I want to preface this by suggesting that DeRay Mckesson has his heart in the right place. I think he is a powerful and positive influence on his path to confronting issues of race in the United States. It is a voice that we need. More diverse voices are needed, and now more than ever.
Perhaps it is a good thing that I have to begin with this preface. To be writing about the topic of race in 2020 is fraught with complications. It is a hot button issue, meaning that we are afraid to be on the wrong side of history when it comes to discourse on the issue it contains. The climate in 2020 has gone global, and many who wish to speak their opinion about the issue of race must move between “intent,” meaning the feelings and justifications we give ourselves before making a statement, to “impact,” meaning the results of our statements on those who take pains to listen, read, or watch.
Both of these, intent and impact, have radicalized versions all their own. For example, in the context of impact, if you have not heard of the story concerning Jonathan Friedland, I would advise you to take a look. Friedland was attempting to assuage the issue, not exacerbate it, and the end result was that the impact of his statements during that meeting, regardless of intent, won the day.
And on the other side of the coin, plenty of people who have ideas about political activism are fully capable of intentionally saying horrific things, and wanting it to be felt, without understanding the damage that that sort of speech does to their cause. This twitter post above helps to highlight an example.
So let me begin by suggesting that I think that Mckesson has great ideas, but this is not a great book.
The reasons I do not feel this way after finishing this morning is that the twelve chapters are unorganized, the conflating of terms leads to a lack of nuance, and as a result there is some ambiguity in the final outcome.
We should start with positives: the early chapters are excellent. I think if the rest of the book had followed a narrative bent and an articulate search for data on police violence on black bodies like we had in chapter three, entitled “The Problem of the Police,” this would have been the book we needed in 2020.
What we quickly realized was that the federal government could tell you how many inches of rainfall there was in rural Missouri in the 1800s, but it could not provide reliable statistics on the number
of people the police killed last year, let alone all the other forms of police violence impacting communities.
Around this time, Samuel Sinyangwe, a young policy expert and data scientist in San Francisco, reached out via Twitter with an interesting proposal. He’d been engaged in policy, and though he hadn’t been with us in the streets in Ferguson, he knew that if the protests were ever to have substantive impact, we’d need data to inform a set of demands that had yet to emerge. He thought it would be possible to build the first comprehensive database and analysis of fatal police violence in the United States, including data on all types of violence that resulted in death. He wanted my help. A tweet turned into a phone call and then into Sam becoming part of our team.
This is riveting stuff. It has momentum, and it highlights a very pernicious detail that runs to the core of not just the police, but about civilized society.
Instead, the book falters from here on out for its lack of specificity and rigor.
Other books like Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman Jr. are an excellent contrast. It is important to be methodical with issues of race.
People are certainly racist, there’s no doubt in my mind. As such, we must present an argument that can’t be wriggled out of. Forman Jr.’s work is an example of an argument done right.
If we’re looking for the critiques I noticed while reading this book, we’ll need to go to the second half. Chapter five, entitled “The Choreography of Whites” has an example of a hypothetical situation concerning education. Education is a particularly close topic for me, so I was excited to see Mckesson reference it:
Another example to consider could take place in a middle-school
classroom. A teacher tells her students that they need to bring in
their own rulers to use on an upcoming test. So the kids go home and
tell their parents they need rulers. Some parents go to the local store,
we’ll call it ABC Grocer, and buy the rulers. Others buy rulers
elsewhere. Unbeknownst to the kids or their parents, the rulers that
were shipped to ABC Grocer had a manufacturing defect. The kids
who used those rulers generally performed worse on the test. When a
student spots an error on her ruler, she brings it to the teacher’s
attention, but she’s told, “That’s unfortunate, but we’ve already
moved on. You’ll just need to make sure you have a properly
functioning ruler next time.” The child may go home to complain,
but if her parents are anything like my father, the teacher would get
deference. Whiteness is the dynamic that creates a set of kids who performed
better because they had the right ruler. Their superior performance
then poises them for advanced classes the following year, setting them on an entirely different trajectory for life.
There are a lot of issues embedded in this example. The sentiment is there: some people in school get an advantage that leads to the “Matthew Effect.” The term is a reference to the story in the book of Matthew in the Christian Bible about how the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It’s true for reading and it’s true for education. Unfortunately, in education, it works against many students in the form of ability grouping. Smarter students are put in advanced classes with more experienced teachers and in classrooms with better behaved students. Oftentimes, this may amount to simply less students in the classroom in general, where an AP Calculus class has only eight students. To experience that wealth in the classroom, one must have done well on early standardized tests in the past. Many of the “ordinary” students are placed in crowded spaces with less attention, and so the trends are exacerbated. This is an issue I agree wholeheartedly with, and I think should be alleviated.
But rather than discuss the trends for standardized tests and how they wreak havoc on minority and ELL students, rather than discuss property taxes on their power to segregate schools once again, or the strange disappearance of black teachers in proportion to black students (a topic I desperately want to learn more about), we get a story. And a hypothetical story at that.
This is doubly strange when we get a conflicting view on what Mckesson feels about stories in general as he states later on page 116:
If you’ve ever caught a liar lying and tried to ask them a direct
question, they have likely responded with a story. Liars are master
storytellers. It’s their power. They know that ideas travel in stories.
