Monday, August 31, 2015

Trauma and Dehumanization

Many people find it hard to accept the claim that African Americans are routinely dehumanized in the United States. Say dehumanization, and I suppose people are thinking slavery and Nazis. What I've continually tried to get at is something more subtle: that dehumanization is embedded in the banality of life. It’s difficult for people to grapple with how ordinary it is. Here’s one little example that I don’t think I’ve shared before. The littleness and ordinariness of it is precisely the point. 

When Alicia and I were living in Ohio we worked at an agency that provided a variety of services for at-risk children. I was at an agency training one day, surrounded by social workers, houseparents, and other professionals. The topic was trauma. Like many agencies, we wanted to get on the “trauma-informed care” bandwagon. I think trauma-informed care is wonderful and vital, but it does not come easily or cheaply to many organizational cultures that are wedded to much more punitive approaches. 

Jamylah Bolden, 9 years old. Killed by a stray bullet in Ferguson on August 18.
On this particular day we broke up into small groups to talk about trauma. There had recently been a school shooting in a suburb of Cleveland, so our group discussed that.  After the shooting a variety of support services were quickly made available for the students, including grief counselors. This was, of course, as it should be. I made the point that many poor children of color are exposed to high levels of trauma, including gun violence, but seem less likely to receive similar support services. One of the women in my group picked up on my comment and with a friendly nod tried to agree with me: “Yeah,” she said, “They’re used to it.” 

I wish I could remember precisely her ensuing sentences. You decide whether you trust me to report her words faithfully. She thought it was entirely appropriate that extra resources would descend on the suburban school but not the city block. What she meant, in effect, is that trauma is literally more traumatic for middle class White children. That, somehow, poor Black children became accustomed to trauma so they could deal with it better. C'mon, haven't you heard? Black kids are tough! 

That, my friends, is dehumanization. 

Ferguson residents march for Jamylah.
Her words are a symptom of a society in which the trauma of poor children, and most especially poor Black and Native children, is routinized. Trauma among White children that calls forth a crisis-level response is perceived as a baseline among poor children of color. Sure, no one's happy about it, but what are you going to do? It's an intractable problem right?

Now, I could have interrogated this woman, showed her the plain meaning of her own words, and I believe she would have been horrified. She would not consciously accept the views I am ascribing to her. And that, too, is precisely the point. We’re not talking about people in smoke-filled rooms scheming about how to make life difficult for people of color. We’re talking about our implicit assumptions in a society that deliberately built racial inequality (and thus trauma) into the contours of everyday life. It is literally true that some of us suffer in environments of trauma so that others of us can live in peace. When we naturalize that arrangement instead of seeing it as the contingent social creation that it is, we are left with no option but dehumanization. 

When there was a shooting on our block earlier this year, the fear in the kids' eyes was real. They were not used to it. Growing up in the city, being Black, did not lessen their need to run to their parents to be told everything was going to be ok. They were not prepared for it; they were not tough. They were little kids who should not have had to experience that trauma. It makes me angry.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

How Did Northern White Evangelicals Respond to the Civil Rights Movement?

I'm working on a new project on White evangelicals during the civil rights movement. What follows are some provisional thoughts. Historical knowledge is, by its very nature, provisional, so we ought to expose the process more often than we do. 

Here's my entry point: we know a lot about White evangelicals in the South during the civil rights movement. Interpretations of their role differ (Chappell sees their relative neutrality fatally undercutting segregation, while Dupont argues that their theology provided a much stronger bulwark for Jim Crow than Chappell allows).  Still, that southern White evangelicals' posture toward the movement was predominantly hostile is not in question. Yet when the religious narrative of the 1960s shifts to the North, the story we know is of liberal clergy assisting the movement. We know much less about conservative White Protestants in the North. 

How did their response to the civil rights movement differ from their conservative brethren in the South and their liberal counterparts in the North? My simple answer, which remains too vague to be worth much, is that the views of White evangelicals beyond the South were characterized by a greater sense of ambivalence. They were more likely to support the goals of the movement than were southern White evangelicals, but less likely to support its methods than were liberal Protestants. I'm already quite sure this is correct as far as it goes, but it remains too simple to be particularly useful.

