As someone who wrote the book What’s The Matter With White People?, I am often asked to weigh in on vexing questions about my race. Lately it’s the question of what they—we—should do in this crisis that goes by the shorthand of “George Floyd” but that extends back 400 years.
Having written about these issues for not quite that long, but literally for 40 years, I am unhappy that my answer right now is essentially: I don’t know.
In these pages on Sunday, I wrote my one big idea: At these often inspiring but sometimes wrenching protests, white people should step back. We should look for and defer to black protest leadership. We should certainly not be the people leading in smashing windows. We should not be the people saying “They’re going to kill you anyway” when black women ask us to stop goading police into reaction and abuse.
Historian Rick Perlstein tweeted the words of the late Black Panther Fred Hampton, murdered in his bed by police when he was just 21, talking about the role of white people in urban protest way back then: “We do not support people who are anarchistic, opportunistic, adventuristic, and Custeristic.” I don’t presume to speak for Fred Hampton (nor, of course, did Perlstein); if Hampton knew black people were being murdered in the streets, and in their beds, even now, he might say something different.
But still: It’s relatively easy to say what white people shouldn’t do, when very few of us are inclined to do that in the first place. What’s much harder is figuring out what we should do in this terrible moment. My single most important insight into how white people should work on issues of racial justice, over the course of my long life, has been: Listen more than you talk. And then: Go into majority-black spaces, and again, listen. Take your cues from black leadership.
Still, I’m not sure what that means right now—not just because of this latest police violence crisis, but also because of the pandemic. We’re not holding in-person community meetings to talk about either of these nightmares. Candidates aren’t organizing rallies where we can find a way to work or volunteer or meet like-minded people.
Part of the problem may be generalizing about white people. So let me try this:
Don’t be Donald Trump. Don’t be a racist, a coward, a bully, a liar, or a sadist. Don’t try to make it hard for people of color to vote. Don’t undo the mild efforts of President Barack Obama to monitor and thwart police violence.
Whew. That was easy.
Don’t be those white people surrounding Trump outside a church on Monday night (and they were all white). Attorney General William Barr is reportedly a devout Catholic, who presumably believes in Hell. As a rather lapsed Catholic, I don’t, but if he’s right…
Don’t be the white military leaders who’ve resigned from the Trump administration, repulsed by his awful behavior and anti-democracy beliefs—but who have nonetheless stayed silent publicly, or only offered their true insights to people who pay dearly to hear them. Thinking of you Jim Mattis, John Kelly, H.R. McMaster. Who am I missing?
Don’t be like white GOP senators who’ve defended Trump’s basically attempting to declare martial law Monday night. I don’t have time to list all their names; it’s pretty much all of them.
If you’re a white Republican with a conscience, please be like the growing ranks of GOP Never Trumpers, and speak out about this nightmare.
But also search your souls, and your pasts, for the way you or your colleagues pandered to racial fear and anxiety in the last 40 years. For instance, I was happy to see former House speaker Paul Ryan’s ex–chief of staff Brendan Buck speak out against Trump’s excesses on Tuesday. But his boss rode the “makers vs. takers” political narrative to the pinnacles of Republican power. It played on white people’s perception that they’re the makers and people of color are the takers—pretty much what dying GOP strategist Lee Atwater said had replaced the use of the N-word for his party.
If you’re a white Democrat in a position of power, be like the mayor of Louisville, Ky., Greg Fischer, and fire police chiefs who let their officers abuse their power. And people.
Be like the white governors—especially Illinois’s J.B. Pritzker, Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, and New York’s Andrew Cuomo—who quickly refused Trump’s offer/demand to federalize the law enforcement response to the unrest. But also: See above. Too many elected Democrats continue to do far too little about the underlying racial and socioeconomic inequities that led us here—although in the face of Covid-19, many have begun to step up.
Be like Joe Biden? Um, it’s complicated.
Biden took a big step visiting black protesters and leaders in the last couple of days, and making a speech in the Philadelphia hall where Barack Obama, then an embattled candidate, made his landmark speech about race. Biden did well enough, but did not completely rise to the occasion. All he said about Trump’s mad power grab Monday night was this: “We can be forgiven for believing the president is more interested in power than in principle.”
Speaking as a white person, I wanted so much more. But I always have; that’s why I didn’t support him in the primary. It’s also important to remember that he won because of his huge support from black voters. I support him now, wholeheartedly.
It’s hard not to compare Biden to another former vice president who ran for president: Hubert Humphrey, who lost to Nixon in 1968. Everyone is comparing 2020 to 1968, which is actually not helpful, since Nixon was running against a wounded vice president who didn’t have the support of his own party. But that brought me to my most visceral response to what white people should do, which is directed of course to my family: the white left. (Our family always triggers our most primal anger.)
Don’t be like (much of) the white left of 1968. Few on the white left are smashing windows today, but too many helped bring about this nightmare when they refused to vote for Hillary Clinton four years ago. If Biden is Humphrey, the white left needs to realize this time around that this version is better than a fascist sadist. Thankfully, Senator Bernie Sanders realized this, early, and the vast majority of his supporters do too.
Finally, right here and now: Go join the thousands of white people marching peacefully. There are many reasons for white people to be angry, politically, especially so-called blue-collar whites: the loss of jobs, the loss of homes during the financial crash; for their kids, huge student loans if they even had the chance to go to college. But too many white people, also back in the ’60s, traded their forebears’ work on behalf of economic justice for their own racial privilege. Which it turns out doesn’t pay enough.
We can talk about that another time. The George Floyd protests are not about your grievances. Listen, learn, and do what you’re asked to do.