A discussion of race such as we’ve not heard for decades is being inspired by the mass mobilization against police shootings of Black people, and in particular the remarkable determination of activists in Ferguson, now in their 133rd consecutive day of protest over the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown. More and more of us are talking, and the passion behind these conversations is rising.
I’ve been following some of these discussions, a few of which have been taking place in my inbox. Many of them center around arguments over racial theory and analysis. Questions like, who’s the most oppressed? or what role do Asians play in the racial hierarchy? have come up.
Some are asking if it’s legitimate for Asians and other “allies” to be so visible in a movement sparked by a crisis primarily affecting Black people, expressing concerns that we’re taking up too much space, or watering down the message. Others assert that Asians and others who aren’t Black must participate in the struggle, both to diversify the messengers, and to remind our diverse communities that racist policy affecting non-black people is often leveraged by anti-black racism, making the movement for Black lives a matter of self-interest for all of us.
After so many years of relative silence on issues of racism, driven largely by public opinion pollsters and political strategists advising us that talking about race does more harm than good, the uptick in racial dialogue is refreshing. After all, focusing on colorblind solutions and stuffing the race talk has failed to move the ball forward on racial equity, and has instead caused us to become unwitting contributors to the myth of post-racialism.
But, while I’m happy about the change, the increasing number of arguments that appear to be breaking down into squabbling over whose analysis is best, and all the hair splitting over just the right approach, make me anxious. They remind me of the politically fractious 1970s and 80s, when activists for justice found ourselves so mired in infighting we became our own worst enemies.
Back then, we spent a lot of time arguing over whether or not this or that group with this or that analysis or strategy was the the most righteous. We too often led with criticism rather than with kindness, only to find that this meant we were just talking to ourselves, and not very nicely.
In the interest of avoiding going down that path again, here’s something to consider. It seems to me that one of the chief failures of the great movements of the past was that in our struggle to get to just the right analysis, strategy, and utopian vision of the future, we ended up making “perfect” the enemy of “good,” bogging ourselves down in arguments that meant little or nothing to the very people who were suffering the most because of the injustices we hoped to end.
We sacrificed the needs of those we intended to serve to what those in the world of philosophy call the singularizing, totalizing worldview.
In that worldview, there’s only one solution, and whoever has it or suffers most when it goes unanswered is the vanguard. And conceding that there is a movement vanguard caused people to fight for that position, either by engaging in wars over analysis, or by ranking oppressions. After all, the vanguard could dictate the vision, not just of movements, but of the future world those movements were struggling to win.
And the fracturing of organizations and movements in the U.S. was only one among many sad outcomes. The corruption of Soviet communism was another. So was Mao’s China, and the supremacist ideologies of the fascist movements in Europe and Japan. Each brought famines, gulags, genocide, and totalitarian regimes.
But that was then. This is now.
A new generation is leading us today that is distinctly different than those of the past. This new generation seems to understand that it’s much more important to ask the right questions than to insist on only one right answer.
But, if I can offer these courageous young leaders one answer I’m sure of from the perspective of age and experience it is this: the future we want is one that values tolerance, kindness, and humility. In that future, there are no utopias, only works in progress, and governance by the people and for the people is founded upon a definition of “people” that includes even those with whom we profoundly disagree. Yes, we must understand that ensuring the freedom of all of us to participate in society is impossible in the absence of justice, but justice can’t be about just us.