Carl F.H. Henry, Founding Editor, Christianity Today
As I search for people or an event or institution on which to build my analysis, I've been exploring the archives of the premier magazine of White evangelicalism addressing public affairs, Christianity Today. There is much here to surprise and enlighten. For now I'll just note some questions I have about two documents. Before doing that, though, I'll note a persistent disservice we do to our students. We speak of a "civil rights movement" over and over, and wonder when it began--in 1954? 1945? 1960? The 1930s? But it's important to understand that any of those answers impose a coherence on the past that people did not have at the time. For Christianity Today in the 1960s, there was no "civil rights movement." There was a "crisis." There was "trouble." There was "the race problem." There was a "Negro revolution." As the movement(s) developed, there was no immediately agreed upon way to interpret what was happening, much less what it ought to be called. Even the recognition of this simple issue of nomenclature helps us to recapture a bit of the confusion and complexity White evangelicals were experiencing. 

Throughout this era Christianity Today ran a carefully cultivated letters-to-the-editor section in each issue. These letters are revealing, I think, not because we can necessarily assume they are representative of White evangelical opinion, but because they at least reflect what the premier magazine of White evangelicalism considered to be acceptable discourse. In contrast to the sewers that are today's web comment sections, Christianity Today chose to publish only those dissenting opinions that it considered to be within reasonable bounds (presumably, right?). A surprising number of those letters hit CT and White evangelicals from the left, castigating them for their failure to unequivocally support Black liberation. More interesting, perhaps, are the sizable number of letters (not only from the South) that are, by our contemporary lights, explicit in their racism. Like this one, for instance: 
Those who today desire to live separate from Negroes are not, I submit, justly chargeable with hate, prejudice, or discrimination. Integration all too often has resulted in intermarriage and the undermining of race integrity, with unhappiness and tragedy for those concerned, and, therefore, is undesirable for both blacks and whites.
                --Walter W. Strong, Long Beach California 

Indeed,  Christianity Today, under the direction of evangelical legend Carl F.H. Henry, had only recently editorialized that interracial marriage, while not strictly immoral, was probably inadvisable. Of particular interest here is the assumption of racial difference and the appropriateness of racial separation. It is considered good and proper that "race integrity" ought to be maintained. And this opinion was considered mainstream enough to publish. Yet in the ensuing decades, White evangelicals (with the notable exclusion of fundamentalist outposts such as Bob Jones that continued to uphold segregationist theology) would move decisively toward precisely the opposite assumptions: that racial difference was a mirage not to be remarked upon, that integration was not only politically expedient but theologically obvious. There are, to be sure, numerous blind spots and inconsistencies in this contemporary vision. Yet those tensions do not take away from the basic question: how did White evangelicals travel from point A (racial difference assumed) to point B (racial difference dissolved)? I think we still don't have an adequate answer to that question.

Now, here's the second document I've been thinking about. It's Christianity Today's reporting on the 1963 March on Washington. Recall that this march has entered into our collective memory as a moment that every American is proud of, the occasion of Dr. King's famous "Dream" speech, and a touchstone of our exceptionalist narrative of American history. Yet when we go back to the reporting at the time, we see a much murkier picture:

Demonstrators swarmed through the streets…Were these the convulsions of a new age in which all Americans would freely recognize one another’s rights irrespective of color? Were they rather a portent of revolutionary mob pressures that presage the decline of a republic, and possibly a time of bloody violence? Any sure answer to those questions seemed exasperatingly elusive...
Note here the nod toward colorblindness sitting in tension with their commentary on interracial marriage. The precise boundaries and nature of these "rights" were precisely what was at issue. And note, too, the fear on display here. They've just witnessed a peaceful march of hundreds of thousands people, Black and White. And they understand themselves to be desirous of Black freedom. Yet they wonder if the March on Washington prefigurs the terminal decline of the United States! This is a sense of threat out of all proportion to events, revealing a deep racial fear. Or does it? Is the fear, at bottom, racial? Is it something else? Does it have more to do with the method, with the sight of thousands of bodies in the streets rather than calm conversation in congress? Surely it is both, and more.

