My job has a weekly meeting about diversity, equity, and inclusion, in that order. DEI, that now-mainstream acronym adored by corporations and organizations everywhere since last year’s racial-awareness uprising, are what “diversity trainings” used to be. You remember those. Once a year or so, you’d spend a few hours listening to someone talk about bias, suffer through an awkward role-playing exercise, sign a form in which you pledge to be demonstrably less problematic, and then go back to work and wait for a softer, gentler workplace culture to kick in.
This portion of the meeting didn’t always exist. Last year’s protests did that, particularly the ones where downtown businesses — almost all of whom were White and multimillion-dollar outfits — had their windows kicked in for a couple of days. Say what you will about protests, but property damage gets things done. Well, it gets things to the table. Getting things acted upon is a whole different menu item.
It was during one of these meetings that a colleague posed the following question: What would the world be like if racism were eradicated in people’s hearts and minds?
In the interest of full disclosure: I let loose an audible chuckle, which is 90% more participation than I typically display in such settings.
The level at which the average company deigns to tackle something as vast and ancient as racism is generally not intended for people like me, people who wrangle with racism in their free time as well as on the clock. Engagement like that is for people for whom racism is random and optional, not reliable. I was already doing the most just by exhaling in the direction of that question.
The question wasn’t as baldly Pollyanna-ish as it sounds. There was some pre-work and reading that was assigned prior to this particular meeting, so the query was meant as a tool, one meant to divine awareness about the systemic nature of racism. Seeing as systemic racism is a platform I maintain with great relish, I have to admit it’s not the worst question I’ve ever heard in a racism training (though the bar on that one is so low you may need an archaeologist). All that said, you can’t give a question like that to someone like me. And by “someone like me”, I don’t mean Black. I mean a Black political pessimist.
I’m not even a full-blown Afro-pessimist. I still have too much hope in the tank to be a dues-paying member. But you can only sell me so much about America before I pull out my Afro-pessimist wrench and start unwinding the lug nuts of your argument.
As a pessimist, I vacillate between considering bleak futures and grappling with how little faith I possess that those futures will come to pass. I swing between these poles because I swamp myself in two things: the study of social and cultural patterns, and a constant, burrowing need for context. I don’t see either of those behaviors as a problem, but I acknowledge that the second makes my life more difficult from time to time… like when I’m sitting in DEI trainings that ask rhetorical questions about the nature of race in America and expect digestible soundbites instead of nuanced answers. And look: I’m not even a full-blown Afro-pessimist. I still have too much hope in the tank to be a dues-paying member. But it is a body of work and tool I apply from time to time in the interest of self-preservation. You can only sell me so much about America before I pull out my Afro-pessimist wrench and start unwinding the lug nuts of your argument.
Nevertheless, the question about a post-racialized world is interesting in its flexibility. To most White people, a world in which color isn’t considered is the best-case scenario; for Black people, it is an erasure. To someone like me, who can’t help but to dig a little deeper when it comes to these things, it is a domino effect of what-ifs and possibilities. And by god, I couldn’t help myself that week. Before I knew it, I was giving up all the goods, sloughing off easy takeaways like, “Well, we’d still have sexism” and heading straight for stuff like the baked-in racism of American legislation and school-to-prison pipelines.
There is a deeper question underneath that question for me, and it is the footnote under half of the news stories I consume on any given day (with apologies to Sam Cooke): Change will come, but will Black people be alive to see it? What happens if Black people cannot convince America that our lives matter before there are too few of us to prove it beyond an academic rarity? What happens if Black Girl Magic is fully revealed to be the survival skills of Black women set on constant God mode?
Generally speaking, what happens to Black people happens to most Americans, but our suffering is more acute. Disparities in health, justice, and education persist because there is no clear will to fix the main causes of those disparities: shrinking wealth gaps, access to resources to generate self-sufficiency, and political disenfranchisement. Almost every problem Black people experience as a group flows from those three springs. If everyone woke up one day and anti-Blackness were eradicated, a social effort the likes of which we have never seen would have to begin dismantling all of the legislative and legal deficiencies America has installed as a racial firewall for 400 years.
The pandemic has shown us how we care about one another as a society — which is to say, by and large, we don’t. Somehow Sen. Ted Cruz can wiggle out of fleeing the state whose interests he is sworn to protect without anyone storming his office, and that’s in response to people experiencing third-world suffering from weather conditions. Such is the state of America’s ability to hold people responsible for one another.
The task of uncovering all of the effects of a system dedicated to anti-Blackness is beyond daunting. It is a life’s work in and of itself. Once you start picking at the plethora of issues Black people have to navigate, threads begin spooling out pretty fast. Pick any three issues off of the pile at random: policing, gentrification, and climate change. Whatever changes we implement in the first have to happen with no serious attempts to change funding or manpower. The second has to be legislated at least a dozen major ways to counteract greed (which racism doesn’t have a monopoly on). The third has to redefine “environment” in a way that includes what happened in Flint, Michigan and what didn’t happen in post-Katrina New Orleans.
That’s what America has to do on day one of a post-racial reality on three random items. And if that level of fantasy is what it would take to get America on board with caring if Black life is improved — a promise of care this country readily extends to farm animals and jellyfish trees — then you can understand my skepticism.