
“For white people, their identities rest on the idea of racism as about good or bad people, about moral or immoral singular acts, and if we’re good, moral people we can’t be racist — we don’t engage in those acts,” she explained to AlterNet. The interview was picked up by the Atlanta Blackstar Web site in March.
It is an adaptation of racism that “we can think of it as only something that individuals either are or are not ‘doing.’ In large part, white fragility — the defensiveness, the fear of conflict — is rooted in this good/bad binary. If you call someone out, they think to themselves, ‘What you just said was that I am a bad person, and that is intolerable to me.’ It’s a deep challenge to the core of our identity as good, moral people.”
I am not, today, making that challenge.
Rather, I am repeating a call.
“There really is no more urgent issue than race for this country, these days,” a former Post editor said in an e-mail to me before the Charleston shooting. She referenced police violence and redlining and other racially fraught ills. “I’m embarrassed to be such a naive optimist, but . . . how can we look in the mirror like this and not be repelled by what we see? How can this be tolerated?”
On our way to school, my 17-year-old daughter implored me to write about race, “in order to let people know.”
“Will things change if people know?” I asked.
“Possibly,” she said, “but nothing will ever change if they don’t.”
So today, I am repeating a call, or perhaps there is a call I am answering.
It is an exhortation with roots in history and adapted to fit our own war on terror. It is posted at airports and railway stations. And it is an entreaty issued from those most charged with safeguarding our well being, our future as a country.
If you see something, say something, is how it goes. What I see is the enduring legacy of white supremacy. I see our collective zombie-like sickness.
I see dead people. And I wonder what, if anything, are we willing to do to save ourselves?
For more by O’Neal, visit wapo.st/lonnae.