The editorial continued:
What does the Negro want? What racial aspirations are legitimate and illegitimate? He wants only ‘what the white man has’ –so the word goes. An easy reply is that nobody has the right to demand automatically what another qualifies to achieve. But there are larger considerations: has not the white American also set the Negro American an example of seeking economic equality and social status above all else?...Is he now perhaps paying part of the penalty for setting an example of putting first things second? If the Negro mimics the white man, is the Negro alone to blame?..
While the Negro spokesmen have sought effectively to stir white conscience, the rising momentum of pressures and demands has also adversely affected some who normally would be sympathetic…The groundswell of sympathy for Negro rights has a furrow of anxiety over what seems also to be a demand for preferential treatment…
Look at the assumptions buried here. There is no acknowledgment of the structures of racial exclusion built into the American economy, only the ostrich-like belief that what the "white man" has is what he (and it is, of course, a he) has achieved by his merits. And then, the breezy expectation that Whites set "an example" which Blacks were bound to "mimic." Notice the slight of hand. Equality of rights is subtly reframed as a grasping materialism, but the blow is softened because, after all, one cannot blame "the Negro" for only following the White example. Racial paternalism is assumed from the start. Finally, the authors warn against the increasingly militant methods of the movement, claiming that it turned off otherwise sympathetic observers. And, at a time when (for example) Philadelphia's building trades unions featured 1 African American among their 7,300 members, Christianity Today fretted about Black demands for special treatment. These concerns were so unmoored from any facts on the ground, existing with no apparent relationship to reality, that I'm not sure how to grapple with them. How do you explain it? My initial stab at it is to say that, like most White northerners (if those old Gallup polls are to be believed), these White evangelicals sincerely failed to realize that Blacks were systematically excluded from opportunity. Segregation was something that happened down South, they thought. It didn't reflect the true state of their heart, nor of their welcoming community and church. How then could they make sense of people on the streets demanding what they ostensibly already possessed? Such demands were reinterpreted as excessive calls for special rights. This closely mirrors the rhetoric of segregationist elites in the South, so that is certainly an angle worth exploring.

The editorial continued with a sudden shift:
“[One tragedy] was the failure of evangelical Christians at the grass roots to anticipate and help to resolve a crisis in the life of the nation along spiritual lines…Evangelical churches across the nation must look into the future and ask themselves what they can and must do to create a helpful and constructive interracial climate.
The massive demonstration was void of official evangelical representation. ‘Our folks are sympathetic with solving the race problem, one top evangelical leader observed, ‘but we feel that this wasn’t the way to go about it.' But what is the way? Have evangelicals offered any constructive, creative guidelines to curtail oppression of Negroes? Does it not bother the evangelical conscience that there are parts of the country where a traveling Negro cannot even find water?”
On that note, the editorial ends. Remarkable. It's enough to give you whiplash. The very same editorial features racist assumptions, obvious paternalism, dismissive tone, and heartfelt calls for the church to take constructive action to stop the oppression of African Americans.

How do you make sense of it?

One thing comes through clearly: however sympathetic they were to civil rights movement's goals in the abstract, the movement as it actually existed was deeply unsettling. One of the questions I'm grappling with is how sincerely held was the methodological objection. Did the unnamed leader in that final paragraph throw up his objection to the methods employed as an excuse? Or was there something about street protest itself that genuinely upset White evangelicals on a theological or ideological level?

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Journeying from Silence to Empathy

In the latest edition of The American Conservative, Rod Dreher has an exceptional cover story, "My People, Black & White," in which he recounts his recent journey toward empathy across the color line. An unlikely collaboration between Dreher--the White conservative Catholic--and the Black actor Wendell Pierce set the stage for his transformation. Part of his journey led him toward the hidden history of his place of birth. He writes,
I was born in 1967 and went to integrated public schools in my small Louisiana town. Nobody talked about what things were like under segregation. Looking back, it’s bizarre how we kids—we white kids, anyway—were raised with near-total ignorance of the world into which we were born, a world that was passing away even then. We knew that segregation had happened, of course, but we only heard about Jim Crow and civil rights on television, and it was easy to believe all that was a long time ago and far away.
My memory of my hometown did not include Klansmen, racial terror, or any of the things that were common throughout the Deep South. So you can imagine my shock when, shortly after I returned to my hometown in 2011, a white friend passed on to me an Ebony article from 1964 that described the scene outside of the West Feliciana Parish courthouse on October 17, 1963, when the Rev. Joseph Carter became the first black parish resident to register to vote in 61 years.
It was ugly, and that night ended with Klan terror. The sheriff and the registrar of voters quoted in the story speaking with racist gruffness to the old black preacher are now long dead, but they were men whose names I grew up respecting. The courthouse where a white mob cursed the blacks was on the other side of my backyard fence.
All this went down only four years before I was born, and I never knew it. I think it safe to say that virtually no whites of my generation know this history—and that is no accident. Ours is a small place, and there can be no doubt that whoever was under those white sheets would not be a stranger to me. These were—are—my people.
A decade ago, some sympathetic whites in my town undertook an oral history project of the civil rights movement in our parish. They met with only modest success. “It was so hard to get people to talk about it,” said one of the organizers, still puzzled after all these years. 
There are two key points here that only became clear to Dreher in his middle age. The first is that he was born into a world he knew nothing about. The second is that his ignorance was not accidental; it was imposed. To these two insights we may add a third: his story is not unique. For millions of White Americans, Dreher's story is our story. A deep and abiding silence covers our own history. 

