Race in America: A Conversation

Mural of leaders in the conversation of race in America: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglas
Image by Tony Fischer via Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tonythemisfit/3458658210

We often hear that Americans need to have a conversation on race. However, anyone who has attempted to do so knows that such conversations are incredibly difficult to conduct civilly. At Divided We Fall, we do not fear difficult conversations. We embrace them. This week, Leah Donnella of NPR’s Codesmith and Robert Wilkes are willing to have the much needed conversation on race in America. Read their differing viewpoints as part of our Political Pen Pals series below. 

Dear Leah,

My name is Robert. I’m a bookish, Jewish white male. I can’t sleep at night without Ambien because I can’t shut off my brain, and I’ve been thinking about race recently after participating in a series of conversations between Jews and blacks about race in America.

Jews know from Leviticus, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” Jews have a history of standing shoulder to shoulder with blacks during the civil rights movement and remain at the forefront of social justice causes. Jews cannot stand idly by.

Our black-Jewish dialogue program was comprised of six meetings over six months. We got along very well. Our conversations were often difficult, sometimes intense. Blacks and Jews were better able to see the world through the eyes of the other afterward. The most meaningful outcome, for me, was simply being together—sharing a meal and forming bonds of understanding.

I learned that there is a popular “narrative” about race in America and many of the African-American participants subscribed to it. I have a problem with the narrative. I don’t think it represents reality, and I don’t think it is constructive or helpful.

This opening blast is to defend my position. If it seems as though I’m attacking your race or devaluing your life experience as an African American, that is not my intention. My intention is to ensure that all Americans can achieve successful, meaningful, and happy lives. I think about young people in America who are black and I want them to succeed.

The narrative, as I heard it, was the following:

All whites are racist. I’m told there is racism I know I’m doing and racism I don’t know I’m doing, but it’s all racism. Racism in America is pervasive and omnipresent. The “system” is racist and designed to thwart blacks for white supremacy. Examples include the criminal justice system, voter suppression, redlining of mortgages by banks, profiling by police, higher rates of expulsion in public schools, lower per-pupil funding in schools with high percentages of black students, and general discrimination in hiring, promotion, and all phases of life.

I heard that black people fear for their lives and believe some whites would kill them merely for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A traffic stop is a fearful event that can get you killed. The participants argued that white police “murder” black people almost every day and all black leaders have been assassinated. 

I was told that America is tragically flawed and culpable for any number of evils. I believe we have a  responsibility for slavery and Jim Crow, but some claimed responsibility far beyond that. The black people in our group don’t believe they have a homeland in the way that the Jews can look to Israel. They don’t seem to identify themselves as Americans (at least not as strongly as I do). As a people with an overwhelmingly deprecating view of America, they are without a home of their own.

They conclude that racism puts barriers in their path that are essentially insurmountable—for black people, life in America is difficult. Some believed that the best one can do is survive. Curiously, all the blacks in our group were successful in their chosen fields. Several were leaders and administrators with standing in the community. I was left with a cognitive dissonance I’m still trying to reconcile.

I challenged the narrative and set off a firestorm. The narrative is unassailable dogma—a law of gravity. No one is permitted to deviate from the narrative, black or white. The whites in the room are just as committed and pushed back just as hard.

I’ll break my challenge down into four points.

1. Frames of Belief

Our belief system, or “frame,” is the worldview we adopt because it makes us happy and seems to predict events. No one has a perfectly truthful worldview, and they would be wrong to think so. To see the power of frames, compare an hour of CNN with an hour of Fox News. Notice how differently they report the same events. The two popular news services reside in separate universes.

When you choose news programs because they validate your frame, you see the world is working as your frame predicted. You receive “confirmation bias,” and you are convinced of your frame’s truth. You become a reliable, loyal viewer; the news networks sell advertising and make a lot of money.

If you think Trump is awful and should be impeached, you’ll find confirmation bias all day, every day. On the other hand, if you believe Trump is just what the country needs, you’ll find confirmation bias for that as well. One or both of these frames is a mass delusion. I think it’s both.

If your frame is the racism narrative, you’ll have no trouble finding confirmation bias. You’ll see it in every sideways glance or the tone of voice of an overworked waitress. The Southern Poverty Law Center paints the bleakest possible picture of race in America. It publishes data reporting every racial incident—whether confirmed or not. These numbers increase year by year because the day race relations improve is the day they go out of business. Donations will dry up. Jewish groups do the same, often with the same result—increased fear.