We have a moral obligation to track and respond to lies. Indeed, in
the face of false narratives we must always respond, because not to
reply is to allow them to continue to permeate hearts and minds.
Do we, as Joan Didion says, “Tell ourselves stories in order to live,” or are we telling stories to justify our own poor behavior, like Jonathan Haidt claims we do of our political ideologies in his book Righteous Minds? I think the issue is far more nuanced here than Mckesson wrote, and I’m sure he and I would come to a consensus that a story told in a reactive way is dangerous. Parables, proactive stories told to prove a metaphor or a point, can be strong enablers of political change. We just need a better stance on what stories are there for.
This hypothetical also helps open up the question that also never gets resolved here, though it has a long standing problem with social change, civil rights, and popular sovereignty, and that is the discussion of race vs. class.
Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own lamented a woman’s place in artistic and literary society. Her response, however, was economic. If you want women to do any work of artistic import, you have to provide a stipend (in her case, 500 pounds a month) and…a room of one’s own. Until women could afford their time back to not have to do chores, the work of equality could begin.
The truth about American economics is muddy and imprecise: dire poverty is down in the United States. It was harder to be poor in 1955 than in 2015, despite the supposed idea of the greatest generation we have back then.
However, the middle class has been totally gutted since the 1970s.
These two pills are difficult to swallow together. When Bill Clinton signed the NAFTA agreement, did we know we had just sold away our working class? It represented one of the biggest let downs of the Democratic Party, and now it is any wonder whether the party truly represents what it used to in the late 19th and 20th centuries, which is the plight of the ordinary citizen.
With all that said, Mckesson hinders his argument by conflating issues. In this case, the issue is between race and inequality.
Malcolm Gladwell discusses the exact same Matthew Effect in hockey. He discovered that many hockey players that made it to the pro level had very similar correlated birthdays, which just so happened to be on the month right when hockey season started. They were the oldest in their cohort, which means they were bigger and more skilled, and so they got put on better teams and got private lessons.
In this case, we would not suggest that the situation with hockey players was racist, but simply unequal. To imagine the game of hockey with each and every child who wanted to play given the greatest opportunity, would be to imagine some truly exemplary games and seasons. Where the level of play would be elevated to some truly remarkable footage and events.
But that did not happen because humanity has a very narrow interpretation about the prowess of sports, to the point where 90% of all athletes quit sports by the age of 15.
With all that said, let’s take that example and apply it to a moment in Mckesson’s book.
The term “white supremacy” is used 26 times in this book. When I think of white supremacy, I think about some American History X, bat swinging, scary motherfuckers.
But there is a conflating of many of the terms that are associated with either racism or systemic inequality that make it difficult to find a firm footing. For example, here is a moment of disagreement that is picked up and put down.
I OFTEN TWEET “watch whiteness work” to describe the way that
whiteness is manifesting itself in a particular moment. Once,
someone sent me a long email, frustrated with my use of the phrase.
He was particularly upset that I did not say “white supremacy” or
“racism.” I didn’t have time to email him a reply, but I did email him
to ask for his number. I called him, and as we talked I tried to push
him to understand the way that whiteness functions outside of
examples like lynching and enslavement. I reminded him that when we go to the store and buy “nude”
clothing, it looks like his skin and not mine. And that Band-Aids are a skin tone—again, his and not mine.
Given the issue between “whiteness” and “white supremacy,” I really want to see this long email, as I may understand the issue that the emailer had with Mckesson. I too want to see the delineation so I can understand when each one arrives, so that I can acknowledge it and overcome it with passion.
But the terms are also used to discuss economic and political issues:
In the meantime, he is at work. When we see 21 percent of kids of color in poverty, that is white supremacy at work. When we see a president refusing to allow immigrants from majority people of-color countries into this country, that is white supremacy at work. Defunding public education, gerrymandering, and scaling back the Voting Rights Act are all manifestations of this ideology.
I agree with Mckesson that plenty of our understanding of the world starts with language. The problem is that we can not wrestle with language. Sometimes we get lucky: Jackie Robinson’s term African Americans is one that still stands today as the explicitly correct term when talking about black people in America, rather than “colored people.”
But Mao Zedong’s wife Jiang Qing supposedly wanted red to symbolize progress so much that she wanted signs and lights to stop using red as a sign to…well…stop.
And that was certainly not going to happen.
Language is a very social phenomenon, and as such we have to be careful that we have a consensus on what the terms mean and what they stand for, because if we don’t, we invite ambiguity into the argument.
Is defunding public education a sign of white supremacy? Is it a racist act? Or is it a neoliberal act? Is gerrymandering racist? Or is it classist?
Even if people are voting for their interests, it remains to be seen, gerrymandered or otherwise, whether their hopes for the future of the nation are carried out. At this point, questions about our democratic underpinnings are under question.
I hate that I am literally arguing about semantics here. I wanted to argue about the issues. There are issues. I do believe that Donald Trump is an acting president with a very real prejudice. At a moment when he had the easiest job ever, to discredit Nazis in Charlottesville, he couldn’t.
But instead, because of the structure of the book Mckesson wrote, I was left more confused about the issue of race in America than when I started. Perhaps this is the first step, and that’s a good thing. Reading more will help develop a better understanding of the issues at play. But if this was the first book or fiftieth, I cannot in good conscience recommend it.