In his brilliant reflection on power and the production of history, the late Michel Trouillot explained how we ought to think about silence. He wrote, "the presences and absences embodied in sources...are neither neutral or natural. They are created. As such, they are not mere presences and absences, but mentions or silences of various kinds and degrees. By silence, I mean an active and transitive process: one 'silences' a fact or an individual as a silencer silences a gun. One engages in the practice of silencing.

We know that stories are not really stories unless they are told. And if a story is to continue from one generation to the next, it must be passed down. Silences are not so different. Silence is not the absence of a story; it is the presence of a different kind of story. In the spaces between what is said, we learn lessons that are likely to be more powerful than the most exciting tales explicitly told. In the spaces between what is said, we unconsciously absorb our most basic beliefs about the world. Those spaces are not naturally occurring; they are carved, hollowed out, crafted.  

How do you hear silence? How do you see absence? These questions go a long way toward explaining the power and seeming naturalness of the kinds of silences Dreher writes about. He was born during the civil rights movement and yet knew nothing about it or why it was necessary. How could this be? Many of us are unaware of these silences because they only become apparent under some kind of outside pressure. In Dreher's hometown, the silences were exposed when well-meaning people thought it would be nice to do an oral history of the movement. Why was it so hard to get people to talk? One begins to ask oneself uncomfortable questions. Don't the elderly long to impart their wisdom and experience to the next generation? What kind of pasts make people reluctant to speak? Is silence imposed on pasts about which we are proud, or those of which are are ashamed? 

We may see the outlines of these silences in other subtle ways. A stray comment here, an awkward pause in conversation there, may hint at what is lurking in those spaces.  As young people, we may have made an innocent comment about something we learned at school and then watched in surprise as tension filled the living room. We may have been excited to share some new understanding we had gained, only to find that sharing it only produced misunderstanding and hurt among White friends. We may have learned that some things are just best not talked about. When it comes to race, we may have learned that a metaphor that would ordinarily indicate impairment--colorblindness--somehow represented enlightened thought.

This is not a trivial concern. These silences are destructive. They lead directly to the dehumanization of people of color. As Dreher found, silence is intimately connected to our lack of empathy for the people White supremacy has harmed. When the story of White supremacy is carved out, expunged, silenced in our own lives, we necessarily deny the stories of those who have been oppressed by it. Many people of color remember times they shared their experiences only to have White friends (or "friends") discount their stories. And why? Because for us to truly hear the story would require a reorienting of our own stories, a confrontation with our own silences so dearly held.

James Baldwin was one of many Black writers who declared that of all White supremacy's victims, Whites themselves were perhaps the most pitiable. To be sure, they gained some material advantages. But White supremacy left them mentally and morally impoverished. Baldwin spoke of White Americans as a class of people whose entire "system of reality" had been "corrupted" by their inability to make peace with their history. 

That's what these silences do. We're nurtured on them until reality itself becomes an affront to us. There is much sordid complexity in America's history of White supremacy. Yet there is much that is not complicated at all. Why, then, are we so confused, so alienated from our past? Silences have been taught so well that many of us are nearly unable to hear the very words that are being said when a conversation turns to the subject of race. I mean this literally. On more than one occasion White people have broached the possibility with me that I either am or may appear to be anti-White. They were not being mean. They were expressing innocent confusion. And the silences were so formative in their lives that they lacked a mental framework to make distinctions between phrases like "White people" and "White supremacy" and "individual" and "systemic." Speaking about these things exposed the silence and turned reality itself into a source of threat.

The silencing of our history makes empathy across the color line a nearly impossible task. It makes us incapable of understanding the world around us. We see the average White family with ten to twenty times the wealth of the average Black family, and we can't explain it without reference to vague intimations of racialized work ethics. We see how different the average Black and White neighborhood look, and racist myth is the only explanatory tool we have available. We see disparities in crime rates and fret about "black on black crime" as if it is a function of Blackness itself.