2. Correlation versus Causation

As I read the literature on the black experience with the criminal justice system, on higher mortgage rates for blacks, and high rates of expulsion in schools, I see logical fallacies and errors conflating correlation with causation. This is, after all, social science—not chemistry or physics. Causal factors are complicated and largely unmeasurable. Social scientists, authors, news commentators, academics, and politicians will examine the same phenomena and arrive at vastly different conclusions.

The narrative encourages us to regard all setbacks as the result of racism, incorrectly conflating correlation with causation. We can’t solve problems until we confront them in an honest search for truth. Reflexively attributing problems to racism is avoidance; it prevents us from seeing reality. It also robs us of our capacity for agency by handing one’s ability to take control of one’s life and act in one’s own interests to other people. Other people have their own interests.

3. The Narrative is Unhealthy

This is the main point of my challenge: The narrative is toxic. For some, it will be catastrophic—to teach a child that life is hopeless, that trying is futile, and to feel exaggerated fear is child abuse. The narrative, for some, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Each of us has one life, a precious gift from God. If the narrative causes one child to lose faith in himself and become so discouraged that he gives up, that life is wasted.

The narrative has its allure and its payoffs. In our present social and political climate, you gain power when you establish yourself as a victim. The victim card helps those who know how to play it to their advantage, but it fetters many others from disadvantaged circumstances.

4. The Story of the Black Immigrant

Over 4 million black immigrants are living in America. People of color who immigrate to America have an advantage—they have not been raised on the narrative. Rather, they have been raised on the opposite: They see opportunity in America like nowhere else on Earth. Yes, they know there is racism in America—that they will be black in a predominantly white society—but they don’t choose to let it obstruct their paths. Compared to the circumstances of real hopelessness they have left behind, America offers unlimited opportunities. To many immigrants, racism is real but possible to overcome. 

That’s my argument. Yes, there is racism. There is antisemitism, Islamophobia, homophobia—you name it. We will, in time, make those prejudices socially unacceptable in the same way you wouldn’t dare light a cigarette in a restaurant today because no one would tolerate it.

This is not the Jim Crow America of 1950. We have made enormous progress on race. I say resist the temptation to be a victim, defeatist and cynical. I believe America is a loving, big-hearted nation of powerful moral ideals unique in the world. For black people, the full realization of those ideals is coming slowly—first in the genius of our founding documents, then in the Emancipation Proclamation, followed by the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. It will come, and African Americans should take a seat at the table of opportunity in America.

Change your frame. Discard the narrative. Look for the good in our nation and you’ll see confirmation everywhere. Believe in yourself, exercise your agency, and make a life of your own choosing in this wonderful land.

Dear Robert,

Nice to meet you. I am a bookish, Jewish black woman. I, too, often stay up at night thinking about race in the United States (partly because thinking about race is my job, partly because racial dynamics inform many aspects of my life, and partly because I find race fascinating.)

The passage you quoted from Leviticus is very personally meaningful to me. It reminds me of the famous African-American civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, who was quoted as saying, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” This idea, that human beings are collectively responsible for each other’s well-being, is one I hear frequently from black people, Jews, and several other groups.

That said, in my response to you, I’d like for us both to resist the urge to generalize any racial or religious groups. It’s worth pointing out, I think, that while there are certainly Jewish texts that support the idea of standing alongside one’s neighbors, that does not mean that Jews writ large participated in the civil rights movement. Some Jewish people made heroic sacrifices in the fight for racial justice, but the majority of Jews did not participate in the movement (just as the majority of black people didn’t participate in the civil rights movement).

I’d also like to note that, while I understand the idea of treating black people and Jewish people as two distinct groups—after all, most black people are not Jewish; most Jews are not black—I personally cannot separate those dimensions of my identity. I am both, fully, at all times, which means that my understanding of who is the “other” likely differs from yours.

I do think we can agree that all people are deserving of certain fundamental rights and freedoms. Similarly, my deepest dream is that all humans, American or not, can achieve peaceful and meaningful lives. Now, onto the narrative. I’m going to respond to your thoughts in the same numbered order so that we can keep track.

