The Challenge of Admitting What We Don’t Know

Yesterday I suggested that, when you hear people complaining about the urgency expressed by the Black Lives Matter movement or the tactics they use, this is something to keep in mind.

Today, Nicholas Kristof wrote a column titled “A History of White Delusion” that fleshed out the point I was trying to make.

In 1962, 85 percent of white Americans told Gallup that black children had as good a chance as white kids of getting a good education. The next year, in another Gallup survey, almost half of whites said that blacks had just as good a chance as whites of getting a job.

In retrospect, we can see that these white beliefs were delusional, and in other survey questions whites blithely acknowledged racist attitudes. In 1963, 45 percent said that they would object if a family member invited a black person home to dinner.

This complacency among us white Americans has been a historical constant. Even in the last decade, almost two-thirds of white Americans have said that blacks are treated fairly by the police, and four out of five whites have said that black children have the same chance as white kids of getting a good education. In short, the history of white Americans’ attitudes toward race has always been one of self-deception.

Just as in 1963, when many well-meaning whites glanced about and couldn’t see a problem, many well-meaning whites look around today, see a black president, and declare problem solved.

That’s the backdrop for racial tensions roiling America today.

As Michael Norton and Samuel Sommers found in their research, for some white people, the disconnect is even greater.

Our recent research reveals that white and black Americans agree that bias against blacks was prevalent in the 1950’s and 1960’s. But while blacks see such racism as continuing, whites tend to see it as a problem that has been more or less “solved.”

If anything, many whites now believe that it’s anti-white bias that’s on an upswing, to the point where it’s even more prevalent than anti-black bias — a sentiment not shared by blacks.

This probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to us. Human beings are bound to have their world view shaped by their own experiences. That becomes a problem when one group’s world view is considered the “norm” and is used to dismiss or marginalize the experience of others.

What has always been true in America is that white people are terribly inept when it comes to calibrating the prevalence of racism in our culture. As I write that, something in my head says, “duh.” It really should be obvious. And yet, everyone has an opinion about it, don’t they? One of the biggest barriers to overcoming racism isn’t that we don’t know/understand. It’s that we won’t admit that we don’t know/understand.

The moral of this story is that as white people – when it comes to racism – we have to admit that we don’t know. That is a tall order for many of us. And if we want to see things change, we have to do as President Obama suggested in his speech in Dallas.

Can we find the character, as Americans, to open our hearts to each other? Can we see in each other a common humanity and a shared dignity, and recognize how our different experiences have shaped us? And it doesn’t make anybody perfectly good or perfectly bad, it just makes us human…

That’s what we must pray for, each of us: a new heart. Not a heart of stone, but a heart open to the fears and hopes and challenges of our fellow citizens…

With an open heart, we can abandon the overheated rhetoric and the oversimplification that reduces whole categories of our fellow Americans not just to opponents, but to enemies.

With an open heart, those protesting for change will guard against reckless language going forward…

With an open heart, police departments will acknowledge that, just like the rest of us, they are not perfect; that insisting we do better to root out racial bias is not an attack on cops, but an effort to live up to our highest ideals…

With an open heart, we can worry less about which side has been wronged, and worry more about joining sides to do right.

That is precisely why I have suggested that uncertainty is a liberal value.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.