We can stay amid the silences, or we can pursue empathy; we cannot have both.  

I worry this is all too esoteric, but I don't know how to address it more clearly. There's an old Christian saying: you don't realize temptation is there until you try to resist it. In a similar way, the silences seem invisible until you resist them. Once you see them, there's no going back. You find out that the dehumanization of African Americans is not just something that regretfully occurs sometimes. It is normative and routine. It is pervasive. (I believe close reading of polling data backs up this point.) Explaining its persistence returns us to another of Baldwin's vital points: if Black people move out of their "place" in my imagination, then my conceptions of self and nation are uprooted too. If Black people are not what we thought they were, then America is not what we thought it was. 

We don't even want to think about how deeply rooted this is. It recalls Walter Johnson's argument in his book on the antebellum slave market. In the course of his research, Johnson was struck by how often enslavers "represented themselves to one another by reference to their slaves." Frederick Douglass, in his first autobiography, remarked upon the perverse pride enslaved people might take in their owners. Less understood is what Johnson was getting at--the dependence of the enslaver on the enslaved for his (it was usually a he) very identity. They lived through their slaves. One thinks of the worries of southern diarist Mary Chestnut on the eve of the Civil War: "Are they [her enslaved people] stolidly stupid or wiser than we are, silent and strong, biding their time?" This was more than a technical question about the likelihood of an escape attempt. It was a question about herself.

Let's wrap this up. 

As Dreher and Pierce collaborated they shared their stories. They talked about their family histories. Dreher was surprised by how much they had in common, but he noticed that Peirce's family had faced oppression that was unlike anything his own family experienced. It was around that time that he became aware of how much he didn't know about the place he grew up and the people who lived there. A key moment came when he spent a day with Pierce's uncle, Lloyd Edwards. Hearing his brutal stories, Dreher finally crossed over the line, trading silence for empathy:
At one point, I blurted across the dining table, “Lloyd, how on earth are you not angry all the time?”
No sooner had the words left my mouth than I thought: oh.
In that unguarded moment, a lot about our country’s life that had been obscured from my vision became clear...
Has that same question ever spontaneously risen in you? If not, don't feel bad. But realize that empathy is not won cheaply, and committing to the journey is the most important thing you can do. 

Sunday, August 9, 2015

How Has Ferguson Changed You?

One year ago, Michael Brown was killed. I believe we have yet to see the most profound consequences of that day, but the past twelve months have brought other wrenching events, new discussions, and policy shifts. For better or worse, Americans have changed. The polling tells us that Americans of all backgrounds have significantly different views on racism and inequality than we did one year ago.

How have your views changed?

It's worth thinking about. Whatever knowledge and assumptions you carried on August 9, 2014, the 365 days since then have provided a lot of new information. Only the most foolish or inattentive among us would not have been changed in some way. Here's how Ferguson and the past year changed me.*

1) Ferguson gave me permission to protest. 

Like many Americans, on August 8, 2014, I knew something was horribly wrong. Indeed, I had learned about it and tried to live it for over six years. But to be honest, I was quiescent. I had settled into a relative silence. I had given a paper about the roots of racial inequality and segregation at a conference in Milwaukee earlier that year. During the Q and A someone asked me what was to be done about it now. I forlornly said that the only hope I could see was a mass social movement to shift the boundaries of what was politically possible. It seemed a small hope indeed.

By August of 2014, I had spent three years in a suburb of Akron, Ohio. I felt disconnected, and as so often happens, my deep-seated racism continued to resurface. I would question my beliefs. Maybe I was making too big a deal about this racial inequality stuff? Maybe I was blowing it out of proportion? Maybe all the people who indicated to me that I had gone off the rails were right?

Michael Brown was shot 9 days after we moved to Philadelphia. I would have experienced that moment differently had I still been living in that White suburb in Ohio. But my new surroundings and the emergence of street protest in the face of militarized police fortified me. It told me that I wasn't crazy. It dramatized what I had learned to be true but sometimes found hard to believe. It gave me permission to protest. It made it ok for even a mild-mannered guy like me to be on the street in a supporting role.

2) Ferguson taught me the importance of street protest.