Recognizing White Privilege

1. I’ve only rarely met someone who would argue that “all whites are racist.” The assertion I hear more commonly is that all white people have certain privileges due to white supremacy, whether they want those privileges or not. Peggy McIntosh has outlined a very thoughtful list of some of those privileges in her famous article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”

In terms of the “system” that people refer to, I think your list is a good place to start. Our government creates many structures and frameworks that shape the way we navigate the world, knowingly or unknowingly. The fact that our circumstances are shaped by norms, laws, biases, and patterns—and not just random occurrences—might be a helpful way to think of the system.

2. Black people are consistently killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are more subtle/debatable instances of this, of course, but there are also obvious ones. If you read any of Dylann Roof’s explanations for shooting black churchgoers in Charleston, you might see that there are indeed people who clearly identify their murderous hatred of black people. This is not ancient history.

Traffic stops are fearful events for black Americans—that seems to be a fairly self-evident claim to me. Perhaps knowing the story of Philando Castile, who was pulled over 46 times before being fatally shot by a police officer, would help explain why. Republican Senator Tim Scott also talked thoughtfully about his experience being pulled over, and the fear that those stops consequently inspired.

I’ve never heard anyone claim that all black leaders were assassinated. This sounds to me like hyperbole that was taken literally. Obviously, some prominent black leaders have been assassinated, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

3. I agree with much of this one. I think the United States is flawed and culpable for a lot of wrongdoing beyond slavery and Jim Crow. Japanese internment, the genocide of Native Americans, and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment were the first three to come to my mind. I imagine I could easily list several hundred.

In terms of identifying as American, I see that as a deeply personal decision. I find no moral value in identifying as American or not—just as I find no moral value in being American or not. Still, here’s my favorite poem about someone grappling with the meaning of American identity as a black man (or a member of any number of groups that have not had full access to the “American dream”). It’s Let America Be America Again, by Langston Hughes.

The African-American Experience 

I’ve never had a black person tell me they thought life was hopeless because of their race. Spending time with black friends and family members is one of the most uplifting, empowering, hilarious, and joyful things that I do.

I do think, though, that when confronted with the long list of ways in which life in the United States and elsewhere in the world is limited for black people, one might rightly feel somewhat dismayed. Black people experience higher rates of poverty, gun violence, maternal mortality, and incarceration than any other group in this country. We also have less access to jobs, education, and opportunities—you’ve acknowledged much of this in your letter. And, to return to the idea that we cannot stand idly by, I think these circumstances collectively might naturally result in a feeling of hopelessness.

I am what many would consider a successful person. I have a stable job that pays well, a solid community, a family, an education, and access to everything I want daily. But my individual success—the fact that I personally was born in extremely privileged circumstances and have managed to maintain those privileges—does not prevent me from feeling somewhat hopeless about the circumstances that black people disproportionately experience. In other words, my individual “success” feels somewhat meaningless to me knowing that I am the exception; through no doing of my own, I have access to opportunities and resources that most people never will.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not trying to say that I haven’t made important choices, worked hard, or tried to be a decent person. I have agency. But I was also born to rich, highly educated parents who are U.S. citizens, one of whom is white. The fact that I now have a good job isn’t exactly an indicator that racism is waning.

In response to your challenge: If the “narrative” boils down to the idea that racism exists, I have to say, I’m comfortable with that narrative. Yes, racism can seem overwhelming. To someone who doesn’t experience it every day, I imagine the thought of having to deal with it sounds soul-crushing. But what would be more devastating, in my mind, would be to ignore the realities of racism. In that world, people would be forced to believe that all these things we’ve discussed—income inequality, disparities in education, incarceration rates, and wealth distribution, for instance—are simply the result of poor choices. In that world, if black people just tried harder or took ownership of their decisions or believed in themselves, then these disparities would not exist.

Not only is that is an old and tired idea, but it is an insidious one. Gaslighting black people (or people from any marginalized group) into thinking that we are at fault for our inequality is an action that I do not believe can be justified. Racism is an organizing principle of American life. It was written into our Constitution by our founding fathers, and it has been codified into law. That has profound and enduring ramifications.

It’s also something that I think should resonate strongly with anyone who knows Jewish history.

A Few Closing Notes

Concerning correlation versus causation: Yes, I think there are often many factors to consider in a situation. Still, it’s easy enough to explain away any given set of inequalities. I hear frequently comments like, “It’s not about race, it’s about housing segregation…or poverty…or education…or….” Yet, race cannot be separated from these things.

