Race & Politics

We Need Alliances, Not Recriminations
Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. (U.S. Information Agency / National Archives)

Rand Cooper, Commonweal’s contributing editor and film reviewer, has been a dear friend for many years. He’s a terrific writer, and someone with whom I usually agree when it comes to political and cultural questions. His review of director Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, the powerful new four-part Netflix docudrama about the five young black men who were wrongly convicted in the 1989 Central Park jogger rape case, is a typical example of Rand’s sharp eye and incisive analysis. But as I told him in a phone conversation, I found one aspect of the review’s conclusion to be, if not wrong, then too acquiescent about the polarized state of race relations in the United States.

In his concluding paragraphs, Rand raises the difficult question of how we should think and talk about race today. Should we acknowledge, even celebrate, the progress that has been made since the civil-rights movement and legislation of the 1960s, progress many long thought was an impossibility? “Or should we focus,” he writes, “on the moral outrage of racism and slavery in the first place?” Rand notes that the film insists “the answer to such questions depends on identity; what you choose to look at depends on who you are.” Rand attests to his own belief, as an upper-middle-class white guy, that progress has indeed been made. But he also accepts the fact that his opinion carries little weight with many African Americans. The film eloquently reminds us that “it is not the business of white Americans to instruct black Americans on when, how, where, or indeed whether at all, to feel hope.”

In our phone conversation, Rand said he was describing the facts on the ground, not how he’d like things to be. For many black Americans, white Americans do not have any standing in this debate. If instruction is to be given, it is black Americans who should be giving it.

It is a huge political and moral mistake to silence one side of this difficult interaction, even if it is the so-called privileged side.

I suspect Rand is right about the current state of the political conversation about race. I don’t deny that reality, but I want to resist it. I think it is a huge political and moral mistake to silence one side of this difficult interaction, even if it is the so-called privileged side. Using identity as a trump card gets us nowhere. Nor do I think that white Americans who are sympathetic to the plight of black Americans, and believe the nation must do more to combat racism, want to “instruct” anyone in that regard. But for black Americans to insist that white Americans have little or nothing to contribute to the remedy of race relations is shortsighted, to say the least. This is what the black power and black separatism movements of the 1960s and ’70s did, and arguably the result was political retrenchment, the election of Ronald Reagan, and eventually the era of mass incarceration. Nor should contemporary complaints about “political correctness” and identity politics be underestimated when it comes to the election of Donald Trump. You don’t get people to listen to you, let alone cooperate, if you start the conversation by telling them to shut up, or by calling them racist or homophobic, or by insisting they have no standing in the debate because they are white, or male, or heterosexual.

The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah had a recent piece in the Times that brilliantly reminded us that oppressed minorities cannot bring about social progress by themselves (“Stonewall and the Myth of Self-Deliverance”). England, he points out, decriminalized homosexuality thirty-six years before the United States. The person principally responsible for that was a Member of Parliament who was “heterosexual by orientation—a happily married father of two.” This legislator was not castigating his opponents as moral lepers, but stubbornly pushing his bill in the House of Commons, using all the traditional tricks and arm-twisting needed to change the law. No oppressed minority group can rescue itself, writes Appiah, who himself is black and gay. “Today, a new generation of political and social activists are inclined to speak of ‘allyship,’ by which they typically mean an arrangement where prospective allies submit to the direction of the marginalized group, like deferential guests in someone else’s home,” he writes. “The vision here is remote from true coalition building, from a partnership of mutual respect, from a politics grounded in overlapping moral perceptions.” It was white abolitionists, Republican congressmen, and the Union Army (both its white and black soldiers), after all, who ended slavery. “Only those who need no rescuing can pick and choose among their rescuers,” Appiah writes. “What minorities need is not allyship but alliances—alliances cemented by a shared perception of the moral universe, with no group giving dictation to another.”

When I was in college in the early 1970s, racial strife was pervasive on campus. The hall I lived on during my freshman year was split between newly radicalized African-Americans and naïve white students who were repeatedly told we had no standing in conversations about race. Given the demands for black separatism prevalent at the time, the result was almost no interaction or communication between the two groups. Both sides were trapped, each in its own echo chamber. No progress. At my twenty-fifth college reunion, I ran into one of the black students who had been on my hall. We exchanged greetings, shaking our heads about the futile confrontations of that time. “I think we could have gotten to know one another,” he said with a smile. “But that was not allowed.”

The pursuit of justice requires open ears as well as political passion.

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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