Before August 9, I thought that street protest was for the 1960s and we had entered a new era in which other tactics were necessary. There is a common belief among both White and Black Americans that racial discrimination or police behavior has grown worse in recent years. I'm quite sure that's not true. Instead, the demands Black Americans have been making for decades are finally drawing the attention of the nation. Street protest did that.

As with all these lessons, this insight was inseparable from my academic work during the past year. In William Chafe's classic study of Greensboro, North Carolina, Civilities and Civil Rights, he masterfully explores the power dynamics of White and Black Greensboro and the relation between them. He writes that the White elite operated with a powerful ideology, the "progressive mystique." This sensibility combined unfailing civility, faith in dialogue and reasoned discussion, paternal care for those less fortunate, and a respectable boosterism for a city that was invariably described as a place where "race relations" were good and everyone was making progress. For the White power structure of Greensboro, civility was more important than substantive action. Process was more important than outcome.

Black activists in Greensboro kept pushing against this progressive mystique, but were unheard. The rules of communication in Greensboro were such that Black complaints were invariably snuffed out. After all, they couldn't possibly be true: "race relations" were good, Whites were civil, and White elites supported Black institutions. What could be wrong?

Greensboro was of course where the sit-ins began in 1960 before spreading across the South. In Greensboro, massive street protest followed. Only the arrival of these street protests awakened White residents of Greensboro to the reality of Black dissatisfaction. No amount of civil dialogue did that. No amount of polite pleading. Only militant street protest, with the threat of outright violence and chaos, forced the White power structure to move.

3) Ferguson showed me the limits of moral persuasion. 

What was true in Greensboro remains too true today. Don't like the tactics of Black protesters? Don't like all the shouting and cursing and militancy? Maybe we should have listened years ago when Black leaders politely pointed out the scale of institutional racism and calmly proposed solutions. Militant protest is a form of communication. One of the only forms of Black communication most White Americans can hear.

Remember, most White Americans opposed the civil rights movement. Many celebrated when Dr. King was assassinated. The civil rights movement won its victories not only by moral persuasion, but by raising the cost of inaction so high that the White power structure was forced to act. Dr. King lived his final years as a reviled and unpopular figure. We're not trying to win a popularity contest. We're trying to win justice and freedom. And that means forcing a racist society to do what it doesn't want to do. 

4) Ferguson showed me the depths of White denial. 

Though the polls have moved in encouraging directions, we have also witnessed outright denial of reality from influential media figures, politicians, and the White public. One recent poll showed that a majority of Whites do not believe the justice system is biased. We've seen the denial expressed in more concrete form. In Cleveland, hundreds of White rallied to support the police after the murder of Tamir Rice. In Ferguson, millions of Whites believed the police behaved reasonably during protests. In Baltimore, the police alleged that gang members had called a truce to join together to target cops. Many of us knew intuitively right away that the charge was baseless. It didn't make sense. But it was widely reported by the media, raising tensions and White fears. It turned out to be a lie. Untold numbers of Americans have supported the Confederate flag. The ignorance our education system and racist culture impose make that position ordinary, but no less indefensible. In ways broader than the Confederate flag, Ferguson revealed the extent to which Americans do not want to know their history. From housing segregation to police brutality, we have an accessible history that tells us why things are the way they are. Yet the amnesia on offer from figures like O'Reilly and Limbaugh seems to be more popular.

5) Ferguson taught me to believe my experience and the experience of others pertaining to police forces.

In Chicago I had seen blatant racism from police officers first hand. I took it with a grain of salt. I certainly had a negative view of the police, but I couldn't imagine the scale of incompetence and institutional violence and racism that would be revealed in the year after Ferguson. I've become far more skeptical of public sector unions. Yet I also came to see the police not as particularly bad actors, but as the logical outgrowth of public wishes.

6) Ferguson showed me that asserting the full humanity of Black people is controversial in America.

This is the kind of claim that seems either obvious or absurd, depending on the reader. But to be around real Black people as neighbors and church members and friends is to realize that much of the White American imagination is dealing in abstractions. We substitute an inherited racist wisdom for real human contact. You see it in moments of high tension like Ferguson and Baltimore. Absurd rumors and fears fill the air, and White Americans find them plausible. But we don't want to know the truth. For if Black people are just people, then their oppressed state implicates the entire American social order. The White American imagination is malleable, insidious, and a source of deep comfort to millions of Americans.

*This post is about me. How Ferguson changed young Black people is much more important. I am writing about what I know, and I hope many others will reflect on their own experience.