Regarding black immigrants: The idea that it is people elsewhere in the world who experience “real hopelessness” (but are somehow also immune to white supremacy or anti-blackness) is another old, divisive trope. First of all, what counts as real hopelessness, and who is the arbiter? What assumptions are we making about the people who can immigrate to the United States? One of my dearest friends moved to the U.S. from Ethiopia as a young woman. Her family was well-off and she attended the best schools in Ethiopia. When they immigrated to the U.S., suddenly she and her family members were poor (degrees and credentials don’t often transfer easily). They also faced enormous challenges that they hadn’t in their home country—including, but not limited to, suddenly becoming part of a minority group that is subject to negative stereotypes.

Cigarettes didn’t just naturally disappear because of the invisible forces of progress. There was extensive research to show that smoking cigarettes was addictive and caused lung cancer. There were massive efforts to regulate the tobacco industry and increase public awareness, and laws were changed to prevent smoking in most restaurants. And still, the U.S. tobacco industry is estimated to be worth half a trillion dollars a year—even though everyone knows that smoking is bad.

And that’s cigarettes. Racism isn’t just going to disappear—it is baked into the fabric of our nation. If we want to fight against it, the most fundamental step is to acknowledge it.

Divided We Fall is a 501c(3) non-profit publication run by a dedicated team of volunteers. We depend on the generosity of readers like you to continue our work of providing bipartisan dialogue for the politically engaged. Please consider making a tax-deductible contribution today! 


Leah Donnella
+ posts

Leah Donnella is an editor on NPR's Code Switch team, where she helps produce and edit for the Code Switch podcast, blog, and newsletter. She previously worked at WHYY's Public Media Commons, where she helped teach high school students the ins and outs of journalism and film-making. Donnella graduated from Pomona College with a Bachelor of Arts in Africana Studies.

Robert Wilkes
Senior Correspondent at Divided We Fall | + posts

Robert Wilkes, Senior Correspondent at Divided We Fall, is the former president/creative director of Wilkes Creative, a national branding and marketing company. Robert flew 100 combat missions in Vietnam as a Navy attack pilot. He spent ten years in engineering and marketing at Boeing, where his writing skills were called upon for technical papers, marketing assignments, and speeches for Boeing executives. As an activist in pro-Israel politics, he lobbied with AIPAC for 15 years where he met many congressmen and senators from both parties. Robert loves history, enjoys the craft of writing, and has a passion for civil debate. He resides in Bellevue, Washington.


Brenda D. Bailey June 19, 2020 at 10:55 am

I was raised by alcoholic, abusive parents. I fought for civil rights. I don’t judge people by skin color, ethnicity, nationality or religion. I lived with domestic violence for 35 years, molested as a child. I raised my 3 children alone, and needed 20 years of counseling, periodically to resolve the problems in my life and develop skills to cope. I worked 2 jobs at times, we went without sometimes, but I never received money from government programs. I worked my way through college. Still paying for loans at age 66. Yet, ‘I am privileged because I am ‘non black’. Racism is a socialist word meant to divide our people. We have come a long way. Calling me ‘white’ is just as racist as calling a ‘black’ by slurs. Although calling me ‘cracker, whitey, white trash, hillbilly’ is acceptable. I am a ‘slave’ to a culture who defines me by my skin color, and they can’t even admit their definition is incorrect. 14% of US is ‘black’. 0.03% are ‘white’ (albinism). the rest are various shades of ‘brown’. Light to dark. Just like ‘blacks’ are light to dark. Albinism (genetic condition) originated in Africa. 2 ‘black’ parents. I am not ‘white’. I am American. The only pure race is the HUMAN Race. I looked for statistics of ‘black’ cops who killed ‘white’ suspects. Found one, among gigabytes of opposite. Many claim there’s no such thing as ‘reverse racism, racism against whites’. We are judged constantly by the ‘color of our skin’. Inequality? How rich is Oprah? Sports Pros, Entertainment? Ask someone to define Race. How can you divide a country over something that doesn’t exist? Racism is Prejudice, Bigotry, Hate and Ignorance. https://www.goldenalbinism.com/history/

onewhocares June 10, 2020 at 12:27 am

We, in america are Americans. Not white or African Americans, not native Americans, we need to stop putting a label on us. its a start to the end of racism. we all are 7 different shades of brown some lighter others some darker then others. But we all are born, we all breathe air, we all bleed, we all cry, we all are humans. Tar is black, salt is white. There is not one human being born the color of tar or salt. When you hate someone for their shade of skin color you really hate a part of yourself. We in America are from all countries and not one is better then the other.

1 2 3 4 5

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: