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White People Get Lockjaw

Updated: Jun 4, 2020

Just as the scientific community identifies the current virus and struggles to agree on common definitions and protocols to solve the pandemic challenges, in order to destroy racism we must have a working definition that unifies our strategies to defeat it. I maintain that white supremacy has been kept in place by a ruse that allows racism to be defined however individuals and institutions so choose. Allowing racism to be whatever one chooses it to be relegates it to personal opinion; our response is thus fragmented and diffused. There is no right or wrong answer. Our efforts to rid the nation of racism remains optional, a choice for individuals as well as institutions. To sustain and strengthen our democracy, we must agree on a unified social and political response to rid our nation of what some call this nation's "original sin."

People in the U.S. do not understand racism. This is no accident. As my colleague Northern Kentucky University Professor Michael Washington teaches, a society rooted in racism maintains itself by not defining it, by not standardizing its definition in the educational curriculum. For lack of a definition, it has proven itself to be more contagious than any virus. For 300 years racism - the ideology of white supremacy - has not only spread throughout the culture of the U.S. but has metastasized, causing some to believe it cannot be undone. Even after the Civil War saw the abolition of chattel slavery, white supremacy permeated our scientific, academic, economic, political and religious systems. It continues to do so today.

Every system and institution in the U.S. was created when white supremacy was not only legal and normative but enforced by the power of the state. Now, almost 60 years after the passage of the great Civil Rights Acts in the 1960's, racism remains the primary roadblock to the U.S. being a truly democratic society. Yet our institutions don't prioritize its elimination. Racism's staying power rests on a contradiction: Those of us who are white and who say we deplore racism's manifestations still depend on the benefits racist institutions bestow on us, both by design and by intent. In 2016, racism reared its head yet again, dramatically so, made even more deadly because an unapologetic white supremacist occupies the White House and basic Constitutional protections are being eroded daily. While mainstream society officially decries racism's persistence, we are nowhere near building a unified strategy to end it. We are free to fight it, or ignore it, as we chose. That people die from it is not in question. The recent murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, GA is the most recent egregious example. Like COVID 19, racism is a deadly virus that continues to plague the nation. My message in Deep Denial is more urgent today than when first published. The dangers I foretold there are even more threatening. Racism has long been understood by most scholars and organizers as a problem for white people to overcome, yet solutions are usually left to people of color, most specifically to Black people. White people get lockjaw, opening our mouths only to deny it for the most part. I believe urgent and unified national action is required to defeat this ideological pandemic that destroys lives, communities, and cultures. Scatter-shot responses and freedom of choice approaches are insufficient - indeed dangerous, much like federal efforts to contain COVID 19 are being left up to individual states. The scourge of racism must be attacked with the same social and political intent that has kept it alive and in place for so long. While we expend energy on argument and debate -- just as the U.S. now does in responding to COVID 19 -- the epidemic of racial inequities and their resulting disparities continue to spread throughout our society. My 40 years of organizing to "undo racism" with The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond convinces me that we must unify our actions across systems. Dream with me! Imagine a health care licensure system that requires its doctors and nurses to demonstrate an understanding of structural racism, especially its historical impact on communities of color, in order to practice medicine. Imagine professional board examinations that require lawyers, social workers, teachers, engineers, to show proficiency in how racism impacts their professions in order to gain certification. What if banks, businesses, government and industry established protocols that go beyond the current fashionable "diversity, equity and inclusion" mantra and require them to demonstrate through "data-informed research"; the social and financial impact of anti-racist policies and practices? Then, what if all these systems were networked across businesses and professions so that the country addressed racism with the same energy and commitment we've brought to war, the Great Depression, or pandemics. This type of transformation can be done. It has been done before. In each system, pivotal moments provoked historical advances urgently required and acted upon. An example from the nation's recent history: Scientific understanding of the negative impact of smoking moved us from some 67% of adults smoking cigarettes in 1965 to 14% in 2017. Or another: The AIDS virus was, when first identified, seen as a gay men's disease caused by sexual promiscuity and other so-called irresponsible behaviors. Today, AIDS , while still a serious and deadly disease, is treatable; it is no longer classified as a world-wide epidemic. Racism is a similar plague: It can be overcome when we move from denial to organized efforts to eradicate it.

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