In the reignited quest for social justice, the answer to one question will determine whether progress is made: What’s more important, persuading white Americans to confess to being racists, or achieving meaningful results?

If what we want are results, little time should be devoted to demanding contrition. While white liberals might be quicker than conservatives to admit to the sins of their forebears, it is harder to admit to their own flaws. Many might acknowledge that other white people are racist, such as members of fringe white-supremacy groups, but not themselves.

Whether that belief is accurate or an exercise in denial is a topic that too quickly dominates discussions of racial injustice. Robin DiAngelo, author of “White Fragility,” thinks it’s important for everyone to agree that “nice, white people who really aren’t doing anything other than being nice people are racist” because they are “complicit with that system.” If the majority of white America is expected to agree with that opinion, nothing will change.

Filmmaker Ken Burns reflects on James Baldwin's understanding of liberty, and how our most venerated monuments can remind us of where America falls short. (The Washington Post)

What we can all agree upon is that entrenched systemic inequality is real and favors whites. In 2020, it remains extremely advantageous to be born a white person in America. Studies show white people will be better educated, more often employed, more quickly promoted and more readily handed the keys to homes, apartments and cars. They will be profiled less often by police and will more easily navigate our criminal justice system with favorable results. They will live healthier and longer lives.

But isn’t that the same as systemic racism? Why are we quibbling over semantics? Because semantics will determine whether the new movement gets the broad endorsement it needs. If it’s a guilt-based, leftist-driven crusade contingent upon white America confessing its sins, success won’t stand a chance. If it’s a forward-looking, inclusive campaign welcoming voices from across the political and racial spectra, it could achieve historic results. Why? Because, maybe for the first time, it looks as though nearly everyone agrees there’s a problem.

As we are already witnessing, white-owned corporate America will embrace the new social justice movement, not because of a sudden awakening of conscience, but because it will be good business. In general, corporate America is like government. It is an impersonal entity with no moral compass. It will do what’s expedient and popular. But if progressive business initiatives and congressional legislation made a real difference, we wouldn’t still be having this discussion. The change has to come from the grass roots, from people’s hearts. According to census figures, African Americans make up just 13 percent of the U.S. population. America is 60 percent white — 76 percent when Hispanics and Latinos who identify as white are included. A huge white buy-in, and not just among liberals, is required for real change to happen.

While most white people will be reluctant to self-identify as racists, they will, if they stop to consider it, acknowledge that the system is unfair. In too many places, including mostly white rural America, they have seldom been spurred to consider it. That’s changing now. In my experience, the vast majority of people in rural areas have long agreed that our nation’s slave history is abhorrent and that all people are equal in the eyes of God. But what they must wrap their minds around is that even if they believe they personally have nothing to apologize for up to now, that will not remain true if they fail to embrace this moment.

What could derail the whole movement is that, as usual in our country, our default reaction is overreaction. In this case, justifiable outrage and protests over a white Minneapolis police officer suffocating a black man to death unfortunately morphed into irresponsible rioting and looting, ludicrous calls to defund police departments, and the removal or targeting not just of statues honoring Confederate heroes but also those of Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt and even Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps it will eventually dawn on everyone that if a flawless life is required, no statues can be erected to anyone.

In light of the George Floyd killing and other similar acts, righteous anger is understandable, and a momentary degree of extremism is forgivable. But achieving lasting results will require cooler heads and more rational approaches. Every contribution must be welcome, not just those from the left.

No one should claim ownership of this moment in history, or the right to make the rules of engagement. If we can each claim it as our own, we might make something happen, something good and lasting with contributions from every corner of the United States — even from President Trump-loving, rural, conservative white folks, who might surprise a lot of people by showing that black lives matter to them, too.

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