For the first time, a president came to Tulsa to acknowledge the slaughter of hundreds of Black citizens at the hands of their White neighbors 100 years ago. Their houses and businesses in the vibrant Greenwood neighborhood were sacked and burned. Thousands were left homeless and impoverished. The horror was fueled by the toxic combination of racism and hatred and the unholy fealty to white supremacy at any cost.
Biden stood in front of a room of survivors and descendants, civic leaders and clergy at the Greenwood Cultural Center. And after an extended moment of silence in memory of those who were killed, he said: “My fellow Americans, this was not a riot. This was a massacre.” He said it bluntly and clearly. This simple, terrible statement of fact was a century in coming.
As he settled into his remarks, the president — his dark suit a reflection of the somberness of the occasion — made frequent references to three centenarian survivors of the massacre with whom he had taken an opportunity to meet. He spoke of them with a sense of intimacy and admiration: Mother Randle, Mother Fletcher and Mr. Van Ellis. The three were reminders that the story of Tulsa isn’t distant history. In many ways, it isn’t even history. It is part of their daily reality — the images of the fires and the bodies as vivid as last year’s news, perhaps even more so.
In his empathy and his truth-seeking, Biden asked the country to settle into a productive, contemplative, cleansing guilt. It’s the third rail of any conversation about racial justice, yet guilt may be the most powerful tool we have to create any kind of forward momentum.
Guilt is the uncomfortable acceptance of personal fallibility. It’s the ability not only to see that harm has come to others, but also to acknowledge that you have played a part — perhaps not directly but incidentally, perhaps not by action but by inaction, perhaps not by deed but by word, perhaps not individually but collectively. Guilt connects us to our most intimate companions and passing strangers. It reminds us that we are all each other’s keepers. It reminds us to care.
There is, of course, no benefit in wallowing in guilt. That’s more paralyzing than productive. But without the capacity to feel guilt — or shame — it’s hard to imagine how anyone maintains a moral center. Yet the country has such an aversion to even the slightest brush with guilt. We fear its razor-sharp pinpricks, the ones that prevent us from sitting comfortably or sleeping soundly in our own stubborn ignorance.
We are so determined to avoid any sense of our own wrongdoing, to dismiss any suggestion that we have not earned our every advantage through nothing but our own sweat and dedication, that legislatures are attempting to outlaw guilt.
Just weeks ago, Oklahoma’s governor signed a bill that aims to ban from public and charter school curriculums any required coursework that promotes the idea that an “individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.” In other words, teachers should avoid conversations that raise questions about the social and financial advantages that have accrued disproportionately to those who identify as White. They should steer clear of any vigorous debate about how the culture often encourages a bleak and poisonous notion of masculinity that is damaging to everyone. They should avoid considering the enduring effects of the Tulsa massacre on both Black and White citizens.
Oklahoma’s legislation grew out of a desire to silence conversations about systemic racism, which shifts the focus from the bad actions of a few bad people to the sweeping educational, judicial and financial systems in which we all are participants. The country’s flaws are endemic and collective.
Conversations about race indeed often make White people feel uncomfortable. But those conversations don’t breed guilt as much as they simply reveal it. The guilt has always been there, just below the surface. And when the conversations become difficult or painful, the guilt springs to the surface like the stains that show up on laundry that looked clean until the sunlight hit it.
Biden didn’t go to Tulsa to accuse anyone of being a racist. He didn’t declare the country irretrievably broken. But he did suggest, with each policy proposal aimed at rectifying past wrongs, that we’re all connected. We rise together. And just as there are Black survivors and descendants of the massacre, there are White ones, too. People whose forebears were there amid the smoke. People who heard the screams. Pain and guilt. It’s intertwined. It’s passed down. The country is tasked with putting balm on the wounds left behind by the massacre. But we also need to grab hold to the guilt. Lean into it and steady ourselves with it. And then move it aside to make room for the light.