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Years ago, I was sitting in the office of a white pastor friend discussing race relations within his South Carolina church. The church was mostly white but had a not insignificant percentage of people of color.
My friend had done a lot to embrace diversity, he reminded me, including knocking on the door of just about every black family’s home in the area when the church was founded. He participated in multiracial worship services and volunteer groups and occasionally invited black speakers to take the pulpit. The church co-sponsored dinners with predominately black churches.
All of that was true, I told him, but none of it explained why the church leadership remained entirely white. None of it had stopped a good number of church members (not all) from making racially tinged remarks about President Barack Obama and clinging to disturbing racial stereotypes. None of it had torn down the structural barriers to racial equality that remained in the church and in town.
“Issac,” he responded, “you are about race; I’m about Jesus.”
In other words, his motives were pure, about activating our higher angels to benefit us all, while mine were driven by an unhealthy obsession with race and amounted to a naked attempt to elevate black people no matter the broader ramifications.
It was clear the urgency I felt to make more progress far exceeded his. I had to make a choice to either dial back my passion and make my concerns secondary to his or move on.
I moved on, ending the conversation and eventually leaving the church. There was no middle way.
In the fight for racial equality, clashing with racists and critics who never liked you is easy. But clashing with your allies hurts.
As a black man in the South in the age of Trump, I’m having to make that choice — either dialing back my passion or moving on from self-proclaimed allies — again and again. Now, in the midst of the #MeToo revolution, I see that women are facing the same choice. Men who say they’re allies in the fight for gender equality also say women have become too obsessed with the fight against sexual harassment and assault. They say the #MeToo movement needs to be tempered.
But if a moment like this, a long-overdue reckoning with sexual assault and harassment, is to become a transformational movement, that’s precisely what many women, and the men who truly support them, must be willing to do.
While talking about race, white liberal friends have told me I am turning them into enemies, because I insist that a cop’s fear is not sufficient cause to snuff out the life of an unarmed man. I’ve had Tea Party-loving friends tell me I’m spreading hatred and making police officers’ jobs more dangerous because I say it is reasonable in a democracy to question everyone, especially those we’ve given the power to take our lives.
White conservative friends have told me I’m too focused on the plight of black men when I write about Terence Crutcher or Walter Scott – then tell me I’m co-opting a white death for the purposes of Black Lives Matter when I speak of the horror of Daniel Shaver being killed while on his knees and begging for his life after attempting to comply with nearly incomprehensible commands from the officer who would shoot him. To those friends and acquaintances, only what they are comfortable with, only the words and actions they understand and sanction, are acceptable while raising important issues. In their minds, they are above reproach while I’m blinded by my experiences and the color of my skin.
Even white colleagues called my concerns hyperbolic when I expressed dismay that 63 million Americans could watch Trump rise to national political prominence on the bigotry of birtherism — then double down on that bigotry while campaigning — and vote for him anyway. They were more concerned about making sure I didn’t reduce that mostly white group of Americans to one big blob of racists than considering the ramifications of the message that vote sends in a country that is fast becoming majority-minority.
Martin Luther King Jr. told us this would happen. It’s why he wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he called white moderates a “great stumbling block” to the civil rights movement:
“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection,” he wrote.
In other words, the racists he understood and could contend with; the supposed right-thinking potential allies telling him to slow down were the real enemies of progress.
It’s happening again, this time to women. Men are centering themselves in this drama, wondering if the push for gender equality is moving too far, too fast and fretting about the remote possibility they might face false allegations. And men have a strong ally in a growing number of women who claim #MeToo infantilizes women, turning them into unwitting victims – even as those very critics throw the cloak of victimhood across the shoulders of men.
I hope #MeToo ignores them. I hope #MeToo keeps making noise, keeps pushing through the naysayers who mistakenly believe women can’t figure out when they’ve been assaulted or harassed or just inconvenienced by a clueless guy who didn’t know how to properly ask a woman out. I hope they remember the blue-collar women at the Ford plants in Chicago who’ve been fighting the scourge of harassment for decades, with little relief. I hope they understand that their voices might give pause to the creepy boss who keeps harassing the waitress who has few other job options.
The privileged and perverted always benefit from the silence of the put-upon, overlooked and abused. They, along with the misguided who’ve convinced themselves their voices should supersede those of women finally forcing this country to live up to its true ideals, are trying to benefit from a shame-induced silence again.
They must not be allowed to succeed.
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