The book, “When the Stars Begin to Fall: Overcoming Racism and Renewing the Promise of America,” is both candid about entrenched racism and hopeful that we can confront racism and live up to the American creed that “all men are created equal.” Johnson argues that democracy reform, governing transparency, national service and civic education can tap into the country’s "civic religion,” which is essential to America’s self-image.
Below is a recent discussion with Johnson, edited for length and clarity.
Rubin: Why do you call racism a “crime of the state” and argue structural racism, not personal bias, is the great challenge?
Johnson: For lots of folks, the word racism is interpreted to be shorthand for White people’s hatred of people of color. And on the right — where an uncritical version of patriotism is more prevalent in parts of its base — the suggestion that hatred is baked into America is offensive. But structural racism has little to do with the hearts of men. It simply states that our country was organized around a set of policies and norms that has caused the way our society is structured to disadvantage certain racial and ethnic groups — not because the United States hates them but because they were not appropriately considered. It says it’s the nation’s responsibility to address the structures that work against our professed ideals of equality and liberty. When the nation fails to do so, it is a crime of the state.
Rubin: Why is banning critical race theory dangerous?
Johnson: This is more of the false choice that our simplistic and base version of contemporary politics encourages. The American people are told that we can either stare at our ugly past or celebrate our principles and progress — not both. This is more than just not true; it is destructive. How can we begin to talk about the nation’s progress if we are unwilling to discuss its starting points?
The very concept of progress requires an understanding of where we began, our shortcomings and missteps, our successes, and the work ahead. Ignoring our past casts America in its own creation narrative — a thing arising from nothing fully formed and enlightened. We have far more to be proud of in the actual journey, where various peoples from all over the world found themselves together in this imperfect and often cruel place and relentlessly reshaped it to align with its professed ideals. The only way the American experiment has a chance at succeeding — the only way we can achieve a multiracial egalitarian constitutional democracy — is if we develop an appreciation for the nation’s full story.
Rubin: How does fighting racism help all Americans, and what’s “in it” for Whites?
Johnson: When race can be exploited to divide us, our government doesn’t have to be responsive to any of us. If White Americans want government to do its job and fulfill its end of the social contract, reducing racism is the most powerful action that can be taken. All of us are cheated out of the benefits of citizenship and our own work when those in positions to address our problems successfully explain them away as the product of some other group’s actions. And while we’re bickering about intergroup relationships and who is responsible to fix what, we let government off the hook to structure our society in a way that benefits us all.
The challenges White America is having with the opioid epidemic and suicide rates, for example, are connected to the effects of structural racism because the socioeconomic anxieties and despair fueling those issues are fed by the intentionally divisive rhetoric on race from those with political and economic power. Moreover, reducing the effects of racism brings us closer to the promise of America and improves the likelihood that we’ll leave a better nation to posterity than the one we inherited.
Rubin: What is “national solidarity,” and how it can overcome racism?
Johnson: National solidarity is when democratic strangers come together over a cause of morality or justice in order to hold the state accountable for being in breach of the social contract. It is a kind of civic friendship that requires both sacrifice and forbearance in service of a matter of principle, not just over material interests. A vast multiracial group standing in national solidarity is the only means to address structural racism because it moves social norms and compels government to address the policies and practices that lead to racially disparate treatment.
Rubin: You argue race-conscious solutions are needed to overcome racism. How do you persuade Whites that they aren’t “losing out”?
Johnson: Race-conscious policy solutions are not things White people give to others. They are solutions the nation implements for its citizens to amend for previous policy decisions that created inequality. Race-conscious solutions [in education] take into account the students’ races, group histories and specific challenges, whereas a colorblind solution would give both populations the same batch of proposed fixes. The former seems to be a much smarter way of doing business because it is tailored to address the specific group and set of issues. How do White Americans lose out in that scenario?
The actual challenge is addressing the sense of relative social loss some may experience. But equality and liberty are not zero-sum. If our society’s structures disadvantage one group of people and advantage another, equality is gained for all when the structures are straightened out. That leveling may feel like “losing out” to the group that benefited most from the status quo, but racial inequality and the American ideals cannot touch without bruising. One must give way to the other.
Rubin: Your book assumes substantial good faith among Whites. Is that warranted?
Johnson: The big lie [of a stolen election], White grievance and voting bills that complicate access to the polls are the products of the political expedience found in the demonization of other groups. The power structure tells us that we could have all we want out of life if not for “those people over there.” American history is littered with instances of the successful deployment of such tactics.
But our history is also filled with people holding on to hope, optimism and faith in our country despite all evidence to the contrary. In the book, I talk about my family’s American journey from slavery through Jim Crow to my service as a commander in the U.S. Navy in order to show how we, like many American families, confronted discrimination and injustice and still held tight to the Promise of America. For all its faults, the United States of 2021 is a far more democratic place than the United States of 1821. That didn’t just happen; we, the people who claimed America before the United States fully recognized us, helped make it so.